Wabi-sabi and Kintsugi

A post on LinkedIn referred to concepts that were part of Japanese culture. I shared the post and while interacting with comments and rereading, I thought it might be fun to write more personally about them.

Embrace imperfection.
Nothing lasts, nothing is complete.
Accept your own flaws and those of others.
Find beauty in imperfection.

I have this strong reaction to words like flaws, weaknesses, imperfection…  The reaction is fueled by knowing that our biggest strength is also a weakness – when applied in the wrong setting.  This logically means that our flaws could also be strengths if put into a different context, and we can start by wondering who convinced us that these were flaws at all?  Perhaps they are only flaws because we hid them away?  Without practice, we don’t know how to handle them gracefully.

As you may know, I am deeply flawed:  I am sensitive… Oh my, bull in a China shop.

But you can’t just tell your kid to not be sensitive – or that something is wrong with them because they are.  Rather, you could model what sensitive with flair looks like.  And I never had a model like that, growing up.  Once I embraced and learned how to interact productively with this side of me, it became a strength much more than a weakness.  It took half a century, but now I have come back home to me.  So many other changes followed once this huge shame lifted from my heart.

We can’t make strengths out of the parts of us we won’t take ownership of.  And we can’t stop these parts from roaring if we keep them locked away in the dungeon.  (Sometimes they even get out and bite us in the butt at the most inconvenient time.)  It is much easier for me to embrace others’ sensitivity now I have embraced mine.  Once I learned how often it is my fxxx-ups, not my successes, that connect me with other people, their quirks and stumbles also become potential points for connection.

Sure, there may be places and times for sharing – and places and people with whom sharing is not safe or welcome.  Discernment is also a strength.  But what a relief it can be when none of us need to pretend perfection.

Repair cracks with gold.
Imperfections are a thing of beauty.
The journeys we all take are golden.
Our flaws are embellishments that make us more beautiful.

This concept is in my opinion so closely related to Wabi Sabi that they should be in the same piece.  When we put gold in a crack, it is sure to draw attention.  But what does it say?

It is easy if this is a literal crack and literal gold.  The art form of Kintsugi renders a repaired pot more precious than it would otherwise have been.  One part of me wants to write “Duh – you just added GOLD!”  But doesn’t it also say: “This pottery is so precious that we want to preserve it, no matter what it takes to keep it together?”  There is something very sweet in that thought that makes me think of old family quilts, with so much history, hanging decorating the wall because they are too fragile to be used on the bed.  Perhaps not gold, but prominently displayed, and not relegated to the spare room or a box in the attic.

I recall a brown-lidded urn that at some point had found its way into my parents’ home.  I highly doubt that the lines were in fact gold, more likely bronze or brass, and I clearly recall not liking the thing one bit.  Thinking back, I believe what put me off was that it was a random thing to be admired for its craftsmanship.  It was art-ificial, not a beloved thing that had memories.

Not like the big platter that was carefully repaired – not with gold, though – after it broke into three pieces when I toppled over the sofa table.  The platter found a place on a hook on the wall.  Now, as I write this, I recognize that ever since I was four-five years old, every time I looked at the platter, I felt guilty for breaking it.  The story rarely mentioned my grandfather who tickled me while I was residing under the sofa table, and I was just trying to get away.  Perhaps the adult in the room should have thought ahead…

Now I can let go of that guilt.  Shikita ga nai, accept and let go.

The definition of Kintsugi clearly emphasizes the proverbial use; that humans, too, are more beautiful when they are flawed.

When we attempt to show a flawless persona, we are so focused on “holding it all together” (what a fitting expression) that we can’t also consider the person in front of us.  Are they having a good day?  What’s on their mind?  Does our fearful energy, trying not to be “found out”, contribute anything positive to the situation?  Discernment.

Leonard Cohen famously sang “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

Might it be where the light gets out?

The first piece in this series is on wastefulness.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Excellent post, Charlotte

    My main take from yourpost is “The reaction is fueled by knowing that our biggest strength is also a weakness – when applied in the wrong setting.”. The opposite is true as you indicated.

    The strength of companies like Xerox blinded them from paying attention to emerging possibilities that Steve Jobs exploited.
    History has may examples to support your thoughts.

    • An excellent point on how this can apply to organizations as well, Ali.

      I wonder if strength of an organization is not (only) in their ability to produce competitive goods but also in how vibrant their R&D organization is at imagining scenarios that undermine the core business. It is not popular to be Cassandra.