Why We Need More Omakase Creators
Make what you want to make and play your part in shaping the ecology of desire
The Japansese tradition of omakase is now one of my favorite dining experiences. My wife introduced me to it in New York City just a few years ago—it was one of those moments when she looks at me like, “Oh you poor thing, I sometimes forget you didn’t grow up near a big city.” (She’s from Jersey, I’m from Michigan. I lived most of my life oblivious that these kinds of wonderful things exist.)
The word comes from the Japanese word 任せる (makaseru), which means “to entrust.” When you go to a fine omakase place, you tell the chef: “I'll leave it up to you. Serve me what you believe is the absolute best thing I could experience tonight.” It’s not cheap, but that’s partly because here in the U.S. we’re paying for the transportation costs of having fresh fish flown in from faraway places like Japan. That’s why Claire and I usually reserve our Omakase dinners for when we’re celebrating special occasions. But the food itself it not my primary concern in this piece; I’m thinking about the ‘form’ of the experience.
With omakase, the chef makes the call. There is no menu anxiety, no trying to decipher strange names, no haggling over who should order what. You sit back, relax, and entrust yourself to the creativity and craftsmanship of the chef.
(Ultimately, our economy is only as strong as the trust inside of it. We move at the speed of trust. The health of an organization, too, is the speed at which truth travels within it—and that’s also a matter of trust. One largely unspoken reason why cancel culture is wreaking major economic damage under the surface, which we’ll eventually have to face: the erosion of trust within corporations, and by extension within the market itself. People are afraid to say what they really think. And that has serious consequences not only for our society, but even for our economy. The speed of truth is grinding to a snail’s pace in most places, and that means we won’t be able to adapt quickly to the coming credit deluge—and other unnamed bubbles...)
Maybe there is a lesson to be learned here for creators, entrepreneurs, builders, and craftsmen and women—for anyone who takes pride in their work and does it with excellence. If people want to pay you a premium price to put themselves in your hands and let you create what you truly want to create, then you’ve done something truly special.
I’m not suggesting that market demand doesn’t matter. We can’t just create things that people don’t want and then complain when you’re not making any money. But market demand is the product of a reflexive process between what is on offer (the supply) and what people want (the demand). Desires are formed, not born out of nothing—not created ex nihilo. We are all responsible for what one another wants.
Each of us has the ability to push the boundaries and transcend the existing paradigm of desire. We have agency. We’re able to want more. That’s why the greatest role of an entrepreneur is shaper of desires—thin and thick. (For anyone who hasn’t read Wanting yet: a thin desire is highly mimetic and fleeting and can change with the seasons or the political cycle or the times, like fashion; a thick desire, on the other hand, would be a less mimetic desire that underlies all of the thin stuff—like the desire to be known by others as an unrepeatable person, which I suspect lies underneath most of the identity-seeking in fashion.)
Ultimately, we have to decide whether we’re going to adopt the desires on offer to us by the prevailing powers, or look for a better offer.
The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness. — Benedict XVI
Frederick Buechner defines a vocation as the place where “your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.” The world’s deep hunger is important to keep in mind, no doubt.
I usually don’t know what I want until someone shows me, or until I encounter it in the world for the very first time. That’s why, when I work with a creative professional like an illustrator, I am careful never to lead them too much about what silly ideas I think I have; I want to give them maximum freedom to put their own stamp of creativity on my work.
Ten years ago, if someone had given me a survey to fill out about the perfect woman I thought I wanted to be with, I would’ve constructed a far less wonderful person than my wife.
I think a similar principle holds true when it comes to music, wine, art, products—even God. Idols are destroyed, desires refined.
Life is a process of continually understanding and developing our desires. The childish fantasies that we entertained (”if I just accomplished X, everything would be good”) always end up looking bankrupt in hindsight—especially if we’re just moving horizontally from one mimetic object to the next without making any progress toward some vertical and transcendent goal.
This is partly why I find Lean Startup Evangelical Fundamentalism a little weird. Just in case you’re not familiar, “lean startup” is the meme-ified idea that entrepreneurs should build “Minimum Viable Products”, expending the least amount of resources to build the things that are most perfectly adapted to the ‘market fit.’
“Ries argues that to build a great company, one must begin with the customers in the form of interviews and research discovery. Building an MVP (Minimum viable product) and then testing and iterating quickly results in less waste and a better product market fit.” (Wikipedia—because you can learn everything you need to know there without reading the book.)
The Lean Start-up mentality is so embedded as a mental model that Sam Walker could publish this article in the Wall Street Journal blasting Elon Musk for wanting to be an active agent in shaping the future. The piece is titled Elon Musk and the Dying Art of the Big Bet with the following sub-title: “In the age of Big Data, Tesla’s stated approach to market research—ignoring it altogether—seems especially reckless.”
Notice the almost religious reverence for “research.” There is a radical empiricism behind this. It’s the kind that led Tony Hsieh to tell me that he wouldn’t get married unless someone could prove to him scientifically that he would be happier if he got married than if he stayed single.
(Alright. First of all, there is indeed plenty of research that shows that married people are, on the whole, more satisfied in life than those who are not. Second, there are anthropological and religious dimensions to the question which can’t be ‘measured’ in the way that he would’ve liked. Third, nobody would’ve been able to tell Tony ahead of time that his specific marriage would have been ‘happy’ before the fact. There are questions of commitment, stability, and a greater good that is greater than our own individual happiness—children and society, among others. And that depends in large part on the fidelity with which you live out your marriage, which nobody can know ahead of time.)
Yes, there is some wisdom in the Lean Start-up methodology from an operational standpoint. It’s often good to test things before making a big bet on a product launch without sanity checking some of your basic assumptions. To do so is indeed reckless in many cases.
I tell budding entrepreneurs that there is usually a zero cost way for them to kick the tires on the market viability of their idea first before they spend the next 6 months wrestling with it. But not always. Maybe their time would be better spent going big, going all-in. The lean approach shouldn’t be invested with sacred inviolability. I violate it all the time. And it should be violated.
The problem with the Lean Startup as a mindset is that it leads to a Minimal Viable Life. And I know many people feel like they’re living one these days. The Lean startup is a mental model that is ultimately not helpful for human flourishing. There are metaphysical, creative, and moral issues with it.
Omakase helps illuminate them a bit. It’s the metaphor I like to use to explain why the Creator Economy is so attractive. Who doesn’t want to be get paid for doing what they love? For creating and shaping the market? The alternative is letting the market shape you.
Let’s briefly explore these three dimensions of the creative process in the light of the Lean Startup, and look at why Omakase is a healthy alternative.
The Metaphysical Dimension
I wish the word ‘metaphysical’ weren’t confined primarily to philosophy studies. The word “meta”, in Greek, simply means “post” or “after”. Aristotle, who was a scientist before he was a philosopher, coined the term. After studying the natural world, he asked the question, “What now?”
So metaphysical desire—a key category in mimetic theory—would be the type of desire that transcends physical things. It’s a desire for being. We could also call it spiritual desire. When all physical desires have been satisfied (and when are they ever, for more than 5 seconds? Roughly the length of….), then what then?
We seem to be desiring creatures who can’t fully satisfy themselves with anything in the material world.
Today, metaphysics usually refers to “first principles,” the things that form the foundation from which all other things spring. Think about the metaphysical presuppositions of the Lean Start-up for a moment. For starters: one can create only what is already expressed as desirable by whatever zeitgeist the creator happens to be in. And I don’t see anything generative about that. It seems to condemn one to the degrading slavery of being a child of their age. A zero-sum game. The person who does the market research wins: they capture the most market share.
But what about the real creators? What about those driven by some vision of the future that is better than one we currently inhabit? What if we’re creating something based on our conviction that it’s good rather than the poll or survey we recently did?
This is the Omakase chef. A critical mass of sushi chefs in Japan stood up and put the quality of their craft above all else. (If you haven’t seen Jiro Dream of Sushi yet, I highly recommend it.)
If I could make a lot of money cooking well-done steaks drenched in A1 sauce, I wouldn’t do it. And if a sufficient numher of other chefs refused, the supply for the well-done/A1 steaks would dry up and the demand for the superior steak would increase.
So what does this have to do with metaphysics—with first principles? I believe it’s this: Agency.
Do we believe that we’re merely the servants of some abstract ‘market’, and that those who ‘meet demand’ the best are the real winners? Or do we view ourselves as agents of change?
The latter is far more important. The best entrepreneurs are not merely pill pushers or umbrella sellers. They’re not opportunists; they’re creators.
Demand is created. Desires are created. And we have a choice about what it is that we are going to supply.
The Creative Dimension
Artists that are overly obsessed with what is popular or with what will sell simply don’t create the best art. They pander to the market.
Pandering to the market is ultimately stifling. So is throwing political red meat to hungry lions. The lions eventually get tired of eating red meat and demand a piece of your soul; you eventually get tired of throwing red meat but have already lost it.
This is why there is no creativity in politics today. It’s entirely mimetic. Nobody seems to genuinely care about new ideas. Both ‘sides’ are appropriating the ideas of the other and upping the ante. (Witness the Mimetic Man himself, J.D. Vance, literally suggesting that the government should seize the assets of non-profits that engage in political activities he doesn’t like—while he continues to engage heavily with all of the ones that he does. He is playing incendiary mimetic games with the “Left”, his mimetic rival, and he knows it. This particularly pisses me off because Vance has cited Girard as a key influence, but he clearly has a very different interpretation of what it’s all about than I do.)
There is a deadening effect to always doing what other people want or expect. We see this in relationships, in careers, in politics. A candidate enters the race and polls, polls, polls—until they think they know exactly how to fire up the base and tell the right amount of people exactly what they want to hear in order to ‘win.’
But at what cost? These are all zero-sum games that stifle innovation.
An omakase chef doesn’t take a poll from clientele about what they’d most like to eat that night. He serves them the best meal they’ve ever had—and it’s sure as hell not because it’s what you would’ve ordered. It’s because it’s exactly not what you would’ve ordered.
These chefs wins—we all win—because of the shared culture, the things we learned along the way, the daringness to take risks and give people something they might not like. (The last time my wife and went to omakase, the chef gave me abalone liver, which I reviled—I generally don’t like organy-tasting stuff—but I give the chef 5-stars all the way around for effort, and for sharing something with me that I never would’ve dared to order myself.)
Your starting point has to be something more than simply where people are at. You can “meet them where they’re at”—sure—but you can’t stay there. If they don’t like where you want them to follow you, that’s fine. You’ll learn that soon enough. But you can at least set your eyes on a new destination.
The Moral Dimension
Finally, I believe there’s a moral dimension to all of this. I know an entrepreneur who started a website with the original intention of allowing guys and girls to chat in their pajamas. The original idea was to have people chat in a setting in which nobody really cared about how they looked. Casual clothes, etc. And what’s more casual than pajamas?
But following the lean start-up model, he eventually went into porn: that’s what enough people wanted. That’s where the money was. And now he’s struggling with what his business has become. Hopefully he gets out before his conscience is completely compromised.
It’s true that you can start a business following the Lean Startup approach and combine that with a healthy moral ecology and some boundaries—but at no point did I see that discussed in Eric Reis’s book (which I did, in fact, read), and ethics is just not something I’ve ever heard as part of the discussion. The moral dilemma in simply “giving people what they want” (have you tried that with your kids?) is completely missing.
Are there no objective criteria? Is there no vision of humanity beyond our present situation? What if we live in a milieu in which what most people want is killing them?
If there are no sources of morality in our culture beyond the mimetically-popular norms—or the particular sub-communities that we’re a part of—then it’s curious how we make any moral progress at all.
Omakase is an approach to business and to life that takes a stand. I view it as a moral stand, actually. I’m not talking about overfishing or ethical food systems here. I’m referring to moral questions about what it means to be human—about whether we’re human, or whether we’re dancer.
Creators with a strong moral compass necessarily have to be anti-mimetic in many ways.
In conclusion, let me be clear: there are things to be admired in the Lean Start-up methodology. In particular, I think it’s wise to not waste capital on foolish projects for which there will never be any demand. At the same time, there have been plenty of ‘fools’ that have changed the world because they desired something transcendent.
We’re minting NFT’s of pixelated penguins; our ancestors built Chartres.
Maybe we’re building a digital cathedral of NFT’s. Maybe it’s something transcendent in its own right. It’s too early to tell. But it does make me wonder. Are we making the things that we truly want to make, or are we making the things that we’re mimetically-driven to make?
The world would benefit from a proliferation of omakase in every sphere of life.
And thank you, as always, for reading this newsletter—which I suppose is my own version of it. I hope you enjoyed the raw fish that I served up today.
Until next time, let’s love one another.