It is never too late to do anything in life.
- Momofuku Ando
In 1958, Momofuku Ando was 48 years old when he introduced the first iteration of the famous cup noodles that we know today (spoiler alert — they weren’t in a cup).
Sixty years ago, the world thought of such matters as nothing more than acts of witchery. Feeding yourself in under three minutes with dried noodles soaked in hot water? Pure madness!
That’s exactly what the food industry also said when Ando launched the ‘Nissin Chikin Ramen,’ a simple package of dried noodles conceived out of a promise of feeding the masses.
After experiencing rejection upon rejection, Ando didn’t give up.
Today, his invention is the promise of a cheap, quick, and filling meal, adored by millions throughout Asia, and around the globe.
This is his story and the lessons I’ve learnt after visiting the famous Cupnoodles Museum in Yokohama — Tokyo, Japan.
Align your vision with a higher purpose
Throughout the Second World War, Japan was experiencing a food shortage. To tackle the problem, the government implemented a rationing system for staple foods like rice and wheat. However, the low quantities available led most of the population into starvation.
To make matters worse, the frequent bombings affected the already limited agricultural land available and further impacted supply routes for imported goods.
Once the war ended, the Allied Forces (mostly led by the United States) occupied Japan for the following seven years. However, the food situation wasn’t getting much better, despite the heavy imports of wheat from America. As a result, black markets selling ramen started appearing throughout urban areas.
Ando was inspired by the hardships of the war (he also had to choose between staying in his native Taiwan or moving back to Tokyo after Taiwan was given to China post-war). He moved to Japan and later founded Nissin, a local salt company. However, his mind was set on tackling the food shortage that Japan was experiencing.
“Peace will come to the world when all its people have enough to eat,” he declared.
Each failure brings you one step closer to success
After losing much of his wealth in a series of bankruptcies, and after serving wrongful imprisonment, Ando laser-focused on his idea. If he could only find a way to make those fickle noodles stay dry!
Rumours have it that he ran on four hours of sleep each night, obsessing over his project until daybreak. He never took a day off for an entire year.
From failure to failure, he finally got his eureka moment while watching his wife fry tempura. He noticed how the excess moisture got eliminated from the batter in hot temperatures.
Equipped with the golden solution to his hurdles, he packaged his new invention and sold each package for 35 yen (approximately $2 present time). His invention became known as ‘Magic Ramen.’
Keep your work humble, and your plans grand
The Japanese quickly got behind the idea — what’s not to love — but Ando’s dreams were journeying in far-away lands, beyond the borders of his nation.
Although he still had to keep a humble spirit — let’s not forget the food industry was still trying to boycott his work, and cheap replicas were popping up once again on the markets — he wanted to show his invention on the world stage.
That’s why, as Ando notes in his memoir, he settled on a versatile chicken flavour: “Hindus may not eat beef and Muslims may not eat pork, but there is not a single culture, religion or country that forbids the eating of chicken.” Alright, I know what you’re going to say, but let’s not forget we’re talking about the sixties here.
His audacious goals were still nothing short of noteworthy. Call him a guy on a mission.
Your next big idea will come at the most unexpected time
In 1966, Ando packed his bags and boarded a plane to the United States. I imagine Mr. Magic Ramen asking the flight crew to prepare a bowl of noodles for him mid-flight. I fast-forward to my own trip having noodles on my overnight flight from Tokyo. Look at Ando being ahead of the curve!
Truth be told, he was probably too busy enjoying the champagne and caviar to worry about eating his noodles. Again, the 1960s.
Once in sunny Los Angeles, he organized meetings with prospective business partners. But Ando forgot one important detail. Americans didn’t carry chopsticks and bowls. They weren’t able to eat his noodles!
But then he saw it. His next eureka moment that was going to cast his business into decades of success. The American businessmen found the perfect solution. They would eat the Chikin Noodles out of styrofoam cups and forks.
“At that moment, I understood what it meant to be awakened by the truth,” exclaimed Ando.
Always stay curious and inventive
At age 61, Ando set up shop in the United States in 1971 and started producing the cup noodle version we know today. His once humble invention was now being distributed to places as far as Europe and South America.
However, Ando’s dreams remained grand. He set his eyes on the ultimate expansion: sending noodles out in space.
Two years before his death, at age 94, he achieved the last of his dreams. As The New York Times notes in his obituary: “In July 2005, the company vacuum-packed portions of instant noodles so that a Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi, could have them on the space shuttle Discovery.” The technique was still rooted in the same hot oil method he developed back in his wooden shed decades earlier.
Today, The World Instant Noodles Association (yep, it exists) estimates that as many as 280 million servings of cup noodles are consumed each day. And it’s all thanks to Mr. Ando, a gentleman whose passion was born out of a curiosity for invention and making products more accessible to others.
The Cupnoodles Museum in Tokyo celebrates Ando’s legacy just as much as it echos a call to innovation.
Where could your creativity take you? They ask.
It’s never too late to make something that will change an aspect of our world. Even in times of struggle, unrest and economic downturn, opportunities for innovation are everywhere. After all, these are the times that need you most.
It’s never too late to land on your ultimate dreams.
Inspiration leads to invention. Tenacity is the breeding ground for inspiration. There can be no invention in the absence of tenacity. — Momofuku Ando