Recently I watched the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” an excellent movie about a sushi chef in Japan.
Then I watched it again the next day. And took notes. Yeah.
Jiro is 85 years old, and widely regarded as the absolute best sushi chef in the world. But that’s not what’s most fascinating about him.
No, the amazing thing about Jiro is that––even at 85 years old––he’s still working long hours, every single day, trying to continually elevate his craft. This man is the undisputed master! He’s so intense about sushi that guests are intimidated to eat his food! And yet he’s still at it every day, pushing the art forward.
It doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to see how this sort of work ethic and drive applies to playing guitar. So without further ado, here are my top ten takeaways. (All quotes are from Jiro unless noted otherwise).
1. Fall in love with your work.
I fell in love with my work, and gave my life to it.”
Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success, and the key to being regarded honorably.”
This one probably (hopefully?) isn’t hard for you. I know it’s not for me. But many of us think we love playing guitar, when in reality we love being on stage, or writing songs, or just the idea of playing to big adoring crowds. Mark Manson has a great post about this, and in it he says something that I say often: fall in love with the process, not the result.
2. Work hard. Everyday.
The techniques we use are no big secret. It really comes down to making an effort and repeating the same thing everyday.”
-Yoshikazu, Jiro’s oldest son
He repeats the same routine everyday.”
-Yamamoto, food writer
These days, the first thing people want is an easy job. Then they want lots of free time. And then they want lots of money. But they aren’t thinking of building their skills.”
Most people can’t keep up with the hard work, and they quit.”
Ten years to learn the necessary skills is a long time compared to other fields of work.”
The techniques we use are no big secret––it just comes down to doing it every single day? Yeah, that sounds like guitar playing to me. How many of us are out there looking for the secret sauce that goes into making a great guitar player, when we would be 95% of the way there just by showing up each and every day.
And again, when you love the process, you’ll think nothing of spending a few hours with a metronome, trying to play a ballad without rushing. And then doing it again the next day. For weeks until you can do it.
But if you’re in it for an easy job, loads of free time and free money (and believe me I’ve been there on all three), you’re going to quit before you ever get to the good stuff. (Oh and the really good stuff? Probably takes ten years of work––better enjoy the journey.)
3. Practice > Words.
But there is much you can’t learn from words. I have to keep practicing.”
-Nakazawa, Senior Apprentice
This little dagger of a gem comes from Nakazawa, the senior apprentice at Jiro’s restaurant. And damn does it cut deep. As much as I love you for reading this, finish it quickly and get back to the hard work of practicing––there are great things waiting for you there.
4. Tend to the details.
It’s essential to check every detail.”
Damn straight. Jiro says this as he’s microscopically straightening napkins, plates, & chopsticks before guests arrive.
Details matter. Neatness counts. The tiny effort beforehand is easily worth it to avoid the hassle of dealing with issues in the middle of a performance.
5. You can always improve.
They may have mastered their craft, but there’s always room for improvement.”
I would make sushi in my dreams. I would jump out of bed at night with ideas.”
We don’t care about money. All I want to do is make better sushi. I do the same thing over & 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, I’m still learning new techniques. Just when you think you know it all, you realize that you’re just fooling yourself.”
Always look ahead and above yourself. Always try to improve on yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft.”
-Jiro via Yoshikazu
No one knows where the top is? Daayyuumm, that’s heavy shit. There’s no “there” there, but you have to keep going anyway, so enjoy the journey.
6. Love your job, but be your own worst critic
I have seen many chefs who are self-critical, but I’ve never seen a chef who is so hard on himself.”
He sets the standard for self discipline.
He is always looking ahead.
He’s never satisfied with his work.
He’s always trying to find ways to make his sushi better, or to improve his skills.
Even now, that’s what he thinks about all day, every day.”
Again, if you’re in love with playing flawlessly, you’re going to be miserable 99% of the time. But loving the act of playing is never at odds with knowing that you need improvement.
7. Quality, Originality, & Consistency
Having three Michelin stars is a huge deal. (For example, there are only 12 three-starred restaurants in all of the US right now). The food writer Yamamoto mentions that what the Michelin guides are looking for is Quality, Originality, & Consistency.
Could there be a more perfect way to describe the attributes of a great musician? Of course you have to bring the Quality to even be considered. That’s the price of admission.
But assuming you can make quality music, now the question is Do you bring originality to the table? Unless you’re the band leader, no one cares about your originality if the quality isn’t there.
And then of course: Consistency. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever make a mistake, or even have a bad gig. What this means is Can I count on you to get the job done? Because if you’re not dependable, you’re not going to work half as much as you could. One of the best musicians I’ve ever met, a guy who has quality & originality dripping from his pores, is a giant flake. The only reason he doesn’t have a high-paying gig every single night of the week is that he’s unreliable. Sad face.
8. Don’t mistake the tools for the craft.
Yoshikazu: “Everybody loves our rice.”
Rice Vendor: “But if they can’t cook it, what’s the use?”
Jiro: “What’s the point of buying rice that you can’t cook properly?”
Rice Vendor: “You can’t cook rice like this with just big talk.”
I love this. Quit fixating on getting better gear! Chances are you’re nowhere near the point where you’re being held back by the quality of your gear. Wouldn’t the money & time be better spent on lessons & practice?
9. Have a great band & crew.
In reality, the sushi is 95% complete before the fish is brought out to me.”
So, the guy who is doing the least work gets all the limelight.”
This is just like music. Almost all the work is done before you hit the stage, and you depend on a whole bunch of folks who only get noticed if something goes wrong.
You’re only going to sound as good as the ensemble, so please: no more drummer jokes, and buy the sound guy a beer on your break.
10. Be a shokunin.
I wouldn’t say he’s eccentric. He just works relentlessly everyday. The way of the shokunin is to repeat the same thing everyday. They just want to work.”
-Hachiro Mizutani, former apprentice
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.”
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.”
– Tasio Odate (who’s not in the movie, but this quote is badass)
Yeah, be a shokunin. Making music is a beautiful and honorable trade. Commit yourself to it, and do the work joyfully. Everyday.
You can never master it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be trying.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Hugh MacLeod & Questlove for putting this movie squarely on my radar. Hugh is a cartoonist & author. You can find him at GapingVoid.com. Questlove is a drummer, producer, and author. You can find him drumming on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon or at Questlove.com