“Once you stop learning, you start dying.” Albert Einstein
Success and confidence can come from different sources, we all know this, some more prevalent or lasting than others. We often think that the “pursuit of more” will bring us greater satisfaction — that if we are the fairest and the richest in the land, our sense of worth will sky-rocket and will stay up forever. And when it doesn’t, we are thrown in a turmoil of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
Perhaps we don’t have enough, we reason, we need more — possessions, beauty, envy from others — to feel better about ourselves. But “more” still fails to produce a lasting sense of high. Why so?
Welcome to the hedonic treadmill.
This relationship between “more” and confidence is barely a surprising news, though. Economists have long studied what they call “The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility.” The general idea is that, as we increase our consumption of a product or a service, the satisfaction we receive from each additional unit decreases. The Law holds true for almost everything in life. Here is why.
When we get something that we’ve wanted for a long time — an expensive watch, for instance, we become instantly happy. We want everyone to notice us and our new thing. We feel on the top of the world, “like a million bucks.” When our circumstances allow it, we buy another one and another one over time.
With each additional one, our happiness and satisfaction drops. We feel less and less special.
So, there comes a moment when “more” is not better, more is not more but, in fact, becomes less. “More” doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves and it doesn’t improve our self-confidence even by a notch.
So, what then? Is there the better path to a lasting self-esteem? A good candidate is a small thing which also happens to be an exception to the Law of Marginal Utility — knowledge. Knowledge doesn’t have a threshold, isn’t susceptible to hedonic adaptation and doesn’t diminish our satisfaction and benefits the more we “get” from it.
Honing our skills, for instance, and becoming an expert in our field are not going to have the unfavorable wearing-off effects of time. Knowledge can make us better at what we do, earn us respect, and nonetheless — make us proud of ourselves.
But it’s not about chasing fame, recognition or invoking envy from the Joneses, though.
It’s about cultivating our craft.
It’s about fulfilling our obligation to ourselves to be the best we can.
The Dream of Sushi
The 2011 American documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” relays in a powerful way the idea that refining our artisanship is necessary to our growth as human beings. Jiro Ono is an 86-year old sushi chef and an owner of a three-star Michelin restaurant in Tokyo. According to many, he is the best in the world at what he does.
“There is always a yearning to do more, to achieve more,” Jiro says in the film. “Even at my age, after years of work, I don’t think I’ve achieved perfection. But I feel ecstatic every day…I love making sushi. That’s the spirit of the shokunin.”
There is positively something of value to be learned here.
The Japanese word “shokunin” means “craftman” or “artisan.” It involves much more than just the work itself. It’s a way of live devoted to continuous improvement. It’s taking pride in what we do, in ourselves, and it’s a drive to become better — be it at accounting, servicing clients, teaching, raising kids, or making sushi.
Whatever it is, strive to do it well, Jiro explains — aim not for perfection (as it may become an elusive obsession), but to fare better each day, to learn something new, to improve one thing at a time.
Becoming better, in turn, will enhance your self-respect.
Sounds simple, but how exactly do we get better or even the best?
Practice, of course, plays a large part in it.
What may make it even easier is to simply find our true calling and pursue it. Then, the feeling of loving what we do will come naturally. We will want to grow and improve.
If we aren’t part of this lucky pack, though, a more realistic alternative will be to learn to like what we currently do.
And this is how.
The Toyota Way
There is much we can learn from the Japanese traditions and ethos, it seems, when it comes to building self-discipline, dedication to our craft, and a mentality of ceaseless pursuit of self-refinement.
“The Toyota way” is a book which describes the 14 principles on which the company’s iconic culture is based. The most fascinating thing about the Toyota way is that its main idea is very simple: success is based on two key pillars — continuous advancement and respect for other people.
The Japanese call this process of improvement or change for the better “kaizen.”
And the Kaizen way teaches us that to become good (and even the best) at what we do calls not for some grandiose transformation, but rather — for small daily enhancements, which, taken in their totality over a period of time, yield major positive changes.
And it goes beyond manufacturing and work — it can be applied to anything really — be it to start exercising, clean our closet or read more books. Just do a notch more today than you did yesterday and you’ll see progress.
Kaizen is a way of bettering our craftmanship, but it’s also a way of life, of looking ahead, of planning for the future. It helps us build perseverance and respect toward the man in the mirror.
But ultimately — what we choose to do for a living usually plays the greatest part in our self-enhancement journey.
Or, as Jiro humbly tells us in the movie:
“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 is the key to being regarded honorably.”
This piece was originally posted at TheStartUp.
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 For thoroughness, I would like to mention that there are few items that are considered to be an exception to the Law. The Law doesn’t hold true for addictive drugs, expensive jewelry, rare collectables, knowledge and innovations. Money is somewhere in-between — its marginal utility decreases as people get richer but it never falls down to zero.