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Mastery Is Not Magic: Insights on The Hard Way

Harmonie SpaldingLast Updated: December 10, 2015


“I always felt that my preparation was decent. But I’ve since refined my technique. Back then, I would massage the octopus for about thirty minutes. Now, it is massaged for forty to fifty…”

—Jiro Ono, Jiro Dreams of Sushi

When it comes to dedication to his craft, no one surpasses Jiro Ono. Out of a small shop in an underground Tokyo subway station, he runs the most renowned sushi restaurant in the world.

jiro-sushi-den.png#asset:908Sukiyabashi Jiro, Jiro’s subterranean sushi den, Tokyo. Screenshot from Andie712b/Flickr

His path to the top came not through exposure, business model innovation, or riding trends. He became renowned, and is able to charge the fees that he does, through total dedication to excellence. His singular guiding principle is the quality of outcome for his customers—how good his sushi tastes, and the pleasure of the tasting experience.

In Jiro’s mind, there are no shortcuts. There are no tricks. Mastery is reached the hard way—in such small increments that you don’t realize it’s happening.

For example, whereas many elite sushi chefs have a single supplier for everything they need at Tsukiji Fish Market, Jiro builds relationships with specialist suppliers who deal in only one of his ingredients. The result is that when Jiro gets an octopus, it’s from a supplier who has spent a lifetime developing mastery over how to select the best octopus for sushi.

Whereas many elite sushi chefs bring in new recruits and put them through rigorous training, an apprenticeship under Jiro is a 10-year journey.

He’s a perfect exemplar of how doing things the hard way can help you rise to the top. 

But what is the hard way, really?

For starters, it’s about taking the time to do every step properly. It’s about becoming an expert at what you do so you can create a better product for your clients. It’s an embodiment of “measure twice, cut once.” By focusing on mastery of each step, we learn the repeatable patterns that can be improved upon with each iteration.

The “hard way” tends to get cast aside when one of its many forms is confused as its only form. It’s fair to be wary of work that comes with self-imposed challenges, arbitrary restrictions, or starting things from scratch. While making things more difficult for yourself in order to feel more reward can be admirable in recreation (e.g. “I’m going to swim solo across the Channel”) it’s not a valuable approach for a productive team.

It’s obvious but worth stating: those who spend extra time doing things right end up producing a better end product. Take custom carpentry’s go-to joining technique, the dovetail, for example. It’s considered a mark that a piece of furniture is well-built. And it’s one example where quality arises from the hard way. Kerry O’Brien for puts it like this:

Custom cabinetmakers will often use dovetail joints that interlock pieces of wood to distribute weight and stress more evenly, whereas stock nut, bolt, and nail methods isolate wear on a few points.”

 Dovetail Joint, Wikimedia Commons

Taking the hard way means laying out the steps. When you clear the cobwebs of an unknown process by learning from experts, you realize that mastery isn’t magic or even luck as popular myths try to make us believe. An apprentice under Jiro, for example, doesn’t just start learning to prepare the fish. They first have to develop mastery over how to welcome a customer into the restaurant. Then they graduate to developing mastery over how to create the perfect hot towel for a customer, then how to wash dishes, then how to prepare rice. It’s often months or years before they can even touch a fish.

It may be an extreme example, but this kind of repetition of each step in the process can allow you to isolate areas for improvement. Only when every step is done methodically can you understand the effect each has on the outcome. The only way Jiro knew to try massaging the octopus for 15 minutes longer was that every other step was followed rigorously and consistently. And he can taste the difference because he’s done it for years and because no other variables were changed.

Another popular example that dispels the “magic of mastery” myth is how Cristiano Ronaldo rose to the top. While he was developing his skills at Sporting Lisbon, he was seeded among a group of peers whose talents—according to the coaches—were on par with his own. But as Luis Lourenço, his compatriot, recalls in Sky Sports’ The Making of Cristiano Ronaldo:

When he had nothing to do he would secretly go to the gym at night. He started doing things that we only did when we were with the team and the coaches. He’d get ready on his own and sneak off to the gym. He’d do leg and body exercises and that’s when he started to stand out. While we went to the gym to work out ahead of the next game, he was already working out ahead of his future.”


Cristiano Ronaldo. Rcuerda29/Flickr

Ronaldo’s rise to the top is often attributed to devotion to self-improvement through practice and effort; notably, his talent comes second in his story.

A nice bonus of a methodical process is that you can give your consumers a taste of the effort put into your product. When people know what went into something, even though the product itself hasn’t changed, they may value it more. We see this with studio footage from musicians, weekly updates from agencies, and donation requests on popular blogs.

While extra time and effort might not be worth it if the outcome doesn’t budge, taking this kind of pride in your work can bring other benefits. For starters, it means that when the work is complete you’ll be more likely to feel a greater sense of accomplishment for achieving what you set out to do.

The biggest killer of quality

But the other benefit of taking pride in your work is that it serves to keep efficiency in check. Caring too much about efficiency can be detrimental. It’s a powerful anxiety that can pressure us into producing mediocre work, and it’s potentially harmful when we think in terms of diminishing returns. This popular concept suggests that for every additional unit of effort we put in, we will reap incrementally less benefit. So we persistently think we should find the point on this line where our effort is best matched up to the potential returns.

But what if that line was fundamentally wrong for our line of work?

Let’s think for a moment about whether our line should look something like this:

I’d argue that for certain industries, this payoff chart is true. In these cases, the best-in-class enjoy asymmetric returns.

When to dig in

So when is it worth taking the hard way?

This is up for discussion (and I’d love to hear from you below), but I’m narrowing in on when you might want to consider investing in perfecting your product:

   -When your work lasts and is enjoyed for a long time,

   -When many people enjoy it, or

   -When it creates a memorable experience.

This broadly applies to creative or knowledge work, durable goods, or anything that can be produced once and then scale.

If your organization has been cutting corners for a while, it might be time to revisit your true goals and apply a little bit of grit to your process. This revisiting demands seeing the company from a new perspective, and big things can happen as a result. Steve Shea, a book publishing project manager, did this when he saw an opportunity for his business to gain an advantage in the marketplace.

Book publishers control the reading difficulty of their releases so that their books appeal to the right audience. Through some research, Shea uncovered that his competitors were using automated algorithms to control for reading difficulty that only simplified words, and not sentence structure. So he gained an edge for his small team by getting to the root of the challenge and solving it at a deeper level. The solution complicated the editing process and gave his company more work, but he and his team feel it has been worth it based on customer satisfaction and business results.

What holds us back?

Beyond the argument about diminishing returns, there are a few major factors holding us back from putting in extra effort.

(1) We’re constantly under pressure to automate. In our world of rapid technological innovation, we’re afraid of doing things manually because they may get automated—which would make us feel pretty worthless. We’re scared of our process becoming a commodity.

But it’s important to remember that sometimes hard work only appears to be a commodity. When actually digging in and doing it yourself adds to the outcome, you’re also accumulating knowledge that can’t be bought. In an interview with TIME magazine, University of North Carolina professor R. Keith Sawyer shared his thoughts on this, via the triumph of the Wright Brothers:

“On Dec. 8, 1903, Samuel Pierpont Langley, a leading government-funded scientist, launched with much fanfare his flying machine on the Potomac. It plummeted into the river. Nine days later, Orville and Wilbur Wright got the first plane off the ground. Why did these bicycle mechanics succeed when a famous scientist failed? Because Langley hired other people to execute his concept. Studying the Wrights’ diaries, you see that insight and execution are inextricably woven together. Over years, as they solved problems like wing shape and wing warping, each adjustment involved a small spark of insight that led to others.”

Whatever you do, don’t spend more time creating automation than you would save by doing it yourself:

Is it worth the time? From xkcd.

(2) We associate “putting in the time” with “putting in extra effort.” While they may be aligned, it’s wrong to assume that they are one in the same. Cal Newport of Study Hacks shared a study of elite piano players showing that the players who were at the top of their peer group actually spent less time practicing. This had to do with their focus on the elements of their work that they most needed to improve, as opposed to a less efficient end-to-end practice routine.

(3) We aren’t aware of a better way. When we see excellent outcomes from others, we assume it came easy, or that there was an innate talent driving the process. The belief in talent is much too strong in the uninitiated. To make it worse, it’s common for experts to perpetuate this misconception by concealing their process in order to protect their advantage. Consider how Ronaldo didn’t just go to the gym, he “would secretly go to the gym.” Because of the talent myth, we skip steps in our own process.

So, how to take the hard way?

Always answer to excellence in outcome. You must be singularly focused on how you will measure improvement in the end result and then work to uncover what would help you achieve that.

You can do that, as mentioned, by breaking your existing process down into steps. Identify an expert and study their method on each particular step. Walk on their path to shorten your journey. Pick one point in their process that you do not currently do, or could improve upon with their insight, and focus on improving it without too much regard for the effort it takes. These improvements may not make sense at first, and may seem like a detour, but trust in the process and be willing to try it.

As you learn, keep newness in process to a minimum. In your recipe for success, heed Jiro’s wisdom of changing only one thing at a time. This helps isolate areas for improvement, but it also balances improvement with productivity. Only diving deep on one step of the process means you can hum through the others and get through each cycle more quickly. Sometimes the most painful part is the act of learning the new skill and experimenting with it. 

But each repetition will be a bit easier, especially if you keep in mind that often what affects the outcome is not what you do but how you do it. Once you learn what to do, it’s time to focus on how you do it. Usually, that means dedication to process, repetition, and outcome.

In Jiro’s case, it meant massaging an octopus for an extra 15 minutes.

What will it mean or what has it meant in your case? What is one aspect of your work that you’d like to improve upon? Share your thoughts in the comment section, and we’ll try to rally our collective advice to help get you where you want to be.


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