The pursuit of perfection


But let patience have [her] perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.

James 1:4

Jiro Ono is an 85-years-old Japanese sushi chef who devoted all his life to cook the perfect sushi. His level of attention to the detail is superb. He started his career as a sushi chef starting from scratch. His first years learning the art of sushi were devoted only to steaming rice. No fish involved, no fancy knives, nor recognition, only a total devotion to learn the basics of his discipline. Only years later on in his apprenticeship the young Jiro was introduced to the next steps: serving customers, preparing algae and even later eventually have a say on fish. Now Jiro is a world renewed sushi master. He manages his small restaurant in Tokyo where he serves only the best sushi to a small number of selected connoisseurs. In his life-long learning he developed a sense for the tastes of his customers as well as remembering them for years. This without sacrificing the need for continuous improvement. In our days where our lives appear to be so busy and frenzy the stories like the one of Jiro seem to be deemed to disappear. Who nowadays has the time, or the patience, to spend years steaming rice? Nonetheless there are a number of lessons we can all learn from Jiro’s story.

Perfection requires devotion
The stereotype of the genius is the one of a man whose intelligence and insight changes human perspective on one discipline or way of thinking forever. Human history provides us with many examples of geniuses in many fields: religion (the Buddha), art (Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci), science (Leonardo again, or Nikola Tesla) and music (Mozart). All of those geniuses were indeed more talented than the average person. Nonetheless, they were all characterised by a similar feature: a total devotion to their discipline. It is precisely this devotion which turned some talented individuals into beings who were able to change forever our perspective on things. But devotion is not proper of geniuses only. The same principle can be found in the modern management called kaizen, the continuous marginal improvement of a process. According to this principle a process is continuously revised and updated until perfection. It is following this same principle that Walmart became one of the biggest innovators in American business. No big or sudden change introduced, nor science fictional ground-breaking innovation, but rather continuous and marginal improvement.

Perfection takes a lifetime
One thing that clearly appears from Jiro’s interviews is that he is still developing his approach to sushi. Even after a lifetime his work is still very much experimental. In this Jiro is not much different to a novice. As Suzuki Roshi would say it “He has kept his beginner’s mind”. He’s ability ability to see things like someone seeing them for the first time was unchanged. It is precisely this embedded ability in human to see things this way which provides us always with a new perspective. This perspective is certainly there in Jiro’s sushi. It is for this reason that his work remained fresh and alive until now a days.

The goal is not all

The only way to continue to experiment and to continue in the process of constant improvement is not to be satisfied with our own goals. The goal is just a mental construct  trough which we channel our mental energies. Once one goal is reached a new goal will have to be set. The establishment of a goal is the establishment of expectations. Having a goal in our minds implies that we already have a strong perspective of how one thing should or will turn out, whether we believe we will meet this goal or not. This is not the case if the goal itself does not have such a strong importance. This is exactly how innovators see things. The goal is not everything. For this reason there is room to experiment. What really matters for who is creating something new, in whatever field, is the process of creation itself. Sure, then end product of creation has to be meaningful and useful to some extent, however the final product is not the final objective for which the process of creation was originally started.

Perfection is never reached

All men and women who aimed at creating something new clearly knew that perfection can not be reached. It is like Adam’s painting in the Sistine Chapel. Adam is trying to touch the divine, however, for as near as he can get to God he knows he will never be able to touch him. The same applies to the pursue of perfection. Once we are separated from God, or to the original state of non-awareness of our imperfection, there is no way back. The state of perfection is lost and the search begins. Jiro is very clear in saying that he hasn’t found the perfect recipe for sushi and that he will never be able to reach it. Perhaps it is exactly this awareness of the impossibility of perfection which is moving human beings into this pursue.

So is self-perfection

This continuous improvement does not need to be applied necessarily to an external discipline. It can as well be devoted to the improvement of ourselves. Could you imagine how much of an impact our lives could have on others if we would decide to adopt the same principles to perfect ourselves even if this perfect ideal will never be met? What would happen if we decide to adopt the same attitude towards the development of real compassion for others and for our selves? There is no need to be geniuses, but rather tireless improvers.

So, what does the pursue of perfection mean to you?


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