Listening Makes All the Difference

“The proud do not endure, they are a dream on a spring night;
the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.”

The Tale of Heike


Prior to the mid 19th century, Japan practiced sakoku, which was their isolationist policy that prohibited themselves from leaving the country and engaging in international trade.

But that changed once Commodore Perry and the United States Navy showed up on Japan’s shores with their warship. They threatened Japan into opening and Westernizing itself, promising to return to its shores in a year with a much bigger warship if they didn’t.

Not long after that, a civil war erupted in Japan. The samurai were divided between embracing the Western presence and holding to their traditions. 

The reality was, if Japan were to survive, the former was likely the only way. Their military resources were far from advanced as compared to that of the West, and they didn’t have the financial means to invest in the same technology for their military to stand a fight against them. 

Among the samurai who aggressively rebelled against Japan’s opening was a young man named Sakamoto Ryoma. In utter conviction of his worldview, he decided to assassinate a Japanese naval specialist and scholar Katsu Kaishu, who asserted that opening Japan to the outside world was the only way for them to survive.

Sakamoto broke into his home with a sword in hand, and as Katsu was a hair’s breadth from death, he only asked Sakamoto to listen to his reasons for believing that Japan’s opening was the best thing to do. 

Surprisingly, Sakamoto agreed. 

After listening to Katsu’s explanations, Sakamoto sheathed his sword and apologized. Embarrassed and humbled, he requested Katsu to be his master. Under Katsu’s guidance, he would then spend a great amount of time studying the political systems of Western countries, and designing a fitting system for Japan.

Oftentimes, listening makes all the difference in the world — especially when you’re upset, hurt, or during those egoistic whims when you just feel like you already know all there is to know, or that your solution is the best there is. 

There are always new things to learn, no matter our level. All of us have our own blind spots. And there are always better solutions if we genuinely take other people’s views into account. 

Just as Epictetus brilliantly said, you can’t learn that which you think you already know. 

For the investor Mark Cuban, he has used a specific strategy since his 20s to get himself to listen more. Being a talkative person by nature, he loves to interrupt conversations. His family and friends would condemn him for that, and this habit even cost him a few jobs when he graduated from university.

Fortunately, though, a supervisor taught him a lesson that he would never forget. 

Cuban said, “This guy who was trying to be my mentor (said), ‘I’m going to give you a tool that you can use: Every time you go into a meeting, I want you to have a notepad, and the minute you sit down, I want you to write the word ‘Listen’ right there on your notepad. You need this because you don’t listen.’”

This strategy has since been Cuban’s lifelong habit. 

“No lie,” he said, “If you go back over the last 40 years now that I’ve been going into meetings and taking notes, I write, ‘Listen,’ first thing.”

The simple act of listening has helped Cuban become a better learner. As he remarked, “I recognized that learning was truly a skill, and that by continuing to learn, to this day, I’m able to compete and keep up and get ahead of most people.”

So if you’re looking to enforce better habits this year, let listening be one of them. 

Tell yourself to listen. Keep a note where you can see it all the time. 

It makes all the difference.

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