The art of Kintsugi

16 September, 2019

This Japanese philosophy encourages us to embrace our imperfections in an act of self-transformation

Through our careers and personal lives, we experience joyful peaks as well as painful valleys. The latter can cover a range of difficult situations – be it a serious professional error, a traumatic illness, or an ongoing struggle with our flaws. The Japanese philosophy of Kintsugi offers an insightful perspective to help us cope with such situations.

Kintsugi literally means “golden rejoining”. Dating back to the fifteenth century, this Japanese master craft involves the restoration of broken ceramic-ware. The broken pieces are re-joined using lacquer mixed with powdered gold or silver, incorporating the fault-lines into the aesthetic. From the Kintsugi point of view, the damage isn’t meant to be covered up like new. In fact, the breakage and repair add value, giving the restored item a distinctive history and beauty lacking in the original.

This idea of finding beauty in brokenness can also be applied to life. So, this week, my message focuses on the art of Kintsugi. How can we learn to view roadblocks, mistakes and flaws in a different light, thus paving the way for positive self-transformation?

The origins of Kintsugi can be traced back to Ashikaga Yoshimasa, a shogun in fifteenth century Japan, who broke his favourite tea bowl and sent it to China for repairs. The bowl came back fixed but unattractive, held together by metal pins. So, local craftsmen filled in the cracks with golden lacquer, transforming the bowl into a treasure that once again became the shogun’s favourite. In the process, they also created a whole new form of art. The craft of Kintsugi can be seen a physical manifestation of healing and resilience, turning scars into art. In Think ‘kintsugi’! The value of challenges, to make you better, Janice Kobelsky says:

Kintsugi honours the breakage as part of the history of the piece. It simultaneously appreciates the transformative nature and value of restoration.

Kintsugi draws on the Japanese notions of Mottainai (regret at wastefulness) and Mushin (acceptance of change).

Broken items are accepted for what they are and still seen as worthy of care, rather than being discarded as inferior. Failing isn’t the end of the road; it’s a step along a much longer journey.

Another closely related Japanese philosophy is Wabi sabi, which sees imperfection as fundamental to beauty. In fact, the Kintsugi worldview is an antidote to unhealthy perfectionism, as mentioned by Ephrat Livni in The Japanese art principle that teaches how to work with failure:

When we expect everything and everyone to be perfect, including ourselves, we not only discount much of what is beautiful but we create a cruel world where resources are wasted, people’s positive qualities are overlooked in favor of their flaws, and our standards become impossibly limiting, restrictive, and unhealthy.

So, how can you cultivate a Kintsugi approach? Here are three recommendations to help you embrace failure, create resilience and facilitate reinvention:

1. Discover the possible in impossible

Sweeping your mistakes under the rug isn’t helpful, and neither is getting stuck in a victim mindset. Instead, you need to look failure in the eye and accept it as reality. At the same time, acknowledge the fact that things can be repaired and improved. This crucial step allows you to move into the phase of positive transformation. In Here’s the Key to Turning Your Failures into Victories, Ravi Shankar Rajan explains that:

Kintsugi teaches us to steer clear of all self-defeating emotional conclusions, the “stories” we’ve constructed about how impossible it is for us to recover from our devastation, betrayals, and losses. It raises our self-esteem and tells us that there is no shame in getting defeated or having irreparable drawbacks.

2. Repair and create value

If you’ve suffered a serious setback, don’t get caught up in “getting over it” or “getting past it”. Be patient: give yourself the time you need to heal and build back up. If the situation was cause by an error on your part, approach it in the spirit of learning and improving. Don’t try to go back to the way things were – that isn’t possible or even desirable. Remember, Kintsugi doesn’t deny or cover up the cracks to look like new; it incorporates them into the design. As Rajan notes in the article mentioned above:

Kintsugi is all about shifting focus from what’s now lost, to what’s been gained. From broken to transformed. From less… to more. It tells us to honor our experiences because when we start doing that, we realize it’s only the splinters, nicks, bruises & breaks in your life that add value to it.

Beyond specific events, the process of repair can also be applied to your overall mindset. In Mending Attitudes of Inferiority with Purpose and Gold-Lessons from Kintsugi, the Arbinger Institute describes inward thinking as the tendency to focus on your personal flaws and see yourself as inferior to others. By taking the time and effort to mend your perspective, you can gain a more balanced understanding of yourself. In fact, some of the things you see as “weaknesses” might be strengths in disguise, just waiting to shine.

3. Own your history

Like Kintsugi showcases breaks to increase beauty, you can learn to appreciate how you’ve grown from mistakes. Have you become more detail oriented? More likely to consult with experts or to invite dissent? Better at seizing opportunities quickly? Whatever lessons you’ve learned, be aware of them and celebrate them.

You could also consider sharing your journey with others. Research shows that we tend to judge our own failures much more harshly than other people’s, which may make you reluctant to claim the negative parts of your story. However, taking ownership of personal imperfection is an important step in Kintsugi, which encourages you to see your accumulated experiences as a source of pride rather than embarrassment.

The idea of embracing imperfection is also closely tied to authenticity – which makes you a better leader. In the Kintsugi worldview, unbroken pottery isn’t special; it all looks the same, with no defining characteristics. Your fault lines are what make you unique, and sharing them with others allows you to forge deeper, more compelling relationships and lends your leadership an enviable charisma.


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