Lessons on Work From Sushi, Video Games, and Television

Over the past three nights I've watched three documentaries that are directly relevant to the process of work. I didn't explicitly seek them out because of their topics but it seems like my subconscious was trying to tell me something about where my focus should be right now. Each documentary offers a different aspect of working meaningfully and working well. I'd like to explore each of these with you and maybe extract some useful nuggets for you (and definitely for me).

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

In Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) you're introduced to 85 year old Jiro Ono, a world-renowned master sushi chef. He runs a tiny restaurant that only sits ten people and he is recognized as quite possibly the greatest living sushi chef. Jiro approaches his working life with the utmost simplicity. A long time ago he decided he was going to be a sushi chef. Constantly improving and growing within his occupation is a given for him and since he's been doing this job for 75 years, he has had a lot of time to develop his skills. Once the occupation of sushi chef had been decided, the ancillary skills that allow someone to be a great chef were also decided. He dedicated himself to developing his sense of smell and taste. He dedicated himself to being able to identify and select only the very best fish. He dedicated himself to constantly pushing and developing his technique in the kitchen. The end result is somebody that oozes the value of craftsmanship. Creating sushi is not just a job -- it is an expression of how he has decided to live his life.

Indie Game: The Movie

In Indie Game: The Movie (2012) this documentary you meet a handful of independent video game developers. The movie follows most closely the developers of Super Meat Boy (Edward and Tommy), Fez (Phil), and Braid(Jonathan). Edward and Tommy are deep into "crunch time" as they rush to finish Super Meat Boy in time to be included in a marketing push by Microsoft. Phil, perhaps the most compelling storyline in the documentary, is mired in a 4 year development cycle for his game, Fez. After winning a major award for an early version of the game he has been struggling under personal and public expectations. Jonathan's game, Braid, has been out for a couple of years prior to this film and is considered to be one of the greatest video games ever created. While each of these developers is obviously very different from each other, there are fascinating similarities. The primary obsession with creating something that is true to their personal vision is inspiring. None of these guys are working for a big game studio that has analyzed the market and assigned a game to them to create. Each of these guys has an intimately personal reason for crafting the type of game they want to create. It seems that their very identities are tied to their games, for better or worse.

6 Days to Air

Finally, 6 Days to Air (2011) is the story of how the animated television show South Park is created. Despite being one of the most watched shows on TV, an episode of South Park is conceptualized, written, animated, and edited in 6 days. Like the other two documentaries, this one focuses on the process of how interesting work is created. I'm not sure how I envisioned famous creators working or how television shows were actually made, but I wasn't prepared for it to look like any brainstorming session I've had with a group of classmates. Creating something interesting doesn't suddenly become mysterious or complicated once you've found success. The time pressure of having to create a new episode that millions of people are going to watch, from scratch, seems incredible. Failure is not an option, ever. I'm going to think much more carefully the next time I feel like I'm under a time crunch.

Key Points

I'm obsessed with the process of work. These three documentaries gave me some great insight into how I work and how I can help my clients with the challenges they face in their own work. I think the first interesting thing to think about is why I felt compelled to watch these in the first place. Working in the knowledge economy as a coach and full-time student leaves a certain sense of tangible creation missing. I can work really, really hard on preparing for a coaching session, it can go really well, but I'm not left with anything to point at and say, "Yeah, this one was really hard to create but I'm super proud of it." Or, "Look at how bad I used to be at this." I think I'm craving the tangible aspect of creation that creating sushi, making a video game, or making a TV show allows. I'm not quite sure how to get that in the work I do. Obviously, my writing provides this feeling to a certain extent but is there more I should be doing? Should I develop a hobby that allows me to get this feeling of accomplishment? So much of my work is seemingly ephemeral -- coming up with ideas, conducting research, having coaching sessions -- and I think I crave the simplicity of making a piece of sushi. I imagine I'm not the only knowledge worker to feel that way and I suspect this is something I will pursue further in my ongoing research.

Once you decide on your 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 of success... and is the key to being regarded honorably. - Jiro Ono

I loved this aspect of Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I think it also fits in line with what I really love about Cal Newport's approach to developing a passionate work life. Jiro doesn't think about what career he should be doing instead and whether or not making sushi is really his passion. He started making sushi 75 years ago, realized he enjoyed the process, and decided to dedicate himself to becoming the very best at he could possibly be. Making sushi seems like a simple enough occupation but Jiro shows how there is so much to consider, so many techniques to master, and so much to learn to do it well. He's been doing it for 75 years, his restaurant has a 3-star Michelin rating, and he still thinks he's not as good as he could be. We can take the same approach to our own work. What aspects of your job have you not mastered? How can you constantly be growing as a person and improving what you do for a living?

I will kill myself if I don't finish this game. - Phil Fish, creator of Fez

Indie Game: The Movie shows the dark and light sides of passion. These video game developers have a vision for the type of game they want to create and since they don't work for established video game companies nobody stands between them and their vision. Their identities are tied so intimately to the games they are creating they don't think twice about sacrificing their social lives, working insane amount of hours, or pushing themselves to the brink of physical and emotional wreckage. The end results are products that are financially successful and critically acclaimed. However, as the quote above shows, it's possible to take it to an extreme. I'm a huge advocate of people developing (notice, I didn't say "finding") passion for what they do for a living but it's equally important to have an identity separate from your work. You are not your work. Take a breath, take a break, rejuvenate.

There's a show on this Wednesday. We don't even know what it is. Even though that's the way we've always done it. There's this little thing going, 'Oh you're screwed.' - Trey Parker

If the creators of South Park can create a new episode from idea generation to airing in 6 days I can certainly do more than I expect. The power of deadlines can be a powerful motivator as any procrastinator knows. How can you use a deadline to push yourself to create something? There's a delicate balance between perfecting something and getting it to the point where it can be respectably released. Going up a few paragraphs it may seem like I'm actually disagreeing with the idea of craftsmanship and stressing the details. Maybe I am. Maybe being able to identify when something requires a touch of polish versus when it just needs to be sent out the door is something that comes with time and practice. Either way, try setting some insane deadlines for yourself and see what you're able to accomplish.

Develop simplicity and a dedication to personal growth like Jiro the master sushi chef. Cultivate obsession and passion, weigh the benefits and the risks, like the developers of Super Meat BoyFez, and Braid. Commit to focus and efficiency like the creators of South Park. Each of these documentaries offers something (and even more than I described here) for the modern worker. They're all available on Netflix and I'd love to hear what you learned from them in the comments below.