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The Learning Curve

Escape the perfectionist trap with the Japanese philosophy of “wabi sabi”

Perfectionism is on the rise, and its consequences for mental health can be devastating. The Japanese philosophy of "wabi sabi" can help.
wabi sabi
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach / Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • Perfectionism is on the rise and its consequences for mental health can be devastating.
  • The Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi helps us appreciate our imperfections.
  • By accepting our faults as part of our journey toward improvement, we can better approach life with greater humility and self-worth.

I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I plan vacations to a T, my mind replays blunders on loop, and the thought that there might be typos in my articles makes my jaw clench in agitation. Okay, maybe more than a “bit.”

The thing is, I know I shouldn’t be this way. The pursuit of the perfect is not synonymous with the pursuit of excellence or even the worthwhile, and whether that drive is self-motivated or foisted on us by a boss, parent, or partner, its cost far outweighs the goal. Research has shown the potential fallout of perfectionism: anxiety, depression, social aversion, lower life satisfaction, reduced self-worth, and difficulties emotionally self-regulating.

Even knowing this, I have a hard time accepting my shortcomings and embracing my mistakes. And sadly, I’m not alone. Perfectionism has been increasing over time. College students and workers in a variety of fields have perfectionist impulses. To escape this self-laid trap, I’ve been exploring the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi, which doesn’t just ask us to accept that nothing and no one is perfect; it entreats us to go a step further and find the value of the imperfect.

Jizo statues covered in moss
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’s no one-to-one translation for wabi sabi in English. Then again, there’s no clear-cut definition in its native language, either. As Andrew Juniper, author of Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence, notes:

“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 a wide berth and uphold the Japanese tradition of talking about it in only the most poetic terms.” 

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So, in the spirit of wabi sabi, I’ll try my best.

The phrase collects two kanji characters, which you might have guessed: wabi (侘) and sabi (寂). Wabi has been variously translated as “simplicity,” “melancholy,” or “regard of the serene.” Sabi is translated as “old and elegant,” “peacefulness,” or “the beauty of faded things.” Taken together, they express an appreciation of humility, flawed beauty, and the impermanence of all things. And while I’ve labeled it a philosophy, it’s really more a worldview or aesthetic — something you feel and experience — than a structured and formulated philosophy in the Western tradition.

With that said, its roots do find terra firma in the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. According to Juniper, at various times in Japan’s history, Buddhist temples would be underfunded yet still were required to host guests in the spirit of generosity. Lacking high-quality art or furnishings, the monks would pair their simplistic belongings with a natural setting to “produce an aesthetically pleasing effect.”

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

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

Down to a fine art

I don’t want to paint with too broad of a cultural brush. At different periods of Japanese history, Buddhist temples could wield sizable political and social power, garnering them the wealth to build fantastically opulent temples. Nor is cultural diffusion unknown to Japan. In the Asuka period (538-710 AD), for example, Buddhist art brandished a distinctive Hellenistic style

Nonetheless, as Buddhist philosophy seeped throughout Japanese culture, it brought wabi sabi along. While wabi sabi has influenced everything from decor to relationships and even dental surgery, it’s perhaps easiest to perceive in the country’s artistic traditions.

Monochromatic sumi-e paintings leave wide swathes 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 steams down to the roots — rather than a crowded bouquet. Japanese tea houses are decorated sparingly so every detail heightens the experience of the tea. And Japanese gardens forgo manicured rows in favor of bending and turning paths that defer to the natural landscape.

An antique Japanese kintsugi bowl
The Japanese craft of kintsugi repairs ceramics with golden lacquer to enhance their imperfects — a representation of wabi sabi in art. (Credit: Marco Montalti / Adobe Stock)

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

By making these imperfections conspicuous, kintsugi celebrates the history of the piece while creating something wholly individual. The damage is not only heightened to artistic beauty, but it can never be replicated as no ceramic will break in the same manner 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 going: Wabi sabi is about more than art and earthenware. We can bring this philosophy into almost any facet of our lives, and in doing so, it can be a potent inoculant for perfectionism.

As perfectionists, we always strive to achieve masterpieces — the perfect wedding, the perfect test score, the perfect sports record, the perfect article, the perfect look and style. But even if we could achieve that lofty goal, which we can’t, life and impermanence ensure it won’t last. The reception will come to a close. You won’t pass every test. Sports records are broken all the time. The article will become outdated. And the only thing aging faster than our bodies is last year’s fashion.

Rather than waste time and mental energy seeking perfection, we can change our relationship to our endeavors and ourselves. We can accept our failures, appreciate our fault lines, and even cultivate a form of self-worth based in humility and acceptance.

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

Leonard Koren

That doesn’t mean wabi sabi eschews self-betterment or the pursuit of excellence. The artistic traditions of Japan are a clear indication that wabi sabi is no excuse for laziness. But like the kintsugi craftsman, we can celebrate and even accentuate the mistakes as part of the history of what makes us singular — rather than shoot for a crack-free but mass-produced version of ourselves.

And remember that the perfectionist trap ensnares both ways. When you demand perfectionism from art, vacations, or other people, you limit your ability to appreciate these aspects of your life to the fullest. Wabi sabi can help you open up to others and experiences, as well as celebrate the beauty of them in the moment.

Chasing halfway decent

One doesn’t need to become a Zen Buddhist to adopt a wabi sabi worldview. You can find elements of wabi sabi tucked away in the Western tradition, too. An Italian proverb — popularized by Voltaire but predating him — states, “The best is the enemy of the good.” Shakespeare wrote in King Lear that “striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.” And the Book of Ecclesiastes warns against life’s many vanities in favor of enjoying its simple pleasures.

In an interview, entertainer Nick Offerman expressed a more contemporary take when discussing his approach to life and work: “I often espouse a general philosophy in my life of pursuing a discipline of one sort or another… But it’s not to ever approach any level of perfection.” He added, “Instead, what keeps us living and what keeps me vitally engaged is a constant pursuit of betterment. So I gave up on perfect a long time ago. Now I’m just chasing halfway decent.”

How do you adopt wabi sabi in your life? As you’ve probably guessed, there’s no methodology. You bring the worldview into your experiences and see if the mindset helps you overcome the many potential ways perfectionism manifests

If your perfectionism leads to procrastination, for example, you may find bringing wabi sabi into the mix helps you get started faster. If you constantly compare yourself to others, it may help you appreciate both your accomplishments alongside failures. And if you feel like you’re never good enough, it may help you move beyond these holdups and see the gold in the cracks.

As Offerman notes: “If you make mistakes, it means you’re out there trying. It means you’re taking a swing at achieving something. And if you’re not making mistakes, it means you’ve given up.”

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