I recently read an insightful article titled When Humility Hinders Career Progress. The article featured the struggle of an Asian-Australian man in reconciling his value on humility with his career ambitions in a culture that exalts self-promotion. (For the record, the value on self-promotion applies even more to American culture.) The story struck a chord and underscored the power of cultural values in influencing what we perceive as “good.” And it reminded me of a personal experience I had years ago that inspired a shift in my own values.
It was 1978. I was a clueless 20-year-old kid living the good life in Yamato Japan, just fifty minutes south of Tokyo as the train flies. I knew just enough Japanese at the time to be dangerous; I could order a beer, buy a train ticket, and negotiate that elusive phone number from a pretty girl. Beyond that, I was lost.
One evening, while on a mission to discover signs of nightlife in our sleepy little town, my buddy Dave and I stumbled into a drinking establishment called Bonanza. About the size of a walk-in closet, Bonanza was run by Taro, a tall, lanky man with a scraggly beard and disheveled hair, someone you’d expect to see in a biker bar. Sitting across the bar was a bearded Japanese man with long wavy hair and a gentle demeanor. Taro introduced him as “Keni.”
With our limited Japanese, their broken English, some creative gesturing, and a few beers for good measure, we somehow made a connection. Our conversation drifted to the topic of music. That’s when we discovered a shared passion for the blues.
When I mentioned that my friend Dave played harmonica and had a few harps in his back pocket, Taro pulled out a guitar from behind the bar and handed it to Keni.
As Keni tuned the guitar, I naively asked if he knew how to play the blues.
“I’m still learning,” he answered softly.
Taking his words at face value, I remember worrying that the poor guy might embarrass himself trying to keep up with my talented harmonica-tooting friend.
I’ll never forget what happened next. When Keni started playing, my worries were immediately replaced with awe. His power, technique and musical soul blew me away. Here’s my analysis of what was happening below the linguistic (and musical) surface.
Viewing the situation through my young American eyes, Keni’s humility seemed way out of whack with his talent level. This gifted artist had just downplayed his ability and then let his performance do the talking. It was an aha moment for me on so many levels, both humbling and cool beyond words. And I remember wondering: If this wonderfully gifted artist is being humble, then what about me?
With that simple thought came a tectonic shift in my worldview. It was the first time in my life that I had entertained the thought that humility just might be a good thing, and it has remained a source of inspiration since.
That humble blues musician eventually became a dear friend, my mentor, a big brother, Japanese language teacher, and guitar instructor. Forty years later, we are still close friends.
Thanks to Keni, my Japanese is much better now. My guitar playing is…good enough to be dangerous. 😉
Below is a clip of us jamming four decades later. Dave is on harmonica, Keni on lead (on the left), Tatsumi also on lead (in the back), Hatchan on slide, and Tim on rhythm. Enjoy.