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5 Lessons from Kintsugi, the Art of Embracing Brokenness

This ancient Japanese pottery technique highlights imperfections.

Marco Montalti/iStock
Source: Marco Montalti/iStock

The Japanese concept of Kintsugi is, at a deep level, similar to our idea of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good—but it goes a little further.

Kintsugi is the art of repairing broken pottery with gold, silver, or platinum and celebrating the broken places. The point is to embrace the imperfect and to make the best of what you are experiencing now rather than dwelling on how things might have been better.

Here, adapting freely, are some of the lessons from Kintsugi as interpreted for the rest of us. (With apologies to the potters!)

1. Keep your eyes on the long term, but put your energy in the short term.

We all need to plan and build for the future, but must be able to show up in the moment for the people around us, whatever the circumstances. That has been especially true during the pandemic, when many of us have had to adjust to working and connecting with family and friends online. While it may not be one’s most comfortable or favorite way of spending time, it is what the moment demands—and so we must be present for the camera and project through it to the people beyond, as if they were right there in the room with us.

2. Listen to your inner thoughts; cultivate optimism.

What are your thoughts telling you during the pandemic? Are you feeling discouraged because "normal life" has been so slow to come back? Are you blaming the virus, the world, or the wicked fates because things aren’t working out the way you planned? Your inner dialogue should be compassionate toward yourself, encouraging, and disciplined. With patience and resilience, we will get through this period of dislocation.

3. Don’t shut yourself off from the world or start to let yourself feel helpless.

The more connections you can form during this period of isolation, the better you’ll be positioned for the future when the world does slowly get back to normal. When it comes to work, forming alliances with other professionals will allow you to recover more quickly and to do so with the best information available. This is not a time to hide under a rock, tempting as it might be.

4. Treat this time as an opportunity to grow and change.

My first reaction, when my calendar emptied out last March, was to panic. Then, I had a curious feeling of freedom. I started thinking about what I could do that I had always wanted to but never managed to fit into the schedule. I’m pleased to say that once I got over my initial shock, I did manage to accomplish some things that had been on my list for a long time.

But I also have to admit that my idea of living for a month in a series of different countries until the pandemic eased fell by the wayside due to what seemed like overwhelming logistic challenges—until I heard the other day of a very courageous family that did exactly that, living in Greece, South Africa, and Switzerland, before returning to the US. So much for my excuses!

5. Accept the challenge, but don’t take unnecessary risks.

There’s a bit of wisdom that often helps me when I’m trying to decide whether or not to take a leap into the unknown and embrace a risk. It's this: You rarely end up regretting the positive choices you make, but often you regret the negative ones—the choices not to try something.

I don’t mean anything lethal or toxic; I mean those life choices to take the new job, or move to the new town, or start a new relationship. These sorts of choices do involve risk, and that’s where the art of not taking unnecessary ones comes in. How you figure that trajectory is down to your appetite and tolerance for risk, no one else’s. Make your own decisions.

And that’s the final bit of Kintsugi wisdom: make your own decisions. It’s your life to live. No one else’s. May we all come through this pandemic strengthened, repaired where we’ve been broken, and ready for new challenges.