I originally began writing this post as a reflection on RocketBuild’s 2019 and a rallying cry for 2020. As I dug deeper into the concept of otsukaresama, I realized how very applicable it is to my life on the whole, and the lives of many of my peers. To that end, I decided to adapt my original writing to share with a wider audience… all you noble warriors out there killing yourselves to make a difference!
Subtle and Efficient
As with many foreign languages that have subtler or more abstract turns of phrase, the Japanese term “otsukaresama deshita” has a completely lackluster direct translation. Literally meaning “you are tired” when translated to English, it sounds more like an insult than a rallying cry. What has really turned me on to this foreign turn of phrase is its essence, not its translation.
Often shortened to otsukaresama, the Japanese use the phrase as a salutation, a good-bye, and a thank you, usually in the workplace. When used among colleagues, it is meant to say “I am grateful for the work you have done or you are about to do.” It is a way to show appreciation for someone giving their blood, sweat, and tears to a common cause. It is a request for one to approach the day as if they already feel pride in the work that will occur.
Gratitude is in Short Supply
If you are like me, you have high expectations for yourself and for others in your workplaces. In the United States specifically, we work very long hours, often with the primary purpose being to make large amounts of money for other people while making much less for ourselves. Employees in large organizations, which tend to promote extreme specialization in job functions, have a difficult time feeling connected to the work that is delivered to customers, clients, or society. With that in mind, it can be hard to be motivated to work more, work harder, and feel good about the work we are doing. We just can’t see the value in producing one more widget, writing one more line of code, or flipping one more hamburger for people we will likely never meet.
This is where the rubber meets the road with otsukaresama. The concept seems like the perfect antidote for our apathy, disconnection, and tiredness. The phrase otsukaresama deshita, when offered by a colleague, friend, or loved one, offers us gratitude for what we bring to an organization, team, or relationship. It acknowledges our effort and our results simultaneously and invites us to do more of the same.
Perhaps the better part of otsukaresama deshita is the implicit challenge that it evokes. When someone starts the day hearing that their colleagues expect them to be “tired” at the end of the day, it says to them,
“Bring your A game. We expect nothing less. But we’ll be here doing it right next to you.”
In English, we have a similar concept, but it comes from sports. We say “leave it all on the field.” It’s a great metaphor, though it only captures half of the meaning of otsukaresama deshita. It is a challenge to do our best without showing gratitude for past and future efforts.
Of Pride, There is Plenty
There are numerous studies that show that Americans have no problem proclaiming our National and individual greatness. We believe we are great at a lot of things. In many cases, it’s true. In far more, what the research shows is that our pride in our individual accomplishments and deeds far outweighs the impact of those accomplishments and deeds.
“We are a prideful people. But do we earn it?”
What I love most about otsukaresama deshita is that it tells us to make sure we do something today so that we can end the day with a sense of pride that was earned. When a peer or friend greets us with “otsukaresama deshita,” we are challenged in a way that is pleasant, yet sets a clear expectation. They are telling us that we have a chance today to earn some pride, and their respect, by working hard and doing well. They are offering their gratitude in advance because they know that we will deliver. They are warning us that if we do not deliver we will have let them down.
This phrase connects us to one another through shared pride and mutual respect, even if/when we do not feel a connection to our work or our customers.
For my colleagues, I challenge you all with this simple phrase. I am grateful for what you have done, but I am even more grateful for what you will do. I ask that you all do something each and every day that you can be proud of, and that you then do even more. I expect that you will exceed my expectations, and when you do, I will be grateful still.
Moreover, I hope that you will approach me with these same thoughts, words, and expectations so that we might all be proud together.