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Space Noodle


“Another one!” A man in clothes mottled with stains yelled above the congregation. His hand clutched a wrinkled bill as if his life depended on it. 

“One for us too. Please! …” A gaunt lady fought to keep their place in line. Clung tight to her legs was an undersized boy with a baby strapped on his back. The tiny child cried loudly in hunger. The chef, face glistened with beads of sweat, was doing his best to maintain the rapid flow of noodles going into the pot. He appeased his customers “Only one bowl per person! Please back away when you get yours.” “Omachi kudasai” (お待ちください) Please wait a moment.

That was the defining moment for Momofuku Ando – a Taiwanese-born Japanese. His leadership energy was primed. Back in the 1950s when Japan was rebuilding from its defeat after World War II, Momofuku was a middle-aged man deep in bankruptcy after a series of unsuccessful businesses. The scene in that small alley prompted Momofuku to think: There must be a better way to cook noodles than just bowl-by-bowl.

“I need to find a way that allows everyone to cook their own noodles and not be starved in line.” His purpose was born. “Ouch… Not again.” Momofuku’s wife yanked her hands away from the splashing oil. She was cooking yasai tempura, battered fried vegetables, for dinner. Chasing after his goal, Momofuku had been stuck for months tackling a problem: The short ‘shelf life’ of his dried noodles invention.

Traditional Japanese noodles – Ramen – were made fresh with boiling soup. This customary water-based process meant that noodles couldn’t be stored for an extended period. This perishable nature was a huge roadblock for Momofuku. Until he saw his wife cooking that day. “That’s it!” Momofuku proclaimed ecstatically. “We fry the noodles for storage and let them soften back in the water when we want to eat!”

He could barely contain his excitement. Just like that, the era of ‘Instant Noodles’ began. His first creation, ‘Chikin (Chicken) Ramen’, became available on the 25th of August, 1958. Momofuku would eventually achieve tremendous success in Japan with expansion after expansion of his business. However, his dream of ‘putting noodles on every table’ did not end there. “This is a stupid idea.

I am telling you Americans don’t eat noodles. We eat hamburgers and hot dogs with our hands. Look around. Do you see any bowls? Any chopsticks? How are they going to eat your noodles?” Local investors shot down Momofuku’s proposal of bringing his noodles to the US. Where one saw an obstacle; another saw an opportunity. Faced with this new challenge, Momofuku rerouted his energy and came up with a winning solution – instant noodles in a cup.

“No bowls you say? Then I’ll sell them in a cup. We will put a snap-opened fork inside, too. Just fill it with hot water from a kettle. It’s as convenient as a hamburger!” Momofuku countered with yet another innovation. And the rest was history. His invention started the next era of ‘Cup Noodles’. The all-inclusive product first appeared on US shelves in 1971. It would go on to become tremendously successful all over the world. Momofuku was 61 years old. Yet, his dream of ‘putting noodles on every table’ would continue.

Brain Insights
  1. Everyone has energy. The founding principle of leadership energy is that everyone has energy. It is the common currency that fuels all humans. Whether we are rich or poor; young or old; male or female; owner or employee, there exists energy within all of us. The challenge is to recognize that energy and do something useful about ours. Momofuku was just another 40+ years old failing businessman trying to get by in a difficult world. But he saw a present he did not like, and a future he aspired to create. Thus, his leadership energy was born.
  2. Find your purpose. Give your story a meaning. Energy is merely a ‘currency’ much like money in our wallet. We need to learn how to best spend it – to find our purpose. What I love about Momofuku’s story was the clarity of his dream of ‘putting noodles on every table’. I recently interviewed Isabel Medem, a world’s top entrepreneur whose purpose was devoted to ‘putting a toilet in every home’. One Peruvian mother told her “my young son learned to use the toilet by himself because of what you have done”. A purpose is what makes your spending your energy worthwhile.
  3. Reroute the energy. A leadership journey is always uphill so leaders must learn to channel their energy upward. Momofuku ran into yet another problem trying to scale-up his production. Fried and dried noodles would not fit systematically into their cups. He was so nauseous with the stress that one night he saw his house spinning and had to lie down. Amazingly that gave birth to a brilliant solution. Instead of trying to force noodles into cups, why not turn the cups upside down and ‘put cups over noodles’?

Thirty years later, instant cup noodles are available for people in every corner of the world. Had the aging inventor then fulfilled his vision of ‘putting noodles on every table’ Not at all. At the age of 95, Momofuku’s leadership energy was still churning. His next goal was to make instant noodles for astronauts during their duty outside the world. He wanted his noodles to ‘go to space’! July 27th, 2005 on the shuttle Discovery, Momofuku’s dream of ‘Space Noodles’ was realized.

Unlike most other space food, the Nissin noodles were not squeezed out of a bag but rather eaten with chopsticks. “It wouldn’t be noodles if you slurp through a tube.” The near-century-old man beamed like a young boy. He was watching news footage of Japanese astronauts eating noodles while floating around weightlessly above the earth. Two years later, Momofuku Ando left this world in peace – undoubtedly packed with a bagful of new ideas with him.

What’s your leadership energy?

Dr Thun Thamrongnawasawat (Tan) is one of the foremost experts on dissecting complex management and business models and cascading them for easy implementation by companies across different industries. His innovative B.A.S.E. model has inspired numerous organizations to transform. He’s the author of the Brain-BASEd Leadership book series (2013-2016), a bestselling The Leadership Journey (2018) and a regular newspaper columnist. In 2015, Dr Thun was the recipient of World HRD Congress’s “Global Coaching Leadership Award” and named “Consultant of the Year” by the Ministry of Industry, Thailand.

He can be contacted at

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