John Kim: I Feel Strange When I Feel Comfortable

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John Kim on success: I don’t know how others defining success but I haven’t thought about it and actually I’m not that interested in success. But if I’d tried to define, there’s a definition of success in social aspect and personal one.

Social aspect means like position or fame, which society and others determine. And the personal aspect is what you determine. The former is what others determine, so it’s uncontrolable, and that’s why I’m not interested in. I consider success depending on the attitude that I make actions with enough thoughts every moment I live. So yesterday or future doesn’t matter. Every moment I make all myself be into thinking, meeting, moving and doing, all these are accumulated and as a whole I feel successful. What others think just doesn’t matter. I came to think like this since when I was about 30. You know, young people often care about social reputation right?

It’s really important, in your 20’s, to find what you really want to do and try to achieve it. Many young people are afraid that if what they’re doing is meaningless in the future. That’s why only those who have clear vision and determination can go further.

After I became 30, I quitted to put a criteria to succeed outside of myself. I realized that it’s all depending on how I define. Even if the other 6 billion disagreed and only I agree it, then that’s fine. If I know that all the responsibility of the choice is mine, then I can be happy anytime.

I think that’t the true meaning of success. It’s not depending on others, it depends on yourself. If you think like that, you’d be successful forever till you die.

I often teach about the controlable and the uncontrolable for students so that they know what they need to consider in their lives. If it’s impossible to resist, that’s just fine but if you can do anything on it, then you have to put your everything on it.

If you do so, even unfortunate things happen to me, I can switch myself within 3 minutes. Of course if that’s the family’s or friends’ issues, that’d be tough though. But in other cases, my life doesn’t rely on others, because I do what I’d like to do. I don’t stick to one thing, I’m always resilient, I have changed my professional field like economy, law, policy, journalism, telecommunication, and I’ve moved from Japan to America to the UK to Germany and came back to Japan.

By the way I feel strange when I feel comfortable.

HK: I agree with the feeling!

JK: For instance if I feel comfortable in Japan, I feel dangerous at the same time. [Laughter] Since I graduated from the high school in Korea, I’ve lived overseas and my ability of adaptation has been raised whenever I change where I live. I think you’d agree.

HK: Yep. For instance my vitality rises a lot when I went to Israel or America as a homeless.

JK: Indeed. When you play in the different concert, you’d feel difficult in terms of language and how to live but you can find something new in yourself. You can be what you want to be through the interactions with audience of your life – it’s writing the scenario on your own and improvise your life each moment.

HK: Interesting.

JK: I don’t feel any regret when I make a change and by doing so twice, three or four times, my adaptation skill has been raised. I met lot’s of incentive people and realized that I lived in the tiny tiny world. So now I think the world is big enough as I can enjoy until I die. Now I can travel around the world and keep finding the interests in all around the world! I need to visit two or three countries every year…

HK: [laughter]. Why you became a Professor of Law at Harvard and of Media at Keio? Is that the result that you’ve been changing so drastically to be resilient?

JK: I’ve thought that I don’t want to wake up early morning. And I don’t want to work under someone’s order. [Laughter]

I want to use my time for me, not for others. I want to determine my agenda on my own. I’ve been thinking like this for a long time. So what’s the most free and happy occupation? The answer is a professor. Professor is really nice, half of the year you can rest and the other half you can interact with your students, which gives me lots of inspiration. And we get paid! [Laughter]

Just what you need is writing creative papers – that’s it. Every 4 years, students graduate so you can get the cutting-edge information of the time. This is a position even you don’t mind to pay to stay actually. Hahaha. But it’s dangerous because it’s too comfortable for me, as I talked previously.

Also people care about position, like Keio or Harvard, so I took the opportunities on purpose. But it’s nothing after one or two weeks past. Humans get used to their condition; when I thought what’s after Harvard, there’s nothing.

I’lll go to Switzerland from this Friday, there’s lots of beautiful mountains but you’ll get bored in an hour right? I live in Roppongi, at first it makes me fascinated but now it’s nothing.

That’s why it’s dangerous to try to bringing inspiration from outside. That greed gets grown forever; car, house, money, and so on so forth. So you need to find out value in your mind – you shouldn’t see the outside of people, you should see their inner side.

HK: I see. Since you’re familiar with innovation and such, I’d like to ask few questions in the field. At first about how to make creativity. I don’t think it’s right to say that Japanese people are not innovative but people in this country are struggling to be so. What’s your thought?

JK: My definition of creativity is very clear; it should be new for society and it should be meaningful for society as well. This combination is an essential component of creativity and plus implementation, it’d be innovation. I think it has two sides of definition; personal and social one.

HK: Then it’s linked to the talk about success we did right?

JK: Yes, creativity should be meaningful for both you and society. And you know, society changes by the era and nations; community has always changed. In other words, creativity or innovation is depending on how you persuade society.

HK: Interesting.

JK: So even if society and it’s majority say one worthless cup is new and meaningful, that’s creativity. In this sense innovation has really political and democratic process. Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shift is a good example. Even natural science, once people believe the Ptolemaic theory, that’s gonna be true.

So it’s all depending on society. I think of society as a relative entity – there’s no absolute truth. If your believe right, that’d be “truth” and that part isn’t where others can invade; it’s really arbitrary thing. Human beings create not only commodities but common sense.

HK: I agree.

JK: In this way, the disruptive and incremental innovation are just the matter of definition. If the incremental innovation had a big impact, that’d be the disruptive one. No one can draw a line between them and the criteria is all depending on who you are.

It’s a really interesting theory because the two opposite word can be the same. Talking about innovation, the more important thing is not how to define but how you create benefits for society.

Japanese people are really good at creating new things but very bad at persuading society with story-telling. Even if you create a thing, no one buy it, that’s pointless right? Even if you find out that the earth is moving around the sun, people say that’s wrong and no one accepts the fact, that’s meaningless.

So I believe the exact moment when the innovation happens is not the time you create things. For example Gogh or Bach, their arts were evaluated after hundreds of years from their death. Of course for them, it’s really great innovation but not for society. I believe the time when the thoughts or commodities spread out into the whole society is the exact moment of innovation.

HK: I’d like to hear your opinion on social media recently rising. What’s the biggest change since its appearance on our society?

: I think the connecting points among the people increased drastically on Facebook or Twitter. Like us, it’s possible that someone introduce us, we exchange DMs, and the meeting happens. We can say that our ways to communicate has been enriched (although some say it’s getting poor).

But at the same time, rareness of analog has increased a lot. You know, the ability to feel atmosphere and make a choice based on the understanding – that’s the ability people are required nowadays, that’s the ability that digital can’t do. Today, consideration for others are also important because everything else is digital and can be done by the Internet or robots.

I always say to my students not to get knowledge on Google because that can be done by 5-year-old kids. Students, especially in the universities, need to get wisdom that can not be found on the web.

HK: For example what kind of things cannot be done on the Internet? What cannot be changed into digital?

JK: At first atmosphere. I often attend universities’ board meeting, and it’s hell long. We prepare the next year’s meeting from this autumn and every two months, well-known professors come along and discuss 2 hours or so. But for me, two weeks are enough to prepare it; just send emails and get conference room and then done.

You don’t have to talk for two hours, just 10 minutes are enough to set agenda. These ‘feeling’ cannot be possessed by robots and it’s only available for human beings who think deeply enough. Is he mission-oriented? action-oriented? That’s everything. Prioritizing fragmented issues and synthesize them – these process should be analog and not digital.

HK: True, could I have your advice to achieve success as the last question?

JK: Hold your criteria of success, don’t put it outside. You don’t have to care about what others talking about you; you have to stand on your own feet. If you do so, you’d be successful forever. Live the every moment and think deeply, do your best, feel joy and if that joy matches to society’s benefit, then you’d feel more joy. These accumulation will make the whole your life successful.

John Kim is a visiting professor at Harvard Law School.

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