Wabi-Sabi – noun (Japanese)
- A way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay.
- The Japanese philosophy for a perfectly imperfect life
A key component of Leadership Through Integrity is to pay attention to your world with intentionality.
Wabi-Sabi, in traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi (侘寂), is a worldview centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”.
The goal of this article is to shed some light on wabi-sabi and show how to incorporate the principles into daily personal and professional life. This is not a course on the topic and I do not pretend to have extensive knowledge. Do your own research. An article from Japanology is a good place to start.
Although wabi-sabi has its roots in the appreciation of beauty and nature, I have modified my understanding of these principles to encompass the world around me. This includes nature, the physical world, the emotional world, the world of projects, the world of manufacturing, the world of taking care of inanimate objects, pretty much anything that I can experience with my senses and my imagination. I have been living these principals for multiple years and have integrated them into the Leadership Through Integrity program.
I often ask my clients to find a personal quote, or write their own, that is meaningful to their lives on a multitude of levels. Yes, I’m talking about something inspirational. And don’t ask, I won’t write one for you. There’s a ton of research regarding the benefit of this practice that I won’t go into here. On the surface this task seems pretty easy, it’s not. Personally, after thinking about this for a really long time, maybe too long, nothing I came up with seemed quite right. Why couldn’t I do this? I grew frustrated and walked away from the search.
I regularly practice the art of mindful meditation. Part of my routine is to pay attention to my world while engaged in the activity. Nothing else in the world matters in that moment, not the past, not the future…only focused in that present moment in time. One day, during that ‘exact moment’, it hit me…I found my inspirational quote that defines my life! I don’t know if I’m the original author or maybe I heard it somewhere, maybe I modified it from someone else, I don’t care, I’m now claiming it to be my own. Here it is, Life is better when I pay attention.
I learned to pay attention to my world, everything, as many details as possible. I appreciate both the beauty and the harshness and how they are interconnected. I pay attention to my relationships and family, I pay attention to my shortcomings, I pay attention to my dreams, I pay attention to my emotions, I pay attention to the crooked tree in my backyard, I pay attention to cleaning up after my dog, etc. I grew the skills of appreciation, awareness and the ability to pay attention to my life. What a game-changer! Wabi-sabi tells us that there’s beauty in everything and that beauty is fleeting, pay attention while you can.
I read an article one day with a better explanation of wabi-sabi, at least one that I could understand. I spent time reflecting on all of the different stages of my life and how these principles fit into everything that I’ve ever done. I then modified the words slightly while maintaining the integrity of the principles. Another game-changer for me…here they are:
Nothing’s ever perfect – Nothing’s ever finished – Nothing lasts forever
When I started talking to others about these principles, my ideas were met with some skepticism. On the surface, these words can seem pretty depressing and negative. I assure you, they are quite the opposite!
Are you a perfectionist? Maybe, maybe not. That’s not the point here. Do you like to do things to the best of your ability? That, in and of itself, could be perfectionism. Do you know when to call something finished? Maybe you personally lack the perfectionist gene, if there is one, but do you expect or demand perfectionism from those around you? Do you expect perfectionism from your family, your friends, your direct reports, others?
The concept of ‘perfect’ is an interesting one… I don’t know if there is such a thing. Oh sure, we all have our own idea of what perfect means, but is perfection real? And if it were, what would you do with something that was perfect? Would you enjoy it or would you hide it away so it would stay perfect? I think you see where I’m going with this.
Perfection has the dubious distinction of being a silent killer, stealthy, lurking in the shadows, like a leopard ready to attack your project (or anything and everything else). I have personally found this beast in every company I’ve ever worked for, sometimes it attacked others, sometimes attacking me.
Fact is, this wild animal is just waiting for an opportunity to pounce. It’s hungry and omnivorous. It will eat your project, your design plans, your software development lifecycle, your loan documents, the house you’re building, the car you’re driving, your relationships, every aspect of your life is susceptible to its bite. Don’t look now! – but there it is, see it? It’s in the corner behind the chair across the room. I know you can see it. You, and only you, have the power to stop it.
This wild animal can only be contained through leadership and discipline. Consider this example, think of a time in your professional life when you were in charge of something, anything. What did you come up with? Now focus your thoughts on that thing and ask yourself, did the end product came out exactly as planned? Was it a proposal? Was it a presentation? Was a spreadsheet? For the purpose of this discussion, it really doesn’t matter what it was because they’re all the same and susceptible to attack.
Your original idea of perfect probably morphed into a moving target. It changed because most likely you weren’t the only one that determined what perfect was. Upper management gets involved and changes requirements, stakeholders change requirements, vendors change requirements, focus groups change requirements, before you know it, you’ve lost sight of what perfection looked like.
The wabi-sabi principle of, ‘nothing’s ever perfect’ allows a leader to define and control perfection. Wait a minute, how can that be? I just said that perfect changes and there is no such thing, so what the heck does that mean? Think about it this way, controlling the process and determining what good enough looks like, followed by selling people on the idea (coaching terminology: ‘obtain buy-in from key stakeholders’) can bring focus to even the most complex problems. It’s okay to know what perfect might look like, however it’s not okay to keep working something to death until the end product is completely unrecognizable.
Look at the new Tesla Model 3 for example. Was the goal to introduce the car to the marketplace as fast as possible or was the goal to have them achieve perfection prior to delivery? I don’t pretend to know anything about the Tesla organization or Elon Musk but I can tell you, based on the finished product, they were more interested in getting it to market. The first deliveries were significantly less than perfect. There were problems with leaks, problems with body panels not lining up, problems with scratches, problems with the delivery process and yet, a funny thing happened, even though people were unhappy about the imperfections, they were ecstatic about getting their new car! Customers loved them!
This is worth repeating…Tesla delivered a product that wasn’t even close to perfect yet everybody loved them, even with the flaws! Incredible! How, why? um what??? The reason was most likely that the customers had their own vision of perfection – the car itself! Flaws didn’t ruin that vision. The concept of perfection is relative.
Some marketing manager, an actual genius probably, made the right call. The company knew what perfect was, and worked toward it however, had to make deliveries and they were not going to disappoint. To their credit, they contacted the owners and have been retroactively taking care of the issues. Problems remained, even after the fixes, yet most customers are happy. Remember, nothing’s ever perfect. That leads me to wonder, can anything be?
Ask any house painter to tell you a story about their experience when showing the finished product to their clients. Every one of them will tell you that customers will continuously point out flaws in the paint. I’m not saying that there’s not actual flaws, I’m talking about people pointing out flaws because they see them in that moment, just about the time to pay the final invoice. The client had their own vision of what perfect was suppose to look like. Most people will call out every little imperfection and force the contractor to fix it. Even after the contractor fixes the problem areas, the customer will always find more. Painting is imperfect. Surfaces are imperfect, walls are not straight, but yet somehow people expect perfection. Impossible.
Every painting contractor will tell you that at some point they reach a compromise with the customer and they say ‘fine’ it’s good now. Nobody’s happy in that scenario. The contractor is not happy because they did the work to the best of their ability. The homeowner’s not happy because they still see flaws. After the first week, somehow, as if by magic, the flaws disappear, they just blend in out of sight. Oh they’re still there, but they’re not seeing them anymore.
Why is that? It’s because the homeowner hyper-focused on perfection in that moment and didn’t know what perfect was. Soon most customers forget about the imperfections and start enjoying their homes again. All of the angst, all of the stress simply disappears like never there in the first place, especially when receive their first compliment about their color choice or a job well done.
The preceding examples clearly show that nothing’s ever perfect but they also show nothing is ever finished. The cars are never finished, the house is never finished, the project is never finished, nothing ever really gets finished. They come to an agreeable endpoint but they’re never finished and no, they don’t last forever either.
These three wabi-sabi principles can be applied to every aspect of life. Think of your spouse or significant other, if you don’t have one, then think about a parent or friend, just anyone who’s important to you. Ask yourself, is the relationship perfect? What does that even mean? What would perfect look like? Then, ask yourself, will this relationship last forever? Sad reality is no, someone will eventually die. Now ask yourself, is a relationship ever finished? Do I have to keep working on it? Another reality is that everything that’s worth anything needs to be worked on but will not last forever.
So you see, it is true…nothing’s ever perfect, nothing‘s ever finished and nothing lasts forever… and that’s perfectly okay.
Although wabi-sabi can be a harsh reality check, for me, it is a blueprint to living a happy and fulfilling life. I cherish the good while I have it and know that it will end. I cherish the bad times because those moments too shall pass and good times will return. The cycle of life continues, rinse and repeat.
Back to my dog, in case you were wondering…yes, I find joy picking up the dog poop because I love my dog and she loves me. I wouldn’t have that poop to pick up if she weren’t in my life.
Cherish each moment because there is always something in each moment to cherish. You just need to find it.
Pay attention, make yourself available to understanding the three principles of wabi-sabi and the practice applying them to your world. You may gain a greater and deeper understanding of who you are and how to lead others. I added an understanding of the wabi-sabi principles into the Leadership Through Integrity program because it helps bring focus and attention which is at the core of being consistent in thoughts, words and actions.
My hope is that everyone can truly enjoy their own perfectly imperfect life.
I welcome discussion on this topic.