I was planning to wrap my review of the documentary about Jiro Ono with a nice, nearly clinical summary of all the extra “lessons” I had managed to extract from the film (one was “surround yourself with other specialists,” another one was “it’s not really about the money” and the last one was “success loves a rebel”).

However, life recently gave me a boot to the head in the form of a burglary. Because of the patchwork of insurance we have, and the supposition that the storage we used was a safe location (fences, cameras, key access, security), we had minimal insurance on that one place.  The work gear we had painstakingly assembled through the years is mostly gone.

As I sit down here with a blank page, a discarded draft and an empty feeling, I am reminded that one big lesson I learned from Jiro is that in order to find success you need to be tough.

Life inevitably deals us losses and setbacks, and however much we can do to minimize them, ultimately nothing lasts forever. The only question left, if you think about it, is how to continue living even when the deck is stacked against us.

“Be tough” sounds like the right answer to that, and we all think we know what it means. But what does that mean exactly?  “Tough.” Um, as nails, you say? Do I need to make myself rigid and unbendable and pointy? That sounds a bit dumb.  Metaphors are great until you try to apply them in a practical way.

No home to go back to

When Jiro was 7, his father lost his business and took to drinking and disappeared from his life.  At the age of 9, Jiro was turned away from home and told that he had no home to return to.  Jiro had to learn to work hard just to survive.  And that attitude has always stayed with him.

Having never forgotten that harsh lesson, Jiro applied a similar approach to his children’s education. No, he didn’t throw them out into the street when they were in elementary school, but when they were in their late teens and he began to teach them his craft, he was stricter with them than with his other apprentices.

His older son, Yoshikazu, says that for the first two years of his training he wanted to run away. Jiro, however, explains that he treated his kids more strictly out of concern for their future.  That’s what we usually call “tough love.” (There’s that word “tough” again.)

When Jiro’s youngest son, Takashi, left his father’s restaurant to open his own in another neighborhood,  he reports Jiro told him “now you have no home to return to.” Of course, this was not a child but a fully grown man equipped with the necessary skills to make it in the world. “If he weren’t ready, I wouldn’t have made him go,” says Jiro. What he meant to convey, he explains, is that failure wasn’t an option.

Jiro acknowledges that when he says things like that people often disagree with him, but he insists he is right. And I have to agree with him: success is not an easy business. Furthermore, he adds:  “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.”  I have to say, I know a lot of people like that.

This of course reminds me of the whole discussion of spoiled children who are unable to tie their own shoes and what is to become of our world as these people grow up and begin to take charge of our world (I shudder in terror).

Last time I wrote about this film some people argued that Jiro didn’t  love his children, but to me, someone who works to provide for you in your childhood, teaches you the skills you need to be successful, and pays careful attention to make sure you have a future, is giving you tremendous amounts of love, even if you mistakenly believe “love” is only hugs and kisses and lollipops and cookies.

When people claimed Jiro didn’t love his children I remembered the  poem “Those Winter Sundays” by the great Robert Hayden.  I am not sure I can paste it all in full here, but in case my editor says no, you can both read and listen to it here, with permission from the copyright holder. Then you can come back to the article while considering “love’s austere and lonely offices.” And maybe this Thursday you can say “thank you” to the person who made banked fires blaze for you.

How I’ll deal

In any case, back to the subject of the indispensable quality of toughness—what is “tough”?

As I face my own personal disaster, I have a few ideas on what constitutes “toughness” for me:

1)  Tough means that I accept loss, that things are gone,  that there is no use in tormenting myself with “coulda, woulda, shoulda” thinking.  After a brief period of mourning, I must move forward decisively.

2)  Tough means that, having accepted my mistakes, I can learn from them and do better next time.  People in denial keep making the same mistakes over and over.

3)  Tough means that, even having learned my lessons and after the best precautions, loss will happen again, as loss and pain are inevitable parts of life, but I must move forward because “I have no home to go back to.”

4)  Tough means that I commit to rebuild, perhaps in a fresh new direction, but I will rebuild.  Earlier today I was watching a video of someone passing through Chicago, and as the narrator mentioned the wonderful modernist buildings, I remembered how their style of architecture developed as a response to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

5)  Tough also means that I choose to keep a positive outlook and that I will not let the thieves steal my happiness along with my possessions.

Truly,  for some moments after finding my things robbed I felt like searching high and low for the culprits, and I wanted to wish the worst of curses upon the criminals, but then I realized I was much better off nursing my pain with a shower, and good sleep,  and bacon for breakfast, and focusing on moving forward instead of being stuck in the past or obsessed with destructive emotions like wanting to take revenge on invisible targets, or flogging myself for having misjudged the risk.

Real toughness, it seems to me, is a resilience that does not make us hard like the nails of the popular idiom. It’s more a kind of springiness, like that of trees bouncing against the wind. They bend back and return. Toughness, for me, is a refusal to dwell in misery and negativity and doom then things go bad, as they often do.

Please note that I’m not advocating denial, sedation, or other forms of escapism. On the contrary—the “tough” mind-set knows that pain is unavoidable. Let’s face it and get used to it.  Savings will be wiped out,  businesses will fail, investments will crash, our trust will be broken, our health will falter, our loved ones will die or we will leave them behind.

These are facts of life, and while we can take measures to minimize their damage, we can’t fully escape them either. The only thing we can do is go forward.

Jiro’s movie ends with the words of Yoshikazu, Jiro’s eldest son, who says of his tough-love father: “Always look ahead and above yourself. Always try to improve on yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft. That’s what he taught me.”

Let’s do that, then, and damn the torpedoes.

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