Perfection… is it attainable and is it desirable?

I was listening to BBC World on Sirius Radio the other day. There was an interesting segment that caught my ear.  A person was giving a personal view point on “perfection” and the dangers of pursuing that ultimate goal, and why “good enough” is good enough. I found myself becoming a little annoyed with her view point.

She actually made the argument that the path towards perfection in fraught with negativities and dangers.

Amongst others, she discussed sushi Chef Jiro Ono as one example of an “unhealthy” pursuit of perfection.

This piqued my interest enough to start reading about the chef and his life.  His story is one that encapsulates the meaning of pursuing perfection.

Jiro Ono’s father was an alcoholic and worked in a factory.  When Jiro was 7 years old, his 1337256000000.cachedfather abandoned the family. The family had no money so Jiro left home at the age of 9 and started apprenticing at a sushi shop…working the same job for 76 years. Jiro currently holds the distinction of being the world’s oldest Three Star Michelin Chef at the age of 86.  He is regarded so highly, that even acclaimed chefs Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert, and countless others, hail him as the greatest sushi chef that has ever lived, or at least currently the best sushi chef in the world.

Sushi is special and so uniquely Japanese.   It’s what I would define as a precision food.  If prepared sloppily it looks unappetizing.  One of the skills of being a Master Sushi Chef is to make raw meat into something that looks like a work of art, while at the same time appetizing.

There is a district in Tokyo called the Ginza district.  This district is widely regarded as one DSC_9081of the world’s most luxurious shopping centers.  In between the luxury stores, which include, amongst others Dior, Prada, Armani, and Chanel, lays a dull office building. Tucked away in its basement, a glass door away from a subway platform is Sukiyabashi Jiro a tiny sushi bar with only 10 seats.  The restaurant has no bathroom, no slick interior design.  Since it is so small, this allows the staff to focus on preparing top-quality sushi and serving each client the best possible way, noticing little details like how much they eat, or if they are right-handed or left-handed.

Despite his age, Jiro, come rain or shine, takes the subway to work every morning.  He still Kozue-Tokyo-Assorted-sashimioversees most of the details of his restaurant, including reservations and menu.  The chef takes no days off other than for national holidays or funerals. But in addition to purchasing the best and highest quality fish, Jiro also has a special rice dealer who sells his best grains to him, in order to optimize his sushi.

Only six people work at Sukiyabashi Jiro: Yoshikazu (chef Ono’s son); another  sushi chef; three apprentices, who must train with Ono for a decade to attain the status of shokunin; a woman who handles the accounting and the cash register, and another woman who cleans the restaurant.

Sukiyabashi-Jiro-Ginza-Tokyo-Oo-toro-594x445Sukiyabashi Jiro is so popular you have to make a reservation up to a year in advance and pay $368 (around 30,000 yen) for a fixed menu of 20 pieces of sushi.

The attention to detail is incredible.  For instance, Jiro ages his tuna for up to 10 days, and apprentices massage the octopus by hand for 50 minutes before preparing it. Chef Ono is such a perfectionist that he’ll even make his sushi different sizes for different customers, so that an entire party finishes the food at the same time.

Even though Jiro has had a hard life and follows a strict routine, he is enormously happy with his work; as he has stated many times, he is blissful and truly enjoys his work, which appears to keep him vital in his old age.

However, in order to pursue happiness Chef Ono has had to compromise his relationship with his family and two sons (which to some people may appear extreme). His relationship Sukiyabashi-Jiro-Ginza-Tokyo-Chef-Jiro-Ono-at-Workwith his eldest son Yoshikazu, who is the worthy heir to Jiro’s legacy, is sometimes strained since at times it is hard for Yoshikazu to live up to his full potential in his father’s shadow.

Chef Ono increases his creativity by focusing within a narrow range, rather than going wide.  By starting with the same daily routine, pursuing a narrow focus, combined with his talent and hard work, this allows him to be open to true creativity.

Beyond Chef Ono’s life and his restaurant, I am truly interested in his philosophies – which are what drives him in his pursuit of perfection, including:

  • “Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work.” – It is interesting that he doesn’t say “find work that you love”; rather he says “love the work we have chosen.”
  •  “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 and is the key to success.”
  • “Cultivate love for your work, much like we do in a serious relationship that ultimately results in marriage. Joyful work requires a lifetime of devotion.”

Jiro’s philosophy on work is very different to how most of us perceive work.  In our culture we tend to categorize work in two ways, either work we dream of doing, or work we have to do for income in order to afford our lifestyles.  I think many of us tell ourselves that the work we would absolutely love to do is just a dream and we must endure a career of mediocre enjoyment until we hit retirement and only at that time can we begin enjoying life.

What’s very interesting is that Chef Ono still feels he hasn’t reached perfection despite the fact he has 3 Michelin Stars*.  So, the lesson I pull out of this is that perfection is never achieved but the driver to attain it, which keeps us motivated and moving forward.  The resulting created drive constantly pushes us though the boundaries which we originally thought were personal limits, allowing us to realize that we have so much more potential than originally we thought we had!


DSC_0129The Japanese word “kaizen” simply means “improvement”. The word refers to any improvement, one-time or continuous, large or small.  The word Kaizen in English is typically applied to measures for implementing continuous improvement.  It is a philosophy I like to apply, or at least try to.

Cycling is physical and hard, taking serious commitment.  To have fun with cycling whether racing, or just keeping up with the local club ride, requires a certain level of fitness, achieved by dedication, time and hard work. One needs to put in the training, effort, and absorb the necessary pain to push through to the next fitness level.  The longer I participate in this sport, and apply myself the more improvements I achieve and find myself achieving things on a bike that I originally thought were not possible due to my size and weight!

article-2172800-13D27C1E000005DC-478_468x286To me perfection and continuous improvement do not have to be what other people think it is, but it’s what I think it is, whatever aspect in life we are talking about whether its sports, life, relationships, or work.  Doing the best I can, as an individual, giving 100% of my effort and ability, whether it’s besting a previous workout, pushing past maximums, that to my mind is one avenue of pursuing perfection…finding out what my body is capable of by pushing to optimize its capabilities.

I would never want to live in a world where “good is good enough.” I think the pursuit of perfection raises us and our spirit…for instance; it is what makes the Olympics so wonderful Cavendish of Britain cycles to win the London-Surrey Cycle Classic road race, a test event for the London 2012 Olympic Gamesand exciting, where the athletes’ lifetime of work comes to the fore, under the bright lights of the world stage. Pushing the boundaries, passing what we previously thought was impossible to surpass.   Without the pursuit of perfection and achieving the best we are capable of, to my mind, the world would be boring.  Pushing the outer boundaries is what pushes us forward as individuals, as well as human kind as a whole. Since perfection is never attained, it is what drives us further than we believed we could go.

Having said all this, I think there are always two sides of anything.  Whatever people do, whether eating, drinking, working, pushing to be the best whatever, we can take it too far. Pushing for perfection doesn’t need to be unhealthy as long as we do not lose sight of the other things in our life, that are important such as love, family, friends, health, etc.

But, I do not like or subscribe to the notion of “It’s good enough.” Those three words really bug me! It is lazy.  Granted there are situations where one has to prioritize if one is under pressure.  But I want to make that the exception and not the rule.  I feel that if I was to live by those three words I would be stuck in the universe of mediocrity!  No thank you!

“The man with insight enough to admit his limitations comes nearest to perfection.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


~ by Jens Wallrabe on January 7, 2013.

8 Responses to “Perfection… is it attainable and is it desirable?”

  1. Love this, Jens. Thank you for the background on Chef Jiro Ono. What an awesome story. Your entire post was inspirational. Thank you!

  2. Sushi is epic dining to some, bait to others. Perfection is an illusion and as Buddha teaches us, it is part of the illusion. It can not be achieved. It doesn’t exist. Thus one trying for perfection, in anything, is on a spiral and either realizes that the pursuit is the goal (attainment is impossible) or they are bitter people living a life of disappointment. This is different from being the best one can be… as long as one balances perceived reality in. In Tracy Kidder’s great book The Soul Of A New Machine, an engineer is denied funds and time to perfect part of a project. He told that what he has already done meets the specs and perfection will not improve anything at his end. He told told, “Not everything needs to be done well.” Sometimes a person is happier with good enough.

    • Excellent Philip. Totally understand that perfection does not exist. But, to me, defining perfection within one’s own sphere, whether is is an illusion and/or unattainable, is what pushes me to push my own perception of what is possible…so to sum up, for me and for many people, it is a motivator within certain aspects of life…it may be as simple as climbing a hill on a bike in 10 minutes and learning everything one has to do to accomplish that…there are so many ways of looking at this subject…

      • Is there then satisfaction in climbing a hill in eleven minutes and knowing you gave it your best, without any reservations or excuses… even if you know the hill can be climbed by others in less time. Or is there disappointment. And maybe fear… of aging (I’m 71, I know this scenario personally), of weakening, of loosing touch with what you consider touchstones of your life. Is the quest for the illusion a battle against time, and time will win. Or a battle with self-delusion. Thinking about all this while climbing that hill, though, can interfere with the sunny day and the wind in your face. Pedal more. Worry about it less.

      • …there are so many levels to this. One can go as deep as one wants…I am talking about perfection, in regards to how it relates to me, and in those terms it is meant to be fairly simple. However, you have introduced some other interesting dimensions in regards to thinking and viewing perfection. Thank you!

      • Perfection is a slippery thing. You think you have it firmly in your hand, but then the notion that maybe, just maybe, with a half-erg more effort, you could have done even better. And all you’re holding is a disputable memory. There is no perfection. Religious zealots worship it without realization. Another debate. Artists cut off ears. Musicians go deaf. Copywriters become farmers.

      • I totally understand where you are coming from Philip. I really do. And, I agree with you and the examples you put forward. I still believe that, in a healthy environment, it is the motivator that keeps on giving… 🙂 Although, as stated, if perfection is looked at in the extreme, it is both damaging and unproductive…

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