Shokunin Teaching: What Teachers Can Learn from Jiro Dreams of Sushi

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“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 honorably.”

–Jiro Ono

A friend told me that I should watch this documentary on Netflix: Jiro Dreams of Sushi. That was months ago, and I’ve had the movie in my queue to watch for quite a while.  But I just kept thinking, a movie about sushi? Really?

Dear readers, I finally watched the film.

It was engrossing.  How can a movie about sushi be so good, you might ask?  I’m not really sure, but trust me, it was.

Jiro Ono (at the time of filming) is 85 years old.  He has been perfecting his craft of making sushi since he was an adolescent.  He is never satisfied but continues to strive for better tasting sushi every day.  His restaurant has only 10 seats, is in the bottom of a business high-rise next to a subway station, and has only outdoor toilets. Nevertheless, Sukiyabashi Jiro has received the highest rating (3 stars) from Michelin; hopeful diners reserve their spots three months in advance; and patrons pay around $300 (30,000 yen) for a meal that lasts between 15 and 30 minutes.  Many food critics consider Jiro Ono’s sushi to be the best in the world.

I was going to write a blog post about all the lessons I learned from the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but that’s already been done.  I especially enjoyed reading this article from Lifehacker and this one from The Power 2 Switch Blog.

As many other people have stated, Jiro Dreams of Sushi inspired me to be better and better at what I do. Compared to Jiro’s more than 75 years making sushi, my 14 years of experience in the classroom seem paltry at best.  When Jiro’s apprentices work for him for 10 years before being released on their own, 5 years before they can stand behind the counter to make sushi, the idea that anyone could achieve mastery in less time than a decade is now incredible to me.   I suspect that teaching is even more complex than making sushi (although Jiro’s attention to detail may belie that statement), so we may need to expect to spend even more than ten years honing our craft to achieve expertise.

In fact, this documentary was a perfect illustration of the 10,000 hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell outlined in Outliers.

Jiro is called “shokunin,” which roughly means craftsman or artisan.  In Japan, the idea of shokunin is that one works little by little with pride and love to perfect one’s art. To be a great teacher, think of it not as a job but as an art.  Perfecting my art with pride, love, and a desire to contribute to my community brings me much joy. Any job, any skill, in fact, can be an art if it is treated as such.

I was impressed by how differently the Japanese and American cultures think of success.  In the U.S. we tend to seek novelty and change. We like our career trajectories to be on a clear and steep incline.  We don’t really accept that mastering a skill is really, really hard work and a result of digging deep when no one is watching.

What Jiro does and what he has his apprentices do is at times incredibly difficult.  Doing work that we love will not be easy. Often boring, repetitive, and thankless invisible acts yield the most fruit, like gently waving seaweed over an open flame to achieve the proper smoked flavor or like massaging octopus for 45 minutes. I am inspired to look for some of these tasks in my teaching day that no one will see but me and work on perfecting them.

It struck me that Jiro really doesn’t have anyone now who can advise or mentor him.  He is already the best sushi chef in the world.  Critics and diners alike acknowledge that his sushi is better than any other, but none of these could tell him why that is or how to improve.  Winning an award from Michelin has not stopped his desire to improve, even though there are no higher ratings to achieve. His motivation now must be from his own spirit. At a certain point, we have to be able to rely on our own perception of the mastery of our craft. We have to take charge of our own action research and measure our own improvement.

Please note that I’m not saying that we all need to be so obsessed with our jobs to the point that we neglect our families or the rest of our lives. There are moments in the film that are poignant as Jiro’s sons describe how he was never at home when they were children.  (Keep in mind, though, that they work very closely together now.) However, if we want to become experts at anything, we must be prepared for a long-term commitment.

I can understand Jiro’s obsession with pursuing perfection.  Even after more than a decade of teaching, I still feel like I have so much to learn.  I was inspired by his relentless pursuit of deliciousness; I hope to continue learning about my craft until the day I retire.

I don’t know if I’ll be in the classroom when I’m 85; but if I am, feel free to fight over filming rights.

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