Revision as Shokunin

One of my favorite reads in the last year has been Bob Iger’s The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company. In his book, Iger dives into the magic behind running a company like Disney, his wisdom on leadership and collaboration, and the type of grit necessary to inspire others worldwide. Early on in his memoir, he shares his sources of inspiration, one of them being featured in a documentary called Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which follows the career of Jiro Ono, a master sushi chef from Tokyo, Japan. His restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, is globally revered and holds three Michelen stars. Dedicated to always improving his work, Ono lives by the tenet of shokunin, a Japanese word meaning the “endless pursuit of perfection,” “mastery of one’s craft,” or simply “artisan.”

So, after reading Iger’s book, watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi on Netflix, and doing some reflection on my own, I, too, was inspired. Between Iger’s anecdotes and Ono’s outlook, I started to become more and more invested in this concept of shokunin.  Yes, my source of inspiration was another person’s source of inspiration, and I knew I had to keep that ripple effect going.

Jiro Ono himself working in his restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro. Image via Voyagin.

In my own classroom, I shared with my students the thinking and value behind shokunin. I have even started classes with this simple writing warm-up: “who do you believe embodies this idea of shokunin?” From artists to athletes to family members to role models of any kind, shokunin was all around us.

As I wrote and discussed alongside my students, I reminded them that we ourselves are artisans. We are artisans of language, and we are always looking for ways to hone our craft.

An endless pursuit of perfection? A commitment to mastery? Revision in and of itself –  looking at our writing and seeking to find where we can reimagine, reapproach, and refine it – is just that. Though we often work with  verbiage such as “final drafts” and “final revisions,” we always remind our students that our writing can always be improved and revisited in some way – this is how we express the endless possibilities and boundless potential of our writing.

With the wisdom of Iger and Ono, I was reminded of how our task of teaching our students how to write and revise overlaps with the principles of artisanship and shokunin.

Reflection and Feedback

A number of moments in Jiro Dreams of Sushi capture Ono’s daily and ongoing practice of diligent reflection and frequent evaluation (whether that be self-evaluation or collaboration with his team of chefs). Despite the fact that this man runs a restaurant for which people from all over the globe join waitlists just to make a reservation, he is forever searching – actively and sincerely – for ways to continue improving his recipes and dining experience for his guests. And that’s what’s so commendable about Jiro Ono. That he is in this constant state of “searching” and unending desire for more. It’s wholesome and refreshing and inspiring. 

Admittedly, there is an argument to be made for the unhealthy cycle of never being satisfied with your work or never realizing when you’ve reached tangible goals, but I don’t believe Ono’s approach is merely that. This is different.

I believe he is satisfied with and fulfilled by his work, but additional satisfaction comes from the fact that guests of his restaurant travel miles upon miles to come enjoy a world-class dining experience, coupled with the prospect of tomorrow’s opportunities to continue raising that bar for future guests. The reward is recognizing how your craft evolves alongside and with you. With your goals, with your learning, with your passion.

In the same way, we reiterate to our students how integral reflection and feedback are to the act of writing revision.

Consider some of the practices and habits we seek to instill in our students who are learning to revise:

  • Using revision checklists to self-evaluate on writing goals and areas for improvement.
  • Using mentor sentences to employ new techniques and further expand writing style.
  • Conferring in a number of settings (peer, small group, and teacher-student) in pursuit of feedback, gathering everything we can to inform our next move.
  • Dedicating time to rethink sentence structure and word choice down to the very word placement and use (this is sometimes the whittling and polishing of our work).

The more I thought about it, the more I saw shokunin in revision work, especially with the type of reflective and evaluative thinking involved.

Small Steps and Gradual Progress

Jiro Ono dedicated his time learning about sushi and restaurant management through apprenticeships and countless experiments to build up to his three Michelen star standard; Bob Iger spent years working for other companies and learning about what makes an organization truly soar before his rise to serving as CEO of the Walt Disney Company. As artisans of any craft know, progress and mastery do not happen overnight. 

I have often worked with students who struggle with this idea when revising their own writing.

In my experience, while some students find success in reflecting and figuring out what they want to change about their writing, they also become overwhelmed with the idea of knowing where to start or wanting all the improvement to show up immediately in their next piece.

When this happens, I remind students that it’s all about taking small steps in improving our writing.

What do we do when students are overwhelmed by their draft covered in revision notes? Help them recognize which areas demand our immediate attention and encourage them to make an ordered list of priorities to tackle.

A great reminder on maximizing the effectiveness of a writing conference with a student? Focus on just one skill and one skill only. It is easy to students to want to rapidly check off the boxes of all their revision goals, but just as I’ve told myself many times…in this moment, let’s value depth over breadth. Let’s master this one skill really well, and then move on.

Over time, students will see the merit of working through revision areas one by one.

It can be an exciting moment for us as teachers when students begin gaining a holistic view of where they want their writing to be, but it is even more rewarding when we see them understanding the importance of gradual improvement and consistency. Our craft takes time, persistence, patience, and more persistence.

Embracing Failures for Growth

A crucial element of shokunin and artisanship comes in the form of embracing our failures for long-term growth.  Envision how many times Ono has botched a recipe or profusely apologized for inadvertent bad table service. Or the amount of business mistakes and project failures Iger himself had to fight through to get to where he currently is. Regardless, both artisans knew that embracing their failures and learning from them were key to growth in their craft.

In one of my earlier posts from this school year, “Fostering Risk-Taking During the Revision Process,”  I discussed the long-term value of students becoming comfortable with taking more chances in their writing revision and the benefit of trying things that end up failing.

Many of those ideas align with this aspect of shokunin. And it’s worth asking ourselves how we are creating an environment for our students to embrace failure.

  • Do our students truly recognize that failure is necessary for growth?
  • Are we encouraging our students to find excitement in experimenting with their writing during revision?
  • In what ways are we giving students the opportunity to reflect on failure and paths that did not work out but still taught them something?

It’s important to help our students see the excellence ahead of them, but even more important to remind them of all the mistakes and learning moments that contribute to that level of excellence.  

What does this mean for us as teachers of writing?

Switch out sushi for syntax and dining for diction. When we truly remember what artisanship is, the parallels between Ono’s work and ours become even clearer.

As I ruminate on shokunin and all the ways our work is essentially an endless pursuit for perfection and excellence, I am reminded of the invaluable responsibilities and tasks we have as teachers of writing.

For many students, revision work can sometimes feel like the part that is most challenging,  or the part that moves slowly, or the part where they’re not always sure to do, or the part where they merely need to “proofread or edit.”  However, it’s crucial to remind our students – and ourselves – that writing revision is the core of what makes writing our craft, in all of its layers and challenges.

Those reminders are the ripple effect; those reminders keep the inspiration going.

As students strive for improvement in their work, we must not let them forget the feeling of dedicating yourself to your words, the pride and satisfaction in the fruits of your writing labors, the thrill of the pursuit for what’s next on the road to mastery.


In what ways do you support and guide students in the artisanship of writing and revision? You can connect with me on Twitter @kenbuiCBSD.

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  1. Excellent post. I especially enjoyed the section on Embracing Failures for Growth. It reminded me a great deal of the Super Mario Effect on Education TedTalk. That may be a useful watch/listen if you are not already familiar with it. Thanks for sharing.

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