What Does It Take to Become a Master?

I know sushi is cool and hugely popular nowadays, but I’ve never really been a fan.

I mean, I can enjoy a good California roll as much as the next person, but a miniature rice football with some uncooked fish carcass on top? Ew.

Nevertheless, I found myself being absolutely inspired – like goose-bump inducing, I-ought-to-get-off-my-butt-immediately-and-do-something-productive inspired – by a film about this odd little food.

Of course, the movie is not really about raw fish and rice. It’s about mastery. The sacrifice, the single-minded focus, the incredible discipline, and the relentless drive for an ever greater level of perfection. The raw ingredients (ha, see what I did there?) that are required to truly become a master of one’s craft.

So what does it take to become a master?

Five things, according to food critic Masuhiro Yamamato (perhaps best known to most as a judge on Iron Chef).

A great chef generally has the following five attributes.

First, they take their work very seriously and consistently strive to perform at the highest level.

Second, they aspire to continually improve their skills. To be better today than yesterday. To be better tomorrow than today.

Third, cleanliness. If the restaurant doesn’t feel clean, the food isn’t going to taste good.

The fourth attribute is impatience. They are not prone to collaboration. They’re stubborn and insist on having things their own way.

What ties these attributes together is passion. That’s what makes a great chef.

And the subject of this film, 86-year old sushi chef Jiro Ono, who practices his craft out of a ten-seat shoebox of a restaurant in the Tokyo subway and is widely considered to be the greatest sushi chef in the world, possesses all five.

Check out the trailer of Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Could we musicians learn a thing or two from a sushi chef? I think so. Mastery is mastery, whether it’s making music or making sushi.

The problem is, we live in a time and society that loves shortcuts. The quick fix. The weird little-known secret that will melt the fat away from our midsection.

We delude ourselves into thinking that this will make us happier. But as author George Leonard so eloquently describes in Mastery, deep, long-term fulfillment actually comes from dedicating oneself to a journey, to the process of mastery.

Put another way, it’s not being that perfectly sculpted and chisled physical specimen that brings us joy. It’s the process of becoming that person that engenders deep satisfaction and meaning.

The journey

Yamamato describes the apprentice’s journey at Jiro’s restaurant. First, the apprentice must be able to properly hand squeeze a towel. Of course, the towels are so hot, they initially burn the apprentice’s hands. Painful though this training may be, only when an apprentice can squeeze a towel the right way are they allowed to touch the fish. And it’s another ten years or so of learning how to cut and prepare fish before the apprentice is allowed to cook the eggs.

Eggs? Pfft, how hard can that be?

One apprentice shares the story of how he spent three or four months making up to four eggs a day. None were good enough. When one day he finally made an egg that gained Jiro’s approval, he was so happy he cried. Even as he tells this story, years after the fact, you can see the tears welling up in his eyes.

It’s in scenes like this where you begin to grasp how dedicating oneself to mastery and pursuing excellence is to experience joy. Does that sound cheesy? Perhaps, but I think we all know deep down that it’s true.

After all, masters are also lifelong students. They don’t do what they do for monetary rewards or fame. They do it because they can’t leave well enough alone. Because the pursuit of excellence is a meaningful and deeply fulfilling activity in and of itself.

Take action

Read Mastery.

Watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi. In fact, you can stream the full movie (legally) here right this instant. I’m pretty sure you’ll be glad you did, no matter what you think of sushi.

The one-sentence summary

“Ah, mastery… what a profoundly satisfying feeling when one finally gets on top of a new set of skills… and then sees the light under the new door those skills can open, even as another door is closing.”  ~Gail Sheehy

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


3 Responses

  1. “The fourth attribute is impatience. They are not prone to collaboration. They’re stubborn and insist on having things their own way.”

    I can’t tell you how big I’m smiling right now. 🙂 I have always been told that this part of me is an obstacle. I never bought it though, because it was always people who hadn’t actually DONE anything of their own who told me this.

  2. Mastery is definitely a great book.

    I think that one of the most important if you want to become great at anything is to develop the right mindset. Knowing that you are going to make mistakes and being ok with that helps with frustrations. Knowing that you won’t become master overnight helps when you feel overwhelmed and confused.

    And to develop the right mindset you need to read books like Mastery, watch movies like Jiro dreams of Sushi, visit blogs like this one and surround yourself with like-minded people.

    Thank you for a great article.

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