Updated: Apr 1
I stood there, alone, my mind already racing.
"Oh my God! Which one? I can't believe this is happening."
The panic came on so fast and was so genuine, it was almost comical.
I was standing in an ultra-traditional, upscale restaurant in Tokyo in a kind of short hallway, more of an anteroom.
Almost dark except for a candle-lightish nuance designed to keep you from running into a wall as you made your way forward.
I had an important decision to make and not much time to make it.
It all started innocently enough.
I'd recently moved to Tokyo to work on a project for one year.
Just arrived in Japan, I'd already picked up a few phrases.
I'd walk through the lobby of my building in the morning and say "Ohayo Gozaimasu," (Good Morning).
I also learned "Shinkansen", the Japanese term for what westerners call the "bullet train."
Japanese is written in Kanji characters.
It's a symbol-based language that looks ancient, artistic and a tad exotic.
Unlike most western European languages, which you can pick up bits of, Japanese is, well, Greek to me.
It's iconography of a sort, but not the emoji kind. Forget figuring it out on your own.
In this memorable restaurant, there were old school Japanese prints, hushed tones, bamboo screens, low tables and polite murmurs. Someone in a Kimono couldn't have been far off.
Banish visions of Samurai sword-meets Kamikazi-kitsch and a flaming onion volcano. This was authentic, enchanting Japan.
Shoeless, in western clothes, sitting on pillows at a low table, our Japanese hosts looked at ease and peaceful and did everything in their power to make us feel the same.
I personally felt like a duck in a shoebox but was trying hard not to show it.
We talked about Sumo wrestling and Mount Fiji, which on a clear day, was easily seen from our offices in a high-rise near the Tokyo central station.
One thing you learn fast in any corporate environment is who the power players are. And there were a few at the table that night.
As the night went on, I needed to go to the ladies room, but faced two challenges.
First: the floor pillow dismount in my not-at-all-Pilgrim-esque skirt had to be carefully orchestrated and,
Second: navigating excusing myself from ultra-attentive Japanese hosts without violating a myriad of protocols.
(I'm from the land of steamed blue crabs on picnic tables covered with newspaper, so...)
Luck was with me.
One of the bigger-whigs started rocking back and forth like an amusement park battering ram, heaved himself unceremoniously up off the dainty Japanese floor pillow and plodded off to what I gathered were the restrooms.
Emboldended by Sake, and after polite pause, so as not to give the appearance of stalking, I followed.
Which is how I found myself in the dimly lit anti-room staring at two doors with those oh-so-pretty Japanese Kanji characters on them and NOTHING. ELSE.
Which was the ladies room?
I had consumed not a small quantity of water, and equally as much Sake, but not enough for me to say, "the hell with it" and try one of the doors.
Because Big American Power Boss was on the other side of one of these doors with his pants in some state of "down."
Me opening the door on that particular "Japanese ritual" was not going help my career.
Panic was setting in, I mean authentic panic, (which may seem silly, but if this has never happened to you, don't judge. It surprised me too.)
Then, to my everlasting surprise, I was back in the seventh grade talking with my Dad. For what seemed like minutes, but was only a second or two in memory's accurate and ultra-fast delivery system.
My semi-sake-saturated brain did me a solid.
When my Dad was in high school, he lived just outside Tokyo for one year.
He adored Japan and the Japanese and talked about his experiences there often.
One day, he was telling me a story about Japan.
"Courtney, Japanese characters are not that hard to understand. They actually make sense when you know what to look for. See, "man" is a symbol with two legs."
Using two fingers, he illustrated.
"And the character for "woman" is similar but the legs are crossed, like a lady would cross her legs. Makes sense, see?"
He crossed his fingers to show me.
Back in Japan, I looked up at the two symbols. I saw it instantly and I smiled.
Confidently, I pushed open the door with the "crossed legs" while making a mental note to thank my Dad the next time I saw him.
Labels have a lot of power because they make it seem so easy to know which way to proceed.
They purport to tell us what's on the other side of the door.
Which is why they make us panic when we can't use them.
But they aren't always accurate or even up-to-date.
Sometimes, they need to be removed, replaced or altered.
What labels are you wearing?
Who gave them to you?
Which ones are you ready to retire?
Which new ones would you like to take on, forever or maybe just for while?
Decide and push on through that door with a smile.
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