We live in a scary, scary world. My peers and I entered university around the time of the 2008 global economic crisis, when the opportunities that had been taken for granted by earlier generations started to disappear one by one. Nouriel Roubini (a.k.a. Dr. Doom) warns us that the global economy is heading towards “perfect global storm,” which will result in an economic catastrophe topping the crisis of 2008. Living in an atmosphere of insecurity, we, the university students, are often pushed to do more—to build up a better CV than others through academics, extracurricular activities, and professional experience. Our society glorifies multi-taskers, the “well-rounded” individuals—people who constantly keep themselves busy. Top universities, Harvard or Yale, for instance, explicitly encourage prospective applicants to be “well-rounded” individuals excelling in academics, sports, leadership, and arts. Certainly, these individuals are admirable for their many achievements. But here’s my question: does doing more necessarily make us better?
David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) challenges the audience with this question throughout 81 minutes. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a beautifully put-together film about an octogenarian sushi shokunin (Japanese word for artisan) Jiro Ono, who has dedicated all but ten years of his life to the craft, and his three-star Michelin restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro. Despite his attainment of the highest honours as a shokunin, Jiro still dreams (literally) of making a better sushi every day. For Jiro, his craft means more than a way of making a living; it is the living itself. As a testament, he still runs a small restaurant (10 seats) located in a subway station despite decades of success and skyrocketing demand for his products for quality control. Thus, the art of sushi transcends worldly values and signifies something far greater and more important for Jiro.
Simplicity is the virtue that led Jiro to success. He simplified his life around Sukiyabashi Jiro. In the documentary, Gelb notes how Jiro has maintained the same routine for decades—he even stands on the same spot every day to wait for the train! Sukiyabashi Jiro does not serve appetizers, for Jiro believes that dedicating time and effort to something other than sushi would undermine the latter. Plato defined justice as knowing one’s own place in the greater scheme of society and doing the best s/he can within that position. In that sense, Jiro is an ideal member within the Platonic republic.
Jiro’s pursuit of his craft definitely contradicts the multi-dimensional, well-rounded, and balanced lifestyle encouraged by our society. His pursuit of perfection in his craft could legitimately be seen as obsession. Is Jiro unhappy? I do not think so. The octogenarian shokunin literally dreams of his ideals and wakes up with a clear purpose in mind. At least for me, Jiro seemed to have achieved a profound peace of mind; although not frivolous or overly expressive, he seemed to emanate serene and constant happiness throughout the documentary. He doesn’t seem busy or rushed—traits that we normally associate with successful people in our society.
Now back to us. Are we, university students, happy with our lives as Jiro is? Maybe it’s just for my social circle, but everyone, including myself, seems to be dealing with “too much stuff” all the time. I see friends flitting from lecture halls to their jobs, then to their volunteer organizations, then to the library, then to the gym…. Calendars always seem full. And most weirdly, we seem to be boasting about our busyness. Tim Kreider wrote an article titled “The ‘Busy’ Trap” for The New York Times, in which he claims that “[b]usyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness.” Are we hiding our hollowness under the glamorous façade of busyness?
Of course, I do appreciate the value of being a well-rounded individual. After all, balance and drive in life are not mutually exclusive, but even complementing to each other. But I’m wondering if we need a little bit of Jiro in us—simplicity in our lives. Yes, many of us are involved in activities that we are legitimately passionate about and find inherently rewarding. But at the same time, many of us are stressed out by never-ending to do lists too. Well, one might as well conclude this musing with the clichéd expression “everything in moderation.” However, as we face a world more competitive than ever nearing graduation—I think it’s worth taking a short break, looking back, and asking ourselves whether doing more is necessarily better.
Dongwoo will be a fourth year student in History and Political Science in this coming September. A caffeine addict, history geek, and Aaron Sorkin devotee, he can be found roaming around the campus and downtown area with no specific purpose. Dongwoo is currently reading Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs. He enjoys conversations about pretty much everything, so feel free to throw him a tweet at @dongwookim_.