Getting out of the perfectionist trap with the “wabi sabi” philosophy

I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I plan a vacation to a T, my mind replays the goofs on repeat, and the thought that there might be typos in my articles makes my jaw clench in restlessness. Okay, maybe more than a “little”.

The thing is, I know I shouldn’t be like this. The pursuit of perfection is not synonymous with striving for excellence or even for what is worth it, and whether this motivation is self-motivated or imposed by a boss, parent or partner, its cost far exceeds the target. Research has shown the potential fallout from perfectionism: anxiety, depression, social aversion, decreased life satisfaction, decreased self-esteem, and difficulties with emotional self-regulation.

Even knowing this, I have a hard time accepting my shortcomings and accepting my mistakes. And unfortunately, I am not alone. Perfectionism has increased over time. Students and workers in a variety of fields have perfectionist impulses. To escape this self-set trap, I explored the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which not only asks us to accept that nothing and no one is perfect; he begs us to go further and find the value of the imperfect.

Wabi-sabi can mean many things, such as humility, imperfect beauty, and the impermanence of all things. (Credit: JordyMeow/Pixabay)

What is wabi-sabi?

As is often the case with cross-cultural borrowings, there is no individual translation for wabi-sabi In English. Again, there is no clear definition in his mother tongue either. Like Andrew Juniper, author of Wabi Sabi: the Japanese art of impermanenceRemarks:

“Wabi sabi is an aesthetic philosophy so intangible and so shrouded in centuries of mystery that even the most ambitious Japanese scholars would give it wide prominence and uphold the Japanese tradition of speaking of it only in the most poetic terms.”

Smarter, faster: the Big Think newsletter

Subscribe to get counterintuitive, surprising and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

So, in the spirit of wabi-sabiI will try my best.

The sentence brings together two kanji characters, which you may have guessed: wabi (侘) and sabi (寂). Wabi has been variously translated as “simplicity”, “melancholy” or “gaze of the serene”. Sabi is translated as “old and elegant”, “tranquility” or “the beauty of faded things”. Taken together, they express an appreciation for humility, imperfect beauty, and the impermanence of all things. And even though I called it a philosophy, it’s actually more of a worldview or an aesthetic – something you feel and experience – than a philosophy structured and formulated in the Western tradition.

That said, its roots find solid ground in the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. According to Juniper, at various times in Japanese history, Buddhist temples would be underfunded, but still had to welcome guests in a spirit of generosity. Lacking art or high-quality furnishings, the monks paired their simplistic personal effects with a natural setting to “achieve an aesthetic effect”.

“In doing so, they focused on the natural, the impermanent and the humble, and in these simple and often rustic objects they discovered the innate beauty found in the exquisite random patterns left by the flow of light. nature,” Juniper writes.

Hasegawa Tohaku’s “Pine Trees”, a six-panel room divider, uses negative space to accentuate elements such as natural simplicity. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Until an art

I don’t want to paint with too broad a cultural brush. At different periods in Japanese history, Buddhist temples could wield considerable political and social power, providing them with the wealth needed to build incredibly opulent temples. Cultural diffusion is also not unheard of in Japan. In the Asuka period (538-710 AD), for example, Buddhist art brandished a distinctive Hellenistic style.

However, as Buddhist philosophy permeated Japanese culture, it brought wabi-sabi on. Whereas wabi-sabi influenced everything from decor to relationships and even dental surgery, perhaps best seen in the country’s artistic traditions.

Monochromatic sumi e the paintings leave large swaths of negative space to emphasize their natural subjects. Bonsai trees and ikebana flower arrangements celebrate the qualities of a single plant – from its leaves and vapors to the roots – rather than a crowded bouquet. Japanese teahouses are decorated sparingly so that every detail enhances the tea experience. And Japanese gardens forgo manicured rows in favor of curving, turning paths that defer to the natural landscape.

An ancient Japanese kintsugi bowl

Japanese craftsmanship kintsugi repairs ceramics with gold lacquer to enhance their imperfections — a representation of wabi-sabi in art. (Credit: Marco Montalti/Adobe Stock)

But the artistic application par excellence of wabi-sabi is kintsugi, a Japanese craft for repairing broken pottery. Rather than trying to hide the fractures and make the pottery look like new, kintsugi craftsmen use tree sap lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver or platinum to accentuate cracks and repairs. (Kintsugi literally translates to “golden carpentry”.) Sometimes they even take pieces of other broken ceramics and combine them to form a new aesthetic.

By highlighting these imperfections, kintsugi celebrates the history of the piece while creating something completely individual. The damage is not only increased to artistic beauty, but it can never be reproduced because no ceramic will break the same way as another. This makes it more valuable in the eyes of the owner.

life as a work of wabi-sabi

You can see where this is happening: Wabi-sabi is much more than art and pottery. We can integrate this philosophy into almost every facet of our lives, and in doing so, it can be a powerful inoculator for perfectionism.

As perfectionists, we always strive to achieve masterpieces – the perfect wedding, the perfect test score, the perfect sports record, the perfect item, the perfect look and style. But even if we could achieve this noble goal, which we cannot, life and impermanence guarantee that it will not last. The reception will come to an end. You will not pass all the tests. Sports records are constantly broken. The article will become obsolete. And the only thing that ages faster than our body is last year’s fashion.

Rather than wasting time and mental energy striving for perfection, we can change our relationship to our efforts and to ourselves. We can accept our failures, appreciate our flaws, and even cultivate a form of self-esteem based on humility and acceptance.

Wabi-sabi is a beauty of imperfect, impermanent and incomplete things. It is a beauty of modest and humble things. It’s a beauty of unconventional things.

Leonard Koren

This does not mean wabi-sabi avoids self-improvement or the pursuit of excellence. The artistic traditions of Japan clearly indicate that wabi-sabi is no excuse for laziness. But as the kintsugi craftsman, we can celebrate and even accentuate mistakes as part of the story of what makes us unique – rather than aiming for a crackless but mass-produced version of ourselves.

And remember that the perfectionist trap traps both senses. When you demand perfectionism from art, vacations, or other people, you limit your ability to fully appreciate those aspects of your life. Wabi-sabi can help you open up to others and experiences, and celebrate their beauty in the moment.

Chasing halfway decent

You don’t have to be a Zen Buddhist to adopt a wabi-sabi world Vision. You can find items from wabi-sabi hidden in Western tradition, too. An Italian proverb – popularized by Voltaire but predating him – says: “The best is the enemy of the good”. Shakespeare wrote in King Lear that “in striving to improve, we often ruin what is going well”. And the Book of Ecclesiastes warns against the many vanities of life in favor of its simple pleasures.

In an interview, artist Nick Offerman expressed a more contemporary approach when discussing his approach to life and work: “I often adopt a general philosophy in my life of pursuing discipline of a kind or another… But it’s never to approach any level of perfection.” He added: “Instead, what keeps us going and what keeps me vitally engaged is a constant search for improvement. So I gave up perfect a long time ago. Now I’m just half decent hunting.

How to Adopt wabi-sabi in your life? As you probably guessed, there is no methodology. You bring the worldview into your experiences and see if the mindset helps you overcome the many potential ways to manifest perfectionism.

If your perfectionism leads to procrastination, for example, you might find wabi-sabi in the mix helps you get started faster. If you constantly compare yourself to others, it can help you appreciate both your accomplishments and your failures. And if you feel like you’re never good enough, it can help you push past those delays and see the gold in the cracks.

As Offerman notes, “If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re trying. It means you are trying to achieve something. And if you don’t make mistakes, that means you gave up.

Learn more about Big Think+

With a diverse library of lessons from the world’s biggest thinkers, Big Think+ helps businesses get smarter, faster. To access Big Think+ for your organization, request a demo.