What Sushi and Trading Have in Common

September 17, 2012
By

Vault
 

These are the opening lines from “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” a wonderful documentary:

What defines deliciousness?

Taste is tough to explain, isn’t it? 

 I would see ideas in dreams. My mind was bursting with ideas. 
 
I would wake up in the middle of the night. In dreams I would have visions of sushi.

Jiro Ono, the dreamer in question, is a sushi chef in his mid-eighties, widely considered the best in the world.

Foodies from all over the globe make the trek to Jiro’s tiny ten-seat restaurant in a Tokyo subway station. Reservations are made a month in advance. The typical meal cost is hundreds of dollars.

On the surface the documentary is about sushi, through the lens of Jiro, his sons (who are both sushi chefs) and his apprentices.

But really the film is about excellence.

As Jiro puts it,

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 the key to being regarded honorably. 

How many individuals truly take that attitude – toward trading or any other pursuit?

Yamamoto is a food writer who has eaten at virtually every sushi restaurant in Tokyo.

Of Jiro’s he says:

Out of hundreds of restaurants, Jiro’s is the best by far. 
 
All of the sushi is simple. It’s completely minimalist. 
 
Master chefs around the world will ask, 
 
“How can something so simple have such a depth of flavor?”
 
If you were to sum up Jiro’s sushi in a nutshell:
 
“Ultimate simplicity leads to purity.” 

There is an interesting lesson here. When one imagines a life dedicated to sushi, one pictures complex, complicated dishes, not a drive to keep things as simple as possible.

Yet simplicity (as Bruce Lee has said) is the ultimate sophistication. The endless energy poured into the pursuit goes into the development of nuances and subtleties – striving to do the little things perfectly. Not adding garnishings, bells and whistles.

Yamamoto adds:

I’ve 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 the sushi better, or to improve his skills.
 
Even now, that’s what he thinks about all day every day. 

An apprenticeship with Jiro can last a decade or longer. Some apprentices, however, last no longer than a week. Others no longer than a day.

As Yamamoto describes it:

When you first sit down at Jiro’s, they give you a hand-squeezed hot towel. 
 
An apprentice must first be able to properly hand-squeeze a towel. 
 
At first the towels are so hot they burn the apprentice’s hands. It’s very painful training, which is very Japanese. 
 
Until you can adequately squeeze a towel, they won’t let you touch the fish. 
 
Then, you learn to cut and prepare the fish. 
 
After about ten years, they let you cook the eggs. 

More fascinating implications. In today’s want-it-now, no-time-to-learn, no-patience-for-subtleties culture, what hope is there for the average individual who aspires to get really, truly good at something? Serious devotion is required.

For Jiro’s apprentices, the highest honor is to be called a shokunin, Japanese for ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan,’ with deeper undertones of duty and calling.

As one of the apprentices recalls:

I had been practicing making the egg sushi for a long time. I thought I would be good at it. 
 
But, when it came to making the real thing… I kept messing up. 
 
I was making up to four a day. 
 
But they kept saying, “No good, no good, no good.” 
 
I felt like it was impossible to satisfy them. After three or four months I had made over 200 that were all rejected. 
 
When I finally did make a good one… Jiro said “Now this is how it should be done.” 
 
I was so happy I cried. 
 
It was a long time before Jiro called me a shokunin. I wanted to say, “You just called me a shokunin, didn’t you?”
 
[Laughing joyfully] I was so happy that I wanted to throw my fist into the air! But, I tried not to let it show. 
 
That’s what you strive for after all these years. 

Who fails at something 200 times without quitting? How many teaching cultures even allow someone to fail that many times, as a natural part of the skill development and maturation process? Can you imagine applying standards that high to today’s generation? To yourself?

And finally, perspective from Jiro’s eldest son, Yoshikazu, who will take over when Jiro passes on:

Always… look ahead and above yourself.

Always try… to improve on yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft.

That’s what he taught me. 

As of this writing, we (Jack and Mike) are in our mid-thirties. If we are fortunate enough to follow in Jiro’s path, we will be trading — and continuously elevating our craft — for another fifty years. Were we sixty, there would yet be another twenty-five years. All that time to focus, immerse and improve.

What a wonderful thought!

One of the most powerful impacts of the movie — besides creating a mouth-watering desire for real sushi, as opposed to the goop-laden American stuff — was to highlight, without saying it aloud, the beauty and virtue found in pursuing excellence for its own sake.

In the long run, one could say, who cares about a little sushi restaurant? Who cares about a life (multiple lives) dedicated to something as trivial as purity of gustatory experience, delivering joy to culinary sojourners?

But is not everything “trivial” from a certain soulless point of view?

The point is not economic impact, or accolades and social recognition, or shallow thoughts of bigness and self-importance. It is the sense of harmony experienced by the shokunin as a fulfilled individual, via both excelling and delighting in a calling.

In this sushi and trading share a common ground.

Jiro’s story will appeal to a great number of people, many of whom don’t like sushi, because it communicates the humble rewards of accomplishment, of passion and dedication to something.

Jiro’s life is a happy one. The joy radiates quietly from his face. In this observer’s opinion, it is because humans are built (by accident of fortuitous circumstance) to be shokunin… to embrace a calling and find meaning, or rather create meaning, within the context of pursuing it.

For Jiro it is sushi. For us it happens to be trading… and you?

JS (jack@mercenarytrader.com)

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