Lessons from a master, Jiro Ono
I have been re-watching the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” for the past couple of months. I've seen it at least 10 times, probably more, while writing drafts for this article. I've watched it alone, with my wife, with friends, and I don't tire of it; I've recommended it to everyone I know, and now I'm wholeheartedly recommending it to you.
This little gem of a documentary by David Gelb takes a look at the work and life of Jiro Ono, a Michelin three-star sushi chef who, at 85 years of age, continues to work on his craft every day at his tiny restaurant in a Tokyo office building basement opposite a subway station entrance. His colleagues, his country, and at least one very knowledgeable food writer recognize him as perhaps the greatest sushi chef alive.
I have watched this film in fascination, trying to extract lessons from this master. What have I learned from him? And what questions do these lessons open up for me?
You Must Fall in Love With Your Work
“Once you decide on your occupation,” says Jiro, “you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That's the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably.”
Jiro himself is enormously happy with his work; he is a blissful craftsman who truly enjoys his work, which keeps him vital in his old age.
However, it's crucial to note that he doesn't say “find work that you love,” as if suggesting one goes on some romantic quest in search for the perfect job, but rather he tells us to love the work we have chosen.
This means to consciously and voluntarily cultivate love, much like we do in a marriage. This is different from a teenage crush whereby one gets struck in the head by a random force and goes temporarily mad, only to wake up to disillusioned weeks or months later. Jiro's path to joyful work requires a lifetime of devotion.
This brings to mind a more common conception of work some of us have: We tend to categorize jobs as being either “passion work” or “work just for the money.” Then we tell ourselves that passion work is a pipe dream and we must endure a lifetime of mindless toil until the day we retire and begin to enjoy life.
What would happen, I wonder, if we consciously and purposefully loved the jobs we feel condemned to do “just for the money”? Could this perhaps completely revolutionize our relationship with work, increase our quality of life, and diminish our hunger for retirement?
Specialize, Simplify, Go Deep
Sushi is by definition a minimalist food, and Jiro has taken this simplicity to another level, not only in his sushi-making technique, but also in the composition of his menu. Unlike other restaurants of its kind, Jiro's does not serve appetizers. Rather, they create a daily menu of about 20 pieces of sushi per person. He serves sushi only, and no other dishes.
Moreover, his restaurant has only 10 seats. This allows the staff to focus on preparing top-quality sushi and serving each client the best possible way, noticing little details like how much they eat or if they are right- or left-handed.
Jiro's eldest son, Yoshikazu, who is a sushi chef in his own right but still works with his father as the heir apparent, says that at the restaurant they try to repeat the same thing every day. What's left implied is that mastery results from this constant repetition.
This focus goes beyond the confines of work: Jiro repeats the same routine every day, down to standing on the same spot to take the train. He dislikes holidays and wants to return to work as soon as possible.
It seems to me that Jiro increases his creativity by going deep, rather than wide — start with an automatic daily routine, pursue a narrow focus at work, and within that narrow focus, the combination of talent and hard work open up a universe for creative exploration.
This reminds me of that mad genius William Blake, who wrote in “Auguries of Innocence”:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
With happiness like that, who needs vacations?
Loving Your Work Requires Sacrifice
If we stick for a moment with the “passion work” scenario I mentioned earlier, I notice that some people tend to assume that doing work you love is free of difficulties and that everything will be well in your life if you just switch careers. It is not. Doing work you love may cost you dearly, especially in the initial stages, and everyone choosing such a path should be willing to pay the price of admission.
In my case, pursuing studies in the humanities and striking out on my own instead of finding a place in academia meant I have to work longer hours and make less money compared with people working in established organizations and with perhaps fewer years of education.
I have made peace with that fact because I am doing work that I love, but the trade-off is evident. Today I aim to increase my income to a more comfortable level by cultivating focus and honing my skills, but it's a steep climb. Still, this was a conscious choice that I do not regret.
I know this may seem to contradict a little bit what I said earlier about loving the work you've chosen, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that loving your work can at times be difficult, but if you persevere you will find yourself rewarded for it.
In the case of Jiro, the demands of his job kept him away from his family while his children were growing up. He also had to struggle against poverty; when he got married he had no money in the bank, and years later his kids had to save for months before they could afford a Coca-Cola.
Things have changed today, Jiro shares a good relationship with his children, who learned their craft from their father, but it took years of sacrifice and hard work to get there. Jiro himself had to endure being slapped or kicked during his learning years, but he didn't quit. He's had apprentices, however, who only lasted a day in his kitchen.
The point of this, to me, is that the kind of bliss Jiro finds in his daily work can't be achieved through quick solutions and four-hour workweeks. It takes hard, intense, concentrated, and often painful work. Dream jobs don't simply work their magic because you find them; they do because you marry them for life and they reward you for your efforts as years go by.
I am not suggesting, of course, that citizens of 21st-century Western democracies with different cultural prejudices put up with unfair or unsafe work conditions, but Jiro's tale is a reminder that love and sacrifice can reward us in transcendental ways that cannot be reduced to quick formulas for easy success. His path may not be for everyone, but I believe it's at least worthy of examination.
Jiro Ono to All Newbs: Be Tough
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.