In a world where companies are uber-focused on speed, long-term strategies, and bottom lines, visually impaired NGO leader Shunsuke Narisawa is taking a different approach. For the past decade, he’s been delivering a simple, encouraging message:
“It’s OK. You can work.”
Narisawa’s non-profit organization, Future Dream Achievement (FDA), is committed to helping people who face barriers to working. These people include hikikomori (shut-ins), the disabled, the homeless, people with depression, seniors, and the working poor. To achieve this mission, he draws from extensive experience facing adversity.
Narisawa is visually impaired, has suffered from depression, and was once a hikikomori himself. He began losing his sight as a child due to a congenital disease. By his early twenties, he was almost completely blind. Today, he can see only shades of light. Then, in 2013, he developed meningoencephalitis and brain inflammation, which came with symptomatic epilepsy.
As if that weren’t enough, his career journey has hardly been smooth sailing. The management consulting company that he joined as an intern in college went out of business after the Lehman Brothers collapse.
Despite facing all this adversity, he calls himself “the world’s most cheerful visually impaired person.”
Miho Namba, a faculty member at GLOBIS University, spoke to Narisawa about his tumultuous life and thoughts on work.
“There’s no such thing as a fun job. There are only people who enjoy their work.”
Namba: I understand that you became a recluse for two years when you were a university student and experienced depression even after you started working. How did you manage not to let your mental health crisis get the best of you?
Narisawa: I try not to think about results. When you try too hard to produce a certain result, you’re likely to put in a lot of effort and end up with nothing. In my contracts with clients, I never include numerical targets like “increasing sales by 10%” or whatever. And I don’t think about the future. That doesn’t help when you’re facing adversity. There are only two things I can take responsibility for: the effort I can make today and the action I can take today. If I think about making a company better, say, a year from now, it’s paralyzing.
Namba: Living for today must be the source of your boundless energy. How did you become chairman of Future Dream Achievement?
Narisawa: FDA was set up in 2010 by a big IT company, ISFnet. I was running my own branding and consulting company when the FDA founder approached me to help run the organization. It was less like a true NGO than a job placement service back then. When I became the chairman, we turned it into an independent organization.
I became executive director in my second year. We were in the red, but within six months we were profitable, and now we have sixteen staff members. They all get pay raises every year and bonuses twice a year—my intention is to run FDA more like a company than an NGO.
Namba: Regular raises and bonuses… Isn’t that unusual?
Narisawa: Yes, it’s very rare for nonprofits in Japan. But compensation is important. If bonuses or salaries are cut by even one yen, employees lose motivation, so we try our best to be as generous as possible. Of course, I think non-monetary benefits count, too. The atmosphere in the workplace is crucial. That’s not only true for people facing adversity―it’s true for everyone.
I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a fun job in this world—there are only people who enjoy their work. Upbeat people attract other upbeat people, and that’s how things start to happen. That’s why I try to joke around as much as possible. If you’re blind, you have a lot of material to work with.
For instance, I like potato salad, but I can’t see, so when I’m shopping, I have to pick up containers and judge what’s inside based on weight. Sometimes I take a bite of what I think is potato salad and it turns out to be tuna fish! It’s a shock at the time, but it makes for a good story.
That’s why I want to be a source of positive energy. People are more likely to follow fun than self-righteousness. And when you’re blind, you almost naturally influence people to do the right thing. The other day, I was waiting at a traffic light with my stick, and a man beside me started to cross the road. I thought the light must be green, so I followed him, but the light was still red. The guy hurried back and was like, “Yikes, better not get the blind guy killed!”
At the same time, I’m determined not to make my work all about the fact that I can’t see. I tell people, “If I ever try to make a business card with, like, the SDGs written in Braille, stop me. Being blind is a part of me. I can give you the ideas and perspectives of a visually impaired person. But there needs to be something more to it.
“I’m a better manager when I team up with people and count on them.”
Namba: What kind of work do you do besides managing the organization?
Narisawa: I do a lot of consulting. As an advisor to Keidanren (the Japan Business Federation), FDA helps member companies successfully employ people with disabilities. We help them link diversity and inclusion to organizational development, new businesses, and innovation. Since we only take on one client per industry, it’s always a new challenge. For example, we don’t know a thing about creative work, but we work for creative companies.
Namba: Isn’t that difficult?
Narisawa: It suits me, I think. I have trouble focusing on one thing at a time.
I also feel that I’m able to rely on those around me more than I did in the past. I’m a better manager when I team up with people and count on them. That’s why I want to help “misfits” facing adversity in various industries connect with others and find better business models.
“It’s better to go off the rails sometimes than to keep running on one track.”
Namba: Your world is expanding in many directions. I don’t know if this is a good question for you, given what you said about focusing on the here and now, but what are your goals for the future?
Narisawa: Haha, you’re right, I’m not really interested in that.
People often say to me, “I don’t have anything I want to do…so what should I do?” I tell them, just try things—and keep trying more and more things until something sticks.
In business, the more ambitious you are, the more you’ll fail. But I think it’s better to go off the rails sometimes than to keep running on one track. There will always be others on that track, and you’ll just end up comparing yourself to them. Personally, I don’t feel the need to compare myself to anyone because I think I’m the only person in the world who has a mix of four particular characteristics and skill areas: workaholism, welfare, management, and consulting.
I said earlier that I didn’t have any goals, but I would like to support the training of career consultants and increase the number of companies that accept people with disabilities.
Employment support should start when life starts. Mothers and fathers who have children with disabilities worry about their children’s future facing adversity. I want to tell them as early as possible that it’s OK, that technology is advanced and can now help their kids, that their kids will be able to find jobs. They should get that message right away—from the midwives who deliver their children, even. If people have hope that they can work, the number who die of despair will decrease.
That’s why I’m doing my best to deliver this message: “It’s OK. You can work.”
Actually, I’m leaving the FDA this month (as of March 2020, the time of this interview). The reality is that a lot of social businesses either collapse because their founders are working too hard, or fail because they can’t train their people to be future leaders. I’ve been talking about quitting for two years now to prevent that from happening here.
Medical science tells me that I will eventually lose even the ability to see light. When I couldn’t see letters or colors anymore, I had trouble adjusting. But the more I lost my eyesight, the more miles I traveled, the more people I could support, and the more income I earned. So now I don’t have much to worry about.