Lessons Learned At 4 AM in Tokyo

Mar 11, 2022

Leader in software development and 3D animation

Listen to this article Listen to this article:

It’s 4 am, and I’m leaving my hotel room in Tokyo for a visit to Tsukiji, the largest fish market in the world. I arrive with plenty of time to see the tuna auction. However, getting out of the cab, it is obvious that I will have to be resourceful, as there are no maps, guides, or signs in English. In fact, I appear to be the only six-foot-tall Californian around. I know the auction is near the boats, as I’ve seen them unloading frozen 250-pound fish, and I start making my way, mostly using my height to see as far as I can. This place is big. 

I finally see a large concrete area with buyers hunched over looking closely at each fish. I stop for a minute to settle and take in the spectacle before me. It feels chaotic, and I don’t know what is being said by the auctioneer, nor can I read any of the placards the individual buyers are putting up in the air.

I am frustrated. Here I am 5,300 miles from home, finally at a bucket-list destination, and I can only enjoy a small part of the experience. I want to see the baby octopus I have read about, yet there’s no one to ask and no guide to consult. After a while, I drift off to see what else is in the market. I know nearly every sea creature on the planet is represented here. With no map, I wander and serendipitously stop while marveling at everything. 

After four hours of exploring and archeologically discovering the vastness of Tsukiji, I find myself standing at the outer rim—near where I entered. I stop for a minute to get my bearings and reflect on what just happened and what I might have learned, in addition to seeing some incredible things I wanted to taste.

First, my experience would have been more effective if I’d had a map. Simple, right? However, there may not have been one; it’s a working fish market, not a tourist destination. Second, if I had a glossary of terms related to the market, including names of fish and specific things I was looking for, I could have stumbled through my terrible Japanese and gotten pointed in the right direction. So: a map and a glossary for the next adventure. Check.

This realization made me think about what it must be like for my customers the first time they used our software. I was the co-founder of Wavefront, and we’d developed computer animation software used for feature films, industrial design, video games, scientific visualization, and large-scale engineering projects. Although our customers were new to computer animation,  in 1984, we were one of the first to produce commercially-available software. Computer animation is really hard. When someone bought a seat of our software, it came with eight books that took up three feet on the bookshelf. And in those hundreds of pages, there was no map and no glossary.

A dose of fresh perspective

Sign up for our email newsletter, and ensure you don’t miss a new idea! A roundup of the very best writing on the site.

Interesting. It took this bucket-list side trip while doing business in Tokyo to revolutionize how we communicated the experience of working with our software. We implemented poster-sized maps so customers could see where they were in the software, and added a glossary to the front of each manual, as the world of computer animation had hundreds of terms familiar to us and completely foreign to our customers.

That day in Tokyo, I learned to stop, take a minute to appreciate every adventure, and see if there was a hidden lesson embedded in the experience that could be helpful. Sometimes adventures are just that, and sometimes they are an opportunity to train.

As I traveled the world evangelizing the power of computer visualization and animation for the next ten years, I would do a little more homework before the trip. Having been a chef before getting into computer animation, I’ve always been fascinated with street food, open-air markets, getting up early to beat the crowds, and seeing how the locals shop for their provisions. My traveling companions got used to me getting up at 4 AM and having the cab take me to places like Tskuji, and always scratched their heads when I would come back with big ideas to change our business. 

So the next time you set out on an adventure, pay attention to the small things: they can turn into big lessons.

Filed under:

Tags mentioned: