Yesterday I watched a documentary called Jiro Dreams of Sushi, depicting the life of an 85-year-old sushi-master called Jiro. When this film was shot, he had been making sushi for 75 years, ever since the age of 10. He practically never took time off and lived for his work in every possible sense.
His apprentices were made to work just as hard on their craft. They spent ten years just practicing cutting and preparing the fish. After that, they’d get to cook the eggs.
Jiro is shown as a man obsessed with sushi, sacrificing his personal life and relationship with children in his search for the perfect nigiri. He’s brilliant, but his brilliance carries a streak of cruelty, similar to what we can see in geniuses like Salvador Dali.
Personally I’m drawn to this thought of devoting an entire lifetime to learning a craft. “You can always do things better,” Jiro says. This is a typical way of thought characterizing the so-called shokunin, of which Jiro is a prime example.
The Japanese word shokunin is defined by both Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan,’ but such a literal description does not fully express the deeper meaning. The Japanese apprentice is taught that shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement. – Tasio Odate
Shokunin has five pillars, here outlined:
- Majime, the serious dedication to the art. The content of this one is obvious. You must be committed and ready to work hard.
- Kojoshin. The constant attempt to improve. You’re never ready, and can always do better. This is the stuff perfectionists are made of. Psychologists are generally worried about people who have a surplus of this trait.
- Seiketsukan, or cleanliness. This means you need to have a clean and organized workspace to produce quality results. Wow. That’s a tough nut to crack.
- Ganko, obstinacy. You want everything done your way, and prefer leading to collaborating. Check.
- Jyonetsu. Enthusiasm and love for what you do. Jiro states in the beginning of the document that once you’ve chosen your line of work you must start loving it. Not the other way round. I’m working on this one.
One of Jiro’s apprentices relates his experiences with making an omelette. He failed over 200 times before Jiro let him pass. How can you know what mastery looks like if you have no one to tell you?
Maybe those interested in perfecting their craft have to find a Master somewhere, someone who has almost attained perfection and is willing to teach. I don’t know how many such masters exist anymore.
For writers, such masters could be found quite inexpensively in books. We writers are lucky to have all the masterpieces created by incredibly talented people during centuries and centuries at our disposal. They don’t talk back to us, but if we study them carefully, we can glean a lot of information from them.
So watch Jiro’s documentary if you haven’t yet. It’s very inspirational. But remember, happiness as it is traditionally viewed in the West and the perfecting of a craft do not necessarily go hand in hand. For the fire to burn brightly, something must be consumed.
As for me, I’m going to study some Shakespeare now. If I won’t find perfection there, I’ll at least find some pleasure.