Yubitsume and Skin in the Game


Yubitsume ("finger shortening") is the name for a Japanese practice where one who wishes to atone and make amends will cut off a portion of their finger, starting at the pinky. The more offenses a person commits, the more often they perform the act. Historically associated with wandering gamblers, yubitsume is now most commonly practiced by the yakuza, i.e. the various Japanese crime syndicates. Even now, one can find people in Japan with a few knuckles suspiciously absent from their pinky fingers.

Like seppuku, which demands ritual suicide over disohonor, or the Code of Hammurabi, which declares in part that the architect of a house that collapses and kills someone should himself be put to death, yubitsume is, among other things, a way of ensuring that everyone has skin in the game. That is, it ensures that the individual and the group have a common downside (though proper skin in the game would ensure common upside as well, which this system lacks). Thus the individual and the group have similar incentives, which means they can work together.

I've found my experience to be true to Nassim Taleb's take: when I have skin in the game, both positive and negative, I feel substantially more alive to what I'm doing and more invested in the result. And when that has been missing — that is, when my deepest hopes and fears had nothing to do with what I was working on — I have felt almost totally dead to the work.