Hunter S. Thompson valued professionalism above all other virtues. If you’d met the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas three days into a cocaine binge, and asked him if it might be time to call it quits, he would have shrieked in outrage —not because you were judging his drug habits, but because you were implying he wasn’t fully conscious, aware, centered and intentional in his behavior.

Do you think this is some kind of amateur cocaine binge?” he probably would’ve howled.

“I run a professional operation here! How dare you accuse me of incompetence?! I am a Doctor of Journalism!”

And — here’s the really critical part; the part that most of Thompson’s fans conveniently forget — he would’ve proceeded to file his story on time, and it would’ve been an incisive, well-written piece of investigative reporting.

In other words, a crucial principle underlies both Thompson’s drug use and his reportage: He believed that no matter how weird a story got; no matter how far into outer (mental) space he had to push himself to get his head around it, every aspect of that journey deserved his complete attention, utter sincerity, and unwavering commitment:

“Let’s get right to the heart of the thing.”

This principle is hugely important to me —in fact, the lack of it is a guaranteed “dealbreaker” for me in friendships, work relationships and romances — but I’ve always struggled to express the principle itself to people around me.

The word I’ve often used is “professionalism” — but… ughh. That word calls up images of suits and ties; office cubicles. It’s not a big enough word for the full concept.

What word is big enough?

What word encompasses intentionality, sincerity, seriousness and honesty in every aspect of life — friendship, romance, hobbies, even partying— and in every lifestyle, from corner-office executive to bohemian guitarist to lobster-boat captain?

I don’t think the English language contains such a word — but tonight, I learned the wonderful Japanese word majime (まじめ).

I think this word is going to change my life.

Various websites translate majime as “seriousness,” “honesty,” “gravity” and “soberness” — but the core of all this is that cluster of ideas I’ve so often tried and failed to express clearly in English: Intentionality. Awareness. Sincerity. Honesty. Commitment to following through.

Have you ever had a friend who just… actually does what they say? When they say they’ll show up, they show up. Simple. When they say they’re starting a project, they follow it through as far as they can. When you’re freaking out, they come over, talk through the crisis with you, and offer comfort and clear advice. When they have an issue with someone, they address the problem directly, with clarity and honesty.

That friend has majime.

Majime is like professionalism in all areas of life, including the non-professional ones. Especially the non-professional ones.

You could say that majime is the opposite of “half-assed.” Majime means being “full-assed,” no matter what you’re doing. No matter how insignificant it seems.

Have you heard of the Jewish holiday of Purim? It celebrates the day Mordecai and Esther foiled a plot to kill all the Jews. The Jews were — understandably — insanely happy on that day. Thus, the sages of the Talmud prescribed that every year on that day, their people should drink with friends, until they re-experienced that same ecstatic joy.

As Chabad.org says, the object of Purim is not to be drunk per se, but to “be drunk with sincere happiness.”

Does this sound familiar?

If you’re ever fortunate enough to witness a Purim celebration firsthand — if you ever get the chance, do it — you’ll see crowds of utterly serious rabbinical students focusing their entire beings on becoming as sincerely, honestly drunk and happy as it is possible for humans to be.

Then, the next day, those same students will be back at their desks, analyzing ancient Hebrew tomes with the same level of intentionality and focus they brought to last night’s party.

This probably sounds, to some of you, like a dreadful and exhausting way to live — constantly focusing with laserlike intensity; taking on every task, from study to celebration, with complete awareness and dedication. You’d soon go insane, right?

Well, that’s the funny thing about majime.

In the Japanese samurai manual Hagakure, the old warrior Lord Naoshige says, “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.”

Yeah, I know. Weird old Japanese sayings. Please, though, stop for just five seconds and give this a little thought: “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.” What do you think it means?

It’s easy to rush through “matters of small concern” on autopilot. Trip to the grocery store? I don’t even remember it. Laundry? Yeah, I guess it got done at some point. Making dinner? Sure, I microwaved something. Brewing tea before bed? Wait does anyone seriously do that anymore?

Something very strange happens, though, when you treat “matters of small concern” with majime.

I’ve learned this from personal experience.

When you treat each phone call with a friend as an honest consultation; each boring errand as a test of skill; each nighttime tea-making as a sacred ceremony; each drunken night out as an ecstatic communion with the spiritual; these tasks somehow start to consume less of your mental and physical energy — not more! They become more interesting. More meaningful. More fulfilling.

Instead of going insane, you become… more sane, somehow.

Things get even stranger when a “matter of great concern” lands on your plate. You’ve become so used to handling every daily task with majime — spending all your time in that paradigm — that it’s the most natural thing in the world to handle this great battle the exact same way. You wade right into the fray. Nothing fazes you.

Again: I speak from personal experience here.

And this… power, whatever you want to call it, is the strongest argument I can make for majime.

I could also tell you that people who don’t live with majime irritate me, and I don’t want to be their friend; and that would be perfectly true. I could tell you that people who do live with majime are incredibly rare and valuable in social and professional life alike…

And that would also be true.

There’s nothing mystical or mysterious about it. The principle is simple: commit to awareness, sincerity, accuracy — or, if your goal is to be incorrect and sloppy, to being as incorrect and sloppy as you possibly can! — and the entire scale of your life will change. Things that seemed boring will become exciting. Problems that seemed terrifying will feel like just more daily tasks to handle.

I’ve run out of ways to say it. Try this principle for — I don’t know — a day. Try it for one day. See if you don’t notice changes.

2 thoughts on “When the Going Gets Weird, the Weird Turn まじめ

  1. Consider the three famous words, “hard gemlike flame,” written by Pater towards the end of his studies in the Renaissance. Pater was talking about intensity, being focused in the moment on the journey rather than the end goal, a concept only encapsulated in part through our ‘mindfulness.’ Combining that with the Roman ‘gravitas,’ a word more akin with our ‘decorum,’ acting appropriately to the circumstance, than it is to our agnate term ‘gravity,’ and perhaps that may be a way of approaching majime… perhaps…?

  2. Brings to mind what I read what an old Zen master told a novice about enlightenment: “If you can say it, that’s not it”. Some things can only be understood intuitively. And again, the word “quality” in Robert M. Pirsig’s book ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values’. Don’t have the book handy but this from Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirsig's_metaphysics_of_Quality

    “Quality,” or “value,” as described by Pirsig, cannot be defined because it empirically precedes any intellectual construction of it, namely due to the fact that quality (as Pirsig explicitly defines it) exists always as a perceptual experience before it is ever thought of descriptively or academically. Quality is the “knife-edge” of experience, found only in the present, known or at least potentially accessible to all of “us”. (Plato’s Phaedrus, 258d). Equating it with the Tao, Pirsig postulates that Quality is the fundamental force in the universe stimulating everything from atoms to animals to evolve and incorporate ever greater levels of Quality. According to the MOQ, everything (including ideas, and matter) is a product and a result of Quality.

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