Entitlement and Striving for Excellence - Lessons from Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Last weekend I watched a documentary, titled Jiro Dreams of Sushi, that was shockingly captivating.

Jiro is an 85-year-old chef, who owns a small, humble sushi shop in Tokyo. He has been refining his craft for 75 years (75 years!!!!), and has sacrificed nearly everything else in his life to provide the highest quality sushi for his customers. And it shows. His shop is widely regarded as the best sushi joint in Japan, bar none, and he's won all sorts of prestigious awards, the details of which I won't go into now.

He doesn't serve any appetizers. No deserts. Just, sushi.

And people from all over flock to his restaurant. You'd have to make a reservation at least a month out in order to eat there.

Jiro trains his apprentices for free, but they have to remain under his tutelage for ten years. Only after ten years, and only then, does he even consider them ready to be a chef. And the training is nothing less than rigorous; one of the apprentices commented that it took him two hundred iterations of making egg sushi before Jiro finally told him he made a good one. Just "a good one."

While I don't believe it's unequivocally virtuous to sacrifice everything for one, singular worldly purpose (nor do I believe this is the message of the documentary), this doesn't mean that there aren't many lessons one can learn from Jiro's pursuit, and from the arduous yet loving manner through which he trains his apprentices.

While I'll be discussing the below principles primarily with respect to the fitness industry, you'll easily be able to extrapolate the central ideas into your specific sphere of discipline, no matter who you are.


1. If someone doesn't share your core values, don't work with them

It's common practice for a business to create a list of core values for everyone in their company to strive for and abide by.

But at Concentric Brain, we've made it a non-negotiable business practice to require that not only people within our company, but also any other business who wishes to engage in a relationship with us, must share our core values:

  1. Integrity
  2. Have Fun
  3. Innovation
  4. "We Care the Most"
  5. Exceed Expectations

If someone, no matter who they are, doesn't share all of those core values, then they can't work with us, plain and simple.

In the past, I've made the mistake of engaging in business with people who don't share my (and Concentric Brain's) core values, and it has screwed me over, every time. I ignored that little voice in the back of my head telling me that no matter how enticing the relationship appeared, it wouldn't be worth it. Boy did it hurt to receive such sharp lessons, but those painful experiences have led to a much more sound foundation from which Sarah and I can lead the company.

It was great to see this validated by Jiro. Jiro knows that he can't achieve sushi perfection without the help of others. With his apprentices, he will not let them learn from him, nor eventually work for him, if they don't share his insatiable appetite for discipline, and a deep passion for sushi quality.

For his fish suppliers, he only works with the absolute best. This means that rather than taking the easy route by using one supplier for all the varieties of fish, he uses a separate vendor for each different fish species. For tuna, he gets them from the highest-level expert of tuna. For octopi, same thing. His rice supplier, too. You get the idea. And each of the suppliers not only knows a lot about their fish (or rice), but they have an incredible ardor for the process of producing fish of the utmost quality.

One of his suppliers, Hiroki Fujita, said, "If there are ten tuna for sale, only one of those ten tuna can be the best. I either buy my first choice, or I buy nothing." There are days when Fujita walks away with no purchase whatsoever!

And Jiro's son commented:

We are experts at sushi and we know a great deal but the tuna vendor we use knows more about tuna, the shrimp vendor knows more about shrimp….we trust them to provide what’s best for us.


2. If you think you've made it to the top, you're in a very dangerous position

When asked about his widely-acclaimed sushi quality and how he does it, Jiro replied:

I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.

And also:

Even at my age I’m discovering new techniques. But just when you think you know it all, you realize that you’re just fooling yourself....I’m always working to achieve perfect, but I don’t think I’ll ever attain it.

It's the very humble attitude Jiro maintains that is responsible for making him the best. This so true for anyone. I've personally found that the most overtly prideful people are the same ones who have way more to improve upon than those who continue to strive for excellence from the fundamental position of humility.

There are a lot of fitness professionals in the field who think there is nothing left for them to learn, that they know it all. It's often the more tenured individuals who act this way - as they may believe seniority alone entitles them to this mind set (a profound fallacy) - but you find it in younger, intelligent strength coaches and trainers, as well. I feel very sorry for their clients and athletes.

An underpinning trait amongst the best in any discipline is that they're always seeking to learn more. To grow more. They understand that they'll probably never reach the top, because as Jiro alluded to, they realize that no one really knows where the top is.

Always strive to elevate your craft.

— Jiro Ono


3. You aren't entitled to anything

There's a reason that Jiro only accepts apprentices who are willing to train under him for ten years before they're allowed to work as a chef: this weeds out the individuals who think they can just hop in to a paid position because they believe they're entitled to it.

You see a lot of fitness professionals in the field who graduate from college, or don't even go to college at all (not that the latter is an inherently negative thing), and feel that they should immediately be able to train professional athletes, have a huge and luxurious facility, or release a product in hopes of getting rich quickly.

I'm not saying don't dream big. But put in your time. Constantly look for how you can give to the industry rather than always seeking what you can get from the industry.

These days the first thing people want is an easy job. Then, they want lots of free time. And then, they want lots of money. But they aren’t thinking of building their skills. When you work at a place like Jiro’s, you are committing to a trade for life.

4. Practice what you preach

It continues to boggle my mind how many strength coaches and personal trainers don't actually engage in a strength training program themselves.

How can you truly help someone achieve fitness-related goals, if you aren't engrossed in the pursuit yourself?

At SAPT, the facility I used to coach at and for which I ran the internship program, it was (and still is) a requirement that any intern hoping to learn from us had to train themselves on a regular basis. They had to do this at SAPT, and they had to find a way to prioritize it.

This is true for any field.

Jiro sums it up quite nicely:

In order to make delicious food, you must eat delicious food. The quality of ingredients is important, but one must develop a palate capable of discerning good and bad. Without good taste, you can’t make good food. If your sense of taste is lower than that of the customers how will you impress them?

I can't recommend the documentary highly enough. You can find it on Netflix, and of course through countless other platforms, too.