For our new topic, I want to discuss a dichotomy that I’ve been struggling with as I think more about how to find ‘fulfilling’ work. Be warned, we will undoubtedly conclude that there is no need to gravitate towards one extreme or another, and the most sensible thing is to find the b-word. Nevertheless, I think it’s interesting to discuss the factors at play. So without further ado, I present to you: the highs and the lows of perspective. In short, I can summarize the whole issue with a single question: thinking about my ‘career’, should I find a high-level cause to support (like ’the environment’, ‘ethical eating’, ‘original art’, ‘autonomous driving’), or should I quit flattering myself and dedicate my time to perfecting a specialized skill that provides clear meaning (e.g. making sushi, creating quality knives, or becoming a respected film maker)?
The problems of high-level perspective are perhaps unique to us as a species. Even more specifically, they are perhaps unique now in the history of our own species. How recently have we cared about anything other than the very bottom three (Physiology, Safety and Love/Belonging) rungs of the Maslow hierarchy of needs? I’d argue that significant portions of the human race have not cared until extremely recently, perhaps the last 50 years. So how do billions of people find ‘fulfillment’ now that their essential needs are met? Should we ignore perspective, and seek out specific skills, or find the necessary skills that let you apply yourself towards a high-level objective?
The Japanese sushi chef Jiro Ono, of ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ fame, is maybe one of the most famous examples of the low-level approach: find fulfillment in making the best food in the world. Perhaps the Japanese culture as a whole is geared more towards this perspective. From sushi and king-fu masters, to ‘salary-men’ that dedicate their lives to a single company. In the west, we’re in a slightly confused middle-ground. We respect and obsess over ‘masters’: from sommeliers, to barbers, to architects. Yet we also obsess over ‘shooting for the moon’ and grand ideas like environmentalism, peace, ethics, and love.
Consider the countless athletes and celebrities who spend significant time with charities. It is almost taken for granted that any ‘superstar’ (whether in sports, media or business) has their own ‘high-level’ foundation. Steve Jobs, for example, was and is criticized by many for not doing more philanthropic work. Of course there is nothing wrong with charity, but how much of this activity can be explained by our desperate need to support a high-level cause above all else? Can an artist create simply for themselves, or does the modern age make this impossible without some underlying agenda?
Should we aspire to be Jiros, or should we find our Yoko, and imagine ‘all the people living for today’?