The other night, my wife and I watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The film is a study of Jiro Ono, the man widely considered the finest sushi chef in the world.
Jiro is a shokunin. A shokunin is a sort of artisan, a person dedicated to the improvement of their craft for the betterment of the public. As Jiro explains it in the documentary:
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. Even at my age, after decades of work, I don’t think I have achieved perfection. But I feel ecstatic all day… I love making sushi. That’s the spirit of the shokunin.
Of course, a shokunin doesn’t have to be a chef. A shokunin is a person wholly dedicated to his or her craft. Director and cinematographer Daniel Olivares made a short film about the shokunin at Varis Japan — craftsmen who make aerodynamic parts for high-speed vehicles.
The shokunin are fascinating because they are perfectly content with something I think many of us struggle with in the west. They dream of doing the same thing, every day, for decades. They don’t appear to have a problem with repetition. They are relentlessly hard on themselves in pursuit of the perfection of their craft.
In our culture, we struggle with the Groundhog Day of our lives: the mundanity of a day-to-day life where much of it feels the same. On the other hand, a shokunin looks for repetition. It is an opportunity to improve. Repetition is a chance to get better.
Jiro just wants the best fish to practice his craft on. He is content with that. He and many other shokunin have transformed their work into a spiritual practice.
This is a noble pursuit.
For those of us outside Silicon Valley, the push towards the “new” can be set aside. We can agree to work on perfecting what we do, and let that lead us where it will.