Can the Repaired Become Better than the Original?
Five Life Lessons from Kintsugi
Are you familiar with Kintsugi? It’s the centuries-old Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by rejoining the pieces with a precious metal—usually gold. It makes the restored vessel unique, strong, and more valuable despite the conspicuous repair.
What’s interesting about Kintsugi is that the points of repair are highlighted not hidden. The fractured seams are made more pronounced as if inviting people to ponder the artifact’s broken past. It’s a fitting reflection of the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi which finds beauty in imperfection, hope in restoration.
Art historians suggest that this interest in making something beautiful from the broken is rooted in important Japanese cultural concepts. The spirit of mottainai, an attitude of regret when a resource is wasted or misused, as well as a sense of gratitude for the things we have. If this term sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because Wangari Maathai, the first Kenyan woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, has made it her mission to promote “mottainai” as a battle cry for environmentalists around the world.
The other important idea conveyed by mottainai is that of humility. It’s a recognition of blessings enjoyed, but not earned. For many of us, this might include being born into a loving family, in a free country, and given opportunities for education and rewarding employment.
Lofty notions. But what’s the point? I’ll admit that I stumbled on to these ideas only recently. Prior to that, I would have believed you if you had told me that wabi-sabi was Sammy Hagar’s new bar in the Tokyo airport. However, I do think these ancient concepts are useful to us today—especially for people who have real jobs, real responsibilities, and real imperfections. That’s probably most of us, so here goes:
Nobody is perfect.
It’s easy to think about your coworkers, your boss, and perhaps even your spouse, and heartily agree with that short declaration. However, the troubling reality is that you should add yourself to the top of the imperfect list. In fact, the sooner that you accept this truth for yourself and others, the better your life will become—especially if it causes you to offer more grace when things don’t go as planned.
It’s an enormous waste of energy to try to conceal your imperfections. Especially as a leader, it’s almost always better to be open about past mistakes and your sincere efforts to do better next time. It’s also best to be honest and open with people, working to build real relationships, instead of trying to maintain an image that doesn’t reflect who you really are.
Don’t be quick to discard.
When you’re frustrated with someone or their performance has fallen short in some way, it’s easy to wish that they were simply out of the picture. In some cases, that might be the right decision, but don’t make that decision without making a reasonable effort to remediate and restore. That’s where good coaching skills become critical, so if you don’t have them, make their development a priority.
This may be the toughest piece of advice on the list for some of us. As Americans, we laud the self-made man (or woman) and relish their rags to riches stories. We celebrate the talented and tough-minded who fight their way to the top. But no matter what herculean efforts were necessary for that person to get where they are in life, there’s no excuse for being an arrogant jerk who looks down on others who are less fortunate.
Research consistently reveals that a sense of gratitude is positively correlated with happiness and mental health. It’s a common them of the positive psychology movement as well. While gratitude brings a wide array of personal benefits, expressing your sincere appreciation for those around you goes a long way for them as well. In fact, I’ve found that the most effective leaders make sure that their people clearly understand how valued they are.
Most of 2020 was filled with brokenness. You didn’t achieve your goals, projects were put on hold, and good people had to be furloughed. There was real suffering at every turn. All true. But the question now is What do we do with the brokenness?
The lessons of Kintsugi suggest that we can become stronger and more valuable for the future as a result of that brokenness. After the year we have just endured, that’s good news!
Dr. Mike Patterson is an author, speaker, and master facilitator who helps leaders and teams communicate, collaborate, and manage conflict more effectively. He is the co-author of the highly acclaimed book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places, and he teaches in the doctoral programs at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology and California Baptist University.
© 2021 Michael L. Patterson, Ed.D.