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There are times in life when if fortunate we experience a moment of utter clarity. We feel wide awake and connected and balanced: everything makes sense, we know exactly who we are, what we want, and why we’re here. In that moment, be it one blink or a thousand, our effectiveness is maximal. And yet our actions seem minimal, effortless even, and the experience is consummately satisfying.

These are breakthrough moments. These are moments of shibumi.

Shibumi is a Japanese word, the meaning of which is reserved for just these kinds of experiences. With roots in the Zen aesthetic ideals of art, architecture, and gardening, it has come to denote those things that exhibit in paradox and all at once the very best of everything and nothing: Elegant simplicity. Effortless effectiveness. Understated excellence. Beautiful imperfection.

Sometimes these moments of shibumi register in our consciousness. Yet when they do, we don’t really search for an explanation, think about a deeper meaning, learn from them, or even give thought to how we might extend the experience.

What if we are constantly being sent signals and offered opportunities, but because we are so involved in our mad rush to survive the day, we simply don’t receive them? What if we’re stuck, asleep at the wheel, and we just don’t know it, because our conventional ways of thinking, rigidly structured routines, and solidly set minds block us from discovering what the universe is calling us to do?

One way to answer these questions is to examine more closely the events that direct us this way and that, treat them as learning moments in order to draw lessons from them, and then think about the kinds of steps to take and connections to make – in our work, in our personal lives – that might precipitate a breakthrough and put us on the path in pursuit of shibumi.

Many times it is the involuntary challenge, the setbacks, that harbor the power to transform. The challenges that are thrown at us are generally more powerful than those we set ourselves, because most of our perceived limits are self-imposed, so our true potential isn’t fully tapped no matter how high we set our goals. A sudden, unexpected crucible is a tougher test, forcing us in new directions, directions we perhaps should have taken anyway had we been more attuned, but new directions nonetheless.

Approached as an opportunity – no easy task when simple survival is the first order of business – these unforeseen trials can sometimes result in an altogether new lease on life.

But not every breakthrough is life-altering. And they need not be. It is the cumulative effect over one’s life that is important. Make no mistake, minor tremors can have as much impact in one’s life as major earthquakes. Too, they are far more prevalent and less disruptive, which is a good thing.

The point is not necessarily to seek quantum leaps or dramatic shifts in direction, but to keep our senses keenly attuned to the everyday opportunities for breakthroughs that might precipitate the kind of awakening that, when all is said and done, allows us to create meaningful change.

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Matthew E. May is an internationally recognized expert on change, innovation and design strategy. He is a columnist for the American Express Small Business OPEN Forum Idea Hub where he writes in the popular “The World” section.

He is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing (2009), which was a 2009 Inc. magazine bestseller, and was named to the BusinessWeek 2009 Best Business Books list in the Design/Innovation category, 800CEORead’s “Best Business Books 2009 (Creativity/Innovation)”, and Richard Pachter’s “Best Business Books of 2009” lists. His preceding book, The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation (2006), won the Shingo Research Prize for Excellence and was selected as one of 800CEORead’s “Best Business Books of 2006.”

A popular speaker and adviser, Matt lectures each year to corporations, governments, and universities around the world, as well as coaches creative teams and senior leaders in companies of all sizes. He spent nearly a decade as a close adviser to Toyota and is a master kaizen coach. His articles have appeared in national publications such as USAToday, Design Mind, and MIT/Sloan Management Review. He has been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker Magazine, and on National Public Radio.

Matt is a graduate of the Wharton School and the Johns Hopkins University, but considers winning the New Yorker Magazine Cartoon Caption Contest among his proudest achievements.

For more information, please visit

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