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Jiro dreams of Sushi. You need to dream of design.

85 year-old sushi master Jiro Ono has spent his life dedicated to the perfection of his craft and modern creative could learn a lot from his approach.

Last weekend I was able to indulge my foodie lifestyle by seeing the documentary ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi‘ at my local performing arts center.  The subject of the film is 85-year-old Jiro Ono who is the world’s greatest sushi chef who runs a 10-seat, sushi-only restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station. In spite of its location and humble appearance it’s the first restaurant of its kind to be awarded the prestigious 3 star Michelin review and sushi lovers from around the globe make repeated pilgrimage for a coveted reservation. I have written before about how I find chef’s to be an incredibly inspiring source of creativity and this was no different. There were two parts of the film that resonated with me as Jiro talked very eloquently and insightfully about two problems I constantly see with young creatives.

Developing your palette

Sitting at a table in his restaurant, Jiro talks about his philosophy that to be a great chef you need to have tasted great food so you can develop your palette to know when you cook great food. This concept of ‘developing your palette’ is something I have been trying to express to designers for years and this is a better way of doing it than anything I ever had. It is such a critical concept because to be successful there has to be a constant two-part cycle of experiencing the best of your chosen creative profession and then using that knowledge as a measuring stick to judge your work. This means that to be a great designer you have to constantly experience great design or to be a great writer you have to constantly read great copy and then you use those experiences and insights to drive your work forward.

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I have found the ability to develop your palette is an essential skill that goes constantly overlooked because people think that their talent alone is enough to create great ideas or designs. I think that would be true if we were just creating art for art’s sake but since we are creative designs and experiences that are going to be used by other people we need to start with a constantly evolving context of what else those people are experiencing.  It gives you a measuring stick and insights into what works and what doesn’t. It gives your palette context. You can then use your palette to know when you have created an idea that stands out from the crowd.

But you also have to understand that this cycle consumption and developing your palette never stops no matter how long you have been in the industry. It has to continue because your palette has to be constantly evolving to keep up with changes in society, psychology, technology and design. I have seen many great creatives who think that they know it all or that they don’t need to keep up this constant evolution are the ones who quickly find their work and their careers in the dumpster.

Dedication and eternal dissatisfaction

The other theme that Jiro talks about throughout the film is his lifelong dedication to sushi and his constant work to improve all aspects of his craft. This is a trait that I’ve come to embrace over the course of my career and it’s a trait that I see shared by ever great creative mind I have ever known. I think it’s a byproduct of the fact that they constantly work to develop their palette and that palette is constantly evolving so it never lets them find any peace with their work. They constantly want to make everything they do better. There is always some aspect of their chosen creative professional in their mind, drawing inspiration and storing it away for later.

To that end, over the years, I’ve come to embrace the fact that for me there is no off switch. There is no time when a design is completely out of my mind because I am constantly looking for new inspiration, constantly tormented by the flaws in my old work and constantly looking for that next great idea. When a project is finished I allow myself 15 minutes to enjoy the work that was done and then I am on to next project. I have little use for nostalgia because when I look back I see only see the mistakes and things that could have been done better. Nostalgia is for people who’s best days are behind them and for people who look to the past for answers. I’ll be damned if I let that happen just yet.

The reason why I think these two things are such key ingredients to becoming successful is that as you move from designer to creative director your job is only going to get harder – a lot harder. More is expected of you, your ideas, your management skills, and your leadership style. You are no longer just responsible for a set deliverables and are instead asked to become a conduit for inspiration, creativity, leadership and company profit. You have to have a way to keep yourself grounded, motivated and moving forward to be successful at all of those challenges.

So if you are looking for a good documentary do yourself a favor and check out Jiro Dreams of Sushi. If you are looking for how to become a great creative thinker and leader look below the surface to see what has made hm such a success and how you can use it in your career.

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