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Understanding the true ties between health and success

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

There’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything — and you’re probably doing it wrong.

All the activities of life — big and small, monumental and trivial, from waking to sleeping, bathing to eating, dressing to undressing, working to playing — raise us up or cast us down, depending on how we do them. Example: You thought (having been told often enough!) that brushing your teeth immediately after eating was good. It isn’t. The health and fitness magazine Tarzan (April) is quite positive on that point — as on many others. Digestive enzymes combine with toothpaste to corrode tooth enamel. Wait till the enzymes have left the scene. Give them half an hour.

Do this, don’t do that. Draw your curtains at night, lest you expose yourself too soon to morning sunshine and disorient the sleep hormone melatonin, putting your next night’s sleep at risk. Wake up slowly, lazily, repressing if necessary your irrepressible eagerness to spring forth and greet the brand new day — your first-thing-in-the-morning pulse is low and shouldn’t be strained. Skip the morning bath or shower. It feels good but that’s deceptive. Hot water stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is fine at night as a prelude to sleep but not to a day brimful of challenges, opportunities and pitfalls demanding all your vigor and alertness.

You won’t believe this if you don’t know it already, but your brain’s effective functioning may depend on how much wiggle room your shoes give your toes. The typical executive business shoe stresses sleek, stylish elegance at the expense of mental capacity. Maybe if more business people chose “business walking shoes,” the economy would be better. Tarzan doesn’t actually say that, but does recommend looser-fitting footwear for upwardly mobile career boosters serious about maximizing their capacities.

And so on and so on. What is most important to us? Health and success. Some are born to one or the other or both. More power to them. Most are not, and must struggle for them, torturing body and soul to discipline them, whipping them into shape, accustoming them to present hardship in anticipation of future rewards. When our own efforts fail, we turn to experts who — being experts — know us better than we know ourselves. Under their guidance we come to understand that everything we’d been doing, either on our own initiative or based on the obsolete expertise of a benighted past or the pseudo-expertise of a fad-mad present, was wrong — but never mind, we’re still young, the future lies before us, shorter than it was but long enough still; we can undo the damage and recover lost ground, if we hit the ground running.

One last word from Tarzan before shifting, as it were, from body to soul — this last word being in effect a kind of bridge between the two. You’re awake, washed, dressed, groomed and ready, having breakfasted (preferably Japanese-style for its nourishing low-fat content), to fling yourself into battle — but pause. Give yourself a moment in front of a full-length mirror. Straighten your tie. Straighten your spine. Plant a positive expression on your face. A positive expression begets positive thoughts. Smile. Smiling generates dopamine, the pleasure hormone. Now. Bid yourself goodbye before self-preparation degenerates into self-admiration, and off you go, may good luck go with you.

From body to soul — from health to success. A recurring theme in the business magazine President is: What distinguishes success from failure, or the success from the failure? It can be a thin line between one and the other. A facial expression rightly or wrongly cast, a business suit well or badly chosen, an appropriate or inappropriate comment, smile, frown, choice of venue for a working dinner or working after-dinner entertainment — on so little can success or failure hinge. President’s April 29 issue tackles “manners.” Who better to help us cultivate them than seasoned veterans, most of whose mere job titles — president, CEO, “representative” — command instant respect?

You see it in their faces as you leaf through the pages. Their photos show every variety of expression — full smiles, half smiles, tight-lipped, assertive, unassertive — but common to all is supreme, unshakable self-confidence, hard-earned no doubt, enviable however come by. Whether confidence arises from success or breeds it is a question perhaps for another day.

Boundless confidence is oddly compelling. It lends to the tritest remark an authority it would not have otherwise. It forces you to reflect: Maybe the remark is not trite after all?

Koichi Suzuki, CEO of Internet Initiative Japan, Japan’s first internet service provider, says of one of his employees, “He’s forever screwing up, but he’s interesting, somehow.” How? He doesn’t say. Maybe he doesn’t know. Gut feelings don’t explain themselves. Maybe in a year, five years, 10 years, we’ll learn of some stunning new development in the field, and it’ll have originated in that employee. We’ll never know, of course.

Toshiyuki Takigawa was a tightrope walker — as all successful people are and must be — but Takigawa, as political secretary to former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi (1937-2000), walked a tighter rope than most. Obuchi, in office from 1998 until his death, is a fascinating study in apparent, deceptive mediocrity. Takigawa learned much from him, and feels we all might. The two met in 1971. Obuchi was a Liberal Democratic Party Diet representative from Gunma Prefecture, Takigawa a ne’er-do-well college student whose future prospects were cloudy. Obuchi was looking for a gofer. Takigawa, without enthusiasm, went to meet him. How strange, he thought an hour into their talk, “He’s treating me almost like an equal.”

Obuchi treated everybody that way. He heard everyone out, never cut anyone off. A constituent would request the impossible. Takigawa and others would roll their eyes. Not Obuchi. He listened patiently, perhaps actually feeling the sympathy he made it his business to radiate. He nodded, smiled, refused nothing, promised everything possible, won friends — and became prime minister.

Takigawa, before long an Obuchi intimate, took note. A Diet member caught for speeding in Gunma came to him one day.

“Couldn’t you intervene with the police?” the lawmaker asked.

“I’ll do everything possible,” promised Takigawa, the Obuchi style now his own. He did, in fact, put in a call to the police — who refused to back down. Takigawa didn’t insist. He had played his role — winning for his chief a supporter for life.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is a collection of essays titled “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”