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.
On the next installment: more lessons from Jiro. Meanwhile, please enjoy the movie if you get a chance.