The Secret Behind Being Truly World Class.

How do you become a master at your craft?

I think I might have found an answer in a small sushi shop near a Tokyo subway station.

In the sushi shop, a 90 year old man has made sushi for six decades. Unless there’s a funeral to attend, he never takes the day off.

This man is Jiro Ono, a three-star Michelin sushi master. Some might call him a workaholic, but he is known instead as 職人 (shokunin), a Japanese word that means craftsman – but unlike the English word, shokunin has a spiritual dimension.

Jiro’s obsession with food has its detractors: a Business Insider reviewer claimed that Jiro’s restaurant is overrated. Whatever his critics say, Jiro explains how he sees his work as a sushi chef: “Always look ahead and above yourself.  Always try to improve upon yourself.  Always strive to elevate your craft.”

His remarkable consistency in improving his craft was not lost on Japanese food writer Masuhiro Yamamoto who reviewed Jiro’s restaurant: “The difference between Jiro today and Jiro 40 years ago is only that he stopped smoking.”

The first time I watched the documentary on Jiro – aptly titled Jiro Dreams of Sushi – was on my flight from Hong Kong to Toronto. As I watched the unwavering dedication of the master craftsman improving his life work, I teared up uncontrollably (at the bemusement of my neighbour who was wolfing down her sandwich).

I thought of my own struggles: as a creative writer, I remember writing hundreds of poems just to get the basic structure right (hey, they were mostly poems on unrequited love…but that still counts!).

Embodying the shokunin spirit is the simplest of all self-improvement approaches, but also the hardest given its singular focus, which manifests in two forms: incremental improvements and utter devotion to one’s craft.

Incremental improvements

What exactly are incremental improvements? To better illustrate this, one word that comes to mind is Kaizen, the practice of small, incremental improvements popularized in American management models.* However, Kaizen was first claimed to originate from the Toyota manufacturing factories, where cars were made in such a way that the quality improves slightly but noticeably as workers refine their labor practices.

Jiro echoes such a principle: “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.”

Another idea is the notion of deliberate practice, where people improve their skills by repeatedly sharpening one particular subset of the skill over time. Doctor Anders Ericsson and his colleagues, who analyzed the role of intense practice in top violin players’ performances, posited in their article that “[m]any characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years.”

To practice incremental improvements, you might find it helpful to list down all subsets of the skill you wish to improve. Pick one and improve it for a certain duration. By improving daily on a manageable basis, one can be sustainable in her/his self-improvement of a specific skillset and avoid burnout. Notice that goal-setting, while popular in self-improvement circles, is not the focus here. The key is consistency on a daily/regular basis, as eloquently espoused by Gregory Ciotti in his article on New Year Resolutions.

However, incremental improvements without a clear purpose in mind are simply not sustainable. To place the practice of incremental improvements in the right framework, one needs to harness a long-term, all-encompassing devotion to one’s craft. (Of course, long-term devotion will seem foolish without a systematic approach to improve yourself on a daily basis.)

Haruki Murakami shares a similar perspective in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running:

“One by one, I’ll face the tasks before me and complete them as best I can. Focusing on each stride forward, but at the same time taking a long-range view, scanning the scenery as far ahead as I can. I am, after all, a long distance runner.”

The winning combination of incremental improvements and utter devotion is what completes the spirit of the shokunin.

Utter devotion to one’s craft (not passion!)

Cal Newport has written about how Steve Martin “intellectualized” his comedy routine through continual, rigorous analysis of others’ techniques and his own. Jiro’s work with sushi employs the same unsparing dedication. To call it ‘passion’ would be a disservice to the immense discipline of both men’s works – it takes a lot more than just passion to be that persistent.

Neither loving what you do, nor being happy in what you do, necessarily equates to being good at what you do.(Ask my friends about my American Idol-worthy singing performance.)

Moreover, feeling good all the time is overrated as a need in human society, and doesn’t necessarily do much in the spirit of self-improvement. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek hammers it home here: “For example, let’s be serious: when you are in a creative endeavor, in that wonderful fever–“My God, I’m onto something!” and so on–, happiness doesn’t enter it. You are ready to suffer.”

What?!’ you may be thinking – ‘Do I have to suffer?’ While Žižek might have gone a bit too romantic with his philosophy, such incremental improvements are extremely tedious and even boring, making passion a non-factor in the long run. It takes a certain maniacal devotion to one’s craft, to be able to sacrifice almost everything else in life to attain improvement. In the case of Jiro, he rarely spends time with his wife (or so the documentary implies) and while he is often seen making sushi with his sons (both in the same business), he likely doesn’t see them often aside from this.

And this, in many ways, is a dealbreaker for many of us who strive to achieve a balance between dedication to work and investment in one’s family. The much exhorted work-life balance as a modern-day ideal is at stake here. Some might see Jiro’s ‘dedication’ as a form of the career perfectionism that runs deep in modern society, or a capitulation to society’s ever more demanding professional expectations at the expense of family life. There’s no mincing words here: the shokunin spirit has a dark side, if not practiced properly.

The solution to this seeming imbalance is larger than the individual variable,; that is, the shokunin spirit of self-improvement can and should only exist within a broader culture of moral integrity. In this case, Integrity requires that we give the best towards work and family alike. One should not have to sacrifice family dinners in order to carve out time for work. A fierce commitment to such an integrity would compel one to maintain the delicate balance, however hard it would be, because to violate that integrity would be to betray that culture and risk ostracization.

But the doubt remains: can one really have the whole cake and eat it too? Has it been done before? Google leaders Schmidt and Rosenberg, in their book How Google Works, provide a tantalizing perspective regarding such an ideal: “The best cultures invite and enable people to be overworked in a good way, with too many interesting things to do both at work and at home.” I suspect that this is how Jiro thrives in his work environment – that he has built a culture of moral integrity to his work and also to his family.

While sacrificing a significant portion of his family commitments (again, as implicated in the documentary – we don’t know for sure), Jiro still builds a community of aspiring shokunins around him that acts as family as well – and Jiro even combines the two, thanks to his sons’ involvement in the sushi business. The shokunin community then serves two purposes: motivating professional growth in an environment that is built on such values, as well as building deep, personal ties to counteract the backlash that inevitably comes with the former. The professional merges with the personal to fuel one’s life to even greater trajectories.

Nevertheless, the process of self-improvement is far harder and slower than one may expect, so while passion and happiness are nice, they are non-essential in the grind of daily routines to improve one’s craft. What matters more is an extreme form of discipline, an utter devotion to your craft. From this you derive a deep sense of meaning, or ethos, in every step of your craft.

If becoming a shokunin is such a laborious journey, why bother?

For one, the world has become competitive, therefore requiring us to find new ways to stand out. The capitalist economy demands increasing specialization and differentiation – take, for instance, the explosion of brands across different sectors, even in the not-for-profit scene – a phenomenon that has intensified as resources become scarce. Working your way to become a shokunin – a ‘super-specialist’ – seems to be a viable differentiation strategy.

But I believe that the shokunin spirit is not just about specialization and differentiation. Like Nike’s battle cry “Just Do It,” the shokunin spirit is an attitude about life.

The art of becoming a shokunin is simply the foundation of all self-improvement approaches, the desire to improve that stands on its own. Fame and fortune become irrelevant in the quest to improve one’s work. Not surprisingly, some if not many shokunins shun the spotlight to devote themselves to the work they choose to do. In his Atlantic article writer David Zweig documents “the Invisibles,” people who are highly skilled at their professions at the expense of public attention – these folks aren’t concerned with how many Facebook likes they get! One profession Zweig highlights is the fact checker:

“He must work confidently, meticulously, and take accuracy as its own reward. If he makes an error the stakes can be enormous—a loss of his job, a lawsuit, the damaged reputation of a writer, editors, and a publication…This requires essentially a reverse skill set, hell, a reverse attitude about life in a culture that seeks endless pats on the back…”

Sometimes you fall, sometimes you hit a wall, but you focus on improving in spite of it all. Perhaps, the shokunin spirit is human life in its most authentic, beautiful form.

*Note: I didn’t mention Japanese factory practices in general as that’s simply not accurate. Furthermore, Kaizen is arguably an American term somehow inaccurately tied with Japanese working culture. Traveler, an experienced American writer on the Japanese language, debunks such an overgeneralization here.

One thought on “The Secret Behind Being Truly World Class.

  1. Engaging article.

    You have last written here a couple of months back. Get back, buddy. Would like to read more.

    Are you on Quora? You can promote your thoughts there which in turn will get traffic to your website.

    Take care

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