The Missing Ingredient

The film The Ramen Girl tells the story of Abby, a twenty-something American women who is stranded in Tokyo after being dumped by her boyfriend. She decides to stay. To earn a living, she begs a tyrannical Japanese ramen chef, who doesn’t speak a word of English, to teach her the art of making ramen. In Japan, ramen making is a high art.

Abby and her teacher clash, but the ramen master begins to soften towards Abby. Yet, despite all of her hard work, Abby cannot make a decent ramen bowl. In desperation, the master takes Abby to see his own mother. The scene unfolds as Abby prepares a bowl of ramen and serves it to the master’s mother:

Ramen master’s mother: Her broth is bland.

Ramen master: I wonder why? She’s mastered the techniques perfectly.

Mother talking to her son: Sometimes too much technical training can get in the way.

Mother talking to Abby: You cook with your head. Understand? Your head is full of noise. You must learn to cook from the quieter place deep inside of you.

Abby: How?

Mother:  Each bowl of ramen that you prepare is a gift to your customer. The food that you serve your customers becomes part of them. It contains your spirit. That’s why your ramen must be an expression of pure love; a gift from your heart.

Is this new age blather? Or, are we hearing business wisdom? After all, you can sell many things without having much regard for your customer. But, what about in today’s emerging economy where frugality will be the norm?

My wife enjoys an occasional cup of coffee. She recently told me the story of a coffee shop in town that she visited once and then did not return to for over a year. Why? It is a small shop, she related, and the server was not very welcoming. Drinking a cup of coffee, like eating ramen, is an experience. This is nothing new; companies like Starbucks were built on the experience they offer.

But does Abby really need to be so responsive to her customers that her work becomes an expression of love? The workday of a ramen chef is very long and repetitive. Many of her customers she may never see again. Kahil Gibran asked the question, “And what is it to work with love?” He answered his own question with advice that echoes that of the ramen master’s mother:

It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit…

Inspiring words, indeed. But what about the noise in Abby’s head that is getting in her way? Gibran asks us, “When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music. Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?”

Gibran is offering a pointer. We must allow ourselves to be found by life—to be found by the music that wants to sing through us in harmony with every living thing. A ramen cook becomes a ramen master when his cooking nourishes more than the body. A cook’s ingredients may be high quality, but there is more to cooking than ingredients. Are we part of the web of life that unites us all? Or, have we cut ourselves off? To ask the question is to be ready to receive the answer.

Abby is clearly trying to find her place in the world; but understandably given her circumstances, she is preoccupied with herself. The way out for Abby is to give even more of herself. This giving is enlivening rather than exhausting. Abby is called upon to have an intimate relationship with her customers—she is called upon to share fully of the gifts of her spirit. Doing so, she is united with her customers in their human journey; they are not mere objects playing their parts in Abby’s journey.

Eric Butterworth wrote, “Love is not an emotion that begins in us and ends in the positive response of another.” That kind of love is merely a deal destined to fall apart. Love doesn’t begin in us. We allow Love to flow through us when we can laugh at the noise in our head which is focused on the gratification of the endless demands of our own ego.

As she gives more, Abby gets more. But what she gets she could not have planned for or even conceived of. Some people go through life expecting to get before they give. Others go through life giving but then keeping score to see if what they receive back is in balance with what they give. Neither of these ways of being in the world will allow life to sing through us. We are the ones placing boundaries on the notes that can be played. If we continue to see the world through the eyes of our egos, life becomes very small and tedious.

In many of our organizations, work is tedious. Employees don’t share their gifts fully, interpersonal conflict is the norm, and dubious decision-making is routine. For the successful corporations in the future, a culture which supports the idea that their products and services are an expression of pure love will become a business necessity. Consumers will be buying more of what adds real value to their lives, and by economic necessity, they will be buying less of what merely fills the void in an unfulfilled life.

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2 Responses to The Missing Ingredient

  1. PT says:

    As I was trying to think of examples of how this can work my orthodontist came to mind. Dr. D’s work has to be way up there on the tedium scale but you would never know it from the caring approach he takes with all of his patients, young and old. Instead of treating everyone as just another mouth to wire up he takes time to get to know you and to talk about goings on in everyday life. And he does this every time you visit. He remembers your name, your hobbies, what sports teams you like, and always has a funny story to tell. Sometimes I would even forget that it was new wire time while we were catching up. I think he’s showing love and he certainly gets it back. Dr. D’s patients and all of the assistants in his office love him. And many of us even forgive the fact that he’s a Red Sox fan. Thanks for raising the thought and for all of the posts and dialogue, Barry.

  2. PT,

    When I was a rookie professor I didn’t understand this “open secret.” Some days teaching seemed so easy and some days it seemed like I was pushing a boulder uphill. Because I didn’t understand, I attributed the hard days to difficult students, too hot or too cold classrooms etc. The false explanations can seem quite compelling; it took me a while to catch on to what really was going on.

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