86 year old Jiro wakes up every morning and goes to work. He works not because he has too, but because his craft defines who he is. He wants to improve, to continually improve. He is already the best in the world, the best in the business, yet he wakes up everyday appreciating the basic truth that drives him to work everyday – He has not achieved perfection. In his own words, “All I want to do is make better sushi.”
He is truly one of the few individuals in the world who have reached this higher level of understanding. To rise above narrow thought of competition and find the essence of what drives the individual. You can look at the person running ahead of you, you can look at the person catching up behind you, but you will never have peace, nor reach the pinnacle of your craft, until you learn that you are only really racing with yourself.
That is when you let go of the world around you and let your own ability define who you are. This is where you enter the realm of the shokunin, the realm of true champions.
“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. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.” – Tasio Orate
Tasio Odate is an artist, sculptor, teacher and author in the field of Japanese woodcrafting. So clearly he should know what he is talking about. Yet I feel his explanation is wrong, perhaps politically correct but wrong in the sense that I believe the answer is incomplete. His answer implies that the master does his job well because of social obligation, that he is doing it for the people because that is what drives him.
While I concur that having a social agenda is a noble aspiration. At it’s essence, it is still a worldly pursuit. The pursuit to constantly satisfy the people around you. I do not know anyone who lives a happy life going around fulfilling other people without taking something in return. Be it a sense of pride, a sense of satisfaction, there is always something they want in return.
Look within you and ask yourself this question – Why am I doing what I’m doing. You may start off with a bunch of reasons about how you want to change the world, but at the end of the day, it is still about you. It will forever be about you. The pride you feel in your work, the elation you get when someone says good job, the thrill you get from becoming the next big thing. It will always be about you.
Besides, if you search for quotes from those who reach the top, they say the same thing. That the person always driving them forward is never the competition, but themselves.
Without focusing on you, you will never be happy in your work. And like Jiro, you will never reach your full potential. Learn to embrace it, all the selfish reasons and selfish goals. Live in them, sleep with them. For only when you reach deep aside yourself and magnify the driving forces within, then can you forget about the world and learn to pursue your craft on your own terms. That, to me, is what shokunin is all about.