The beauty of honing your craft
Some time back, I saw a fantastic film. It’s a portrait of Jiro Ono, the revered Japanese chef who’s 85 in the film and 97(!) today. Every day, he does the same thing: He leaves the house at the same time, stands and waits for the same subway in the same spot on the platform. Once he arrives at the restaurant he’s run since 1965, he and his team work with unparalleled passion and precision on a product celebrated worldwide.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a lovely film—I didn’t want it to end. The beauty lies in how every detail is carefully considered. What Jiro’s doing seems less like work and more like a dance.
“He sets the standard for self-discipline,” the food critic Yamamoto says about the chef of this tiny sushi bar in a Tokyo subway station. “He’s always trying to find ways to make the sushi better or to improve his skills.”
Yamamoto believes a great chef has five attributes:
They’re dedicated to their craft and perform consistently to the highest standard
They aspire to grow, to improve their skills
They understand that cleanliness is of the utmost importance
They’re impatient and stubborn and know what they want
They’re passionate about their work
Jiro demonstrates all five. And taken together, these five make a good tool for reflecting on our own work.
Jiro’s son, Yoshikazu, will take over the restaurant someday. While drying seaweed over hot coals, Yoshikazu says:
The techniques we use here are no big secret. It’s just about making an effort and repeating the same thing every day. There are some who are born with a gift. Some have a sensitive palate and nose; they have natural talent. In this line of business, if you take it seriously, you’ll become skilled. But if you want to make a mark in the world, you have to have talent. The rest depends on how hard you work.
It speaks to great dedication. And I have tremendous respect for people who devote themselves to a single pursuit. Perhaps that’s a thing of the past? Have we all become too lazy and too easily satisfied?
At the same time, there’s a sense of loss and sadness when you consider this son of a famous sushi chef, who’s no doubt incredibly talented, but who’s always lived and worked in his father’s shadow.
In a 2014 interview, the critic Yamamoto said he thinks Jiro’s little restaurant is the cleanest eatery in the world. Jiro himself says that running a restaurant is 50% cooking and 50% cleaning.
It’s an important point, for it’s easy to focus on the highly visible ta-das: serving up that perfect piece of sushi on one of those black plates. (But also: turning in a completed project, presenting your doctoral thesis, launching that new website, getting your kid to daycare clean and happy, or sending a graduating class of your students out into the world.)
Underpinning those clear moments of accomplishment, big and small, are countless more moments behind the scenes—cleaning, studying, maintenance work, revising, even sleep. That’s all part of the deal. It’s essential to good work, especially to sustainably good work. If we want to keep it up, we must take care to create a clean, safe, healthy way of working.
The film struck me because it puts our work in perspective. It’s admirable and good to want to change the world, but big as your plans may be, everything we do starts with that initial conversation you have or those first few lines you write. You gain momentum as those discrete, individual actions, repeated and refined, start to add up to something greater.
Like Jiro, we too can see the beauty in those little acts. We can pour ourselves into them every day, knowing that for each action, further refinement is always possible. That’s true for everything we do. And then? Then we can enjoy the process, the dance, and not only the final result.
Have a good week!