Craftsmanship: The Lost Art
Can a documentary change your life? Two years ago, I sat in my room watching a film about an 85-year-old sushi chef named, Jiro Ono. Unbeknownst to me then, this was no ordinary chef. Jiro’s restaurant seats just ten people. You can find it in the submerged urban jungle of the Tokyo underground. But what makes it remarkable is that it’s considered the best sushi restaurant in the world, and is the first establishment of its kind to be awarded the coveted, culinary crown of a three-star Michelin rating. It was that documentary that inspired me to uncover the secret of Jiro’s success.
“Once you decide on an occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret to success and is the key to being regarded honorably.”
After that day, I began thinking more about the art of craftsmanship, how it touches our lives, and how I can apply the lessons of dedication to my own work. For Jiro, perhaps the concept comes naturally, as craftsmanship is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. But to others, like me, it’s an entirely new philosophy.
Turning Back The Clock
Historically, craftsmanship as a way of life was the dominant driver of industry. So, what exactly happened? Before the Industrial Revolution, (1800s) it was expected that if you wanted to feed your family, you’d learn or master a trade. Farming, metalworking, textiles, music, whatever it was, you became specialized enough in your industry to put food on the table. Quality of work was expected, after all, it’s what you dedicated your life to perfecting.
To officially be deemed a “master”, a young man or woman would find a practicing master and commit to working seven years for them as an apprentice. If accepted, you’d acquire all the necessary skills in that time. After the seven years, apprentices would typically spent the following years traveling, practicing as “journeymen”. If and when the journeyman was ready, he’d prepare a special work and present it to the recognized guild of that particular craft. IF, the piece was approved, the journeyman could finally be considered a master. This is where we get the word, “masterpiece”.
Economics Over Aesthetics
In the beginning of the 20th century, admiration of work began shifting from quality to efficiency. Assembly lines revolutionized the way companies manufactured consumer products. Instead of a lone master working on a product from start to finish, unskilled labor divided highly complex processes into bite-sized tasks resulting in cheaper labor and faster production.
The masters who’d dedicated their lives to perfecting a trade were soon considered obsolete and over-priced. The master craftsman as a career path became a lost art.
Jiro is a reminder that while some ideas lose favor, it’s possible to preserve them through conviction and tradition. Ironically, in a world of price races to the bottom, appreciation for craftsmanship has been making a strong comeback. While formal seven-year apprenticeships are still outdated, modern consumers are once again demanding original quality. Take the explosive growth of craft sites like, Etsy.com. The platform connects artisans and consumers from around the world, making it one of the largest market places for handmade goods. Main street businesses like Jiro Ono’s sushi restaurant thrive on their scarcity and unique value-proposition, offering an experience unlike any other.
You can still find “masters” today, but you have to know where to look. I’d argue their presence is most visible in the arts because art is the least susceptible to price elasticity. That said, you can still find them everywhere. Chefs, teachers, athletes, investors, there are people out there dedicating their lives to mastering their professions. The way I find these people is by asking the question, “Who’s setting the bar for the rest of us?”
How To Adopt The Craftsman Mindset
A penman, a furniture maker, the world’s best chefs. What do they have in common? They share in the love and sacrifice for their chosen profession. For these people, excellence isn’t a result, it’s a way of life. There’s no satisfying the desire for excellence of a master craftsman, the limits of what’s possible are constantly being pushed.
The Industrial Revolution changed the craftsman lifestyle forever. Highly skilled trades once requiring a lifetime of practice and study were replaced by the unemotional droning of conveyor belts. Yet without a doubt, the mindset of craftsmanship is alive and well. As businesses like Walmart, race to the bottom, artisans are once again reclaiming lost ground. Only time will tell if low price beats high quality.
Even Apple, the world’s most valuable company has embraced the craftsman philosophy. It’s no longer enough to be good, to survive today’s business environment you’ve got to want to be the best. That’s the way craftsmen have been earning their living for thousands of years, and a tradition that continues to this day.
The value you create is a product of the capacity of your skill. Watching that documentary two years ago changed my perspective on business. You don’t literally have to spend every waking hour practicing to be regarded honorably (although it wouldn’t hurt). But, simply taking an extra few minutes to preserve that unmistakable “human touch” can make a huge difference. My best advice to anyone looking to apply this concept to their own life, would be to strive to delight not just your customers, but also yourself. That’s what I’ve taken away from observing the world’s top performers in action. They trust themselves, take tremendous pride in their work, and are always, always, looking for ways to do it better.