Would you take career advice from a sushi chef?


The cohorts of Baby Boomers who entered the workforce during the latter stages of the Industrial Age represent the last generation who contemplated lifelong employment in the same career, if not in the same organization or even in the same job. Here in the Information Age, with increasing numbers of employees engaged in knowledge work, the notion of a single career for life, let alone a single job for life, is pure fantasy.

In the Information Age, our willingness to embrace career change is as important as our ability to develop and maintain our core technical skills. For example, while we may think it is necessary to become experts in the latest technology, it’s equally important to understand how and why that technology is being deployed in particular situations – this is where the real learning occurs, as both the content and the context for that technical application will inevitably change.

The Agrarian Age helped define the concept of life-long occupations – in agriculture, the military, government service, science and medicine, the trades and professions, and even among unskilled labourers.  Think of the workers who toiled their whole lives on building the great mediaeval cathedrals, never to see the final results of their labour as those major construction projects took several generations to complete.

The Industrial Age ushered in occupations that relied on workers acquiring and applying technical, practical and manual skills that in essence changed very little during their lifetime, particularly on manufacturing production lines. This era also saw the development of the formal workplace and business establishments, in contrast to the largely home-based work patterns of before.

The Information Age continues to see rapid changes in workplace structures, employment patterns and career development. This change demands that knowledge workers constantly improve their skills – keeping up to date with new technology, engaging in the latest management theory, embracing new business models. This continuous learning process is not best served by staying in the same role, the same environment or the same mindset for lengthy periods. Personal change is a surer way of keeping in touch with universal changes.

So for latter-day job seekers who are looking for insights into their own career choices and options, why would they take career advice from someone who has been doing the exact same thing for 50 years or more?  I was reminded of this when a recent edition of my high school alumni newsletter reported that a long-serving member of staff had retired after more than 40 years in the job. During my own time at the school, this particular teacher was also the careers adviser, and without meaning to disrespect his teaching abilities, why would anyone take careers advice from someone who had stayed in the same job his whole career?

And yet, who could fail to appreciate the explicit career advice in the critically acclaimed documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (made by David Gelb in 2011)?

Jiro Ono has been making sushi for over 70 years, but continues to hone his skills as a sushi shokunin, always seeking perfection, constantly finding new and better ways to create his dishes. As a master sushi chef, Jiro makes sure he knows his suppliers and is familiar with their produce. As a leader he is quick to acknowledge that the food he serves to his customers is the result of much hard work and detailed preparation by his team of chefs. As a teacher, his Michelin 3-Star restaurant also offers lengthy (and highly valued) apprenticeships to aspiring itamae who are willing to dedicate themselves to pursuing their craft.

Even though the daily process of producing the highest quality sushi seems repetitive and even tedious, it is the willingness to face each day as both a new challenge and a fresh opportunity to improve one’s skills that gives Jiro his core purpose and sense of career satisfaction.

From personal experience, my own career development continues to be about defining my core values and improving my skills, understanding how to apply them in new situations, and how to enhance them by learning from colleagues, mentors, clients, suppliers and competitors, or from on-the-job and formal training.  Like Jiro the sushi shinkonin, I try and make this a daily process, by reflecting on how something can be done better or by understanding how new information can be incorporated into existing solutions.

Many of us working in the Information Age will recognize that we don’t pursue a single, linear career path, but engage in a series of both distinct and overlapping career sequences, connected by a common thread of transferable skills and inter-disciplinary learning applied to new roles, new projects or to new client engagements. Our challenge is to ensure we maintain purpose, relevance and a sense of direction as we navigate our “transactional” careers.

Footnote: The soundtrack for “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” features several compositions by Philip Glass, which seems totally appropriate, on several levels:  Glass, like fellow minimalist John Cage, is attracted to various aspects of Japanese culture; and as a minimalist, Glass’s music is often criticised for being repetitive, even boring – but attentive listening reveals that the repetitions subtly shift, revealing minuscule changes in pattern, rhythm and texture – much like every piece of sushi tastes subtly different.

6 thoughts on “Would you take career advice from a sushi chef?

  1. Saying some thing is “good enough” can appear to be settling for second best or second rate, which is not always appropriate. Alternatively, striving for “perfection” could be the implicit goal in the mission statement of many companies: you know you probably won’t achieve it (and even if you do, will you be able to recognise it?), but every day you try to do a little bit better. I don’t see Jiro embarking on some self-defeating, Sysiphian task, which would be utterly futile. He gains immense satisfaction and joy from serving his customers (and we all feel the absence of joy in much of our own work…), and he encourages learning and self-improvement in his employees (again, sadly missing in many organizations…). I suspect that Lucy is uncomfortable with Jiro’s single-mindedness and the pleasure he finds in appreciating the simple yet complex subtlety of his craft. I also think Lucy is reading too much into the business succession plan (Jiro is no different to most family business founders) and probably needs to go to Tokyo to enjoy some proper sushi!

  2. Pingback: Portfolio, Portmanteau or Protean: what shape is your career? | Content in Context

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