In today’s post, I am looking at Nietzsche’s philosophy of Übermensch. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche is probably one of the most misunderstood and misquoted philosophers. The idea of Übermensch is sometimes mistranslated as Superman. A better translation is “Overman”. The German term “mensch” means “human being” and is gender neutral. Nietzsche spoke about overman first in his book, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” In the prologue of this book, Nietzsche through Zarathustra asks:
I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?
Nietzsche provides further clarification that, “Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Übermensch – a rope over an abyss.” Übermensch is an idea that represents a being who has overcome himself and his human nature – one who can break away from the bondage of ideals and create new ones in place of the old stale ones.
Nietzsche came to the conclusion that humanity was getting stale by maintaining status quo through adhering to ideals based in the past. He also realized that the developments in science and technology, and the increase in collective intelligence was disrupting the “old” dogmatic ideals and the end result was going to be nihilism – a post-modern view that life is without meaning or purpose. Nietzsche famously exclaimed that; God is dead! He was not rejoicing in that epiphany. Nietzsche proposed the idea of Übermensch as a solution to this nihilistic crisis. Übermensch is not based on a divine realm. Instead Übermensch is a higher form on Earth. Overcoming the status quo and internal struggles with the ideals is how we can live our full potential in this earth and be Übermensch.
Nietzsche contrasted Übermensch with “Last Man”. The last man embraces status quo and lives in his/her comfort zone. The last man stays away from any struggle, internal or external. The last man goes with the flow as part of a herd. The last man never progresses, but stays where he is, clutching to the past.
Nietzsche used the metaphors of the camel, the lion and the child to detail the progress towards becoming an Übermensch. As the camel, we should seek out struggle, to gain knowledge and wisdom through experience. We should practice self-discipline and accept more duties to improve ourselves. As the lion, we should seek our independence from the ideals and dogmas. Nietzsche spoke of tackling the “Thou Shalt” dragon as the lion. The dragon has a thousand scales with the notation, “thou shalt”. Each scale represents a command, telling us to do something or not do something. As the lion, we should strongly say, “No.” Finally, as the child, we are free. Free to create a new reality and new values.
At the Gemba:
Several thoughts related to Übermensch and Lean came to my mind. Toyota teaches us that we should always strive toward True North, our ideal state. We are never there, but we should always continue to improve and move towards True North. Complacency/the push to maintain status quo is the opposite of kaizen, as I noted in an earlier post.
I am reminded of a press article about Fujio Cho. In 2002, when Fujio Cho was the President of Toyota Motor Corporation, Toyota became the third largest automaker in the world and had 10.2% of share of world market. Cho unveiled a plan to be world’s largest automaker with 15% global market share. Akio Matsubara, Toyota’s managing director in charge of the corporate planning division, stated:
“The figure of 15 percent is a vision, not a target,” he said. “Now that we’ve achieved 10 percent, we want to bring 15 percent into view as our next dream. We don’t see any significance in becoming No. 1.”
The point of the 15 percent figure, he said, is to motivate Toyota employees to embrace changes to improve so they would not become complacent with the company’s success.
My favorite part of the article was Morgan Stanley Japan Ltd. auto analyst Noriaki Hirakata’s remarks about Fujio Cho. Toyota’s executives, he said, believe Toyota is “the best in the world, but they don’t want to be satisfied.”
It’s as if Cho’s motto has become “Beat Toyota,” Hirakata said.
I am also reminded of a story that the famous American Systems Thinker, Russel Ackoff shared. In 1951, he went to Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, as a consultant. While he was there, all the managers were summoned to an impromptu urgent meeting by the Vice President of Bell Labs. Nobody was sure what was going on. Everyone gathered in a room anxious to hear what the meeting was about. The Vice President walked in about 10 minutes late and looked very upset. He walked up to the podium and everyone became silent. The Vice President announced:
“Gentlemen, the telephone system of the United States was destroyed last night.”
He waited as everyone started talking and whispering that it was not true. The Vice President continued:
“The telephone system was destroyed last night and you had better believe it. If you don’t by noon, you are fired.”
The room was silent again. The Vice President then started out laughing, and everyone relaxed.
“What was that all about? Well, in the last issue of the Scientific American,” he said, “there was an article that said that these laboratories are the best industrially based scientific laboratories in the world. I agreed, but it got me thinking.”
The Vice President went to on to state that all of the notable inventions that Bell Lab had were invented prior to 1900. This included the dial, multiplexing, and coaxial cable. All these inventions were made prior to when any of the attendees were born. The Vice President pointed out that they were being complacent. They were treating the parts separately and not improving the system as a whole. His solution to the complacency? He challenged the team to assume that the telephone system was destroyed last night, and that they were going to reinvent and rebuilt it from scratch! One of the results of this was the push button style phones that reduced the time needed to dial a number by 12 seconds. This story reminds me of breaking down the existing ideals and challenging the currently held assumptions.
Nietzsche challenges us to overcome the routine monotonous ideas and beliefs. Instead of simply existing, going from one day to the next, we should challenge ourselves to be courageous and overcome our current selves. This includes destruction and construction of ideals and beliefs. We should be courageous to accept the internal struggle, when we go outside our comfort zone. The path to our better selves is not inside the comfort zone.
Similar to what Toyota did by challenging the prevalent mass production system and inventing a new style of production system, we should also challenge the currently held belief system. We should continue evolving toward our better selves. As Nietzsche said:
“What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”
“I say unto you: One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
Always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Solving a Lean Problem versus a Six Sigma Problem: