The Tragedy of Perfectionism

by Magnus Schifter-Holm. Published 6th of March, 2013.

The tragedy of perfectionism — parallelisms between the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi", and the entrepreneurial philosophy.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi starts off by stating the impossibility of defining "taste" — being the ideal the protagonists of the documentary wish to achieve. The ideal taste is an extremely subjective point, thus turning such a focal point into words is close to impossible. On the other hand, defining the abstract trait of perfectionism is really simple: a perfectionist is someone who does not believe in perfectionism. A perfectionist will strive to keep on improving what they are committed to do, not because the matter at hand is not good, but because they believe that there is no limit to what one can achieve through continuous hard work. It is a state of mind achievable in industry, only through the utmost devotion, and the strongest personal belief in one's product.

Jiro's success in delivering his highly esteemed product is simple: he dedicates his life to it. In his own words, once he chose his profession at the age of nine, he became fully immersed in his work, and his sole purpose in life, was to master his profession, something, which, in his seniority, is still applicable. Even the title of the work — the fact that Jiro, even on a sub-conscious level, was dedicating his all, into mastering sushi. The choice of product itself is pretty indicative — whilst not being the easiest food to prepare, it is relatively simple. Jiro does not complicate matters — he believes in simplicity, but at the same time, depth so as the achieve the purest product possible. Thus going by Jiro's philosophy, an aspiring entrepreneur shouldn't try his hand at a multiplicity of ventures, at least not until he is completely confident in a core area. Jiro's restaurant just offers sushi, not even appetizers — and by mastering the skill of sushi-making, he earned international recognition and the highest awards in culinary expertise, and this should be a lesson to anyone seeking to establish a strong foundations for a business venture: being a professional expert at preparing and delivering your product. Jiro's motivation was never money, but his aspirations of making the best sushi one could taste — an entrepreneur who runs off with the idea of offering as many services as humanely possible might provide short term benefits, and a quick buck, but if one wants to step up and beyond what everyone else can do, one has to offer something special, and Jiro recognised this. Just like sushi, tech start-ups are a dime a dozen; everyone is inspired and perceives himself to be the new Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but only a handful may ever stand on equal footing as their idols. One way of making a name for oneself, and rising above the rest, would be to focus on one area, and specialise to perfection, sacrificing short term goals, for, potentially, long term glory.

One's work mustn't become a chore, even if it constitutes repetition; one should rather focus on maintaining a routine to perfection, to deliver the quality expected on a consistent basis. The quality of the product is what defines one as a business. It is the only surest way of creating a positive reputation — marketing, promotions, and the like do attract customers, but a truly, high quality, reliable product is what will push one's company and brand beyond. One needs to be in tune with the qualities and capabilities of the product, and the needs and requirements of the customers. Prior to serving the fish, Jiro test the food during preparation, to make sure that the taste will please the client. If the fish is not as tasty as he wants it to be, then it is not served — quality cannot be compromised, even if it means a pecuniary loss. A person offering a product must look at the product from the client's point of view – one must look at the trends of the industry and what would be appreciated by the client so much so for him or her to gain the trust of your brand. Jiro highlights the three pillars to a genuine product:

1. Quality.
2. Consistency.
3. Originality.

The most important and fundamental skills for a chef, are in fact taste and smell — thus being able to determine, understand and recognise how good a product is. Jiro himself affirms that if he had a more sensitive palate, he would be able to make even better sushi. An entrepreneur needs to have, from a first hand perspective, experience and knowledge of both what his product can do, and what the need of the consumer is. The provider of a product will be furthermore rewarded with attention to detail — small acts which would create an even bigger impression on a client. Jiro gave smaller portions to female clients and memorised seating arrangements so as not to disrupt the pace of the meal, and even placed the sushi on the left side of the plate if a client was left-handed. Such minute details may not mean much to the provider, but instills a great impression on the client.

Despite the simplicity of sushi, and despite the fact that master chefs had been perfecting the formulae for excellent sushi for generations, with seemingly no prospect of ever being able to innovate or improving on decades old recipes, Jiro proved all the naysayers wrong. Such a feat encapsulates Jiro's state of mind in creating his product, by never giving up, working hard on a daily basis, and dedicating his life to it. In his own words, his business is everything to him — failing at his business, would be failing at life. It is not unwise to have back up plans, but having his back against the wall since childhood, made Jiro the kind of person to give in his all to be able to succeed, sacrificing even family life and vacations to be able to follow his dream.

Jiro also extends his philosophy to his suppliers, working only with people he trusts on a professional level. As he regards himself to be a sushi expert, he regards his rice supplier as being a rice expert, and this also applies to his fish suppliers, who have their own methodology — one which Jiro respects, and thus why he is able to work with them. Amongst the traits he values in his suppliers, are that they only go for the best product — if at first impression there is something amiss, then they will not go for it, preferring to ensure that their reputation is intact, and their client satisfied, rather than jeopardising the relationship of trust between the seller and the buyer. The suppliers themselves are picky about their customers — after all, the industry is a circle in which the manufacturers, suppliers, retailers and consumers are part of. The success of one depends on the other, and an entrepreneur should keep this in mind when seeking to find business partners.

The documentary highlights five attributes for Jiro's perfectionism: Working hard, and taking the work seriously — being utterly devoted to your job. Secondly, the aspiration to improve, and never being satisfied with one's own product — this does not mean that one should not be confident in what he is presenting to his clients, but that one always keeps on striving to improve. The third characteristic is cleanliness, and this can also be interpreted from a business point of view, reflecting simplicity and order in one's business model. Jiro's fourth characteristic is impatience, and stubbornness — being a perfectionist, he will never accept any way other than his, and this makes him fight harder for what he thinks is best. Lastly, and probably most importantly, one must have a burning passion for what one is doing

Another aspect of Jiro's path to perfection, is that one starts off from the bottom rung, and works his way up. His trainees spend ten years before being allowed to "touch the fish". He believes in a gradual process of learning — one should never be overconfident in his abilities. The learning process is long and painful, but after so many years of sacrifice and hard work, you are bound to emerge as an outstanding professional. There is no easy way of earning success. An entrepreneur must fight against the impatience and the rebellious nature of youth, and learn from one's superiors, whilst at the same time displaying the energy of one young of age.

Perfectionism can be deemed to be a tragic trait by some — obsessing over details, being blind to those around you, not being able to communicate, work in a team, or compromise, sacrificing anything to achieve that which you desire. However, being a perfectionist will also push you to the limits of your abilities, drive you ever closer to your ultimate goal, even if it is not attainable, you would know, you would have given it your all, and done your very best to achieve. Should a prospective entrepreneur be a perfectionist? Perfection depends on passion — you cannot create passion for your work out of thin air, but if you are really passionate, perfectionism can very well be a trait born out of your love, determination, and dedication.

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