12 Lessons for Writers and Artists from Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Part 2/2)

August 12, 2014 5 Comments

This is the second half of my 2-part series, “12 Lessons for Writers and Artists from Jiro Dreams of Sushi”. I’m sorry for being late in posting part 2. If you missed part 1, please read that first. Thanks for visiting! 

Taking things to the next level

7. Focus on your work and finding enjoyment in it, rather than become distracted by money or fame.

Sushi restaurant

The interior of a Japanese restaurant in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Yilin Wang)

  • Jiro’s restaurant is very plain and unassuming, with only seats for 10 people and no restroom. He cares very little about making the restaurant bigger and fancier, and instead puts his effort into keeping it clean and organized.
  • Nor does he seem to care about fame or recognition. “All I want to do is make better sushi,” he states in the documentary. “I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit.”

Relevance to the arts: As we try to take our creative pursuits to the next level and become a professional, we often begin pursuing external rewards: money, publications, awards, and public recognition. While these things can recognize our hard work and boost our confidence, we have to beware becoming too focused on materialistic desires and social rewards. They can very easily become a distraction or source of stress.

Questions to consider: When did you first become interested in writing, art, or another creative pursuit? Has your interest changed over time? How can you focus more on enjoying your work instead of worrying about financial rewards or fame?

8. Test everything before it reaches the public. Be self-critical.

  • Before serving sushi to customers, the chefs in Jiro’s restaurant always try the sushi first.
  • Jiro pays particular attention to the sensory experience offered by his food, and always wants each dish to taste better than the last.
  • The Japanese food critic Yamamoto finds Jiro’s self-critical attitude remarkable. “I have never seen a chef who is so hard on himself,” Yamamoto says. “He’s always trying to make the sushi better or improve his skills… He’s a perfectionist.”

Relevance to the arts: Instead of being in a rush to share your completed work with the public, take some time to scrutinize it and get feedback from others. For writers, this can mean sharing your stories and poems with beta-readers, critique partners, and editors, then revising your work to improve it. Likewise, artists can benefit from feedback from other artists or art enthusiasts.

Questions to consider: Who can you share your projects with for honest and constructive feedback? How can you become more objective and critical about your work? What can you learn from your past projects and do better next time?

9. Learn from and collaborate with other specialists and experts.

Shrimps for sale in Steveston, Richmond. (Yilin Wang)

  • Jiro’s restaurant relies on fish, rice, and other foods supplied by specialist vendors: the tuna vendor sells only tuna and the shrimp vendor sells only shrimp. Each vendor is most knowledgeable in his area, just as Jiro is a master of making sushi.
  • Their attitudes towards work align with Jiro’s and they have a strong working relationship with him. They provide him the best ingredients, which he takes and transforms into the best sushi.

Relevance to the arts: Even though writers and artists can be very solitary figures, we do not create in a vacuum. We are working in a tradition, with many skilled writers and artists who came before us. We are also surrounded by dedicated peers at poetry readings, art schools, music festivals, bookstores, and in the online blogosphere.

Questions to consider: Who can you work with to improve your current project? What about an expert to interview for your article or book? A writing mentor to learn from? An art supplier to teach you how to choose the best charcoal, paintbrush, and sketchbook paper? An experienced model for your next portrait or photo shoot?

10. Keep innovating.

  • Jiro does not limit himself to learning the techniques of his forbearers. He continues trying to invent new dishes and refine his culinary techniques.
  • For example, Jiro used to boil and prepare shrimps in advance, but later began boiling the shrimp when the customers arrived and prepared it right before serving.
  • Likewise, he used to have apprentices massage an octopus for 30 minutes to soften it, but later lengthened it to 40-50 minutes.

Relevance to the arts: As you become familiar with your creative discipline and build a strong grasp of the fundamentals, keep looking for ways to reinvent the wheel. Just as Jiro modifies his techniques repeatedly, consider how you can improve your techniques and approach.

Questions to consider: What techniques have you mastered over time and can they be refined? What changes can you make to familiar routines and habits? What are the rules that are commonly accepted by everyone in your creative field? What happens if you break these conventions?

Two problems with the shokunin approach 

11. Focusing too much on work can result in an unbalanced life.

Surrey International Writer’s Conference (Yilin Wang)

  • While Jiro has reached an incredible level of skill in his career, his obsession with work has taken a heavy toll on his family life.
  • “I would get up at 5:00 in the morning and go to work,” Jiro said, recalling his work life while his sons were growing up. “I would get home after 10:00 at night when [my sons] would be asleep. When they were young, I didn’t get to see them often. I wasn’t much of a father.”

Relevance to the arts: To become a very skilled professional takes an intense amount of time and dedication, which can detract from other areas of your life. Writers and artists are no exception. Some of them become so enthralled with their work that they neglect their family, friends, health, or other responsibilities.

Questions to consider: How much time and energy are you willing to spend on your creative pursuits? What are you willing to sacrifice? What are you not willing to give up? How can you balance your writing and/or art with the rest of your life?

12. Shokunins can be overbearing and impose their beliefs on others.

  • Beyond showing Jiro’s attitudes as a shokunin, the documentary reveals a controversial and problematic side of this master chef: when his sons finished high school, he insisted they follow his path and help out at his restaurant, even though they wanted to attend college.
  • They ended up becoming chefs even though they hated it initially, and to this day have the burden of carrying on his work. According to one of Jiro’s former apprentices, even when Jiro’s dies, his sons will have to carry on his legacy: “Jiro’s ghost will always be there watching.”   

Relevance to the arts: As a writer or artist, we enjoy sharing our writing or art with others. Perhaps you work as a teacher, mentor others, give feedback, share your views on work in interviews or in a blog. Your teachings and attitudes can have a great impact on emerging writers, artists, students, and learners. Be wary of preaching your path as the only way, which can be misleading and even hurtful.

Questions to consider: Do you teach or share your skills with others? How can you take a more open-minded approach towards teaching? How can you help and guide others without stifling their interests and beliefs?

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it with friends or spreading it on social media. Do you know of any similar movies or documentaries that offer lessons for writers and artists?

5 Comments

  1. Reply

    yogacatie

    August 18, 2014

    Lovely series, really enjoyed this thoughtful post. Now I want to watch that documentary! Thank you.

  2. Reply

    Yilin

    August 18, 2014

    Thanks for visiting my blog! I would definitely recommend checking out the documentary. You have a great blog, by the way. I enjoy your insights on yoga.

  3. Reply

    Sharon Rose Gibson (@sharongibson)

    August 21, 2014

    You’ve done an excellent job of pulling out success principles from this movie. I liked the way you shared both the things he did well and his mistakes and what we can learn from them to avoid those. I love his attention on both quality and creativity.

    You’re a gifted writer/teacher and have written this post so clearly. I love your heart to make the world a better place. You’ve certainly accomplished that in sharing this.
    Thank you and keep up the good writing!

    • Reply

      Yilin

      August 22, 2014

      Thank you so much for your beautiful comment, Sharon! I have lots to learn and this movie was both very inspiring and informative. Glad to hear you enjoyed the post.

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