The concept of Mastery is a powerful one, too often lost in today’s multitasked, cross-functional times. We pride ourselves in being jacks-of-all-trades, mildly good at many things as we climb the ladder, but often remaining master of none.

I’ve been going to Japan for years, but a couple of years ago, my experience of being there went to a whole other level.

Sukiyabashi Jiro Ginza, a small, nondescript 10-seat restaurant, hidden in a basement attached to the Ginza Metro Station, was a real revelation. In less than 40 minutes, and without any particular pomp or the now all-too familiar Portlandian jazz-handed delivery that makes me grind my teeth in your average Californian restaurant (“Today’s special is a purse of wasabi-crusted Davies River snapper floating above a mélange of microgreens and sea-vegetables harvested at dawn...”) I ate, quite simply, the best thing I have ever eaten: fresh sushi delivered in the simplest way possible, no excess words or gestures. Karei, expertly glazed sole, was followed by sumi-ika, squid on a bed of perfectly sweet-acidic rice, with the obligatory toro, tuna nigiri, so soft and caramelly it literally dissolved in my mouth…the taste progression kept on going and going. No flourishes, just a simple handing over at Jiro’s pace, not mine (the one time in my life that being considered a fast eater has proven to be good manners), a gentle nod, no need to watch you roll your eyes in ecstasy, no need for self-gratification, no need to have you do anything other than quietly relish the moment. Fifteen pieces of sushi and a small, perfect, sweet egg dessert later, I left, having paid 400 bucks for an experience that, to this day, I have not forgotten. It is worth noting that I hate eating in restaurants alone, but felt completely comfortable here. I speak no Japanese, but was not chided for not doing so. A simple finger-point at what I think was something akin to “Feed Me Anything You Want” on the menu, and I was off.

Jiro does Dream of Sushi, and now, thanks to him, so do I.

David Gelb’s documentary does incredible justice to this experience, but nothing can replace the feeling of being there, of seeing the minute interactions: the gentle steadying of the fish atop the delicate pile of rice, the tiny motions to centre the nigiri perfectly on the plate, the final, and surprisingly slow brush of oil to produce the necessary gleam on the fish surface. Nothing was performed, as it is in many of today’s restaurants, nothing was excessive in either movement or gesture. All I saw was the passion. The nuance. The mastery.

The betterness.

It would be easy and reductive to describe this whole experience as ‘Japanese,’ a culture known for its shuhari, the martial arts-derived philosophy of things done well, a set of concentric circles, ‘shu’ meaning to obey, to learn the fundamentals, sits inside ‘ha,’ meaning to detach, specifically to detach from one’s ego, both sitting inside the final circle, ‘ri’ which means to separate, or to transcend. Whilst this particular concept of watching, then detaching, then transcending is very Japanese in its origin, the notion of mastery is something that occurs in cultures around the world, and one that has particular relevance today.

The Barn Roastery opened in Berlin in September of 2012. Describing their Brew Bar as “rather a taste lab than a coffee shop,” they use a vintage 1955 Probat roast machine that has been completely modernized with Cropster roast Profiling software, artistry meets state of the art. Their people, passionate to say the least, are evangelical about coffee: in their 650+ word “Coffee Guidelines,” they state: “No good comes out of dirty equipment. It is second nature to us to keep all of our equipment clean at all times. A Formula One driver would certainly not start the Grand Prix of Monte Carlo in a dirty car—we keep that picture in mind when we are doing our job creating a good cup of coffee.” To say the least, this place is approaching its business as a shuhari journey. But, they have taken it a stage further: banning milk in coffee, sugar, music and even…strollers. They ask you if it is “your first time” when you come in, and give you a small guide detailing the experience when you tell them that it is. On their Facebook page they write:

As such we have created a space without music and laptops where people can talk or listen to each other. Our menu is very reduced and catered towards adults. We do like children but we would ask parents to look after them while they are with us. Children can not access the areas of production. This is very dangerous. Whilst many of our regular customers understand our concept in our coffee shop in Auguststrasse, we have spent countless times explaining to others why they cannot enter our shop with their prams. With this experience in mind, we have decided to have a clearer entrance to our new space. A high volume of prams would make it extremely difficult to handle evacuation in case of fire. So we have decided to have none. We really want to concentrate on our coffee brewing mostly and not arguing why this or that is not possible. We understand that this is not for everybody, but some will appreciate it a lot.

I completely understand that this is not for everyone, and I for one appreciate it a lot, craving a quiet coffee shop where I can get away and simply relish the act of drinking great coffee. One comment of many on Facebook says: “So refreshing to read about a business that’s allowed to do exactly what they set out to do. There was no need in stating this was not in the United States.”

Or perhaps for me it is answering something deeper—to relinquish my need for endless control over everything, to be actually directed towards the best of something by a bona fide expert in that topic, someone passionate and more knowledgeable than me, curating something that has deep personal meaning to them. It does seem that mastery and a declaration of fearless independence, the application of the rules on one’s own terms, seem to go hand in hand, both in the pace of Jiro’s restaurant and The Barn Roastery’s stroller-blocking bar on their front door. Amusingly, San Francisco’s Mission-based (and therefore, undeniably hipster) coffee shop Four Barrels has taken this to the extreme, banning Instagram photos of their coffee and controversially posting a sign in their back alley declaring that patrons cannot “talk about annoying hipster topics, or who you fucked last night. You shouldn’t do that anyhow, but our neighbours actually can hear you.”

It’s interesting how the scale of many of these enterprises allows them to be this defensive about their philosophy, how many of them seem adamant that they will not grow, that they will stay small and refine rather than somehow grow and lose themselves, their sense of passion and somehow their sense of control over their own destiny and mastery. Unshackled by corporate behavior manuals and training modules, they seem to have made a choice: that of Betterness, not Biggerness.

My laptop started to grind slower and slower as I was typing that last paragraph, so I just performed a ‘force quit’ on it, to see what was wrong. Eleven programs were running consecutively, that was the problem. I looked through the list and tried to convince myself I needed to be using them all at once. Not a particularly deep metaphor, just a reality for many of us. We pride ourselves on our multitasked, cross-functional states of being, proudly talking in our cars, loudly running full meetings over the trailers in movie theatres, uploading entire presentations long after the captain has told us to fasten our seatbelts and turn off our technology on the runway. I lived in Singapore for many months of last year and was amazed at how people constantly smashed into each other on the subway and in malls, heads down, playing a video game or watching the news. In business, people pride themselves in changing jobs every year, of accelerating up the ladder, of getting to the top fast, of doing many things, of running eleven programs at once. I wonder if this is working, if all of this ‘jack-of-all-trades-ness’ is forcing any sense of progression and mastery out of our systems.

I had an experience recently where the most senior member of a client team prided himself on being “new to the job, in fact, new to this business,” and then proceeded to direct his team and us down several blind alleys despite the fact that we kept asking his more experienced yet junior colleagues to help explain to him the nuances of what he seemed blatantly unaware of. I’m not for a second suggesting that everyone needs to dedicate themselves to a lifetime of vocational study of a single subject, but at least valuing or seeking that out in others will help you make smarter decisions in the long run. Too often people pride themselves on having a grasp of a subject line rather than an understanding of the content, and it shows.

To us as designers, skill, craft and an ongoing pursuit of excellence are fundamental; both economically, as our clients are paying us top-dollar to be the best, but also as an organizational asset. We work hard at our own journeys of becoming better, at coaching ourselves and others forward, of developing a sense of personal progression and self-improvement; it shows up in our interactions with each other and again ultimately to our clients that we care about the continued honing of our skills. Design is on many levels vocational; it is, a much-underused word today, a talent, and it needs to be nurtured, fostered and fed. Keeping ourselves in the flow of that, of feeling like we are advancing, is important. Of becoming better, not of getting bigger.

So, what advice do I have? Interestingly at IDEO we have started talking about three phases of our own collective career development as we progress up the organization, three levels of ‘guided mastery,’ and there seems to be a logical connection back to the fundamentals of shuhari.

The centre, the first level, or shu, is to see oneself as the apprentice, of being in ‘learning mode,’ relishing the act of not-knowing, at whatever stage of your career you are at, hopefully acquiring new skills, behaviors, and of course, craft, whether it is design, research, business operations or finance, everything is about understanding how to bring artistry to bear on that discipline. This can apply to someone who is just joining the company, someone who is starting client or enterprise leadership, or someone at a very senior level who is in the process of evolving or reframing their role. I’ve done this myself many times: shifting geographies, roles and foci, so I speak from experience. Taking the time to both learn and, more importantly, self-reflect, is the best career advice I could give anyone.

The next level, the second concentric circle, the ha, is what we would describe as ‘fluency.’ This is about the ability to let go, about finding your own ‘creative confidence,’ as IDEO founder David Kelley would call it, but I would categorize it as ‘post-ego’ behavior—the ability to be calm, to be empathic, to understand and relish in deep collaboration with others, to learn broadly and to enjoy how other people can both reflect back your ideas and build on them, but help keep you in check. We use the phrase ‘T-shaped people’ to describe this internally—the cross-stroke represents a desire to be broadly empathic, to understand and respect the disciplines of others, while the down stroke represents depth in your chosen craft, a sense of personal purpose and passion. I am no way saying that we are devout as Jiro and we are certainly not booked up for a year in advance, but we have firmly let go of our collective ego and have developed an approach that does not rely on external creative flourishes and massive personal validation: like him, we are calm and keep on making our sushi, quietly.

The final, third circle, the ri, is the level of abstraction that we would describe as ‘teaching.’ ‘Transcendence’ is a heavy word, for us it simply means getting over yourself and helping others. Quite simply, we take our craft and the craft of others very seriously, and help make sure that we are present and nurturing of one another. Personal progression is marked as much by the people you have helped as things you have done, and by the people that have helped you. Whilst nowhere near the stringent guidelines of The Barn Roastery, we equally care about our people, their success and the elevation of the respective craft in all that we all do. I think collectively, that we are a T-shaped organization—broad and supportive at our core, but still deep and focused where it matters.

So, back to Jiro. One thing he espouses is “Once you decide on your 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 is the key to being regarded honorably.” The value of not just enjoying your work, but of “falling in love with it,” as he says, is critical. Too often we separate things we do for money and things we love, or things we do vs things we want to get better at, and any sense of personal mastery gets pushed to the side. I turn 50 this year, a milestone for many and I am no exception, and in getting myself mentally steeled for the pending meltdown, I have been looking at people, who, from the outside, seemed to age well, with dignity, wisdom and passion. Picasso stands out as someone who got better as he got older, and his seminal quote: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child,” has always inspired me, of a dignified ageing with an increased curiosity, of a lifetime spent refining and honing a skill, of a sense of becoming personally better.

Further Reading

See Adam Davidson’s article “Don’t Mock the Artisanal-Pickle Makers” in The New York Times and Nicholas Coldicott’s piece, “The Fine Art of a Perfect Cup of Coffee”, in CNN Travel.

The idea of the T-Shaped person is dear to us, we’ve been referring to it from the very inception of this magazine. Empathy towards others and their discipline and curiosity regarding other fields are both essential aptitudes in coming years. Returning to the idea of mastery—not just in handicraft but in any discipline, putting forward opinions and values. Showing openness and striving for transdisciplinarity. Those aptitudes, whether as individuals or organizations, will make or break many a career and company — AR

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