Quotes – The Finality of Success

When the house is finished, death follows.

~Turkish proverb

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Quote – The Struggle For Success

What is success? A mysterious, indescribable power– a vigilance, a readiness, the awareness that simply by my presence I can exert pressure on the movements of life around me, the belief that life can be molded to my advantage. Happiness and success are inside us. We have to reach deep and hold tight. And the moment something begins to subside, to relax, to grow weary, then everything around us is turned loose, resists us, rebels, moved beyond our influence. And then it’s just one thing after another, one setback after another, and you’re finished.

~Thomas Buddenbrooks, in Buddenbrooks

Review – Leonardo and The Last Supper

Leonardo and The Last Supper

by Ross King, published 2013

In the late 1400s, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned by Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, to complete a large bronze equestrian statue to honor himself and his late father and cement his authority over the people of Milan and northern Italy. It was to be one of the greatest equestrian statues of the era and one of the most technically challenging, single biggest pieces of cast bronze in the history of sculpture which would also fix Da Vinci’s reputation as a craftsman, artist and virtuoso.

But like many of Da Vinci’s projects and ambitions, it was not to be. After a series of unfortunate events that cascaded from Sforza’s unpredictable realpolitik, the duke was forced to melt down the bronze assigned to the project to form cannon to defend Milan from the invading forces of France’s Charles VIII.

Although Leonardo Da Vinci is known to history as an artist and mechanical genius (or at least, a philosopher of theoretical mechanical devices) his great personal ambition was to create outstanding weapons of war. He hoped the equestrian statue would be his entree into a world of defense industries assignments for the notoriously pugnacious Sforza clan. Instead, he spent most of his time in their employ designing parties, feasts and pageants and lamenting himself at age 42 as some one who could not positively reply to his own request, “Tell me if I ever did a thing.” He had struggled unsuccessfully in his 30s to learn Latin, a standard achievement of the scholarly and intellectual in his era, and as a result ended up a uomo senza lettere or “man without letters”, almost like a person today who failed to go to college. However, it was not the external standards of brilliance or achievement he failed against but rather the “extremely high standard he set for himself in his quest for a new visual language” that brought him the most self-doubt and personal pain.

And so it seems fittingly ironic then that his pinnacle achievement and the work of art he would come to be most famous for beyond even the mysterious Mona Lisa was not a weapon of war on a field of conquest or a bold statue in a central plaza but a fresco-style painting of a commonly depicted scene throughout Italy, found in many a dining hall of a local convent– The Last Supper.

There are many details of the painting that ended up making it remarkable and that have to do with the finished output, such as we know of it today in its highly degenerated and damaged form from the original. But it is what went into the painting that are the details most worthy of consideration.

First, this being a common subject matter in a humble, dingy room in a less-than-spectacular Dominican church, Da Vinci considered the work beneath him and like many of his projects he had trouble bringing himself to complete it. One of the art world’s masterpieces almost never happened out of simple spite and disinterest.

Second, Da Vinci combined the urban with the urbane in painting the portraits of the individual saints. To capture interesting “grotesque” expressions, he spent weeks hanging around the lower class parts of town studying the bodies, stances and gestures of various commoners. But for the visages of the saints themselves who are, along with the face of Jesus, lost to history in terms of any factual depictions, he selected from well-known friends and courtiers of the Ducal Palace in Milan. Thus these characters are both realistic, ahistorical and anachronistic simultaneously.

Third, the work of fresco is time and labor intensive and large scale murals are very much a team sport.  Many materials such as certain paint colors and sealants had to be developed in a proprietary fashion by each workshop through a method of experimentation similar to laboratory chemistry. Most great art works were made by the master and his apprentices, but contracts at times specified certain portions which must be completed by the master himself. And the work itself was not necessarily quiet and contemplative but perhaps closer to today’s modern construction sites replete with boombox jamming. Although, Da Vinci is reputed to have worked to the sound of musicians or readers speaking from philosophical books, a Renaissance-era Spotify/podcast listening approach to productivity.

While the Last Supper is an act of inspired genius, it did not simply leap out of the head of Da Vinci through his paintbrush fully-formed. It was a team effort and followed a thorough process in which the final “draft” was first broken into constituent parts, practiced and rehearsed (“studies”, “carbons”) before being recomposed piece-by-piece as a fresco. The process is similar to writing a long history or novel (see Paris Review Interview No. 5 w/ Robert Caro) and has parallels in sports and investment analysis– from the parts to the whole.

While Leonardo Da Vinci found himself disappointed in his inability to produce a volume of highly anticipated works, his ability to nonetheless achieve global notoriety for just two works of art over the course of a longer, fully life perhaps gives double-meaning to his quip that “men of genius sometimes accomplish most when they work the least.”

Review – Grinding It Out

Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s

by Ray Kroc, with Robert Anderson, published 1992

Reading through the stories of great entrepreneurs, business people and politicians like Cornelius Vanderbilt or Warren Buffett, it is easy to find a sentiment much like this one from Ray Kroc:

Ethel [his wife] used to complain once in a while about about the amount of time I spent away from home working. Looking back on it now, I guess it was kind of unfair. But I was driven by ambition.

I find this sentiment remarkable for a few different reasons.

The first is how common it is. It seems to suggest that achieving “great things” in a particular field of enterprise is not possible without neglecting one’s family and other personal relationships in favor of the “productive” relationships and activities.

The second is how little awareness of this tradeoff many such people seem to possess, at least until they reach the end of their life and all their glory has already been gotten. Then, as they contemplate their state of affairs, either looking back on the empire they built or ruminating regretfully now that they are deposed (violently or voluntarily), they seem to re-evaluate how they spent their time and decide they came up short in considering family time less important than it should have been. They also seem to be either disconnected from the damage they do to their children and their psyches, or else try to evade such recognition– I think Ray Kroc mentioned his daughter all of two times in this 200 page telling, and while his daughter may not have been critical to the story of building McDonald’s, you’d think she would’ve provided enough value and motivation in Kroc’s life to merit more than a couple passing mentions!

The third is how excusable such high achievers seem to find their behavior to be in retrospect. “But…” is a permission word. It negates what comes before and offers cover. Yes, Ray Kroc was unfair, but… It suggests a different moral framework for studying life or a particular circumstance, one in which the rules don’t really apply and the ends justify the means.

The fourth is what a temptation these great projects must’ve provided to these people, to ignore their family, their health or any number of other values. If I was a successful paper cup salesman but stumbled upon the idea of McDonald’s myself, could I have resisted the temptation to build it and in the process knowingly give up my family, friends, physical well-being, etc.? It is perhaps easy to sit in judgment of another person’s efforts and decisions when the attraction of my own responsibilities is relatively less compelling. It’s easy to go home to my family at the end of the day as they typically offer me more interest and excitement. But would that be the case if millions of dollars and a global business organization hung in the balance? That I don’t know for sure, and perhaps you can’t know until you’re tempted with it.

But that leads to the fifth point, which is to consider whether a story like Kroc’s and McDonald’s could be told any other way. What if in the first 27 pages of the story of this business the quote above was not to be found, nor anywhere in the 173+ pages that followed? What if Kroc didn’t get divorced (twice), didn’t have a string of health issues along the way, came home and kissed his wife and daughter on the forehead five nights a week and spent most of each month at home and around town rather than around the country? What choices would’ve needed to be made differently to support that outcome, and how would the company look different either internally or competitively if that had been the case? How big would Berkshire Hathaway be if Buffett had raised his own children and loved his first wife more considerately instead of reading so many damn books and annual reports?

To ask may be to answer, but it’s frightening (hopeful?) to think otherwise.

Besides neglecting important obligations and personal considerations, what else do stories like these seem to tell us about those who achieve outsize success?

Incredible stamina seems to be part of it. They don’t just work hard, they work all the time. But again, it’s hard to know if this is part of the person, part of the responsibility and opportunity, or both. How would a person not work hard and often at something they didn’t love to the point they were mesmerized by it? Enthralled is a good way to describe the state of mind in relation to the idea of the thing being pursued here.

Also, simplicity. Maybe it’s the bad ghostwriting designed to break the story down for a lowbrow audience but the way these people talk about what it is they did, they rarely come across as great geniuses, though they’re often wits (Buffett is a notable exception here, and Vanderbilt was clearly “sharp”, a word for cunning back then, though it wasn’t clear he was necessarily “intelligent”, while it was clear he was no buffoon). The grand strategy and complexity is often seen in hindsight, knowing how the story ends and having years and years to tell it and thus accumulate various trappings which may or may not be integral to the success. In Kroc’s own words, it was all about Quality, Service, Cleanliness and Value and then spreading it across the land. Their financing was complicated, but it’s not clear it needed to be, especially if the company was less levered and less insistent on growing as fast as it did. Being focused seems obvious, yet important enough to mention it.

Where does that leave me? If there’s a way to build a legacy that doesn’t involve neglecting one’s family and health, perhaps by being more patient, moving more slowly or being less obsessed about the outcome, that is the kind of legacy I want to build. And I have to wonder what kind of personal insecurity or individual idiosyncrasy or whatever it is, that I seem not to have, that would not allow a person to make that choice given the alternative.

But if the only way to make things great is to trash some other part of your life and leave a smoking crater behind, a crater that’s especially painful in the vulnerability of old age, then I guess I better prepare myself mentally for more humble achievements. I’m just not interested in those kinds of tradeoffs and I don’t understand how such achievements could be satisfying without a family to enjoy them with and the sound mind and body necessary to experience it all.

Review – Father, Son & Co.

Father, Son & Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond

by Thomas Watson, Jr., published 1990

The son of IBM’s founder, Thomas Watson Jr.’s “Father, Son & Co.” is many things: a collection of folksy business wisdom passed down by his father, memories and recollections of his participation as an airman in World War II and later a US diplomatic career in the USSR, a story about the challenges of growing a global business, lessons in leadership and team building, the pitfalls of transforming an business organization from small scale to large scale and, most importantly, a personal reflection on the value of family. It was most interesting and entertaining for me to read when it dealt with business and some of the personal issues of the author in trying to prove himself in the shadow of a legendary father; I found it less enjoyable and less authentic when the author dabbled in politics or retold sappy anecdotes about popular political figures of his era with whom he had had personal relationships.

The Business of IBM

The axis around which the story revolves is not Tom Watson, Jr., and it’s not Tom Watson, Sr. It’s the company which Senior grew and transformed into IBM, and which Junior effected the change over to actual computing technology in the 1960s, that the book is really about. But because Junior’s and Senior’s personalities, families, fortunes and lives were so wrapped up in the affairs of IBM, it becomes about all of those things in turn as well. That is somewhat surprising because the book is ostensibly a memoir by Junior, yet the gravity of IBM is hard to ignore in nearly every chapter of the book.

When Senior joined on with the company as general manager and, shortly thereafter, president, IBM (then Computing-Tabulating-Record Company) was an important concern but not necessarily a large one. Senior had a vision for it and something of an indomitable will, and he had experienced enough success and failure on his own in other ventures that he had an idea of what it would take to create the vision he had for the company. He built a large, organized and polished sales force, instilled high morale and unity of purpose by creating training programs, achievement awards, national sales team conventions and even company songs that everyone had to sing. He also, like many strong-willed founders, created something of a cult of personality around himself, putting his picture up at IBM offices and facilities, writing memos that were distributed widely to all staff and constantly visiting field offices and manufacturing facilities and “pressing the flesh” with company men and their wives and children, creating a kind of endearing aura of patriarchy.

In later years this intuitive, personality-driven approach was deemed problematic by Junior and other successor senior executives who believed that Senior had created a culture and cadre of Yes Men and hadn’t implemented enough standards and professional protocols that could create stability for growth. But for decades of the company’s history (essentially the first half, to date) this approach seemed to work, and fantastically so. Company publications like “Business Machines” and sales achievement distinctions like the “Hundred Percent Club” put the company’s focus on employee well-being and professionalism and incentivized outstanding achievement in the dawn of the era of lifetime commitment to big companies.

Something that shocked me as I read was how much of IBM’s growth could be attributed to solving statistical problems for the US and other national governments:

IBM more than doubled in size during the New Deal… Social Security… made Uncle Sam IBM’s biggest customer.

Wow! I suppose someone else could’ve come up with the technology as well, but it is kind of amazing to think that the evil New Deal and the disastrous Social Security pyramid scheme would have been too burdensome to administer without the existence of IBM tabulating machines which were a major time saver. It reminds me of Palantir Technologies, which helps the NSA, CIA and other foreign governments conduct surveillance work on target populations, another way to profit off of coercive interference in society’s affairs.

This trend didn’t stop with the New Deal but only started there. During WW2 the company converted many of their factories to help produce armaments (a fairly common industrial practice during the time, but still remarkable) and after the war one of the big incentives (and indeed, initial sources of research funding) for switching the company’s focus to electronic computing solutions were the ongoing “national defense” needs of the US military as the Cold War wore on.

Words of wisdom

I enjoyed the many old-timey nuggets of wisdom and rules about manners sprinkled throughout the book which were mostly remembrances of Junior of things Senior had said to him as he raised him or mentored him in the business. For example, Junior talks about the first time he road a cross-country train with his father on a business trip and the way his father taught him to clean up the wash basin in the bathroom of the railroad car to be considerate of others. “The person coming after you will judge you by how the place is left,” he tells him as he uses a towel to wipe down the basin before and after shaving in it. He talks about the importance of leaving the basin in a clean state so that the next person will have “the same chance you had”. There is a deep moral lesson here that goes well beyond the world of men shaving– this is a version of the Golden Rule, not just considering how upsetting it would be to have someone leave a place in a state of disarray for you, but then following that logic through to performing a service voluntarily for other people in trying to leave the world a little bit nicer than you found it.

In another instance, Senior lectures Junior about the practical reasons for treating even the “lowly” members of society in a kindly and generous fashion:

There is a whole class of people in the world who are in a position to poor-mouth you unless you are sensitive to them. They are the headwaiters, Pullman car conductors, porters and chauffeurs. They see you in an intimate fashion and can really knock off your reputation.

Those who enjoy shows like Downton Abbey are familiar with the idea that the “servants” of the world end up having an interesting amount of power and leverage over those they serve because they are so familiar with them they know their weaknesses, secrets and bad habits. There is something noble and self-aware in Senior’s advice here– a cultivated awareness of the reality of power and influence, mixed with a genuine empathy for treating even the relatively less fortunate with respect and concern. It might be read as “These people could really knife you if you don’t pay attention” but I think it is also honestly read as “Don’t forget these are people, too, and they want and need kindness regardless of their station in life.”

Another endearing moment comes when Senior teaches Junior about how he manages his executives:

“Well, I haven’t shaken up So-and-so for a while. So I’ll get him in and ask some questions about his department and in the process part his hair a little. He’ll get a pat on the back if I find something good or a kick in the tail if I find something bad.”

The imagery of “parting someone’s hair” says a lot about the relative authority of the two people in this “process” and while kicking someone in the tail sounds like bullying, it was clear that Senior gave quite a few pats on the back, as well, and when he dished out the ass-kickings, they might have been deserved– these were grown men dealing with a multi-million dollar business, after all, and if they weren’t bringing their problems to Senior’s attention but rather waiting for him to discover them, shame on them.

In teaching Junior about how to be an executive, Senior advised “what a chief executive does outside his business is just as important as what he does at his desk”, which was another idea I found interesting. I’ve been skeptical in the past of chief executives who seem to spend more time glad-handing than running the business. But I’ve come to appreciate that a lot of running a business simply is taking care of relationships– with customers, employees, vendors and even members of the local community. IBM’s business was dependent upon political grace, so there is perhaps a more sinister side to this advice from the standpoint of simply being a businessman but it was an interesting idea to ponder, nonetheless, that the chief executive’s identity and role extend beyond his office hours.

Senior was clearly a hard-driver and a hard-charger himself. So I was interested to hear about his daily routine:

He had his day set up so that he got up at seven, played tennis from seven-thirty to eight-thirty to stay in shape, got to work on time, did his work, went home, read great books for an hour, had dinner, listened to classical music for a while, and went to bed.

Senior ended up dying of starvation; his stomach was so scarred from stress-induced ulcers that it essentially closed up and wouldn’t let enough food in, and he didn’t want to go under the knife and so chose a fairly painful death by starvation (more on health issues in a moment). But despite this, he lived to age 82! I think that’s still considered a long time to live and I am always curious what a person’s habits were when I hear of such longevity, so it was pleasing to see that he put emphasis on daily physical activity as well as daily relaxing, contemplative activity (reading and music listening). Interestingly, breakfast didn’t seem to play a large part in his routine although Junior recounts many times when he had lunch brought in despite it being ignored in this telling.

A few other choice ideas, on restraint:

What you haven’t said, you can say anytime.

And on the value of friendship:

Don’t make friends who are comfortable to be with. Make friends who will force you to lever yourself up.

The son also rises

So, Senior had a knack for keen insight, but what about Junior?

While Senior was the builder, Junior was the administrator and manager. He seemed to take what he learned from Senior and build on it, so many of his notions seemed like continuations of the thoughts of Senior. For example, consider Senior’s advice about how chief executives should behave as Junior extemporizes about the relationships of businessmen:

A good businessman needs a lot of friends. Cultivating them is a laborious process, and how well you succeed is a direct result of how much effort and thoughtfulness you bring to bear.

He isn’t talking about friends in the business. He’s talking about friends outside of the business, which to me sounds like an echo of the idea that the chief executive’s job extends well beyond life in the office.

Similarly, he recounts a tale about the importance of making good introductions,

I stuck out my hand and said to him, “I’m Tom Watson Jr.”

Offering one’s name with a hand shake ensures that the other person is not put in the uncomfortable spot of being expected to remember people he’s only met once before, which engenders a sense of gratitude and respect immediately. Consider that this was the practice of an individual leading one of the largest and most well-known companies in the world and he still made the effort to be forward about his identity like this.

I also made a note of Junior’s characterization of the political structure of business:

The government has checks and balances, but a business is a dictatorship, and that is what makes it really move.

I think there is consensus building in business, too. It’s hard to keep a team cohesive and productive over a long period of time if people don’t feel like they contribute ideas and that those ideas get seriously considered. But I do understand the idea that ultimately decisions have to be made by somebody, that is, one person, and a business with a strong will behind it can make those decisions more effectively because everyone may be listened to but they don’t necessarily all get a vote. In the business world, people tend to vote by exit which is rarely an option in the world of politics.

The wealth of health

As mentioned earlier, Senior ended up choosing death by starvation when his health maladies caught up with him, though he made it to age 82. I noticed that both Junior and his younger brother (who headed up IBM’s non-US business) suffered heart attacks in their middle-age, attributed to the high stress of their positions.

Junior describes a life of almost continual travel and social functions, not just for himself but for his father and his brother. It was clear reading the book that the Watson clan and IBM executive leadership in general were part of the “global elite”, they knew dignitaries and heads of state from around the planet and were deeply connected to American political figures as well, a confusing blending of public and private prerogatives and relationships. There were many chapters where Junior described so many different locales and travels simultaneously that is almost seemed as if he was everywhere at once– at the very least he would spend long stretches of time away from home engaged in high level networking. It was a fascinating glimpse into “how the other half lives.”

But it was also terrifying from a health point of view. It is just hard to imagine this high-paced lifestyle allowing one to live with optimal health and longevity. Along with suffering a heart attack, his brother seemed to be frail enough to die from a “fall” at age 55. Junior ended up quitting his official business responsibilities following his heart attack which he reflects on with positivity in the book, saying it was a relief to have an opportunity to look critically at his life and get out while he still could. It seems to say a lot about the lifestyle he was living that he could so clearly connect his longevity to his work and chose the former over the latter.

Working with family

At the beginning of the book, Junior says that if you have the chance to go into business with your father, know that it will be difficult, but do it. I was fascinated by this strong suggestion given that he spends much of the rest of the book relating all the violent disagreements he had with his father, their latent power struggles, the continual struggles with self-esteem and even depression that he experienced living and working under the shadow of his successful father and so on.

There were many touching moments in the book where the reader is afforded a look at the parenting practices of Senior, who was truly from a pre-modern era. But there were also many that shocked my sensibilities of the proper relationship between parent and child, such as when Junior recalled how Senior handled tax documentation of his personal trust:

Each year his accountant would come around and have me sign income tax forms that were blank. He’d make an excuse that he hadn’t had time yet to fill them out. This kept up not only through college but ten years beyond, until I was a grown man with children of my own.

How would hiding this information from a child do anything but stoke their curiosity, fear and self-criticism? Why did this practice continue on even when he was a man with his own family (at which point he had long been a part of the business in a senior role)?

While the book offered many such puzzles and glimpses into family life for the accomplished Watsons, I couldn’t help but wonder how people who had achieved such greatness in so many areas had completely neglected to resolve interpersonal emotional conflicts and instead struggled with this source of unhappiness for decades. What is family for?

For me, reading about the early struggles and the early attempts at growth are always the most interesting parts of a story like Thomas Watson, Jr.’s, and IBM’s in general. I found myself less interested in what it was like being Bobby Kennedy’s friend, or getting tapped for the ambassadorship in Moscow. You can look at the history of the company and of the family and think, “It could’ve been anyone else, it’s not clear what they did that was special or unique beyond being lucky” but you can’t say they didn’t work hard, or purposefully. There’s no simple recipes or formulas for success in this book when it comes to business, family or life, but there are a number of things to think about, struggles that turn out to be common to all of us, great or small in our vision or accomplishments. I think that is where the value in this book lay for me.

Review – Totto-chan

Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window

by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, published 1981

What a wonderful book! I’ve never read anything quite like it, although it reminded me quite a bit of various Hayao Miyazaki animated films I’ve seen in the past. “Totto-chan” is a memoir in the guise of a novel. The author’s childhood self is the main character and the events described actually took place while she attended a creative school called Tomoe Gakuen in pre-war Tokyo. This proves to be an interesting narrative device because the story is told from the emotional and experiential point of view of a child, but with the knowingness and articulateness of an adult. The obvious fondness or at least understanding of the author toward her younger self serves to enhance the overall sensation of empathy the story engenders, for that is the primary theme of the school and what the children were learning there.

Led by the visionary headmaster, Sosaku Kobayashi, the Tomoe school’s philosophy is built on trusting children to be themselves, “let nature lead” as Kobayashi put it. The story is filled with anecdotes of Totto-chan and her classmates being entrusted to figure things out for themselves, with adults and authority figures like the headmaster and parents simply listening and providing confidence that the children will succeed in coming up with workable solutions as they learn to navigate the world around them. Mistakes and slipups (such as Totto-chan falling into the school’s cesspool) are treated with dignity and patience. Instruction and structure come in the form of simple guidelines (for lunch, students were asked to bring “something from the hills and something from the sea”) with the belief that the children will be motivated to find their own solution with a limited amount of information.

The effect on the children is a unique sensation of freedom and capability, of openness and consideration of themselves and the needs of others. Seemingly without encouragement, the school spontaneously forms a meaningful, interested sense of community and ownership by the students toward their school grounds, neighborhood and classmates. Left to pursue their studies and interests at their own pace, some students excel through deep study and careful focus of a particular subject while others enjoy sampling disparate bits of knowledge and experience without a plan. All students appear happy and enthusiastic about their lives, even those students who come to the school with severe developmental handicaps. As the author says, this liberty allowed a lot of children who were misfits in the standard schooling regime to find a sense of ease and belonging and to go on to live productive, independent and connected lives as adults.

The story gives the reader a glimpse of an educational philosophy and pedagogical approach that is at once intuitive and mysterious: why shouldn’t every school demonstrate such empathy and concern for its students; and how DOES Mr. Kobayashi manage to have such patience and a sunny disposition toward the antics of small children that are considered so “obnoxious” by nearly everybody else? The epilogue of the story summarizes some of the research travel Kobayashi performed in Europe for several years leading up to the founding of the Tomoe school and it becomes clear that there is a dedicated, principled purposefulness to every single event in the story, which the author as an adult reflects upon in the present with a “Oh, so THAT must have been what Mr. Koboyashi was trying to teach us there…” To a cynical mind it may seem almost exploitative to be so cunning in one’s schemes, but if the ultimate goal of the approach is to develop in the students the maxim “Trust yourself”, how nefarious could this stratagem actually be?

The school seems like a very “social” place and less like an academy– numerous field trips, “sports” days, music and exercise classes and camping overnights pepper the plot and while there is a library and scenes of students doing self-directed physics studies with alcohol burners and beakers, they always take place in Tomoe’s disused railroad cars-cum-classrooms. It’s a challenge only to those readers with a constricted view of what education and learning necessarily mean. For Kobayashi and his students, every experience brings teachable moments and the question begged and answered is why reading about flora and fauna in a textbook is a superior approach when one can go outside for a walk and study the variety of life up close.

From the view of paranoid American parenting, the children disrobing with their teachers and swimming naked together in the school’s small pool will seem like a perfect opportunity for secret child abusers amongst the faculty to get their jollies. But the lesson here seems to be that every choice in life brings with it risks and if bathing suit-less swim time is a useful means for helping the children (especially the physically handicapped) to appreciate and accept their differences and similarities such that they can have confidence about who they are and act with kindness towards everyone else, the risk of something monstrous or mean-spirited in such an environment might be a better risk to take than watching certain individuals grow up feeling alienated from themselves and others for lack of such experiences.

Indeed, those same paranoid parents would be wondering how a child could ever develop a moral sense without correction and punishment from adults. It is enjoyable, then, to witness the many moments when Totto-chan attempts to do something underhanded or less than honest (with herself, her parents or her friends) but recognizes the moral inconsistency of her actions on her own and eventually makes amends and moves on. It makes you think that children are capable of so much more than they are given credit for, typically, and that maybe the moral failings of children reflect not their immaturity, but the perverse incentives of the adults who guide them.

This is a humorous book, as well. There were many moments when I couldn’t help but laugh out loud and recount a passage to someone nearby, they’re just too good not to share. And thankfully, there are moments of profound tragedy and despair. I say thankfully, because it is in these recollections that we are truly reminded of how precious life is and what a wonderful gift a school like Tomoe is.

One of those tragedies is that the Tomoe school burned to the ground near the finale of the Pacific War as Tokyo came under increased firebombing by the US Air Force. It’s a stark reminder of the injudiciousness and unfairness of war, even though it is recounted without particular frustration or anger on the part of the author (a testament to the empathetic spirit of the school itself!) But there is also a lesson in the resilience of the creative spirit, as Kobayashi’s only response is to ask, “What kind of school shall we build next?”

The good news is that we don’t have to suffer war or burn our schools down to ask that question ourselves.

I think this book can be enjoyed by children, parents, families, teachers and social theorists and anyone concerned with building a more empathetic society built upon respect for the individual and the instinct of trusting oneself.