Quality.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is the best movie about Steve Jobs ever made.” -Chris Dixon

Take a moment to consider the following: What is quality? When you drive by Wendy’s and see “Quality is Our Recipe” on the sign you know they’re full of shit, but why? This is the paradox: we all have an intuitive sense of what “quality” is, but it’s difficult to define, and if we can’t define what it is, how can we pursue it?

When my best friend told me Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (“ZAMM”), tries to answer that question, my eyes stretched wide open because the theme had been on my mind for a while and I was intrigued that someone had put a book-length effort into thinking about it 15 years before I was born.

The book title initially confused me because it turns out it’s not really about Zen or motorcycle maintenance–it makes more sense to think of Zen as living in the moment and motorcycle maintenance as rational thought. The narrator explores how we can combine artistic free-thinking creativity and the reason & logic of technology through a 17-day motorcycle trip from Minnesota to Northern California with his son. The thought is to be so engaged in what you’re doing that you become one with it. For example, it’s hard to imagine Jimi Hendrix without a guitar. Pirsig’s guitar is a motorcycle and the metaphor for his story.

Since then, I have read the book and later stumbled on Paul Graham’s essay Taste for Makers, in which he tries to answer the question: “how do you make good stuff?” Like when you are buying a new car, you actively notice everything about cars, I couldn’t help being on the lookout for quality.

Quality materials last. Quality people are trustworthy. Quality decisions rely on logic, courage, and intelligence. Regardless of what we’re talking about, there is an insatiable appetite for quality.

I thought about Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a phenomenal documentary available on Netflix about one of the world’s greatest sushi chefs. The parallels were hard to ignore. The opening scene of the film shows Jiro writing in Japanese and he says, “Taste is tough to explain, isn’t it?” The opening quote by Chris Dixon succinctly draws the comparison between Steve Jobs and Jiro in that they obviously have drastically different products (personal electronics & sushi), but the level of passion they have invested in perfecting them is nearly identical.

Pirsig, Graham, Jiro, and Jobs. A philosopher, venture capitalist, chef, and a technologist. They are all pursuing the same thing, just using different means and different words. Graham’s, being a 16-page essay, and Jiro, a movie, are more approachable, while ZAMM is a philosophical text (easier to read than most) thinly disguised as a novel. The underlying idea here deeply resonates with me and I think that a fulfilling life is dependent on the pursuit of quality, taste, or whatever we call it. What’s funny, is I used to think I wanted to be happy. But, what I realized is that satisfaction is actually superior to happiness because you can’t pursue happiness directly. Happiness is what’s left after you’ve done something else. I’d imagine that a NY firefighter on 9/11 would not describe himself as happy, but would feel fulfilled and satisfied by saving lives. There’s a lot here, so we will probably expand on certain ideas in the future. For now, let’s figure out how quality fits into our lives and how it can enhance them.

For better or worse, it’s nearly impossible to talk about quality without getting into epistemology (theory of knowledge) because when you say “good” it is kind of in-between subjective and objective. Your 6-year-old son may be good for his recreational basketball league, but Lebron James is good period.

I think what turns people off from philosophy are two related things:

1) it rarely proves anything (which is ironically interesting)
2) after a few minutes the conversation often drowns in a pool of abstraction and loses application to your day-to-day life. Perhaps we can summarize the sentiment with, “Whether the chair exists or not, we still have to go to work.”

Pirsig tries to maintain the casual reader’s interest by using Chautauquas: old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer (cough, the entire goal of this blog, cough).

Since Pirsig & Graham did the heavy lifting already, their ideas and quotes are going to serve as the basis for the post and I’m going to chime in with some thoughts along the way. Graham’s writing style is one of the best in the world. He tactfully acknowledges why a politically correct sentiment exists and then gets to the core of an interesting idea in plain language.

Saying that taste is just personal preference is a good way to prevent disputes. The trouble is, it’s not true. You feel this when you start to design things.

Whatever job people do, they naturally want to do better. Football players like to win games. CEOs like to increase earnings. It’s a matter of pride, and a real pleasure, to get better at your job. But if your job is to design things, and there is no such thing as beauty, then there is no way to get better at your job. If taste is just personal preference, then everyone’s is already perfect: you like whatever you like, and that’s it.

As in any job, as you continue to design things, you’ll get better at it. Your tastes will change. And, like anyone who gets better at their job, you’ll know you’re getting better. If so, your old tastes were not merely different, but worse. Poof goes the axiom that taste can’t be wrong. -Paul Graham, Taste for Makers

His delivery is light, but the challenge is real: Be better than you were. He then goes on to describe the principles behind good design.

This theme of self-improvement is natural to us, but it feels more inspiring when coming from people at the top of their field.

I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is. -Jiro Ono

My favorite scene in Jiro is an interview with one of his tuna vendors, Hiroki Fujita, at the fish market. Fujita says, “I either buy my first choice, or I buy nothing. If ten tuna are for sale, only one can be the best. I buy that one.” In-between the lines is the implication that you need to know tuna well enough to know the difference. To know what you want, to know it when you see it, and to pursue it exclusively. Do you know what you want, would you recognize it if you saw it, and would you say no to almost everything else to get it?

(From here, unless otherwise noted, block quotes are from ZAMM.)

P. 8 “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?,” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.

What is best is tricky. We all want the best tuna. Realistically, we should qualify it and say: What is best, given a set of constraints? If I required the best every time I had a late-night pizza craving, then I’d need to go to Italy (or Chicago), on a G6, with Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger flying it.

Having said that, “best” does not necessarily mean most popular or most expensive. Twilight sold about 120 million copies and most Pulitzer Prize winning books sell under 1.5 million copies. You can have a quality toothbrush that you spent $4 on and a lemon car that costs $50,000. Now, often the best becomes both popular and expensive because word gets out and if more people want it, the product or service will likely cost more.

Regarding material items, functionality and durability are important elements of quality. If you wear a $1,000 jacket 1,000 times ($1 per use), I’d argue that is less expensive than a $500 jacket that wears out after wearing it 10 times ($50 per use). Filson and Patagonia are good examples of this concept, which reminds me of an old Russian proverb: We’re not rich enough to buy cheap things.

P. 27-28 We were all spectators. And it occurred to me there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted.

Whether it’s a friendship, a garden, or an Excel spreadsheet, caring about what you are doing is arguably the most important attribute you can have because of how much it encapsulates. With sushi, you could say, “It’s just a piece of fish on top of rice.” That dismissive line of thought is deceptive though. Although the statement is true on the surface, watch the movie and see if you think there is a difference in the level of care between the fish on rice on a conveyor belt compared to the fish on rice at Jiro’s restaurant. Caring is like authenticity, there are no shortcuts and tends to require a significant time investment.

P. 28 I don’t want to hurry it. That itself is a poisonous twentieth century attitude. When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things.

Hurrying, and the related concept of being busy, is not just a poisonous twentieth century attitude…it survived Y2K and came right into the 21st. You rarely catch yourself rushing the important things and you always make time for the ones you care about the most. At Jiro’s restaurant, “after about ten years, they let you cook the eggs.”

Pirsig was a creative & technical writing professor for a brief period of time. If you read the book, you get the sense that although he had the best intentions and thoughts as a father and professor, he probably didn’t come across as good at either at the time.

P. 176 And he became convinced that all the writers the students were supposed to mimic wrote without rules, putting down whatever sounded right, then going back to see if it still sounded right and changing it if it didn’t.

Rules are alluring because they provide a step-by-step guide to get what we want and processes are usually helpful. However, I can’t think of a single person who I would consider great who simply followed a set of rules. Instead they worked on their craft until it felt right. Going with your gut is a terrible strategy for accounting, but critical for design and creating. This gut feeling comes from getting the reps in. One of Jiro’s apprentices said, “He gives me advice. But, there is much you can’t learn from words. I have to keep practicing.”

P. 209 What he meant by Quality was obvious. They obviously knew what it was too, and so they lost interest in listening. Their question now was “All right, we know what Quality is. How do we get it?”

He singled out aspects of Quality such as unity, vividness, authority, economy, sensitivity, clarity, emphasis, flow, suspense, brilliance, precision, proportion, depth and so on; kept each of these as poorly defined as Quality itself, but demonstrated them by the same class reading techniques.

It doesn’t make a bit of difference how you do it! Just so it’s good.

It impresses me when someone says something so eloquently I think to myself “Oh that’s exactly how I would have said it,” when in fact I couldn’t say it anywhere close to as well as them. This ties into his “taken for granted” comment above. Dismissing the concept as obvious is precisely why so many people fail at it. Graham goes a bit further in his characteristics, giving us more concrete examples and hints at how we can go about achieving them.

Everything we have talked about so far has been inwardly focused, so we have to be honest with our motives. Graham says the greatest masters go on to achieve a kind of selflessness.

P. 212 Any effort that has self-glorification as its final endpoint is bound to end in disaster. When you try to climb a mountain to prove how big you are, you almost never make it. And even if you do it’s a hollow victory. In order to sustain the victory you have to prove yourself again and again in some other way, and again and again and again, driven forever to fill a false image, haunted by the fear that the image is not true and someone will find out. That’s never the way.

(Insert flushed face emoji)

P. 218 And interestingly [without Quality], comedy would vanish too. No one would understand the jokes, since the difference between humor and no humor is pure Quality.

I’m going to get this quote tattooed in Chinese on my lower back.

P. 310 Of the value traps, the most widespread and pernicious is value rigidity. This is an inability to revalue what one sees because of commitment to previous values. In motorcycle maintenance, you must rediscover what you do as you go. Rigid values makes this impossible.

Robert Pirsig was talking about Confirmation Bias in 1974 long before it was trendy. We talked about this in an entire post here. Graham says Good design is redesign and “it takes confidence to throw work away.”

Suppose we have gotten past Confirmation Bias, we are willing to overturn closely held ideas and previous values, and everything else that goes along with Pirsig’s rediscovery process. No matter how adaptable we may be, somewhere along our journey we will reach a point where there is no readily available solution and there is no good outcome. Pirsig calls this being stuck. I loved this part of the book because we are so often tempted to rationalize away bad circumstances. Sure we can learn from failure, no it’s not the end of the world, but sometimes things are objectively bad at that particular point in time–no silver linings. He offers some guidance for this situation:

P. 311 …well…just stare at the machine. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just live with it for a while.

Of the people I have met and know, several are highly uncomfortable being mentally still. It’s important to distinguish being still from being lazy or boring. I believe the reason for this is that in the absence of distractions, people are confronted with the real issues or questions in their life that need to be addressed. This can be scary. However, I think part of the rise in popularity of yoga and meditation is because putting the body to work on a prosaic task (yoga, chopping wood, cleaning) that requires minimal effort allows the rest of the mind to reflect. We all need this.

P. 325 The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or fall away from Quality together.

P. 164 The ultimate test is always your own serenity. If you don’t have this when you
start and maintain it while you’re working you’re likely to build your personal problems right into the machine itself.

If you’ve ever gotten mad at an inanimate object, you understand this at least to some degree already. Everything you work on is a reflection of yourself. It took me ~25 years to figure this out because I also believe that which isn’t worth doing, isn’t worth doing well. Figuring out what to do is often at least as hard as the actual doing.

P. 386 It is an immortal dialogue, strange and puzzling at first, but then hitting you harder and harder, like truth itself.

When you find out there is something wrong with the cycle called yourself, it tends to make us angry. If it makes us angry enough, we’ll pretend there is nothing wrong with the cycle and you can imagine how that impacts where we are going.

This is something to think about in doses. Pirsig thought about this stuff so much it drove him insane.

By this point, the content of this excerpt from a Playboy interview of Steve Jobs in 1985 will sound familiar:

Playboy: Does it take insane people to make insanely great things?

Steve Jobs: Actually, making an insanely great product has a lot to do with the process of making the product, how you learn things and adopt new ideas and throw out old ideas. But, yeah, the people who made Mac are sort of on the edge.

Playboy: What’s the difference between the people who have insanely great ideas and the people who pull off those insanely great ideas?

Jobs: Let me compare it with IBM. How come the Mac group produced Mac and the people at IBM produced the PCjr? We think the Mac will sell zillions, but we didn’t build Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build. When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.

It’s been several years since I read Steve Jobs’ biography, but it sounds like he read ZAMM.

I wonder how Jiro would respond to the same question about insane people and great products? Jiro and his employees memorize the seating chart of the guests of the restaurant by gender before they arrive, so that the women are served slightly smaller portions than the men in order to keep a harmonic pace to the meal, ensuring everyone finishes at the same time.

Most people like interviews and profiles of successful people because they potentially offer insights into the traits that caused their success. So, let’s say there’s a spectrum of personality traits and on one end is living-in-the-moment and at the opposite end is rational analysis we alluded to above. It is likely that we lean towards one end or the other and have a tendency to at least subconsciously think people who are more of the other type just don’t get it, which can’t be the case. If we can gravitate towards the center over time, I think we’ll have a higher quality of life regardless of whether we maintain motorcycles, create the next iPhone, or make the best sushi.

A focus on quality is an end in itself, but it has additional second-order benefits, too. It will filter your true wants. If the quality of something is not that important to you, you probably don’t need much of it in your life. This reduces the number of things you want, which almost literally means you’ll be happier.

Go for quality.


See also:
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Paul Graham’s Taste for Makers essay
Playboy Interview with Steve Jobs (1985)
Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia)
Filson
Satisfaction by Gregory Berns
Man on Wire (documentary)

 

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