I looked into my open suitcase in disappointment. Did the cabin pressure make everything shrink?
I was visiting family in New Jersey, and this being both my first trip home since moving to Japan and my first Christmas as a salary-earning adult, I came bearing gifts. A suitcase of pottery, to be exact.
Just a few months earlier, Japanese pottery had been a bit of a revelation to me, coming from the land of matching round plates, sold in bland boxes of four at Marshalls. I quickly took to the variety of shapes, colors, patterns and patinas, to buying pieces one at a time, and the joy of actually using them every day. Even at the 100 yen shop, glazed plates seemed to shimmer with subtlety and depth.
My flat plated family needed to know about this, and I would be the one to change their dinner table game. We’re a big Italian family who lives in the kitchen! What could go wrong?
So I spent a weekend hopping from department store to store, holding pieces in my hand to inspect quality, thinking about the taste of each family member. I wrapped each one carefully, guided them through security then customs, all the way to my childhood bedroom.
It’s there that I discovered everything was wrong. The bowls and dishes of perfect proportional harmony in a 11 tatami (20m2) Tokyo apartment looked like dollhouse pieces in my parent’s suburban home. The luster of tea bowl glaze which read as subtle sitting on simple wood furniture under my 40 watt reading lamp, looked positively gaudy on a country-patterned tablecloth in the full daylight of winter morning.
My family’s reaction was polite and generous, but I could mindread behind their warm smile they were thinking “What do I put in this? A single meatball?” I never saw any of them in use.
It was a flop, but a usefully memorable flop.
Intrinsic beauty and value is fragile. No matter how much bubble wrap you use, it cannot easily be plucked from one context and dropped into another one, without changing how and how much that beauty and value is experienced.
In my professional work, I am reminded of this regularly. Teams who have spent years successfully honing product experience for one stable set of local conditions (competitive, cultural, regulatory, economic), consistently overestimate its intrinsic value, overestimate the power of marketing and sales to make up the difference.
A good story may fleetingly bolster curiosity, but often the object itself must be rethought from the inside out, and only then, after we quiet our need to give so we can more clearly hear others.