In praise of drudgery

A few days ago, I saw an old classic (movie), Jiro Dreams of Sushi.  It features one of the best exponents of the art of making sushi in his iconic Tokyo restaurant. Jiro, the sushi chef, is at it, day in and day out, for decades. The result is perfection!

An old classmate of mine, Professor Igal Hendel from the Department of Economics at Northwestern University, presented a paper at Harvard the other day, showing how one of America’s best run companies, Danaher had delivered year-upon-year of consistent productivity improvements in what seem like fairly mundane businesses (think steel for example).

Most folks haven’t heard of Danaher, it’s not flashy like Sony or Disney or whatever. Sometimes perfection is based on something cool, like Apple’s iconic designs. Other times, it’s just repetition, as with Jiro’s sushi or Danaher. To me, perhaps unfairly, it looks like drudgery.

Why, it applies everywhere around us. As I write this post, my son is practicing classical piano endlessly and my daughter is at it in the karate dojo. They make it look easy! But performing virtuoso pieces easily comes from that same endless drudgery; ditto for the smooth performance from an advanced black belt.

Sadly though, discipline isn’t quite enough. I have spent endless hours on the ski slopes, never to master skiing! And you might decide to develop expertise in something mindless that no one cares about. So the drudgery is necessary, but it’s not sufficient for excellence.

 

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