Jiro Lives Worth Living

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a well-reviewed documentary mostly celebrating the world’s best sushi chef. Which is worth pondering, because Jiro is an extreme workaholic. Roger Ebert:

Jiro Ono is 85 years old. As a young boy, he ran away from home to become an apprentice in a restaurant and has been making sushi for more than 70 years. He is apparently not happy doing anything else and prefers to work all day, seven days a week, every day in the year. … You realize he must be a rich man. But to what end? … While watching it, I found myself drawn into the mystery of this man. Are there any unrealized wishes in his life? Secret diversions? Regrets? If you find an occupation you love and spend your entire life working at it, is that enough? (more)

Jiro’s life is also quite routine – he repeats the same actions over and over and over, always seeking slight adjustments to improve quality.

I haven’t seen anyone says this movie describes a terrible tragedy of a wasted worthless life. Most seem to accept Jiro’s life as worth living, and many consider his an exemplary life. Yet let’s imagine some variations on Jiro’s life, and ask if they are also worth living.

First, imagine that Jiro is not rich. He is still the very best, but he gives his sushi away. He has enough to eat, stays warm, and is healthy, but has few luxuries. But since he spends most of his time at the office, it probably doesn’t make that much difference to his quality of life if he is rich or poor.

Second, imagine someone with Jiro’s unsurpassed skill, overwhelming dedication, and fascination with their work, except that this person makes plywood, not sushi. Would that also be a life worth living? It would be a lower status life, as our culture lauds sushi chefs more than plywood makers. But he would still be the very best plywood maker in the world. Isn’t that enough?

Third, imagine holding constant this person’s skill, while increasing other workers’ skills, so that this person is now only of median quality. His subjective experience of working on the job would be similar, except he couldn’t feel superior to everyone else. Would his life be worth living then? That is, can status by itself make the difference between a life worth living and one not? If when he isn’t noticing his status, he has the same feeling of flow, immersion, and fascination in his work, wouldn’t that be enough for a life worth living?

Some of you probably see where I am going with this. Imagine we take the few hundred very best most dedicated workaholic humans, and fill a world with trillions of em copies of them, so that they are mostly working at near subsistence wages, yet have enough food, warmth, health, etc. Is this a world full of creatures with lives worth living?

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