Jiro, Mastery, and Limitations: Philosophies on Work and Learning

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an intimate portrait of mastery, an exploration of the practiced art and craft of one of the world’s best sushi chefs, through the lens of his daily routine and philosophy of training and practice. In many ways, it’s about asymptotically approaching perfection, and the process of constant learning.

Jiro’s approach towards training and education particularly stands out. He’s dedicated his life towards the focused — you could say singleminded, but it’s in fact surprisingly rich and complex — pursuit of mastery and excellence in creating and serving sushi. This includes everything from sourcing the best fish, preparing the best rice, spending hours or even days preparing ingredients, paying incredibly close attention to details of presentation and service before and during the meal — in short, crafting an entire seamless experience that’s as orchestrated and as close to perfect as possible.

His belief is that by working incredibly hard and consistently at a high level for a very long time(a lifetime, let’s say) one can gradually refine a skill and become one of the best in the world. But at the same time: there’s no ultimate pinnacle but rather a continual process of learning and improving.

One of the most astounding facts revealed in the film is that Jiro has been doing the same job essentially nonstop for 75 years. He doesn’t like vacation, and spends as much time as possible in the flow state that his work affords; he loves nothing better in the world than continuing to innovate and delight and practice his craft, to the point that he’s unwilling to retire until the day he’s physically unable to continue.

Similarly astounding are the incredible training periods his apprentices must endure before graduating to become a full, official sushi chef. It seems they spend at least a decade doing things like learning to cook perfect rice and handling kitchen prep work; one of the apprentice chefs had to attempt a particular egg dish over 200 times before managing to make something Jiro deemed passable; once he did it, he cried tears of joy.

We see many gorgeous shots of beautiful pieces of sushi being served, and of the process leading up to one of these renowned, spectacular meals. But we miss a lot of the toil, mistakes, and tedium that must go into achieving this level of perfection. One important thing to keep in mind when thinking about how Jiro’s story can apply to education: nothing happens overnight; there’s no magic threshold, no cliff which upon summiting grants sudden mastery. Mastery is not a static state; it’s an impossible ideal, to which you must work toward constantly, and there’s never a point at which you can say you’ve learned everything.

That’s part of the beauty (or beautiful tragedy; wonder) of life’s finitude — we all have boundaries and limitations, time frames within which we’re allotted hours, days, years to practice and create and innovate and achieve and make our mark. So it’s really important that we work to our highest capability, that we work on the things that matter, and do so in the right ways (for only perfect practice makes perfect, as the saying goes).

Jiro speaks eloquently about the importance of good taste — speaking of taste in the literal sense, reflecting honestly about his own sensory limitations and how he feels he’s reaching the apex of what his palate’s capabilities make possible. He admits to admiring the superior senses of taste and smell of a world-famous French chef. He acknowledges his own limitations, is acutely aware of what they mean — but he works around them, or with them, and focuses relentlessly on what he knows to be his own core values as a chef: tenets of simplicity, purity, cleanliness, quality, order, experience, intimacy, rigor, and mastery of the many essential components of great craftsmanship. Once he identifies these things and knows exactly what to focus on, he spends every day with the same mission, and much the same routine. To many, this would feel mundane, boring, tedious, constricted — but given that Jiro works at such a high level, and with such incredible awareness, this focus actually gives him the creative freedom he needs to reach such a consistently high (and ever-improving) level of greatness.

It admittedly remains a bit of a paradox: such singleminded focus as Jiro personifies is no doubt a great way to walk the path to greatness in a particular field — but at the same time, this can make it harder to expand your horizons broadly and make connections and innovations in unexpected areas.

Perhaps there are two kinds of excellence: the first is the one of perfection of craft that Jiro exemplifies, and the second is the one of breakthroughs, innovations, advances. Within the realm of sushi, we can contrast Jiro with Bun Lai of Miya’s in New Haven, one of the most renowned experimental sushi restaurants in the United States. Jiro’s focus is on taking the basic ingredients of sushi, at their highest possible quality, and elevating them to seemingly impossible heights; the approach Miya’s takes is to experiment with totally new combinations of ingredients, sustainable methods, modern takes on what sushi means. Both chefs manage to surprise us with great food and elevate our experience of sushi; both are necessary. The former leads to refinement in pursuit of perfection; the latter leads to excitement in pursuit of something new.

I identify more strongly with the latter camp, but after watching the film I find a renewed respect and deep admiration for Jiro’s approach as well. It makes me redouble my resolve to spend time practicing the simple things of my (so far) chosen crafts. Even as I seek to keep coming up with new ideas and learning about a wide variety of things — something I both enjoy and believe necessary — I’m now thinking more deeply about the importance of things like a daily writing practice. Also, things I’ve neglected, or haven’t properly prioritized: photography and a keen eye for composition and curating experience; public speaking; teaching and connecting with others. Perhaps I should be holding myself to higher standards.

Jiro has two sons, one of whom is, even in middle age, still effectively an apprentice to his father, second in command, groomed endlessly while his father refuses to retire. The other son now has his own restaurant — which is necessary since only one of them could take the reigns from Jiro, but doesn’t make it easier to escape the shadow cast by his father’s infamy. Even the layout of the younger son’s place is literally a mirror image of Jiro’s. It’s interesting that both sons followed so precisely their father’s footsteps. They’ve doubtless achieved great things, but to me it also feels slightly depressing for how preordained that trajectory appears.

Jiro says that he “let” his sons finish high school, but steered them into the family business rather than sending them to college. Which is a decidedly mixed blessing, because on the one hand they’re sushi superstars, but on the other, they never really got the chance to discover their own interests without the weight of their father’s renown hanging over them. I don’t think they made a bad decision, but it’s completely different than the one I’d want made for me, or that I would want for my children when I have that sort of power. This has also made me more acutely aware of cultural differences, as this seems a more normal path in Japanese culture, as compared to the themes of individualism and self-actualization that course through America. (Also odd: there were hardly any women in the film, not even much mention of Jiro’s wife. No females in either kitchen or fish market. Japanese culture seems to have much less gender diversity than I’m accustomed to seeing.)

So, my main takeaway here is that there are multiple styles and approaches and philosophies towards learning — and towards work in general, and the ongoing processes of training and practice that accompany the road toward whatever sort of mastery one aspires to attain. Jiro’s approach is a noble one; his work is full of grace and wisdom and beauty, and it’s awesome to witness — but it also reinforces that this approach is far from the only one valid.

I’d like to emulate certain aspects of Jiro’s approach, but also combine that with the ethos behind the likes of Richard Feynman or Elon Musk, those who thrive on discovery and forge new ground, pursuing eclectic, divergent, and manifold exciting fields with a passion equal to that of their “primary” pursuits. I’d like to emulate, too, those who aren’t easily identified by single professional identity or goal at all, but rather jump around between things which catch the fire of their whims in a strong, yet sometimes temporary, vortex — people like Umberto Eco or Buckminster Fuller, known best for certain things yet delightfully unpredictable.

I see my objective — my duty, even — as a learner and creator to be recognizing and understanding as many of these approaches as possible, and reconciling them in a way that personally makes sense for me, constantly reevaluating the balance and and how my approach at any given point coincides with my long term aims. If I’m successful at this, my journey will be a voyage on a constantly self-righting ship, changing directions frequently but always moving forward with confidence and purpose.