…It struck me recently that mastery alone holds no interest for me when that mastery is purely vertical.
Listen to me read the piece below here:
You must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work… You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success.
― Chef Jiro
Perhaps you’ve heard of, or even seen, the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The film is a siren song to those who believe in excellence; in its portrayal of the protagonist’s relentless pursuit of perfect sushi, we understand that it is the very simplicity of Chef Jiro’s fish-and-rice combinations, and the perfection of every element of those combinations, that make Chef Jiro the culinary icon that he is.
What the film speaks to is mastery: the idea of spending so much time honing a skill or craft that one’s art becomes transcendent. Mastery is a hallowed word in many creative communities, and I’ve often thought of certain elements of my working practice as actions that I hope will bring me toward mastery–where prose writing is concerned, I may have put in my 10,000 hours, but I’m a neophyte compared to those I respect most; still, it struck me recently that mastery alone holds no interest for me when that mastery is purely vertical.
What do I mean by vertical mastery? Imagine mastery as being set on an x/y axis. The y variable might be “fastest,” or “farthest,” or “highest.” Straightforward examples of vertical mastery are everywhere in the Olympics. You’re an Olympic swimmer, so your goal is to swim the fastest. You’re a high jumper, so your goal is to jump the highest. To take your mastery further, you must hone your skill such that you swim even faster or jump even higher. Chef Jiro’s form of mastery is more complex, but there remain only so many variables in his craft. He uses fish and rice. The fish is extraordinarily fresh. The rice is extraordinarily well-cooked. It’s true that his apprentices spend years learning to make rice, but there’s a point at which the rice has reached its pinnacle of excellence.
What Jiro Dreams of Sushi is about, as much as mastery, is perfectionism. Any form of mastery that relies on perfectionism is inherently vertical; and, in my mind, inherently less interesting than what I call lateral mastery.
Lateral mastery combines a yearning for perfection with the messiness of creativity. This means that there is no y-axis in, for example, poetry writing, unless you want to assign “beauty” or “truth,” and a thousand poets would punch-fight you to the death according to what they thought the y-axis was. And who can say whether Hopkins or Pound is more “beautiful,” or more “truthful”?
Which is not to say that there are, or were, no masters of the form. It does mean that to become a master of writing poetry, or painting, or jewelry-making, and so forth, requires more than going vertically. It requires zig-zags, going backwards, and poking clear through the x/y plane to get to somewhere new.
Chef Ferran is another culinary icon, and a very different one. Most famous for owning the restaurant El Bulli (about which there is also a documentary), and associated with founding “molecular gastronomy” (a phrase he allegedly hates), Chef Ferran’s dishes at El Bulli also strove for a kind of perfection, but in sideways, sometimes nonsensical ways. Examples of his cuisine included frozen polenta and a “tapioca” of glistening spheres made with Iberian ham; one of the most famous El Bulli dishes was the “spherical olive,” made of a liquid olive essence held inside a skin of deep olive flavor. His legacy will be due to the creativity he brought to his perfectionism; in fact, he is now the head of the El Bulli Foundation, a creativity lab to “take on the entire notion of creativity.” Chef Jiro’s legacy will be due to his immaculate command of a few simple ingredients—fish and rice brought to the height of sushi.
I admire Chef Jiro the sushi-maker, Chef Jiro the craftsman. But his form of mastery, which is borne of intense discipline and the carrot of perfection, isn’t as interesting to me as it once was. I prefer a perfection that is, in part, subjective. I crave a mastery that travels the map to new, strange lands.
P.S. If you’re interested in more discussions of creativity and legacy, check out “Two Important Ingredients for Creative Discovery,” “A Starring Role That Fits: On Remembering Who You Are,” and this interview with Laura Simms on purpose, legacy, and why “passion-driven” is best saved for hot affairs.