“I’m not exceptional, I’m special”—A Gifted HR Member Talks About Life Experiences and Working at Mercari
“Gifted” /ˈɡɪftɪd/ adjective, having exceptional talent or natural ability.
While the word “gifted” (sazukaru in Japanese) has not yet taken root in Japan the way that it has in English-speaking regions of the world, Taku Yoshizawa (@yoshitaku) of Mercari’s HR Data Management Team has leveraged his own innate gifts in his work at Mercari, and has been involved in a number of initiatives geared towards communicating the nature of being gifted to people outside of the company as well.
To get a better sense of what it means to be gifted, and the working styles of gifted people at Mercari, Shinya Tanaka (@maaya), manager of the HR Data Management, Team sat down with @yoshitaku to pick his brain on the subject.
＊The mask is removed only when taking pictures.
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Taku Yoshizawa (@yoshitaku)
Coming from management experience as a system engineer, @yoshitaku turned his attention to HR, where he became involved in such areas as HR consulting and web service data science. At Mercari, he works in analyzing HR data, which he has been doing since his previous job. In June of 2021, he joined the HR Data Management Team, where he is primarily in charge of data analysis to support HR strategy decision-making and constructing data for analysis.
Shinya Tanaka (@maaya)
After working as an editor and director of fashion magazines, web media, and portal sites, @maaya joined Mercari’s Mercan Editorial Team in May of 2018. He has since worked in many roles, including hiring operations, human resource management, and HR system implementation. Currently, he serves as manager of the HR Data Management Teamwhere he is involved in initiatives for utilizing HR data.
Essentially, gifted means being “different” or “special”
ーBefore meeting you, @yoshitaku, I had at least heard the word “gifted” before. But really, the things I didn’t know about the word far outweighed my minimal knowledge on the subject. So, could you tell us from your experience what “gifted” means?
@yoshitaku：In terms of diversity, “gifted” is kind of like a minority within a minority, so there aren’t very many people (in Japan at least) who are familiar with the term. Often times, “gifted” is associated with having a lot of knowledge or being highly intelligent, and you might have heard someone say that the genius physicist Albert Einstein was very gifted; in general, it is easy to think of the word as describing “exceptional” people.
In terms of my own academic ability, I am also considered to be gifted. On an IQ test I took when I was in elementary school, my results were literally off the charts (never seen before from an elementary school student), and I was able to solve 9th grade-level math problems when I was 10. But, rather than “exceptional” or “clever”, I think that, essentially, gifted means being “different” or “special”.
ーWhat do you mean by “special”?
@yoshitaku：Well, it can mean doing things differently from other people, or discovering things in your own way like, “Wow, this is great!” For me, I studied the piano as a kid, and while I could play songs by ear, I could never read sheet music. In other words, I’m the type of person that just sort of figures out how to do stuff, instead of reading how in a manual or something.
The way I think is also different from those around me, so I was always somewhat of an outcast. In class, I would often blurt out “Why? How come?” when something didn’t sit right with me, or I would announce to the teacher, “I figured out a new way to solve this!” I also often acted on my own curiosity or what I thought would be fun. From my teachers’ point of view, I was difficult to deal with, and my classmates often treated me differently, like, “What’s wrong with that kid?” Because of that, people often kept me at arm’s length, and I actually only went to school about half of the time.
Taku Yoshizawa (@yoshitaku)
ーFrom the Japanese word for “gifted”, I had a mostly positive image in my head, but you were very forthright about both the good and the bad. I understand now what makes gifted people special.
@yoshitaku： I’m glad to hear it! Another quality that gifted people sometimes have is OE, which stands for “overexcitability”. Gifted people can sometimes experience the world around them in extremely intense ways, which can lead to an obsessive drive to learn the things we observe. In other words, we take in our surroundings to such an extreme level that we easily pick up on the emotions of those around us. To put a positive spin on it, gifted people are highly empathic, but often latch on to the emotions of the people right in front of them. To other people, this behavior may be confused with distress or anger, which can easily get us put into a box labeled “difficult to deal with”.
So, in addition to what I was saying before about gifted people making their own discoveries about the world, we also have these kinds of qualities. Because of that, gifted people tend to hide their abilities and ideas in order to blend in to society.
ーAre there gifted people who are the opposite, and want to show the world who they really are inside?
@yoshitaku：I think there probably are, but I think the vast majority have realized, over the course of their lives, that if they show the world what they can do, it could be dangerous. I myself have recently begun to be more public about being gifted and my own abilities, but I think there are many gifted people who think that if they reveal who they are to the world they won’t be accepted, or that it’s safer to just hide their true selves.
ーHearing you talk about gifted people worrying about their own human nature, I’m starting to feel like the word “gifted” sort of misses the mark…
@yoshitaku：Well, there aren’t really any other words to explain it. Also, I feel as though “gifted” is used almost as a placeholder word to raise awareness.
When I confide in people about how I am, they sometimes mistake it for bragging, and I’ve even been told that being gifted is a good thing so I shouldn’t complain. Around the world, I think that being gifted is generally recognized as a good thing, but as a gifted person myself, that certainly hasn’t been my experience.
Three Long Breaks from Work
ーSo we’ve talked about what it means to be gifted and your difficult experiences as a child, but what about when you got out of school and into the workforce?
@yoshitaku： Honestly, nothing changed much for me when I left school. Just like when I was a kid, I would constantly be asking “why?”, or if I noticed that my boss was lying about something I would call him out. Stuff like that. When I was left alone to do my work I was able to produce amazing results, but basically, since I had a different way of thinking than those around me, I was labeled as “dumb” or “unable to understand others’ feelings”. So for mental health reasons I have taken three long breaks from work in my professional life.
One instance I could tell you about that would make it easy to understand why I decided to take these breaks from work is when I was a system engineer and tasked with managing one of our vendors (this was at a previous company). This particular vendor was experiencing a lot of bugs which were making it difficult for them to make progress on their schedule or respond to inquiries. Seeing the vendor’s results, my boss told me, “These guys are useless, you’ve got to be strict with them.”
The thing was, when I took a deeper look, I didn’t notice any particular lack of skill or motivation on their end, so something didn’t quite add up. So I spoke with the vendor directly, and what I found out was that there was a lot that needed to be improved, like a lot of unnecessary busy work, and a problem with the order process on our end.
ーSo you put together the different pieces and discovered the real root of the issue?
@yoshitaku：Right. Once I made improvements to the problems they were having, the vendor told me that it was much easier to do their job, and the quality of our system also went up. But, no matter how much I explained that what I did was for the good of the company, from my boss’s perspective, I was “ignoring his instructions”.
So when it came time to evaluate my performance, they said that I “didn’t listen to my superiors” and “had a bad attitude”. I suppose it is true that I didn’t explain what I was going to do to my boss before I did it, and I do think that it is important for employees to be able to follow instructions. So it made sense for them to evaluate me the way they did. From my boss’s perspective, I wasn’t doing what he expected, and I was constantly questioning “Why?” at every step. And on top of that, I get upset when I’m reprimanded. I don’t think you could say that I was a “compliant and exceptional employee” by any stretch of the imagination.
ーDifference in working styles at this company could also have had something to do with it.
@yoshitaku：Yes, that’s true. While I was away from work, I also sought medical assistance, but it seems that in Japan, doctors are still mostly unaware of gifted people. Sometimes, they would even diagnose me with mental disability or having a personality disorder, and there were times where it looked like I would be remanded to a medical facility… I have written about these experiences on my Note if you’re interested.
From those experiences, I have learned to self-moderate to match my behavior to other people’s expectations. It’s like, everyone is playing shogi on a 9×9 board, and I’m the only one playing on a 30×30. I often cast much too wide a net when thinking about things, and even if I think “Oh, I should do this” about something in the future, I can’t really explain how I landed at that conclusion because my thought process is too abstract. Because of that, sometimes, from other people’s perspective, it seems like I’m just blurting out some nonsense out of nowhere, so it can be very hard to express myself.
ーwhen you joined Mercari, you created a sort of “Yoshitaku Manual” to help explain to me what you can do and the things that are difficult for you, given your gifted nature. That was such a massive help. It was huge that we were able to sit down together and establish a mutual understanding that allowed us to deal with the issue of people not understanding you that you had encountered in the past.
Shinya Tanaka (@maaya) *pictured right
ーThis is something that I’ve never gotten the chance to properly ask you before, but is there anything about being gifted that you have found to be very positive?
@yoshitaku： I mentioned before that I can be very sensitive to the emotions and feelings of those around me, so I’m happy when I can sense that someone is doing well or having fun. I’m actually pretty good at events and operating in spaces that I’ve created, so I sometimes hold small concerts or music-related events where I play instruments that I practice regularly. At my old job, I was also the leader of the band club. In situations like that, I feel like I am free to just be me, and that allows me to use my abilities to the fullest. These are abilities that have come from being gifted, and I will always treasure them.
Feeling accepted for being gifted at the interview
ーI know I’ve asked you this before, but could you tell me about why you decided to join Mercari?
@yoshitaku：While I was still at my previous company, I knew from my past experiences that I talked about earlier that I wasn’t cut out for that place. So, I was thinking of either doing something on my own, or transferring to a different company. So I started looking for a new job, hoping that there would be a good company out there, and when I was updating my resume, I wrote in there, “I’m gifted, sorry for any trouble that may cause.” (laughs) It turned out that one of the companies the recruiting agency encouraged me to apply to was Mercari.
The person who interviewed me was Shohei Iwata (@iwacci), who was the manager at that time. At my interviews with other companies, most of them didn’t really mention the thing I wrote about being gifted, but @iwacci used about half of the interview to gain an understanding of what gifted is, asking me, “What is gifted and what can we do to support you?” That gave me the confidence to believe that Mercari was a place where I could really be myself.
At my final interview, Tatsuo Kinoshita (@tatsuo, Mercari CHRO) seemed to already have an understanding of gifted people, and reassuringly said, “The world is full of all kinds of different people, huh?” I was so grateful that Mercari had an understanding of diversity, and a very welcoming and inclusive environment.
Then, when I officially joined the company, I was told that I could work in whatever way suited me best on whatever interested me most. To this day, @maaya and @iwacci still support me in working in my own kind of way.
ーCould you tell me more about what kind of work you have been responsible for here at Mercari?
@yoshitaku：I work in the very niche domain of “people analytics”. Specifically, I use data to uncover the root of problems like “there seems to be this persistent issue happening in this one organization” or “these people look like they’re having trouble”, and then I help to solve them. At the moment, I am working with a system that I designed over the course of a month (and only I have access to), that visualizes analytic data from data lakes and data marts. Using this system, I have been giving little “data souvenirs” to various teams, distributing any new knowledge that I uncover, and trying to broaden my scope of collaboration.
ーWhy did you choose this line of work where you deal with HR data?
@yoshitaku：Before, I was working as a system engineer managing systems for contracting companies, but it was a very difficult environment with a lot of people leaving. When I was struggling through that job, I learned the importance of a good working environment. There was one offshore contractor that I was running system support for who said that because of me they were able to work more comfortably, even under difficult circumstances, and that made me really happy.
When I left that job, I joined a new company where I worked as an HR consultant, and I participated in HR information sessions and things of that nature. Even before that, when I was going through all of those difficult experiences, I had always given deep thought to and about “people”, so the things I was learning through the HR consulting job and the information sessions were easy to absorb and very enjoyable. But at the same time, this was a job that dealt with the very ambiguous idea of “people”, and that made me think that I would once again become an outcast. So I decided to go the data route, which allowed me to compensate for my inability to explain things verbally. I work in HR, but I work with data, if that makes sense.
What I needed was a culture where everyone could share their opinions as equals
ーWorking with you now, my feeling is that you are something of a People Analyst. Is that because Mercari’s work environment has been a good fit for you?
@yoshitaku：First and foremost, it is about the culture. Lots of companies like to brag about their culture, but many of them get stuck on what management wants and expects, and that doesn’t resonate with the people on the front lines. On that standpoint, Mercari does a great job of creating its culture from the value standards of its people. Based off of our company culture, decisions are made with what is best for our people and what is best for the company, so there is no “disconnect” between me and those around me, which is something that I was afraid of up until this point. Because the culture is at the core, Mercari members are able to speak to each other on equal footing, and it becomes easy to align things you do for yourself and things you do for the company because everyone has a shared understanding. I’m very grateful for the work environment at Mercari, and it is so much fun to work here.
The one other thing that is important to me is Diversity & Inclusion (D&I). The things about Japanese society that are the least compatible with me are these overarching themes of peer pressure and conformity. Japanese culture has both positives and negatives, so I can’t say that it is totally “good” or totally “bad”, it’s just that I’m not a good fit for it. Mercari is a psychologically safe place where everyone can speak relatively freely with their team members. That is something that I am extremely thankful for, and I think it is due to the fact that Mercari members are selected with careful attention given to culture match.
ー Yes, that’s true. In our team, we have roadmap meetings where we discuss our mid- to long-term vision and strategies. At those meetings, we regularly talk about things like what direction should we take the team and what we want to achieve”. So really, all members of the team are equal, and from what you’ve told me that’s something that is very important to you. On the other hand, is there anything that you feel is a key issue that currently remains unsolved?
@yoshitaku：Mercari’s HR data is still in its infancy, which means that it’s still in a very chaotic period. I think a lot of us are grappling with the uneasiness that comes from scrambling around all the time, and it can be pretty difficult.
Also, while I do think that I am doing my job to the level that is expected of me, I also feel guilty because I think that I still have more to give. Due to PTSD from my past experiences, about half of the week I am unable to fully focus on work; I am afraid of hearing other people’s opinions, and I worry so much about what others think that I sometimes behave in ways that are not like me.
ー If I can just reassure you: I think you’re performing great! (laughs) Of course there are things that you’re unsure about or that maybe aren’t going very well, but I think you make a great member of our diverse organization.
Leveraging HR data in a way that believes in people’s potential
ーWhat is something that you would like to accomplish at Mercari in the future?
@yoshitaku： As part of Mercari’s People & Culture Division, I want to help forge more relationships of trust between Mercari members. Using data is like “spending” people’s trust. If I can make Mercari members feel like they can do their jobs easier because of the way I handle their data, I see that as “banking trust”. If there are no relationships of trust, and HR just runs on its own ego demanding data from people and shoving questionnaires in their faces, then our HR data crumbles easily. In that sense, I want to leverage Mercari’s member-centric culture—and reinvest in it through my work—in order to make a virtuous cycle that produces “banked trust”.
From there, I want to work towards leveraging HR data in a way that believes in people’s potential. I think that some people are probably unable to perform to the best of their ability due to their boss or work environment or some other factor, and that can negatively affect their evaluation. HR tends to give more attention to people who are exceptional in the traditional sense, which makes it easy to dismiss those who, on the surface, are not producing results as “unskilled”. If we don’t make proper effort in using our HR data, we can unintentionally stoke the flames of that trend. In reality, work equals individual ability plus environment. So I think that leaves a lot of room for adjustments that can be made to help people perform better. To that end, we should enable people to be themselves, while helping them discover the place where they can best demonstrate their value and potential. If we can create that kind of Mercari-brand HR, I will be happy.
ーWith you on board, I think our HR is about to get a lot more interesting! By the way, you do quite a lot outside of Mercari too, right?
@yoshitaku：Yes, that’s true. At the moment, I am a collaborator on a research project at the University of Tokyo, and I have started doing social support activities related to gifted people, so I sometimes appear on NHK TV programs to talk about that sort of thing. There is a risk involved, but because of that I am officially “coming out” as gifted under my own real name. There is still a lot to be done, but I want to use my gifts in a way that helps give back to the community. I think that my gifts are part of why I believe I can do something to help people. That is something that I am proud of, and I will continue to do what I can, where I can.
Also, I want to add that I wouldn’t be surprised if there are any other gifted people at Mercari who are struggling right now. So it would be great if we could create a safe, anonymous space where those people could talk about their worries and experiences. Also, please feel free to reach out to me any time!