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Warning: skip the following two paragraphs if you don’t want to read about octopus being used for food. (I’ve personally never eaten these special creatures and don’t support it, but this anecdote is not about food choices- it’s about Mastery).

I recently watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi about the top sushi chef in the world who was 85 when it was filmed. He’s intense as heck and many apprentices quit because the work is hard and unrewarding for many years. Jiro and his sons are always working to improve the quality of their offerings- and it works. Any meal at their 10-table restaurant starts at $300, and the customer can be done eating in as little as 15 minutes. Whoa.

At one point they explain that they “used to massage the octopus for only 30 minutes” but now massage it between 40-50 minutes for much better results. And it takes about 10-20 seconds to eat, mind you.

No wonder Michelin gave Jiro’s restaurant the highest rating possible of 3 stars and remarked that it was the only “adequate” rating they had!

After 75 years in the same job, Jiro never stops improving his product. He is singularly focused on creating the greatest product possible, weaving in new ideas and flavors all the time, and improving his methods and quality control on a daily basis. This is rare- most of us give up before we even begin…but the crazy part is, we think we are trying our best (or close to it).

Why You’re Not Trying Your Best…Or At All

There are many ways to succeed, and even more ways to fail. From a brain/productivity standpoint, here’s what happens that keeps us not only from trying our best, but from actually even trying at all.

Let’s say you want to do 10 pushups and you can’t even do 1 right now. You’ve heard a million success stories about obese people transforming their lives through pushups. You’ve watched viral videos of 90-year-old grandmas killing it on Instagram with their record-setting one-armed pushups. You know it should be easy for you- all you have to do is start.

And then, a month or year or decade goes by, and you still can’t do a pushup, and now it seems even less likely that you ever will. But somehow, you feel like you’ve been trying, and you’re tired from the effort. What the heck?

When our brains try to hold information, including unfinished tasks, it drains our dopamine, the feel-good and also decision-making hormone produced in the prefrontal cerebral cortex, right behind the forehead. Each time we succeed in or complete a task, we get a jolt of dopamine, which makes us feel good AND makes it easier to make better decisions.

But here’s the thing: as we contemplate doing something but continue not to do it, it becomes a dopamine drain, period. Our association with this thing we keep not doing is one of failure, so we feel tired and turn away from it each time we think about it. And we need dopamine to feel motivated- without it the whole experience just kind of stinks.

So while there may be tons of ways to learn to do a pushup, the longer we go not doing it, while still thinking about it, the harder it becomes, because now we also have to overcome our mindset of failure and un-motivation on that topic.

The Jiro Lesson to achieve Mastery, Joumor-style

  1. Choose one thing you want to excel at, or complete. It could be pushups or doing your taxes, but choose something that is easy to define, rather than something vague like “make more money.”
  2. Brainstorm a list of 5-20 ways you could take action to move in that direction.
  3. Mark the date 66 days from now by which you will have tried at least 45 times to achieve this, whether the same way repeatedly or multiple different ways.
  4. Keep track.
  5. In 66 days, assess your progress and consider what changes might be needed (such as massaging the octopus 30-60% more, so to speak).
  6. Implement those changes.
  7. Repeat steps 1-6.

It takes time, patience, intention and careful assessment to truly create change.

If you feel like you’re trying and nothing’s happening, take a step back and reassess- maybe you’re thinking about trying, but just draining your brain and energy instead. Now the choice is yours: to just let it go, or finally do what it takes to move toward Mastery.

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