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What instant noodle’s origins can teach us about seeing limitations for opportunities…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold paths to success — of people (or things) you know!

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Did You Know? You can learn from what you disagree with!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? Ramen was invented as a response to food shortages after World War II. In three decades, it went from an experiment in a shed to a global business with $5 billion in revenue.

It’s 1958. Due to food shortages in post-World War II Japan, the government encouraged citizens to eat bread instead of noodles, even though noodles were a more familiar food (in fact, ramen was the sixth most consumed food by Japanese people in 2022).

Why? The Japanese noodle companies at the time couldn’t mass produce enough product to feed the country’s people.

⁠⁠A 48-year-old businessman and owner of a salt production company, Momofuku Ando, saw an opportunity—to create a type of noodle that that was ready to eat in just two minutes using hot water, unlike its frozen predecessors. And he did: After a year of trial and error in his backyard shed with the help of “common tools” like pots, wheat flour, and water, “Chikin Ramen” instant noodles were born.

Within its first year, Chikin Ramen gained widespread popularity in Japan thanks to promotion from Mitsubishi Corporation as “part of an effort to get [the country] back on its feet.”

Within five years, Chikin Ramen was selling over 200 million servings per year.

13 years after the first pre-cooked, simply-add-hot-water noodle’s debut, Momofuku introduced CUPNOODLES after observing Americans “breaking up Chicken Ramen, putting them in a cup, pouring in hot water, and then eating them with a fork.”

CUPNOODLES globalized Momofuku’s instant ramen. By the time of his death in 2007, his company Nissin Foods had operating profits of $307 million with over 70 billion servings sold annually. In 2023, Nissin Foods reported $5 billion in revenue.

So, the next time you find yourself questioning someone else’s thinking, remember Momofuku, who questioned the government’s thinking… and created a completely new industry and way of eating.

Momofuku Ando (L), inventor of the instant noodles, and the CUPNOODLE packaging and flavor variations (R). Images courtesy of Wikipedia Creative Commons.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Frustrations are opportunities.

Momofuku may not have realized it at the time, but he benefited from something called the “first mover advantage”: By being the first in a niche, you have the opportunity to dominate it. And since instant ramen didn’t exist yet, Momofuku could introduce it and then ride the wave of his invention. You may also know this as pursuing a “blue ocean” strategy—or, tapping into a new market where there is little to no competition.

Where others saw nothing but a nonsensical decision by people in charge, Momofuku saw opportunity. Where most other people saw only risk, Momofuku saw reward. After all, there was no one else trying this idea—and the worst thing that could happen to Momofuku was that he’d go back to his life running a salt production company.

Be like Momofuku when you disagree with a decision or an action and try this:

(1) If you disagree with a decision made by higher-ups at work, ask yourself, “What would I do in this person’s shoes?”

  • E.g., “If I were my manager, I would reallocate our ad spend from billboard ads to to hiring the top 10 outdoorsy TikTok creators, then have them show their followers how they use our waterproof hiking boots during a backpacking trip.”

(2) Instead of going to your manager, saying you disagree with their decision, and leaving it at that, try sharing your idea in a less confrontational way:

  • E.g., “Buying billboard space makes sense because it’s in your face and always present, but then we’d be limited in our reach. Have we thought about…?”

(3) Or, if you dream of being an entrepreneur or having a side hustle, try some Momofuku-style experimentation in your version of the “backyard shed” on nights and weekends!

(4) And, if you’re not able to share your idea nor planning to strike out on your own, that’s okay, too: Keep a list of your ideas whether or not you act on them. You never know when they might come in handy!

Like Momofuku, your ideas may not be the result of divine inspiration, but rather downright frustration. So, jot down your solutions and glance at your ideas now and again! You don’t have to—and probably shouldn’t—jump on every idea, but you can, at least, pay special attention to the ones that you can’t stop thinking about.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: Had I not turned my frustrations of being an early career employee into a nights-and-weekends project, The Unspoken Rules would have never been born!

Let your frustrations inspire you!


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