Every Spartan knows that to do the hard shit, you can’t take shortcuts. When you focus only on being fast and first, you skip over the details in the process. (And rewarding ourselves for a half-assed job only results in less effort exerted in the future.)
The solution? Ditch complacency and commit to excellence. One way to do this right now is by adopting the Japanese concept of kodawari.
There’s no direct English translation for kodawari, but Ken Mogi, a Japanese neuroscientist and the author of The Little Book of Ikigai, has described it as “a level of self-expectation to which the individual resolutely subscribes to.”
In Japanese culture, holding yourself to the highest standards at all times is a given. However, that's not because you score some extrinsic benefit, but because exerting every effort you're capable of in everything that you do is part of who you are, and the only way you'll be satisfied with your own performance.
Here's how to take responsibility for your own success and show up for yourself every day by adopting kodawari into your life.
How to Adopt the Kodawari Philosophy Into Your Life Right Now
Remember: The Devil Is in the Details
One of the most important aspects of kodawari is, as Mogi writes, “giving considerable attention to all of the small details.”
This means that you give purpose to every single thing you are doing in the process of attaining a goal. Whether you’re trying to lose a percentage of body fat, train for a Trifecta, or improve your work ethic and personal relationships, the meticulous attention to detail is what will get you there in a way that increases your happiness and health.
This may translate to consistently eating a whole-food, unprocessed meal plan instead of sporadically trying fad diets. It could mean training to build strength in mind and body to help you have a great race (even if you aren't striving to win) rather than reaching the finish line in pain and pissed off because you half-assed your training sessions and felt the effects on the course.
And it’s about attending to the minutiae of your job or relationships — a “Thank You” email or a hug for your loved ones “just because” — to make you feel the pride and pleasure in those moments.
Always Do Your Best (and Then Do it Better)
Most people generally aim to do their best, but are also willing to accept it if they fall a little short. But for those who truly want the best for themselves, accepting defeat is out of the question. The essence of kodawari, subsequently, is an uncompromising pursuit of perfection.
In the United States, one of the reasons many are satisfied with sub-standard achievements is because American culture tends to place a higher priority on productivity and efficiency. Quick output is applauded. There are rewards for finishing first.
It's time to set aside the idea of solely “getting things done,” and instead focus on “getting things done to the best possible standard.”
Mogi mentions Steve Jobs as a perfect example of this thinking. While many have scoffed at Jobs’ obsession with finding the exact desired shade of pale gray or the ideal typography in the design of his products, Mogi highlights this constant search for perfection as Jobs' kodawari.
And even when he found a gray tone that sufficed, Jobs never stopped seeking an even more perfect color, and that’s the point. Perfection doesn’t exist. Everyone knows that. But it shouldn’t stop you from consistently and tirelessly trying to reach it nonetheless.
Aim for Perfection, and Tell No One
When you first commit to something difficult — signaling a lifestyle and behavior change — telling those close to you is a great tactic for staying committed and not quitting (if for nothing else, to avoid the embarrassment of explaining why you didn't fulfill your goal). But your lifelong pursuit of perfection in everything you do is not something that you necessarily have to advertise.
The deep attention to detail and the exquisite craftsmanship you apply to your tasks and goals are all part of your quest for perfection. But they are, by nature, personal. Over time, they become fundamental to who you are. They are what lights your own inner spark.
In The Little Book of Ikigai, Mogi mentions the ramen noodle chefs at the market stalls found all over Japan. He notes that many use kodawari in the preparation and cooking of their ramen. Regular customers might not notice the difference between one bowl of ramen and another, but that doesn’t matter because, as Mogi writes, the chef does.
“You have your inner satisfaction because you’re always doing your best, and that’s very important because everything stems from inner satisfaction," he explains. "Only you know the standard you’re holding yourself to, but that is what matters, and that is the beauty of kodawari”.