Dreaming of Work

“Once you decide on your occupation… 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 honourably.” – Jiro Ono

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This simple, yet profound, idea permeates the brilliant documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” released in 2011. I’m late to the party in seeing it so this is not a movie review. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Apart from the gruesome sea animal murder scenes, which as a vegan are a little hard to endure, this is one of the most insightful meditations on work I’ve ever seen.

This central notion, however, of work being something honourable, something you can always improve on, and of your life being dedicated to this mastery, is stirring. We live in a time and a world in which we have almost entirely lost this beautiful sense of work. Few people think of their work as something masterful, intricate and worthy. Instead we focus on what our work can give us: principally money. But also recognition, status, excitement. We hold our work and our company’s up to a standard of how we want to feel. And if we don’t feel sufficiently valued we either insist on more, seek it elsewhere or live in a permanent state of discontentment (read: we complain).

But watching an 85 year-old shokunin (in Japanese someone who is a “master of their profession”) create nigiri with relentless determination and focus, presents a profound contrast to our way of working. He has been doing this for more than 70 years. And yet every day he is still motivated, passionate and gives it everything he has.

Why?

Why when many of the people I know, employ or encounter are perpetually dissatisfied? How many do you know who are not only happy with their work today, but would be prepared to commit to doing it for the next 50 years? Or the next 20? Or even the next 5. How many would say they get up every morning feeling like they can achieve more not by moving jobs or changing roles but by simply doing better at what they are good at? How many of us are motivated by the potential to become masters of our art?

The answer one may be tempted to give is that there is something inherently bewitching about making sushi. The finely honed steel blades gliding through carefully prepared fish; the painstaking preparation of the rice; the deep satisfaction of the diners at the end. Perhaps it seems like something artful, in the same class as playing the violin.

The truth is that learning to become a great sushi chef is years – decades, even – of tedious apprenticeship. Long hours, little pay, and always in the shadow of a dogmatic master who cares little about the job satisfaction of his juniors. All you have to look forward to is eventual mastery. There is a particularly arresting sequence on this film where a young apprentice explains how he had to prepare 200 tamagoyaki (egg sushi) all of which were rejected. When the master accepted one he cried.

I doubt I know anyone who would be satisfied with so humble an achievement in their work. Or as grateful for such minor recognition.

Yes, some of us have hobbies in which we invest of some of this energy. I have seen people spend hours tying flies for fishing, writing books, painting or reaching advanced levels of playing an instrument. But there is a very specific class of activity that we permit ourselves to feel such determination in. We would think it bizarre, even tragic, to see someone trying to master shelf packing or coal mining in this way.

And this is in our language. When we work hard we are “stressed” or on the road to “burn out”. We strive for the perfect “work life balance”. And we are encouraged to “pursue our dreams”. The implication being that, in all likelihood, the drudgery of our daily work is preventing us from attaining such heights.

And what are these dreams? Primarily some form of inactivity, indulgence or entertainment. To travel the world. To get a new house or a new car or a new something. To eat at our favourite restaurant or spend time with friends or family. Hardly anyone would answer, as Jiro would, to work more, to improve our skill and to return to our desk better than we left it the night before.

If you ask most people what they’d do if they won the lottery most would tell you they’d quit their job, without missing a beat. Gurus of all shapes and sizes will tell you this is sad because you should live every day like it’s your last. So if this is how you feel you should quit your job now and do something you love.

But maybe this is exactly backwards – and is the reason depression is such an epidemic in our age. We cannot, will not, find the joy and love in our work. There is always something different and better over the horizon if we can just figure out what it is. More money, more recognition, more time off.

If a man can find a lifetime of challenge in slicing fish then I, for one, can find it in building and running a company; and everyone who works for me can find it in writing software, creating content and figuring out marketing problems. And anyone reading this can find it in whatever they have chosen to do. Happiness, I’m musing, is deeper in work, in its creases and folds and molecules, not in its increased absence. Or its extrinsic benefits.

Of course I realise that it is somewhat disingenuous, even bourgeois, to imply that a coal miner could be asked to see his work as artistry. But it is doubtful that anyone reading this piece is a coal miner.

I leave this with a challenge – to myself as much as anyone. Could you utterly immerse yourself in your work for a time? Go to bed with it on your pillow next to you and wake up ready to do it better today? Could work be your life? Your work – not some imaginary dream job, but the work you are doing?

Can you become a shokunin?

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