Taking Pride in Everything You Do
There’s something special about Japan. I taught English in very rural Japan years ago, but something has always stuck with me about the lifestyle of the Japanese that is really special. Anyone who pays attention to the Japanese for any length of time sees a unique culture and philosophy that is hard to find anywhere else. Just like the Scandinavian concept of hygge, Japan has its own phrases and words that capture something important about their lifestyle, words that can’t be translated well into any other language.
I read a recent article about the idea of shokunin kishitsu, or the “mastery of one’s profession.” This has nothing to do with cozy sweaters, fireplaces, homey-ness, and hot chocolate like hygge. It has everything to do with your professional life and how that part of your life is crafted. Professions are incredibly important components of each person’s life in Japan. So much so that there is even a word for karoshi or “working yourself to death.” I see shokunin (for short) as the healthy alternative to the truly hazardous karoshi. It’s a way of taking pride in every aspect of your working life and making the most of every moment at work. It’s taking yourself seriously as a professional and taking your field seriously, even if it’s as humble a profession as a dishwasher or trash collector. Because in Japan, every profession has its own dignity and worth.
And it’s not just the execution of an excellent outcome that earns the name shokunin. It’s the idea of taking pride in the grind. The process of performing any task is as important as the outcome.
This is not to say that everything is rosy in Japan and beautifully clean, tidy, and professional. As it’s a country with normal human beings living there, not everyone embraces shokunin, but it is a cultural ideal and something to be admired and embraced. It’s something I don’t see as often in other places I’ve lived and visited.
There was once a very notable exception to this rare cultural ideal. I took the train once to Philly and a SEPTA employee really took the concept of shokunin to heart. This young man came into our car with crisp, organized bills for change, a fresh haircut, a pressed uniform, and the authority of someone who really studies and takes pride in his job. He was friendly but not too friendly. He was upbeat but not too bubbly. He was professional but not stern. And this was maybe two years ago! He stuck out to me that much. Not that I don’t see other examples of people taking their jobs seriously, but this guy. Wow.
And just that one example had me taking my job so much more seriously the next day. I picked out a nice outfit, packed a pretty lunch, woke up early, and organized my calendar as soon as I arrived. It was one of the best days I’ve had at work. It didn’t even take much to chase after shokunin, and it made a big difference in my work life. And when work is good, life is good, right?
Here are some things that might help you embrace your profession with a little renewed love and passion this week. And speaking as a full time homemaker, I know that “profession” is a pretty nebulous concept sometimes. It’s whatever takes up the majority of your working life that isn’t just watching the Bachelor and drinking Chardonnay. Although I could really embrace that as a career to be honest…
+ dress for success
Whatever your work wardrobe is: a suit, uniform, business casual, leggings and a workout top, take pride in how you present yourself. Set out your outfit the night before and take extra care that it’s clean, pressed, and de-linted (especially important for leggings!). If you need more work clothing, buy investment pieces slowly so they are an enduring part of your work wardrobe. Taking care of your things is very important too. Learn to shine your shoes! Or spot clean your sneakers. Keep a tidy work bag too! Make sure there isn’t a mess in the bottom of your bag by taking things out every evening to declutter. When I was working as a teacher, I added two command adhesive hooks on the back of my door for tops and bottoms. I would set out an outfit every night so I would be ready to go in the morning. I also created Pinterest boards organized by season so I could easily put together some outfits on the weekends for the week. That was always a fun challenge. Now that I’m a homemaker, I’m doing my best to dress in comfortable casual clothes that I’ve put thought and effort into.
+ keep learning
Keep up on your field and whatever is up and coming in your profession. You can bookmark articles and blogs for your profession. You can listen to podcasts that discuss your professional interests or help guide you toward increased inspiration and productivity. If you’re in a profession that offers a lot of continuing education, take advantage of these opportunities! If you have a more unstructured career like a homemaker, consider classes that enhance your daily tasks: cooking classes, simple sewing and mending, infant CPR. Whatever your career, there are sure to be some professional learning opportunities you can track down to keep you moving forward. And nothing inspires more than a good class on something you love!
+ neat and tidy
It’s not just your own personal presentation that’s important. To really embrace shokunin, it’s important to improve your work space. When I was teaching, I took special pride in my classroom and my desk. At the beginning of the year I went to Dollar Tree and Walmart and found a few nice things to decorate my classroom. Throughout the year, I would add a few decorations or nice things for holidays or the seasons. Every morning before students arrived, I would tidy all the chairs, spray down anything that got a lot of use, put away any dishes I had washed the night before (coffee cup, spoon, etc.), and restock extra pens, pencils, and tissues. Every night, I would take a few minutes to put things back in order. At the end of the week, I would make sure to do a few deep cleaning tasks, like disinfecting my phone handle and the computer keyboard and mouse to be ready for the next day. It helps to keep your mind focused on the work in front of you if your work space is beautiful, tidy, and clean.
+ find your heroes
In my current profession, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for apprenticeship or mentorship. I mean, I can hang out with my mom, but it isn’t really a formal thing. Whatever you do in life, you can find someone to look up to and someone to help out. Whether they are in person mentors or they’re virtual, it’s so important to have a vision of who you want to be in your career so you can take the steps to get there. It’s also essential to keep your heart open to advice, criticism, and help by those you admire. If you can receive this feedback humbly, you are well on your way to really nailing down this shokunin concept. (Bowing at a 90 degree angle also helps.) When I was a museum docent, I had a few coworkers who were retired teachers and really brought life into their work. I would compare notes and observe their tours to increase my own skills in that profession. When new people would arrive, I was so happy to share my own ideas and inspiration and encourage them in their own path. It’s important to be excited and encouraging to everyone down the line so you can practice a pattern of kindness and patience with everyone you meet.
+ do small things excellently
Any solid shokunin practitioner performs the same tasks over and over (and over) until they are honed, mastered, and firmly ingrained in physical memory. It’s the ultimate expression of “practice makes perfect” except perfect is never perfect. You just keep trying and trying to practice practicing. If you’re a writer, it’s important to proofread and edit (something I wouldn’t say I’m 100% on this blog…). I think it’s good to proofread and edit even old things from time to time just to keep making your writing fresh and interesting. I sometimes read poetry I wrote from college and tweak a word here or there, even now, years and years later. It’s a way of practicing my writing and reminding myself that no project is ever really complete. I’m sure in every industry, there are a few mundane, simple tasks that could really use a polish. If it’s spreadsheets, try to make each more visually pleasing and organized than the last. If it’s sharpening pencils for your classroom, try getting just the right uniform sharpness on each pencil. Does that seem totally insane? Maybe. Does it help sink excellence into every task of your day? Of course. I’m not saying do everything this way, unless you really feel called to. Just take a few things in your day that you can really perfect. It gives you a pride of work that only happens with a true shokunin.
Those are just some ideas to help invest some excellence into your daily life! If you really want to be inspired, try watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi on Netflix one night. Or go to the nicest Japanese restaurant in town. A good sushi chef is the perfect example of shokunin and something we can all admire.