from The Way of the Ronin
Riding the Waves of Change
Copyright notice at the end

Free Agents

by Dr. Beverly Potter
Copyright material. See notice at bottom.

Out of the collision between the quest for more flexibility, self-fulfillment, and opportunity to develop our full potential and the wild economic swings, the increasingly rapid technological changes, the uncertainty, and the confusion is emerging a new breed of worker: the ronin. Who are ronin? We are everywhere, emerging in every industry and in every walk of life. Perhaps even you, yourself, are an emerging ronin.

Early in the feudal period surviving as a free agent in the rigidly structured Japanese society was nearly impossible. For one thing, ronin had no independent money so even meeting basic survival needs, like food and shelter, was a challenge. The end of Japanese feudal period in 1867 brought with it great social change. Traditionally indentured to a feudal lord or provincial army, many samurai who had been property and did as they were ordered, became ronin when the armies were disbanded. Unaffiliated samurai, those who were no longer indentured, were set free to fend for themselves.

History of Ronin
As early as the eighth century the word ronin, which translates literally as "wave-people," was used in Japan to describe people who left their allotted stations in life.  Most commonly, it refers to samurai who left the service of their feudal lords to become masterless.  When a samurai was severed from his lord, he had two choices: to commit seppuku -ritual disembowelment - or to do ronin.  If he chose to do ronin, he lost his stipend and forfeited all formal affiliations and duties, because no provisions were made in feudal Japanese society for those who were dislodged.  Earning enough to survive was exceedingly difficult because feudal societies had no pay-for-service system, as we know it. 

Being disavowed in a society build upon rigidly defined relationships was a challenge to develop self-directedness.  Dislodged from their niches, ronin were considered thrown on the waves of a difficult and uncertain destiny.  Doing ronin was accepted as a spiritual trial thrust upon one by misfortune or by the order of one’s bushi master.  Those who passed the tests did so by following bushido, the way of the warrior, and by mastering butjutsu, the practice of martial arts.

Extreme Control
Under the rule of the Tokugawa dictatorship (1600-1867), citizens of feudal Japan were subjected to a stringent system of control.  Farmers were registered in their villages and forbidden to leave.  Merchants and artisans had to be registered with appropriate guilds and any activity considered irregular was reported to shogunate officials.  Affiliated warriors were closely monitored through a chain of supervisors linked vertically by the institution of vassalage, which built upon a tight master-subordinate unit.  Vassals were expected to exhibit unquestioning loyalty to the superior. 

Control over movement in the cities was maintained through special gates installed across intersections of every two streets, with passes required of even the highest officials.  Penalties for unauthorized movement and other crimes were harsh and inflected upon the entire family of the guilty party.  The intolerance of anything that might have forced a person to confront individual values different from those of society made it extremely unlikely that anything unexpected could happen.

Domesticated Warriors
In a land made up of hundreds of competing fiefs, warriors were essential for more than four centuries.  Eventually the Tokugawa dictatorship closed the borders, stamped out Christianity, and suppressed the incessant conflict.  Without wars, the warriors’ role changed as they were slowly domesticated by their many nonmilitary duties.  By 1700, samurai - the affiliated warriors - had been surreptitiously turned into civil bureaucrats hidden beneath swords, military titles, court rituals, and a host of routine guard duties.  This is when ronin, who continued to live by bushido, stood out most starkly and were regarded with awe and suspicion.  It is from this period that the ronin metaphor as it is used here is drawn.

It was such a difficult experience that unaffiliated samurai were called ronin which translates "waveman" - ro for wave, and nin, like ninja, for man - because the lone samurai was cast into chaotic and uncertain waves.  Sometimes the bushi master ordered a samurai to do ronin - a difficult spiritual trial of surviving on one's own resources in an inhospitable world. 

Ronin Archetype

The West has many historical parallels to the ronin archetype.  The term free lance has it origins in the period after the crusades, when a large number of knights were separated from their lords.  Like their Japanese counterparts, they had to use their skills and live by their wits and swords.  "Renaissance man" refers to a multiskilled cultured person, concerned with self-development and educated in both science and art.  Similarly, ronin composed haiku poems, arranged flowers, practiced calligraphy, and developed inner discipline in addition to wielding a sword.

America’s Wild West was fertile ground for the ronin archetype. Maverick, derived from the Texan word for unbranded steer, is used to describe a free and self-directed individual.  Paladin, a hired gun who made a career out of adventure, appeared in the famed 1960s television series, "Have Gun, Will Travel," embodies the archetype.

Leland Stanford is an example of an American frontier ronin.  From humble origins and with only limited formal education, he emerged to make millions in the industrialization of the West.  When his only son died unexpectedly, he founded a university in his honor.  Leland Stanford Junior University has become one of the world’s great universities, which spawned the booming Silicon Valley that is changing civilization.

Different Attitudes
Ronin look like other people. The difference is in attitude and life planning strategy. Ronin project an aura of autonomy, of being guided from within. They take command and direct their lives. Ronin do not seek security in one job, in one place, doing one thing. Ronin don't just react to change; they take the initiative and direct their lives. 

Guided by the belief that change is the only constant, ronin develop skills, attitudes, and habits of mind that become adaptable instruments of continuous change and growth. Ronin do not exhibit fealty to organizational goals, but strive instead for excellence through accomplishing project goals, even if it means going against The Company Way, as it often does.

Like Paladin, the frontier gunslinger whose famed calling card read "Have Gun, Will Travel," ronin use their skills, whether they be sword fighting, gunslinging, selling, doctoring, or teaching, as tickets to adventure. For ronin, one's career is an adventure of self-realization—developing oneself to the fullest by encountering and overcoming challenges and risk.

Ronin Led the Transition
Ronin played a key role in Japan’s abrupt transition from a feudal society to industrialism.  Under feudal rule, warriors were not allowed to think freely or act according to their own will.  On the other hand, having been forced by circumstances to develop independence, ronin took more readily to new ideas and technology and became increasingly influential during the transition because they made up a substantial percentage of the faculty in the independent schools. These private schools, which taught science, mathematics, and commerce, were more liberal and than the official government schools, which taught only the traditional curriculum.  Consequently, ronin were more acquainted with Western developments and the avant-garde.

Many were instrumental in chauffeuring in industrialism by founding some of the great Japanese corporations.  Traditionally, it was considered demeaning for samurai to be involved in mercantile activity - somewhat like our contemporary academic Ph.D.s. So only those who had broken out of the old beliefs attempted to develop astute business skills.  A good example is Yataro Iwaski, who in 1870, founded Mitsubishi, three years after the overthrow of the Tokugawa rule which formally marked then end of feudalism.  More than a hundred years later Mitsubishi is still one of the world’s greatest corporate empires, with revenues exceeding $65 billion in the later part of the 20th century.


Change Masters
Being able to change, ronin do not resist, but expect change instead and prepare by developing a broad base of expertise and skills. Ronin do not pay allegiance to any one career track or organization, instead they use their interests as a guide, following one, then another to become generalists with many specialties. Ronin can wear many hats—and often do—bring their diverse skills together in creative and profitable ways. 

So while the linear-track specialists lose the capacity to adapt, which is so essential in our changing world, ronin are able to reorient themselves when the economy takes a downswing putting them out of work or if technologies change making their specialties obsolete. They are ready to catch the wave when the economy surges and opportunities abound. Ronin have a basic confidence, a sense of potency or personal power. This is their security. Ronin believe they will be able to deal adequately with whatever might arise and will be able to earn the money they need.

Don Juan, the famed Yaqui Indian sorcerer who taught Carlos Castaneda the Way of the Warrior, warns:

Does this path have a heart? 
If it does, the path is good; 
if it doesn't, it is of no use. 
Both paths lead nowhere; 
but one has a heart, 
the other doesn't. 
One makes for a joyful journey; 
as long as you follow it, 
you are one with it. 
The other will make you curse your life. 
One makes you strong; 
the other weakens you.

-Carlos Castenada
Ronin know that meaning is in traveling on the path and not in reaching the destination. Consequently, when making career decisions they are less compromising than linear careerists, who often find themselves on paths with no heart. Ronin refuse heartless paths because they expect work to provide an experience for growth through challenge. For ronin work is personal. They want a sense of contributing and belonging, and expect work to be energizing while serving as a vehicle of self-discovery, a way to test one's limits, as well as providing for the basic necessities of life along with delightful comforts. Although all these ingredients may not exist at any given point in time in the desired amounts and mixes, ronin use the disappointments and setbacks as lessons in the quest to realize their potential.

Expanding Opportunities
As ronin advance along their irregular career paths, gaining more experience and more expertise, options multiply. When blocked in an existing job with no place for advancement, ronin move laterally to any number of directions. Ronin are resistant to job burnout and suffer less trauma and psychological setback when they are passed over for promotion or miss out on a desired job. Viewing life as a voyage of exploration, ronin welcome unexpected turns. Changes, even negative ones, are accepted as opportunities to conquer new challenges.

Inner Motivation
Ronin do not measure success by the rungs on the ladder or the digits on the paycheck. For like their ancient prototype, they are accountable to their own standards based on growth and realization. In contrast to linear careerists, especially those on the fast track, who often picture their accomplishments on a football-type scoreboard, ronin view their lives as a giant canvas upon which they, the artist, paint with each experience.

Less Vulnerable
When working in organizations, ronin are not as vulnerable as linear specialists to organizational control because their sense of confidence and autonomy are vital buffers. Although ronin don't like layoffs, cutbacks, or being fired, they know they can survive them. 

Do not assume ronin are nonconformists; rather they are autonomous in the sense that they know how to act appropriately and will do so, when it makes sense and does not violate their internal guidelines. Likewise, ronin are not rebels. Instead, they consider work a medium for self-realization, the barbells that develop the skill muscles. 

Ronin view themselves, much like a vendor or independent contractor, as working for themselves within the company. Stated another way they work through the company, not for it—they partner with their employers. Ronin integrate their personal goals with company goals. Although ronin like comforts and the good things that money can buy, obtaining these is not their primary motivator. Instead, they are propelled by the quest for self-development, expression, adventure and meaningfulness.

Being their own masters, ronin are self-directed, using work as an opportunity to set high goals to create a challenge and also to learn. Rarely do they allow their jobs to become static; instead they tend to rework the job constantly in response to the needs of the company or marketplace. 

All a person can do in this life 
is to gather around him his integrity, 
his imagination, and his individuality—
and with these ever with him, out in front, 
leap into the dance of experience.
Be your own master!

  Be your own Jesus!

  Be your own flying saucer! 
Rescue yourself!

  Be your own valentine! 
Free the heart!

-Tom Robbins
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

Clayton's Story

A lot of people are surprised when they find out about my doctorate in psychopharmacology. They think it contradicts my publishing developmental books for kids, but for me, it seems like a natural progression.

When I was in school, I had a lot of problems choosing what I wanted to do. There were just too many things I enjoyed, and I resented having to pick one for the rest of my life. I was very much into science, chemistry in particular. At the same time, people and why they do things fascinated me. Education seemed like a way to have an impact on the society. And I dabbled a little in poetry and writing. As I said, I resented having to pick just one of these and give all the others up. I thought teaching psychopharmacology in the university would be a good way to combine the psychology, the education, and the chemistry and promised to provide some money, some credibility—in essence, the good life. So that's what I did. I got my degree and my first assistant professor job in an East Coast university. I taught and did research.

But I became disillusioned with the university. It was stifling in many ways. Psychopharmacology seemed to be my best ticket, and I quickly landed a job as a salesman with a pharmaceutical company. I was good at selling because I was good with people; I listened and all of that. It didn't take me long to learn just about everything there was to learn about selling drugs to doctors. So this time I used selling as my ticket, and I landed a job as marketing director of a big toy manufacturer. What did I know about toys? Nothing. But it didn't take me long to learn. It was fascinating because I saw the connection with kids and the power that toys have over them.

One thing led to another, and I started leading sales training classes. At the same time, I'd gotten interested in the human potential movement in psychology. I belonged to a growth group and went through a number of personal changes. And I wanted to integrate them into my work. So I left the toys and began leading self-development and growth workshops. It worked out perfectly because I was getting restless and wanted to travel. So I got into the lecture circuit, which took me all around the country. But before long, I decided I'd rather not be spending my weekends in a hotel. So I packaged some of my stuff and started selling it. I got a number of big accounts with schools and businesses and expanded into a publishing house.

Now I have a substantial list of self-development books for children and adolescents. I'm interested in the adjusting person, not the adjusted person—that's static. I'm interested in teaching kids adaptive skills that will serve them their whole lives. I'm really proud of our books.

You know, when I left the university, people told me that I'd ruined my whole life, that I'd never get anywhere and that I'd always be poor. But they were wrong. I've had a hellava good time; I'm anything but poor and I think I'm doing something important—helping kids have quality lives.

Oh, I won't stay in publishing forever. One day, maybe soon, I'll sell the company and do something else. I don't know what it might be. Oh, I have been getting a yearning to get back into science, and I've started to develop an interest in some of the problems in the medical industry. There are a lot of them, you know. So my psychopharmacology degree combined with my training experience might be a perfect ticket into the medical world. Who knows?

Evolving Path
Clayton epitomizes the ronin style of fluid development as he follows his unique career which evolves in his search for meaningful accomplishment.  He catches a wave, ride it until its power - for him - slows, then catches another.  There are no radical changes, rather an evolution as he exercises one interest or skill set, which leads to another.

Copyright 1984, 2001 Beverly A. Potter.  From The Way of the Ronin:Riding the Waves of Change by Dr. Beverly Potter, Ronin Publishing, Berkeley, California.  This article may be downloaded for individual, personal use - any other use requires permission from -docpotter.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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