わ び さ び (wabi-sabi)
The Japanese phrase wabi-sabi means to celebrate imperfection.
It's connected to the art form called kintsugi, or "golden repair" – in which broken things are treasured and their cracks and flaws used to make them even more beautiful by sealing them with gold. As Candice Kumai put it in her book, Kintsugi Wellness: The Japanese Art of Nourishing Mind, Body, and Spirit,
"Wabi-sabi celebrates life's imperfections, its tough stretches, and even its dark corners. It reminds us that life is transient, imperfection is natural, and there is beauty to be found in simplicity."
I'm currently working on a new book, with a working title, Perfectly Flawsome: How Embracing Imperfection Makes Us Better, and draft cover design based on the image above. The topic has nagged at me for several years. This post comes from an outline I scribbled in my notebook in 2016, as I recall.
The book will go much deeper and way beyond the "top 5" work-related reasons listed here. But these five remain at the core of the problem and very much worth highlighting.
1. Imperfect is all there is
Sorry. The common wisdom that "nobody's perfect" is not just true of people and our behavior. It's true of everything.
Even the Laws of Physics can't escape uncertainty, chaos, and randomness.
Strive for excellence, not perfection. That old car commercial touting "the relentless pursuit of perfection" really means stubbornly reliving failure and disappointment.
And recognize the danger in every pretense that perfection has been achieved.
"Perfection does not exist; to understand it is the trumph of human intelligence; to expect to possess it is the most dangerous kind of madness."
— Alfred de Musset
2. It let's you start
Embracing your own imperfection enables you to begin. You will never feel ready. Never smart enough, strong enough, knowledgeable enough, well-funded enough.
Nobody else does, either. As James Clear explained in his blog, it's inherent when pondering a challenging, meaningful new venture that we'll feel inadequate to begin. Start anyway.
"If you want to summarize the habits of successful people into one phrase, it's this: successful people start before they feel ready."
Unless you embrace that imperfection in yourself – all those imagined reasons you're not quite ready – you'll never start that business, that project, that piece of art you've been envisioning. Remember Goethe's wisdom:
"Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!"
"At the moment of commitment
the entire universe conspires to assist you."
3. It let's you finish
Remember #1 above? If embracing imperfection in yourself is necessary to begin, embracing it in your work is necessary to finish.
Though deeply concerned with the quality and beauty of his products, Steve Jobs famously admonished his engineers against endless refinements to their work:
"Real artists ship!"
I often describe this as the need to let the work be born. There's a whole chapter on "The Battle for Perfection" in Eric Gorges' book, A Craftsman's Legacy: Why Working with Our Hands Gives Us Meaning. He writes at length about the conflicting desires to seek perfection, knowing it's unattainable, while actually producing finished work you can be proud of. Among his stories comes the warning in how he kept trying to shape a metal part to fit his vision, until he wore a hole right through it!
He also offers a possible guide to knowing when it's time to ship. He describes it as learning from the piece he's working on and how at some point you can't learn any more from that piece. Quoting a wood turner, he adds:
"You've got to start losing interest in a piece as soon as it's done.
You've got to have more interest in the one you're going to do than
in the one you just did. Or you just stay in the same place all the time."
4. It makes you more relatable
Or maybe less insufferable? This one shouldn't need much discussion.
Understanding, accepting, embracing imperfection in ourselves, in our work, and in other people and their work, will improve your relationships in all areas of life.
See Brene Brown's books.
5. It makes growth and improvement possible
If you imagine yourself or your work as perfect, what then?
By embracing imperfection, you can treat it as your starting point. That gives you the freedom to be better today. Do better on your next project. Learn more from your next piece.
Returning to the Japanese philosophies where we began, Candice Kumai teaches:
"Following the concept of kaizen, you may strive to always be better, but perfection will never be found. If you find yourself chasing perfection, I urge you to tuck that feeling away and stay the course. Remember the principle of ganbatte: Always do your best, but remember that your best is good enough.
"Not only is perfection impossible, imperfection is beautiful in and of itself! Remember the philosophy of wabi-sabi, and look for beauty in unexpected places. Imperfection is the natural order of things – the fleeting nature of autumn, the changing color of the leaves, and, yes, the flaws in every human being."
Have you struggled with perfectionism? Do any of these reasons for embracing imperfection resonate with you?
Leave a comment. And let me know if you'd like to be notified when I decide that Perfectly Flawsome is ready to ship! 😉
[UPDATE]: Bonus lesson!
Well, I shipped one proof reading too soon! Yvonne caught a typo last night, a missing "the" that I've just gone ahead an inserted. Don't think it affected the meaning or value of the message, but you can't unsee it once you know, right?
But as a bonus lesson on the topic of accepting imperfection, I just love this advice that our friend and client Mary O'Sullivan told me during our final proofreading and touchup stages of her book, The Leader You Don't Want to Be: Transform Your Leadership Style from 'Command and Control' to 'Transformative Visionary'. After we'd been lamenting how impossible it was to find and fix every single error, she said a boss had once told her,
"If you work goes out perfect, you spent too long on it!"
And of course, there's the quote I meant to include in #3 above, but forgot:
"Perfect is the enemy of done."
Which I now promise to be, with this post. If you find any more typos or omissions, feel free to note them in the comments and we'll treat them as an errata sheet!