Shokunin, The Unemployable Class, and Finding Meaning Through Work

When I broke my two year hiatus from blogging I mentioned that I was going to take a different approach this time around – less “business” and “advice” driven posts, and more raw, honest, philosophical, or even random musings.  More intrinsically motivated (even if the cost is less readers) and less “tactical” posts.

Well today’s post is a perfect example of what I mean.  I hope my thoughts aren’t too scattered on the subject that I’m going to attempt to discuss, but it is something that has really been on my mind as of late – the intrinsic value of work and the existential collision course that we are on with technology.

Let’s start with a basic premise which I think most people will accept:

Human beings are meaning seeking 

This is the basis of pretty much all the world’s religions, ideological movements, political philosophies, and organized endeavours – both good and bad. We thrive when we feel like life has meaning, and we feel despair (or at a minimum confusion) when our paradigm of meaning is either lost or challenged, either of which can happen by external events, or (I believe more commonly) new information. A clear, compelling vision of one’s purpose in life (even if that purpose is self-generated) has the power to overcome tremendous life trials and hardships (as Victor Frankl famously wrote about)

When meaning creating institutions and organizations fail us, as they are prone to do, we are left to “make our own meaning”.  This can be a very difficult endeavour – and when you combine our longing for meaning, with our (arguably) equal longing for belonging and tribalism- you can at once see the pull of organizations (whether they are religious, ideological, or otherwise) that take the “thought effort” out of making meaning and provide us with a set of values that uniquely resonate with us, and a new group that provides us with a sense of belonging and a set of rules that we can govern our lives by (ie. meaning).

Now I want to build on this first premise.  If you are perfectly happy with the meaning that you’ve adopted in your life (regardless of the source) then great – carry on. If however (like me) you find yourself disenchanted by the “meanings” that various institutions bestow on you, you are left with the challenging act of creating your own sense of meaning and purpose in life.

Here is where I want to converge two concepts:

  1. Work can be a powerful source of meaning (and intrinsic satisfaction); and
  2. The ability to find meaning through work is under (potential) assault due to technological advancement 

Allow me to elaborate.

First – work that be a powerful source of meaning (and intrinsic satisfaction).  Really, this hit me through experience.  Gradually, but clearly, in adulthood I discovered that work, not the periods of rest, relaxation, or vacation, were actually the moments where I experienced my greatest satisfaction.  When I first read Csikszentmihalyi I was able to put a name (and scientific explanation) to why I was feeling such satisfaction through work.

Work allowed for an easy “flow” experience where, by focusing on a clearly defined goal, I could control my consciousness and obtain a state of focused immersion whereby my skills would increase.  Psychic entropy could be controlled and I would come out of these flow states feeling more complex – which was intrinsically satisfying.  It was also addictive, but in a positive way.

Each flow experience I would experience in my work would generate a corresponding desire to increase my skills along what is described by Csikszentmihalyi as a “flow channel” where I could use my increased skills and apply them against more challenging experiences (and thus experience more flow).

This led to a desire for more mastery, and all along the flow channel I repeatedly felt positive satisfaction, thereby living a live that was meaningful and positive.  The meaning comes by way of a commitment to mastery, so you look back at your life and feel that it was spent in a positive way, contributing to others, using and increasing your skills in a way that adds value. For many people (including me) this is a compelling, and satisfying life.

The best example I’ve ever seen on the channeling of flow into a day to day pursuit of mastery is with Jiro Ono (arguably the greatest sushi chef in the world) in the documentary Jiro Dream’s of Sushi.  

Jiro uses the descriptive title of Shokunin (loosely translated as “craftsman”) to describe his dedication to mastery.  I think, after watching the movie several times it is really just a sustained application of a life lived, with ever increasing complexity, along a “flow channel”.

A life completely dedicated to mastery, immersion in the smallest details of a craft, and truly you can’t watch the documentary without feeling compelled by the almost childlike peace, contentment and simplicity that Ono shows. My favourite scene is the very last one, where Ono is on the train, and a simple, but profoundly peaceful smile comes across Ono’s face. A smile that you can’t duplicate unless your soul is truly at peace.

When I first saw that smile I immediately thought – that is exactly what I want in my life.  I want the mastery.  I want the peace.  I want that smile. 

In the movie Ono states,

“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 the key to being regarded honourably. The way of the Shokunin is to repeat the same thing every day. They just want to work. They aren’t trying to be special. Shokunin try to get the highest quality circumstances and apply their technique to it. We don’t care about money. All I want to do is make better sushi. I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is. Even at my age, after decades of work, I don’t think I have achieved perfection. But I feel ecstatic all day. I love making sushi. That’s the spirit of the Shokunin. I’ve never once hated this job. I fell in love with my work and gave my life to it.”

That is flow.

That, to me, is an inspiring life worth living.

Ok – now let’s explore part two – the “technological assault” on the concept of finding meaning through work.  What do I mean here?

Well, maybe I’m being alarmist, but perhaps I’m not.  Our world is one of ever evolving (and improving) automation – and (looking through the lens of the potential intrinsic satisfaction of work) I’m not convinced that this is in our best interest.

Sure we might get our goods cheaper, but is life only about consumerism?

Is there any value in work that we want to preserve?  I think so.

I don’t think that having “machines” (ie. computers) do everything is a good thing.  In fact, I actually find myself being a lot more anti-technology as of late.  I’m hardly on social media anymore (and contemplating eliminating it all together).  I felt a positive thrill when I read recently that digital book sales are falling (largely driven by the younger generation).  I recently dropped my apple watch for an old fashioned leather band windup.

I don’t want a world that is run by robots.  I don’t want my interactions with people to be through screens. I want to eat real food.  I want to see people face to face.  I don’t want a virtual reality, and I don’t want to spend my life on vacation.  I want to work, I want to have what Jiro has – that smile on the bus, knowing that I’m at peace because I’ve become Shokunin in my chosen craft.  

One could say, well it is only low end jobs that are really at risk, and I’m a professional.  I disagree.

There was a recent piece in CNBC that stated that lawyers could be the next profession that is replaced by computers. I actually don’t doubt this.  Even though my intentions are to move into academics.  What do I tell my students?

I look back on the last 10 years of my legal practice and I realize that super intelligent algorithms could replace (perhaps even exceed) what lawyers do.  Contract review and due diligence: check, computers can handle it.  Contract drafting: check, it’s already starting to happen with online services like Law Depot and Legal Zoom.  Corporate filings: check, that one is easy and likely the first to be automated.  Negotiations and relationships: not sure how the computers will do that one, but I guess it’s possible.

If law is up for grabs, why not doctors and dentists too?  I recently watched the movie Passengers and that seemed to contemplate a life without doctors and dentists (you just need one of those medical pods and away you go).

So maybe the answer is that we need to just shift our career choices, right?

We all become software engineers?

Well there are a couple problems with this logic.

First, there is a (large) group of people who won’t be able to increase their skills to keep pace with the advancement speed of technology. They are what Yuval Noah Harardescribes as a potentially “unemployable class” in the future, and these individuals will have to find meaning elsewhere (not through work).

The second flaw in that thinking is that it doesn’t take into consideration the potential impact of artificial general intelligence.  If that really comes about (and given our insatiable need to progress technologically) I consider it only a matter of time, we won’t actually even need software engineers. The computers will do that too.  We’ll need nothing.  Humans will not need to work – who knows if they will even be able to work.

My gut says however that humans will figure out a way to screw things up (probably through war) that will push back the rise of the machines, and at the same time an increasing “anti-technology” faction of our society will immerse in a further clash of “meaning” – those wanting to escape this world through virtual reality (and those wanting to profit from this desire) and those longing for the old days when food wasn’t created by machines, when machines didn’t do all the jobs, when we weren’t constantly plugged into those little boxes (or headsets, or glasses…), and when a good, honest, hard day’s work, at a job that was intrinsically satisfying left you feeling good, and gave you that “Jiro smile”.

The older I get, the more I’m interested in being in the latter camp.



2 comments on “Shokunin, The Unemployable Class, and Finding Meaning Through Work”
  1. Christopher says:

    There are many crossovers in our observations and ways of thinking. I appreciate learning from your writing, Ryan!

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