“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.”
Michel de Montaigne
In sixteenth-century Japan lived a samurai named Tsukahara Bokuden. He was of the land’s best-known samurai, and he would often travel with a great number of followers.
One time, though, he travelled alone on a boat. The other passengers on the boat were comprised of fishermen, merchants, craftsmen and a few other samurai. They might have easily guessed that Bokuden himself was a samurai by the two swords he was carrying, but no one recognized that he was the renowned warrior.
Another samurai on the boat was demanding attention for himself, as he boasted loudly about his sword-fighting skills, even asserting that he was the greatest warrior in Japan. The other passengers feigned interest in his story, as they were afraid of him. Bokuden, however, was indifferent and tended to his own business.
The samurai talked louder to gain Bokuden’s attention. Yet, Bokuden continued to ignore him. At one point, the samurai got so furious that he challenged Bokuden to a duel.
Bokuden calmly agreed, with the condition that the duel would take place at the nearest shore, so that no innocent passengers would get hurt. As they waited to arrive, the samurai was already swinging his sword, eager to show off his skills while Bokuden simply rested.
When the boat was just about ashore, the samurai taunted Bokuden, “Come! You are now as good as dead!,”. Bokuden didn’t respond to his insults and took his time to get up.
As soon as the samurai jumped on shore, Bokuden grabbed the oar from the boatman and quickly pushed the boat away to sea.
“You coward bastard!,” the samurai shouted, as he wildly swung his sword in the air. Bokuden laughed and responded, “This is what is called victory without fighting.”
The other passengers laughed with him and they were impressed by his character. Once they realized that he was Bokuden, they bowed to him in awe.
In today’s hustle culture, we idealize being utterly obsessed with aspects of our work and goals, which in actuality are grounded in what other people may deem as successful — whether that means making a certain amount of money, having nice clothes or driving fast cars.
For a lot of us, our work has become somewhat of a competition — it’s as though if we aren’t showcasing that we’re losing sleep, or that we are constantly in front of our laptops, then we aren’t heading towards anywhere meaningful in our lives.
In the Hokkien language, a word for this is kiasu — it’s that desperate desire to be ahead of other people, that you’re willing to work obsessively or play politics and bully others.
The root of this social disease is of course, insecurity. Because we don’t feel good about ourselves or confident about our own abilities, we cling onto the approval of other people.
The opposite of this is having self-worth — or in other words, being able to determine your own value as a person based on your own actions and definitions of success and happiness. On another note, it also means being able to accept that you could be wrong, or that you have weaknesses.
As Bokuden’s story teaches us, only the insecure person is desperate for recognition, and the secure person knows his own value and never loses his composure. Bokuden could have easily cut the bragging samurai in pieces, but he knew that his sword-fighting skills weren’t necessary in the situation.
In your own life, take the time to objectively examine whether your metrics of success would really make you happy, or whether you’re secretly just hungering for recognition.
It’s like that line in Fight Club, “You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your khakis.”
It’s not exactly wrong to want these things, as long as they fulfill you. But more often than not, strong self-worth comes from within.
It comes from knowing who you are and who you want to be. It comes from being unpretentiously you.