The last few days I have been thinking about how many times I have heard or read stories about how people have devoted their lives to perfecting their craft. In reading the stories of now renowned chefs, I have heard their reflections on how those who mentored them would have them devote blocks of time to preparing a single vegetable. For example, months spend learning how to properly clean an artichoke. People who are renowned for what they do in life, are so because they have devoted their life to perfecting their craft. In the process of trying to find some examples to share about the importance of devotion to the process of cooking, and in reality anything in our lives, I came upon this article about Jiro Ono. This story about him and his devotion is inspiring and carries valuable lessons for each of us, encouraging each of us to become devoted to being the best we can be with the talents we have been given, regardless of what we do.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a documentary on the life and craft of the great 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono who owns a tiny 10-seat shop in Tokyo that has the highest Michelin Guide rating of three stars.
To get a seat you must make a reservation months in advance. The courses are carefully planned and the creation and serving of the meal is a multi-course symphony of sushi that some guests have even described as “stressful” yet an experience like no other. Jiro himself serves each course to his guests and carefully examines their faces as they taste his elegant works of edible art. What follows is the wisdom distilled from the great sushi chef on how to master your craft.
1. Learn from the best. Sometimes you must learn to fail before you learn to succeed.
Yamamoto, a renowned Japanese food writer, says: “When you work for Jiro, he teaches you for free. But, you have to endure ten years of training. If you persevere for ten years you will acquire the skills to be recognized as a first-rate chef.”
In Jiro’s restaurant, many apprentices do not make it to the next level. Yet there are those who persevere. For example, one of the apprentice sushi chefs tried over 400 times to make egg sushi that met Jiro’s standards of being worthy to be served. When he finally received Jiro’s approval, he was overwhelmed with joy and cried.
Take away lesson: Only when you understand what it feels like to fail and try again will you be able to cherish the moment when you achieve success.
2. Don’t be afraid of having the same routine every day and working long hours.
Yamamoto: “[Jiro] repeats the same routine every day. He even gets on the train in the same position. He has said that he dislikes the holidays. The holidays are too long for him. He wants to get back to work as soon as possible.”
Jiro’s oldest son, Yoshikazu: “It really comes down to making an effort and repeating the same thing every day.”
Take away lesson: Today people talk about creativity stemming from novel experiences. This may be true. However, incremental improvement is the key to becoming a creative master of your craft. To reach the highest levels of creativity, sometimes you must slowly get better each and every day.
3. To be the very best you must have talent and be willing to develop that talent.
Jiro: “In order to make delicious food, you must eat delicious food. The quality of ingredients is important, but you need to develop a palate capable of discerning good and bad. Without good taste, you can’t make good food. If your sense of taste is lower than that of the customers, how will you impress them? When I think of someone with a highly acute sense of taste and smell the first person I think of is the great French chef Joel Robuchon. I wish I were as sensitive as he. I have a very good sense of smell, but he’s on another level. His sensitivity is very high. If I had his tongue and nose, I could probably make even better food.” In other words, talent is relative.
Yoshikazu: “There are some who are born with a natural gift. Some have a sensitive palate and sense of smell. That is what you might call ‘natural talent.’ In this line of business if you work hard you will get good over time. But if you want to reach the next level, you need talent. The rest depends on how hard you work.”
Take away lesson: To become great in any domain, underlying talent matters. But what matters most is whether you are willing to develop the talent that you have to become the best that you can be.
4. Give your life to your craft and improve it daily. Never be satisfied with your work.
Yamamoto: “I’ve seen many chefs who are self-critical, but I’ve never seen a chef who is so hard on himself. [Jiro] sets the standard for self-discipline. He is always looking ahead. He’s never satisfied with his work. He’s always trying to find ways to make the sushi better, or to improve his skills. Even now, that’s what he thinks about every day, all day.” Jiro says that he gave his life to his work and that he never once regretted joining his profession.
Take away lesson: Find a profession you are willing to devote your life to and never be satisfied with your product or your skillset. Improve them every day.
5. Don’t plan for Plan B. It’s the mindset to fail Plan A.
Jiro: “When I was in the first grade, I was told: ‘You have no home to come back to. That’s why you have to work hard.’ I knew that I was on my own. And I didn’t want to have to sleep at the temple or under a bridge so I had to work just to survive. That has never left me. I worked even if the boss kicked or slapped me. Nowadays, parents tell their children, ‘You can return if it doesn’t work out.’ When parents say stupid things like that, the kids turn out to be failures.”
Take away lesson: While this “Jiro-ism” may go against conventional wisdom, Jiro points to this life moment for his mindset for greatness. Don’t rely on a safety net because it will prevent you from expanding beyond your perceived boundaries. Greatness will often come from necessity.
6. As a leader you may not always collaborate well with others, and that’s okay.
Yamamoto says that a key attribute of great chefs is “impatience. They are better leaders than collaborators. They’re stubborn and insist on having it their way.”
Take away lesson: There is a reason why we have the idiom, “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Today there is much praise about being a great collaborator to reach the top. And certainly collaboration is important. But the truth is that the leaders of any domain are often mavericks who are not fun to work with at all. If you are one of those leaders just remember that it’s okay to go your own way.
7. Master the art of simplicity. Be passionate. Be a perfectionist.
In simplicity there can be found great depth. Yamamoto says that all of Jiro’s sushi is simple and that “Ultimate simplicity leads to purity.” He also says that “a great chef is passionate” and that Jiro is “a perfectionist.”
Take away lesson: In the words of Jiro: “All I want to do is make better sushi. I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.”
© 2013 by Jonathan Wai