This month the Smithsonian has long profile on Anthony Bourdain that ends with, “What would you like your last meal to be?” In typical Bourdain fashion, the meal he has in mind is virtually impossible to get without reservations weeks in advance: a sushi course at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the three Michelin star restaurant profiled in the excellent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. As Bourdain explains:
Watch the film and you will understand. It is an 88-year-old man doing the same basic 30 or 40 basic cuts of Edo-style sushi, meaning nothing innovative. Every night he’s been going to sleep for his entire life; how do I make that standard shrimp over rice better, better, better, better? …
Rice is magical. Rice is an explanation of everything.
Jiro’s rice has been described as “like a cloud.” The documentary interviews Jiro’s rice dealer, who scoffs at the frequent requests he gets from other restaurants and hotels to sell them the same rice — none of them realize the the enormous amount of effort and skill it takes to cook the rice properly.
If you haven’t seen it, you can read more about the documentary in various reviews online, like this one from The New Yorker. Here’s a clip where Jiro explains what it means to be a shokunin, improving his craft bit by bit every day.
I thought that idea could make a nice setup for a post, and then I realized I couldn’t possibly write about something like that without reviewing Keith Lee’s The Marble and the Sculptor, which came out back in November. He sent me a copy with a handwritten inscription over the title page promising that, if I didn’t like it, the author would be sacked. I have no doubt that Keith consciously decided to write a handwritten note because he felt it would make more of an impact (which it did), and that he inferred I would recognize the Monty Python joke (which I did). Keith is one of those folks who recognizes and attends to details like that, which is why his book is worth reading.
“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have labored hard for,” is an insightful quote often attributed to Socrates, although the closest Socrates quote I can find with a historical source is “while gold and silver cannot make men better, the thoughts of the wise enrich their possessors with virtue.” The point is the same either way, and Keith has plainly employed his time thusly. The book touches upon many of the best writings in self-improvement, ranging from James Altucher on career development (page 17) to George Orwell on writing (page 35) to Winston Churchill on public speaking (page 37) to Peter Drucker on work performance (page 93) to Henry Rollins on discipline (page 108). (The links I’ve put here are to informative writings by each.)
I have one minor quibble with the book: the “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn” story that Keith mentions (page 32) wasn’t actually written by Hemingway. We can forgive that, though, and look past Keith’s status as a “young lawyer,” because the breadth of source material and Keith’s discriminating taste make the book a compilation of timeless advice. Much of what readers will find in this book is the same they would find by way of hours, and hours, and hours of conversation with older lawyers, without all the tiresome lawyer war stories in between. Couple this book with The Curmudgeon’s Guide To Practicing Law (and, ahem, since he mentions my blog on page 178, I can point you to this post on the basics for litigators and this post on preparing for depositions), and a lawyer is off to a good start.
But what then? What is a lawyer to do after that?
That’s where Jiro’s rice comes in: perfecting the craft bit by bit, day by day.
Since we have been talking about many of the Internet’s favorite pieces of self-improvement, consider David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” commencement speech (also on YouTube), a modern classic. The overall message, told vividly, is how he tries to be mindful of “the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.” Don’t be like a fish that doesn’t know it’s in water; recognize “this is water,” and embrace it.
That’s good advice for life that is equally applicable to the practice part of lawyer’s lives.
In legal practice, there are moments of glory — standing victorious in a courtroom, seeing your words adopted as an appellate court opinion, closing a contentious deal, etc — but they represent a tiny fraction of what lawyers do. What about the rice? Can you make it better? Do you have just a couple more minutes to help the client’s understanding of an issue in the case? Could you make that letter a little clearer? Is there maybe another case out there to cite? Do you need to read the rule a little more closely? Is there another (preferably small) concession you could make to close the deal?
Take a look at the solitary, the undistinguished, and the banal aspects of your work and consider: “this is rice.” Then make it so good even a person like Anthony Bourdain can’t criticize it.