My First Ryokan (Traditional Japanese Inn)

Upon entering this picturesque Ryokan (4 hours outside of Tokyo) and seeing the vast rows of slippers, I thought quietly to myself….maybe, just maybe they might have something for a size 12 USA (46 Europe) foot. I soon found out there was nothing even close.

The welcoming staff, dressed so elegantly, made us feel special from the start.  They showed us our room, the onsen (hot springs) locations and all the other particulars. I understood very little despite studying the language currently, although my wife took it all in well as her Japanese (especially understanding) is much better than she would admit.

It wasn’t long before we were outdoors, exploring the lovely nature surrounding the Ryokan. The powerful sounds from the creek were refreshing and would provide us with perfect sleeping conditions later that night. A short 2 km (1.2 miles) climb was next, which was exactly what we both needed. We were alone in the woods, the sun was shining and the air was remarkably fresh.

Back at the Inn, we wasted little time getting to the onsen; which was peaceful, soothing and a wonderful way to relax before dinner. In the early evening, we were served a healthy and traditional dinner (a variety of 20+ dishes), made with fresh ingredients from the local area.

We slept for 8 hours, although we were tossing and turning at night as the mattress on the tatami (straw flooring mat) made it quite firm. The next morning I arose at 6:00am, in order to get a taste of the outdoor onsen before it closed at 7am for men. It was total bliss, with the wind still and the sky a cloudless blue. The vast assortment of trees made the moment even more magical.  Matilda was there shortly after 7am when it changed to ‘women only’.

After an early breakfast (again a multitude of dishes - fish, soup, rice, pickled vegetables, etc), we took a quick walk, enjoyed green tea by an open fireplace and departed at 10am. With the local bus taking us to the Shinkansen (bullet train to Tokyo), the spectacular weather and views of the Japanese countryside were plentiful.

There were a few mishaps, which were only due to my carelessness. At numerous places inside the Inn, the beams were only 183-185 cm (6 feet), so the top of my head hit them at least 3 times. Once the force was so strong that it knocked me over – at which Matilda couldn’t stop laughing. Fortunately, I move at “The Speed of George” (slow) so the damage was only minimal. It was difficult adjusting to frequent ducking, as I rarely encounter low beams in Tokyo.

Getting to the Inn was a combination of the aformentioned Shinkansen, local bus and a hitchhike, as there were no taxi’s or buses for the last part of the journey (about 5 km), so we were fortunate to get a lift from a kind lady at the local post office. Along the way, we met (and conversed) with a nice Japanese couple who reside in Berlin. 

Although short, it was my first Ryokan experience and one I had been looking forward to. To be child-free and spend quality time with my dear wife was fantastic. We could have easily stayed for a few more nights.

The expat life is full of interesting experiences and this 24 hours will be high on that list. 

Happy Gswede Sunday! 

Salespeople, Do You Know Where You Stand?

A former colleague once said to me…..

“George, you are one of the most likeable people I know.”

It was shocking coming from this man as our relationship wasn’t good and he was rarely nice to me. He never helped me in any beneficial way when I was new to the job, and attempted to undermine me several times. All my other sales colleagues were open and generous with their time, so his behavior seemed a bit odd from the start.

Thankfully, the nature of his character didn’t affect my job performance in the beginning months and I essentially steered clear of him. I couldn’t initially figure out why he acted in such an unprofessional way, but made sure to keep an eagle eye on his words and actions. 

I was enjoying the job immensely and gaining valuable experience, although it was becoming obvious that he wanted to shine a light on my sales performance, and not in a positive way. He was a veteran salesman and doing well, so it was puzzling as to why he kept nagging me about my progression. I was comfortable where I stood (and had some early success), so his questions were slightly irritating. When he was promoted, I knew the spotlight would get much brighter on me. 

The day he tried to paint me in a bad light regarding my sales results, I was more than ready for his antics. To his credit, he did have a little firepower in his bag of tricks, although he had no idea that the ammunition he planned to put forth would be met with equal force and much better preparation.

It wasn’t long before we were sitting in a meeting with our boss; a meeting he arranged and I expected. In a somewhat tense atmosphere, he presented his case about my sales, leading with the aforementioned firepower of telling the boss that I wasn’t selling a particular product well. I immediately admitted that I wasn’t, but also emphatically noted that nobody on the team had sold anything of significance with it. 

Everyone knew this product was a step above “terrible” and the commission on it was the same as our popular products.  In my experience, incentive does wonders for producing strong results; something I brought up. What was the incentive to sell a product that had virtually no appeal and a standard commission? The boss basically observed our interaction, as he tended to let colleagues solve their own issues. We agreed that I would put more effort into it and moved on. 

Feeling emboldened after a good first round, he then went for the knockout punch by saying that my overall sales results weren’t as strong as they needed to be and that I needed to improve and be more focused. He sounded good but was short on specifics. This was the moment I had been waiting for.

After he was done with his empty rhetoric, I asked him “Do you have any evidence to support your claims”? He had no adequate answer for the question, and stumbled a few times, yet kept harping on how I had to do better. If he had done his homework, I doubt this meeting would have ever taken place.

My next words had everyone’s attention. 

I respectfully made the truth apparent to my colleague and the boss, by telling them my actual results (by product) and how they compared to the team – most of which were very positive and much different than the misguided words he presented earlier. I handed both a paper with those results and my year to date sales figures. I could see a slight smirk on the face of our boss. I then passed a copy of the sheet to my colleague.

What he failed to realize is that I kept up to date results of my sales, along with how it compared to other salespeople. In addition, we had a sales contest (with cash prizes for the top 3) going at the time and I was in 2nd place; something that the boss didn’t know. It was a long contest and the sales changed rapidly, so it wasn’t easy to keep track of, although I knew where I stood weekly.  Needless to say, the boss quickly ended the meeting by saying to my colleague “Why are we here again?” The boss liked him, but he did have a few words with him after I left the room.

What if I hadn’t been prepared that day or didn’t know exactly what my sales were? My colleague had eloquent presentation skills, so the perception he tried to make stick could have worked. In addition, a lack of preparation in that meeting could have derailed the overall success I achieved in the job.

Every salesperson should know where they stand (in terms of their own sales results) at all times. Also, knowing what you need to sell in order to reach your sales target should always be top of mind. If you don’t have that information, your manager and/or leadership is doing you and the team a disservice. 

Often that information is there for a salesperson without management input, but sometimes one doesn’t bother to track it. I’ve seen good salespeople miss targets by the tiniest of margins, simply because they had no idea where they stood and/or what sales they needed to produce in order to hit their goal. Being an effective salesperson is about closing deals and hitting targets. If one doesn’t know their up to date sales, it can be difficult to maximize revenue potential. 

I like to think that I gained a bit of respect from my colleague that day. Even he was surprised by the positive and detailed results I put forth.  It was an important lesson for me in business and one I never forgot. I’m grateful his negativity didn’t turn me into a person I was not or make me bitter at the way I was treated. I focused on my performance at work and made sure to display an aura of kindness around him.

To this day, I’ve never come across anyone like him. After witnessing more of his personality, I concluded that it wasn’t so much about me, it was more about his desire to succeed. He was the type to do whatever it took for personal gain. It wasn’t long before others began to complain and talk about the error of his ways.

The strange thing is that he was a likable guy and had tremendous success. I don’t think his clients saw or noticed the side I was privy to on a regular basis. Our relationship never progressed beyond cordial.

His kind words to me were during one of our last conversations. He deserves a lot of credit for praising my likability that day, as he seemed sincere. It was a small dose of closure after numerous unpleasant interactions.

Happy Gswede Sunday!

Networking Effectively - Essential For Successful Salespeople

Spread Love - (Mom's enduring lesson)

On a Friday afternoon in Tokyo last month, I was waiting in an office and heard these lyrics:

Seems like everything we hear is just a tale
But I've got something that will never, ever fail
(It's called love)

Spread love, instead of spreading lies
Spread love, the truth needs no disguise
I've often said love could open any door
Oh, but I wish we had much more
More love is what we need
(Take 6 – Spread Love)

Just as it was when I first heard this eloquent song almost 30 years, I was overcome with joy and a chill ran through my body. What made this moment different is that I immediately thought of my mother, Isabella G. Payne (IGP as I affectionately called her). She died one year ago, on May 1st, 2015.

During the past 12 months, I’ve been thinking about the way she raised me, what lessons were taught and the values she instilled in me. When both parents are deceased (my dad died in 2005), the mind wanders in ways I could have never imagined.

I knew what was important to her in terms of character, integrity and helping others, but I wondered if there wasn’t a theme I was missing; one which would encapsulate the lessons my mom wanted to impart. We spoke (verbally and with our eyes) during her last 24 hours, although there wasn’t any particular wisdom given. That wasn’t her style. I knew that my being there put her at peace. My article about that day is below.

The title (Spread Love) of the aforementioned song gave me the answer I had been searching for. Those two words exemplify what Mom strove to do in her life, how she raised her only son, along with the joy she gave to and received from the hearts of others.
A few of many moments:
  • Our house was never without love and my mom was the catalyst. My parents separated more times than I care to remember, yet happiness towards me was consistent from both, despite their difficult marital issues.
  • When I threatened to run away at age 10, I didn't intend to follow through on it and never thought Mom would let me walk out of the door. We had been bickering for weeks and I was fed up. Without hesitation, she said “Go Ahead”. She had called my bluff, so of course I had to gather some things and leave the house. It wasn’t long (1 hour) before she came to pick me up at the home of a family friend. I could have gone anywhere, but she knew exactly where I would be. After that day (and lesson), there were no other moments nearly as tense.
  • When I became the class clown in grade school, she sternly threatened to kick me off the basketball team if it ever happened again.  She was as mad as I ever remember her being. Her eyes froze me, as she had to take time off from work to come meet my teacher. Needless to say, the clowning stopped forever that day.
  • Being a high school sports star, everyone was nice to me and I had almost no peer pressure. My mother never gloated (at least to my knowledge) about my basketball skills or treated me any differently than she did before the basketball fame. We rarely talked about the game, my performance or college scholarship ambition. She was more concerned about raising a good man. I didn’t quite understand her actions then, but am grateful for them now. How was she was wise enough to know that my basketball success would take care of itself?
  • Moving away from my Pennsylvania hometown (Boston, New York City and Sweden) was very difficult for my mom, especially when I was a 9 hour plane ride away in Scandinavia. She never complained though, even when we only saw each other once a year. She supported me fully and her love remained strong. IGP never got in the way of me “believing I could fly”.
  • All the love she put forth in her numerous volunteer efforts (i.e. Dinners for  the Homeless, Central PA Food Bank, Hospital Rides for the Elderly) had a profound impact on me. I doubt that I would be as interested or capable in helping others without her constant inspiration.
  • The 250+ people who attended my mom’s memorial on May 11, 2015, spoke volumes about the love she spread throughout her life. Numerous people told me stories about what she did for them or meant to them. Some of these precious moments came from people I had never met before. The wonderful eulogy, our family, her friends, the private conversations and the immense about of love that day has helped to sustain me during the past year.
  • The Central PA Food Bank had over 20 people who came to the memorial. My mother volunteered there for 17 years. My cousin, the kids and I had a chance to tour the Food Bank last December, which we thoroughly enjoyed. We could feel the love of IGP in the place.
  • The love she had for my family, her godsons, my cousins, her siblings and dear friends was powerful. Those relationships gave my mom tremendous joy and the bonds they shared were wonderful to witness and hear about. She didn’t always give you the advice you wanted to hear, but it was love inspired, and often what one needed to hear.
  • My mother’s career didn’t define her, but she was proud of her 35 years in State Government, despite not having a college education. She had prominent managerial roles, and I know the daily grind wasn’t easy for her as it was sometimes written all over her face. Witnessing her discipline, persistence and joy regarding her work performance was a beautiful form of love and pride during my early years; one that I learned from and keep top of mind.
  • My mother and her two sisters (Eleanor and Mary Ann) had far too many years of not communicating well and/or not speaking at all. All three of them played a part in the strained relationships. Fortunately, they mended whatever was ailing them and became close again. My mother was thrilled. She loved her sisters dearly, and was overjoyed when the tension was removed and the love was back in its proper place.
  •  Mom spent a lot of quality time with my dear cousin Andrea in the last decade, which I am thankful for. Their bond was lovely to witness and comforting for me since I was far away. They enjoyed each other and Andrea looked after my mom like a daughter would.  When I talk to or see my cousin, the love of IGP comes shining through. Andrea’s love enabled me to deal with the memorial and estate issues quite easily. Along with my wife Matilda, Andrea has been and continues to be my rock.
  • As I was flying in the air to see my mother for the last time, she had the presence of mind to tell Andrea to make a ‘fresh bed’ for me at her home. There was no way I was leaving her hospital room that first night, but even in her toughest health moment, her love was standing tall.
It was bittersweet when the reality hit me that both of my parents were gone. Comforting in that I no longer had to think about their health and getting older, yet more challenging than I thought in that my emotions got the best of me at times. For me, it was anger that crept into my being, which is not something I often feel. I found myself angry at the smallest things in our new Tokyo home. I don’t think many people noticed, yet I was determined not to let it take hold of me in a stronger way.

In those moments, I thought about my mom and the love she kept near to her, particularly with a life much more challenging than mine has ever been. In addition, I had seen her face numerous obstacles with remarkable grace, along with handling difficult situations in a calm and collected manner. Those memories soothed my emotions.

After the anger subsided, the same cancer my mother had appeared again in my life - twice. One was a Swedish dad I had met for the first time and the other was a longtime friend from the USA, both living in Tokyo with two young kids each. The 47 year old wife of this brave dad had just died of lung cancer when our first conversation took place. Soon after, I learned that the husband (50) of my American friend was diagnosed with lung cancer.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that these two circumstances came my way. I’m grateful they both opened up to me and that I was able to provide some form of comfort to them. Since I had gone through the 5+ year lung cancer battle with my mom, there were many things I could relate to, empathize with and advice I could provide.

Finally, I received a note that made me smile. It was from a woman my mom had helped in 2010 with some of her health issues; something nobody knew about. She wrote a letter to my mom in August of 2015, to say hello and check up on her.

Part of it said:

Dear Isabella,

“I think of you often, especially when I go out to Hershey Medical and how you were my Angel who helped me when I really needed it.”

When my cousin Andrea informed her that my mom had died, she continued in her praise and ‘Angel’ wording, even noting the specific date (Oct 22, 2010) of the help and the love my mom had shown her. I may never know the details of their relationship, but the love described tells me all I need to know.

My mother’s giving heart and loving spirit is a beautiful memory to have. With that in my soul, I can now delight in the wonderful examples of her life, honor her by the way in which I live, and spread love in the best way I know how.

Happy Gswede Sunday!

Me, Mom and Andrea - (Artist is Roland Williams)