In our 20s and 30s, there can be enormous pressure to measure up to the expectations of society, our families, our friends and even those we place on ourselves. Many look back and feel disappointed that they had not taken the opportunity to travel more. Others might have imagined that they would get further in their careers or personal relationships. In reality, life is difficult and we can face setbacks (big and small) that can shatter our dreams and leave us with fragments that we perceive as worthless.
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Feelings of failure can take a long-term mental toll, but they don’t have to stop you in your tracks. There are many teachings, practices, and philosophies that can help you deal with disappointment, embrace imperfection, and remain optimistic.
One such practice is the Japanese art form kintsugi, meaning to go with gold. It has attracted a lot of attention in recent years as both an art technique, a world view and a metaphor for how we can live life.
Many forms of Japanese art have been influenced by Zen and Mahayana philosophies, which advocate the concepts of acceptance and contemplation of imperfection, as well as the constant flux and impermanence of all things.
This article is part of Fail Better, a series for us in our 20s and 30s about navigating the moments when things don’t quite go as planned. Many of us are tuned into the pinnacle of social media, where our peers share their successes in relationships, careers and family. When you feel like you’re falling short, the pieces in this special Quarter Life series will help you learn how to deal with, and even grow from, failure.
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics. If a bowl is broken, instead of discarding the pieces, the fragments are put back together with a glue-like tree sap and the cracks are decorated with gold. There is no attempt to hide the damage, instead it is highlighted. The practice has come to represent the idea that beauty can be found in imperfection. The break is an opportunity and applying this kind of thinking to instances of failure in our own lives can be helpful.
A technique for repairing broken pots
Kintsugi was quite widespread in Japan around the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century. The origins of this aesthetic go back hundreds of years to the Muromachi period (roughly 1336 to 1573). The third ruling Shogun (leader) of that era, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), is said to have broken his favorite tea bowl. The bowl was unique and could not be replaced.
So instead of throwing it away, he sent it to China for replacement or repair. The bowl returned repaired with its pieces held in place by metal staples. Staple repair was a common technique in China as well as parts of Europe at the time for particularly valuable items. However, the Shogun considered it neither functional nor beautiful.
Instead, the Shogun had his own artisans resolve the situation by finding a method to make something beautiful out of the broken, damaged object, but without hiding the damage. And so, kintsugi became.
Finding the beauty in imperfection
Kintsugi make something new out of a broken pot, which turns into having a different kind of beauty. The imperfection, the golden cracks, is what makes the new item unique. They are there every time you look at it and they welcome a contemplation of the object’s past and the moment of “failure” that it and its owner have overcome.
The art of kintsugi is inextricably linked to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi: a worldview centered on the acceptance of impermanence, imperfection, and the beauty found in simplicity. Wabi-sabi is also an appreciation of both natural objects and the forces of nature that remind us that nothing stays the same forever.
Wabi-sabi can also be incorporated into contemplating something and seeing it grow more beautiful over time. As a craft and an art form, kintsugi defying expectations. This is because the technology goes beyond repairing an object but actually transforms and intentionally changes its appearance.
In an age of mass production and conformity, learn to accept and celebrate imperfect things, like kintsugi shows, can be powerful. Whether it’s a breakup or being rejected for a promotion, the fragments of our disappointment can be transformed into something new.
That new thing may not be perfect or what you imagined it to be, but it is beautiful. Rather than trying to hide the flaws kintsugi technology highlights and draws attention to them. The philosophy of kintsugi, as an approach to life, can help cheer us up when we face failure. We can try to pick up the pieces, and if we succeed, we can put them back together. The result may not seem beautiful right away but as wabi-sabi teach us, as time goes on, maybe we can appreciate the beauty of these imperfections.
The bowl may seem broken, the pieces scattered, but this is an opportunity to put it back together with seams of gold. It will be something new, unique and strong.
Quarter life is a series about issues that affect us in our 20s and 30s.