The dark side of ganbatte

By on February 3, 2013
“Ganbatte” is a seemingly innocuous word that every foreigner in Japan quickly becomes familiar with regardless of their level of Japanese. On the surface it appears to be a friendly motivational phrase that is used to encourage people to do their best or give something their all. The dark side of ganbatte when we understand that it is often  literally translated as “exhaust yourself” and can carry with it the implication that if one just worked harder or persevered more, then success would be achieved.

The qualities of perseverance and hard work are admittedly necessary qualities for individuals to develop to achieve both success and ful llment in life and work, however in both Japan and North America people are nding it increasingly difcult to gure out where to draw the line between the kind of perseverance that strengthens character and increases results and the chronic overwork that depletes individual energy and performance and, ultimately, business results over time.

This pressure to ganbatte to the point of exhaustion is such a prevalent part of Japanese traditional culture that they have a word – karoshi – to describe death by overwork. While acknowledging that exact statistics on the prevalence of extreme overwork are dif cult to track, an article in the December 2007 issue of The Economist says that some tallies show  that one in three men aged 30 to 40 works over 60 hours a week.

An April 2012 article in The Washington Times shows that chronic overwork is on the rise in North America as well with close to 40% of men in professional-managerial positions working more than 50 hours per week. The percentage of professional women working more than 50 hours a week has also more than doubled since the 1970s.
Most people would say that working hard is a key ingredient of success, but is it? A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology compared people working more than 55 hours per week over a period of 5 years with those averaging 35-40 hours per week. The ndings? The “ uid intelligence” associated with problem solving, short-term memory and creativity was signicantly lower in the group that worked more than 55 hours per week. As this type of thinking ability is critical for peak performance in today’s fast-paced, highly competitive economy, it is likely that increasing working hours is highly detrimental to work quality and productivity over the long term. This doesn’t even begin to take into account the increased costs that are likely to be incurred at both the individual and corporate level as a result of stress-related illness and absenteeism. Finally, while it is even more dif cult to begin to quantify the toll that exhausting yourself at work takes on family and community life, it is inevitable that too much ganbatte at work leaves little room for meaningful contribution (or even the ability to recuperate) outside of work.

To be successful it is critical to develop the ability to push beyond your comfort zone, work hard, and persist through difculties, so how do you tell when you have crossed the line? How do you know when you need to suck it up and push yourself vs. when you need to take a stand for balance and ensure you are rejuvenating yourself?

Ask yourself the following questions to determine if you are approaching the dark side of ganbatte:

– Is this a one-time only push to reach a big goal or is it an ongoing status quo?

– Will I have time to rest and recuperate afterwards or will I be required to jump right into the next major project/crisis?

– Am I doing this because I really want to or because I am afraid of the consequences of saying no? (Am I getting something out of this that is intrinsically meaningful and energizing to me or am I doing it in response to fear of disapproval, job loss, con ict, or other potential threats to my emotional or physical safety and comfort?)

Your ability to thrive requires that you learn to push yourself more strategically by working hard in areas that are rewarding intrinsically and learning to draw the line at chronic overwork that is a response to your fears. In this way, ganbatte-ing (within reason) will be sure to energize rather than exhaust you.

Andrea Jacques, founder of Kyosei Consulting International, has spent more than 20 years developing the potential of individuals and organizations worldwide. Five of these years were spent in Japan where the core philosophies of her work on the relationship between passion, performance and pro ts took shape.  A dynamic speaker, coach, and facilitator, her work integrates leading eastern and western thought with top-tier leadership, engagement, wellness and sustainability consulting to build the capacity of people and business to thrive. Her clients represent a diverse cross-section of industries including banking, retail, government, insurance, academia and high-tech. She can be contacted through her website at

About Andrea Jacques

Andrea Jacques is the founder of Kyosei Consulting and the author of Wabi-Sabi Wisdom: Inspiration for an Authentic Life (available on She has spent more than 20 years developing the potential of people and businesses worldwide, five of which were in Japan. A dynamic speaker, coach, and facilitator, her work integrates spiritual insight with top-tier leadership, wellness and sustainability consulting to help individuals and organizations build thriving, purpose-driven cultures where employees know their work truly matters. She can be contacted through her website at