I had lunch, a little while ago, with a friend who had recently vacationed in Japan for a few weeks. As we were waiting for our food to arrive, the sushi chef working close by behind his counter, my friend told me the story of a successful Japanese restaurant owner who had been asked if he had any plans to expand his restaurant—to get a larger space and add more tables.
“Oh no!” Said the owner. “My dream is that one day, I may be able to reduce the number of tables so that I can give every single client the most perfect experience I can.”
What a beautiful thing to say, I thought, and how utterly foreign. Ever since my friend told me this story, I haven’t been able to put it out of my mind.
Throughout my professional career, I’ve been caught up in a logic of growth which is, for good or ill, the logic of publicly listed commercial organizations: Grow or get outcompeted and risk going out of business.
The Japanese restaurant owner my friend was describing is evidently motivated by an entirely different purpose. I have never met him, but I imagine his pursuit being aesthetically driven, the experience infused with a quest for beauty and excellence—in tastes, colors, movement and arrangements—that supersedes all other considerations.
One can easily imagine another restaurant owner, just across the street, being driven by the desire to create as many good jobs as possible for the people of her town; or the owners of yet another being motivated by the desire to offer their child the best possible life. Who’s to say which purpose amongst those is most noble, if it is even possible to make such a determination? Still, there is something quite alluring to me in the kind of aesthetically driven pursuit of excellence exemplified by the first restaurant owner.
I have spent most of my career in the world of for-profit organizations that operate within a paradigm of growth, but I have also been shaped by four decades of martial arts practice suffused with aestheticism and the pursuit of excellence:
“Judo”, Corrado Croceri has said, “is an art of the body because it obliges us to search for, in every movement, the maximum expression of aesthetics. Aesthetics is that which tries as much as it can to reach objective beauty”. It’s something that every judoka aims at: a technical move which is aesthetically pleasing is, simultaneously, a practical and perfect execution of the move, from an effectiveness point of view.” (The Aesthetics of Judo Meets Poetry and Music; Photo credit: Hart House and Jiduo An)
When I think of our judo club, I never find myself wishing that we could quadruple the number of students. The number of students we have, I find, is just right and allows me to focus on quality, give every student some personalized attention and inject in my teaching the traditions and values that give judo its true meaning.
Similarly, I would never compromise the quality of my writing just for the purpose of increasing my readership. I strive for beauty in words and ideas and would rather reach a smaller audience than do what seems to be required, on social media, in order to reach a massive one.
In many respects, we all face similar choices in business as well as in everyday life: quality vs quantity, profit vs excellence, beauty vs convenience, to name only a few. Like I said earlier, who’s to say which purpose is most noble, if it is even possible to make such a determination? Still, I can’t stop thinking about that restaurant owner who wishes he could reduce the size of his restaurant so that he could offer every single client the most perfect experience possible.