Jiro Dreams of Sushi & the Unique Task of Finding Meaning in Life

4 min read

“Maybe happiness is this: not feeling that you should be elsewhere, doing something else, being someone else.” 
-Eric Weiner

Last night I watched a wonderful documentary called Jiro Dreams of Sushi on Netflix. It’s about an 85-year-old Japanese man named Jiro Ono who owns a tiny sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station.

His restaurant is world renowned and the only one of its kind that has ever received Three Michelin Stars, a highly coveted award in the food industry.

Three Michelin Stars: A restaurant worth a special journey, indicating exceptional cuisine where diners eat extremely well, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients.

There is even an eight month waiting list one must join to eat at Jiro’s sushi bar.

The film offers a behind-the-scenes look at Jiro’s typical workday.

Each day Jiro sends his son to the fish market to buy fresh seafood. He then meticulously watches his team to ensure they make the rice correctly. Throughout the day, Jiro bounces around between cooking and teaching.

When guests arrive for dinner, his true mastery is revealed. He observes which hand each person uses to eat sushi and places each piece on the dish accordingly to make it easier to pick up. He serves bigger portions to bigger people and smaller portions to smaller people so each guest finishes eating at the same time. Each round of dishes is served in a specific order based on how the different cuisines taste one after another.


For Jiro, dinner is not just a meal to be eaten, but an experience to be had.

A Shining Example

Throughout the film, it’s evident just how content Jiro is in his daily life. He is a shining example of someone who has achieved high levels of proficiency in the three areas that psychologists have deemed necessary to live a good life:

Autonomy: Jiro is his own boss. He has complete control over his work.

Competence: Jiro is a master, and although he is considered the greatest sushi chef in the world, he admits that he strives to improve his craft each day.

Connection: Jiro’s lead employee is his own son. He also has a small team that works for him. Between teaching the young guys how to make sushi and serving his dishes to adoring customers, he clearly experiences a deep connection with others through his work.


Finding Meaning

If there was no film made about Jiro, it would be easy to look at his life from the outside and mistakenly believe that he is an 85 year-old man who never achieved retirement, who remained at the same sushi restaurant for several decades, who never made the leap to a larger business, and who lacks meaning.

This would be a classic mistake of thinking a meaningful life has to look a certain way.

I think we all want to find meaning in life. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to look for it in the wrong places. Instead of chasing autonomy, competence, and connection, we strive to accumulate more things.

We think more is synonymous with better. More square feet, more trinkets, more money, more degrees, and more accolades must lead to a meaningful life. But this is where consumerism has led us astray. Even worse, it has drawn us into a competition that we don’t actually want to compete in.

The world as a whole is wealthier than it has ever been in human history, and yet happiness levels haven’t budged in decades. 

I think the problem lies in our modern obsession with chasing a life that looks good instead of a life that feels good. 


Jiro’s Playbook

We could all benefit from taking a page out of Jiro’s playbook. In particular, this means moving towards a life that feels meaningful, no matter what it looks like.

This requires some experimentation. Sometimes you have to go out on a limb and try a new way of living to see if it brings you meaning.

The rising popularity of digital nomad lifestyles is causing many young people to believe that best route to a good life is through being your own boss, traveling around the world, and working from your laptop. This could be the answer for some, but not for all. In this article, one man describes the dark side of the digital nomad lifestyle, saying

“One successful entrepreneur, in a rare moment of vulnerability, recently wrote that he burst into tears in a small suburb in Japan watching families ride their bikes together in a park. It struck him that this simple, mundane pleasure was something he would never know again.”

Another appealing lifestyle choice is traveling the country full-time in an RV. This could bring meaning, but for this couple they found it had the opposite effect, stating:

“Sure, the travel is fun. We love our Airstream and we love being with our pets. We spent our second weekend traveling at the beach. It was everything we wanted—except, we weren’t happy. We didn’t feel the joy we thought we would. We missed our family, I struggled to find time for my business, and our budget was bursting at the seams.”

There is no cookie-cutter formula for finding meaning in life. What works for one person might not work for the next. Your task is simply to seek out meaning in your own unique way, without worrying about what that looks like.

Money Provides the Means

Personal finance plays an important role in all of this. In the quest for a life filled with autonomy, competence, and connection, money provides the autonomy. It gives you freedom to make choices and try different ways of living. But money alone does not bring competence or connection. For those, you need to find work you enjoy and a social circle to connect with.

Part of the reason Jiro’s daily life is so wonderful is because he has autonomy. He earns enough money from his business to be his own boss. Without money concerns, he can focus all his energy on creating the best sushi in the world and embracing a life that gives him meaning.

No matter what you pursue in life, your finances will be the backbone that support your lifestyle. Your savings and investments will provide the means for you to pursue a life that feels good, whether that means backpacking in southeast Asia, traveling full-time in an RV, raising a family in the suburbs, taking a gap year in Bolivia, or running your own sushi restaurant in a Tokyo subway station.

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9 Replies to “Jiro Dreams of Sushi & the Unique Task of Finding Meaning in Life”

  1. I absolutely love this documentary! I think I’ve watched it at least 3 times now. It’s really impressive to see someone that has dedicated himself to pursuing perfection in a single area through consistent daily improvement. There’s definitely a lot to learn there and I think your insights into the happiness aspect are spot on.

    Also interesting to hear those instances of digital nomads being unhappy. I find that with people like that, just like in all social media, you only see the images and stories of how wonderful things are, while any negatives or daily mundanities don’t get published. That makes it easy for us readers/viewers to feel jealousy and longing after the lifestyles of others. In reality, everyone has their own ups and downs and it’s nice to be reminded of that from to time and feel a little less pressure to “measure up”.

    1. I think there’s tradeoffs to every lifestyle. That article on the “dark side” of digital nomads was enlightening for me because it reminded me that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Being a digital nomad may seem like a dream life, but there’s certainly aspects of it that can make it less than perfect.

  2. I loved that documentary as well, though as a small person with a big appetite, I slightly took exception to the idea I’d be served a smaller portion since I can eat as fast as my bigger dining companions. I hope that if we ever had the pleasure of dining at Jiro’s, he’d notice and adjust accordingly. 😉

    As a longtime money blogger, I’ve noticed the trend of romanticizing the digital nomad life. I think it works wonderfully for Michelle from Sense of Cents who works from an RV, who has also had resounding success with her money blog, but the most important component of building a successful life is to know yourself. I love the digital part of her life, and have made that happen in my life, but I’m not built to be a nomad so I’ve instead built a home base that I love working from and living in. I enjoy short stints on the road but not much more than that!

    1. “The most important component of building a successful life is to know yourself.”

      Absolutely agree with this. The more you know yourself and what brings you joy, the better you can craft a life that brings you meaning. For some, a digital nomad lifestyle can be perfect, but others need more social interaction on a regular basis. I plan on experimenting with working for myself and potentially being a digital nomad in the near future, so I’m trying to expose myself to different opinions of people who have already had those experiences.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

  3. What you took away from this documentary is so enlightening. I watched it several years ago and need to re-watch it after reading your post!

    I’m glad you highlighted some of the downsides of digital nomad/RV life. I’ve definitely fallen into the trap of thinking that lifestyle is so much better than my current one due to all of the great press it’s gotten in the past few years.

    I didn’t realize high proficiency in those three areas leads to a good life. I’ve always wanted autonomy and flexibility, but I hadn’t thought so much about competency and connection. It makes sense why those are also necessary!

    1. Thanks, Cyn!

      I think we all have a tendency to romanticize lifestyles that we have never experienced ourselves, just because it’s so easy to imagine the upside (i.e. being your own boss, seeing the world) without imagining the downside (i.e. loneliness). I still think I’d like to be a digital nomad myself at some point, just to see for myself if I like it or not.

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