Overcoming Perfectionism with Wabi-Sabi

I’m not a huge film buff or anything, but if someone were to ask me to name my favorite director, I would immediately say Stanley Kubrick.

First off, A Clockwork Orange is one of my favorite films of all time. And I’d put a bunch of other Kubrick films in my top fifty, namely Dr. Strangelove, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Full Metal Jacket.

Kubrick’s cinematic contributions are outstanding, and he is considered one of the most influential directors in the history of film. However, he was also a notorious and relentless perfectionist.

There’s a scene in The Shining where Shelley Duvall’s character is swinging a baseball bat at her crazed husband, played by Jack Nicholson. Kubrick made his actors shoot that scene 127 times. It took almost three weeks. Duvall suffered hair loss and nervous exhaustion.

Slim Pickens – who had worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove – turned down a role in The Shining because Kubrick refused to guarantee that he would shoot Pickens’ scenes in fewer than one hundred takes.

Also in The Shining, Jack Nicholson’s struggling writer character (also named Jack) obsessively types the phrase, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” At times, Jack can be heard typing, but the paper cannot be seen on screen. Kubrick still recorded a typist repeatedly typing those actual words, however, because he felt that each typewriter key had a unique sound and he wanted it to sound authentic.

Not surprisingly, Kubrick’s countless retakes and script changes caused production for The Shining to run much longer than planned. So long, in fact, that some other major films that needed the same studio were delayed, including Reds and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But then, Kubrick was known for his lengthy productions. In a career that spanned nearly five decades, he made only thirteen films. Kubrick was a perfectionist. To him, no film was ever truly “finished.”

Did Stanley Kubrick’s methods result in great films? Absolutely.

Most of us, however, don’t operate in the world that Stanley Kubrick did. We don’t have Stanley Kubrick’s cachet. We don’t have a major studio budget. We aren’t given the kind of artistic license and creative freedom that was granted to Kubrick. People aren’t lining up to work with us because of the impact we will have on their careers.

The pitfalls of perfectionism

Perfectionism can hurt us.

Perfectionism causes us to obsess, overthink, overanalyze, and procrastinate. It prevents us from starting new projects, and delays or even derails projects we have already started. Our nitpicking can stymie our creativity and stall goal attainment.

Some people think that their perfectionism is what motivates them to improve, and simply reflects their high standards. But perfectionism is not a healthy pursuit of excellence. It’s maladaptive, neurotic, and often self-defeating and self-destructive.

There is research that suggests there may be two types of perfectionism. The more positive variety can help us in our pursuit of excellence, success, and our ideal self. The negative variety leads to an unhealthy avoidance of failure, imperfection, and disapproval. The positive perfectionist strives to be their best self, while the negative perfectionist obsessively tries to get far away from their feared – perceived worst – self.[1]

The negative, maladaptive brand of perfectionism has been linked to depression, anxiety, chronic sense of failure, obsessiveness, compulsiveness, indecisiveness, procrastination, impatience, anger, frustration, shame, loneliness, and even suicidal thoughts.

In the chorus of his song “Anthem,” the legendary poet and singer Leonard Cohen urges us to acknowledge and embrace imperfection:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

If we can learn to see the light and the beauty in the imperfect, we can dodge the pitfalls of neurotic perfectionism. If we could use a simple philosophy that teaches us to accept and appreciate imperfection, we could ensure that any perfectionist tendencies we have are channeled toward self-growth and success, instead of toward the obsessive avoidance of failure and disapproval.

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The principles of wabi-sabi

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic concept based on the acceptance of imperfection and impermanence. It is the willingness to accept things as they are. It is an appreciation of transient, understated beauty.

Unlike the emphasis on order, symmetry, proportion, and ornamentation often found in Western aesthetics, wabi-sabi embraces asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, austerity, and irregularity. 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.”[2]

It might help to understand wabi-sabi further by breaking the term down to its roots, which can be loosely interpreted as follows:

  • Wabi refers to simplicity, rustic elegance, understated beauty, flaws, quirks, anomalies, and uniqueness. Wabi embraces the aesthetic value of imperfection.
  • Sabi refers to a beauty that comes only with age and wear, patina, tarnish, rust, a natural progression, the effect of time, and a reverence for the cycle of life. Sabi embraces the aesthetic value of impermanence.

We can see the expression of wabi-sabi in the Japanese art of kintsugi, which is the practice of repairing broken pottery with a special tree sap lacquer dusted with a precious metal such as gold, silver, or platinum. Kintsugi does not attempt to hide the fractures. It celebrates the uniqueness of the piece by emphasizing its breaks as testament to the object’s singular history.

In his book Wabi-Sabi Simple, Richard Powell explains that wabi-sabi nurtures authenticity by recognizing three simple realities:[3]

  • Nothing lasts
  • Nothing is finished
  • Nothing is perfect

By recognizing these three simple realities, we can shatter the illusion of attainable perfection that can prove so damaging to us. By applying these principles, we can push past perfectionism and move forward in pursuit of our goals.

Putting wabi-sabi into action

Even though wabi-sabi is mostly an aesthetic principle, we can still apply its basic principles to almost any project, process, or product – including ourselves.

Salvador Dali is often credited with saying, “Have no fear of perfection. You’ll never reach it.”

That’s a simple enough reason to avoid trying to be perfect. It’s an unattainable goal. Shouldn’t we instead be seeking excellence, growth, happiness, and success? On our own reasonable terms?

There are several ways that being mindful of the impermanence, incompleteness, and imperfection of everything can help us avoid the anxiety, indecisiveness, and procrastination that inevitably results from our perfectionism.

Be real

Our world is saturated with automation and artificiality. People like things that are genuine. Imperfection shows character and uniqueness. Don’t be afraid to show your flaws, or the flaws in whatever you happen to be working on. Put it out there and see what happens.

As long as your values, beliefs, and goals drive what you do, people will relate to you and whatever you are engaged in. Staying true to yourself and your purpose will give you the conviction and confidence you need to avoid constantly worrying about disapproval.

Don’t just focus on what you’re doing. Focus on why you’re doing it.

Be original

Break new ground. If you are the first one doing something, or the first one doing it a certain way, there is no standard for perfection anyway.

Anything original will be inherently imperfect and unique. If you were decorating using wabi-sabi, you would opt for handmade and vintage artefacts over mass-produced schlock. Whatever your next project is, bringing something original to it will help keep it wabi-sabi.

As author and journalist Arthur Koestler wrote, “The principal mark of genius is not perfection but originality, the opening of new frontiers.”

Use what you have

Wabi-sabi promotes the use of humble materials such as wood, clay, bamboo, stone, iron, and linen. As an aesthetic, it encourages utility and resourcefulness.

Bringing this mindset to our own ventures makes it a lot easier to get started now, rather than waiting until we have everything we think we need. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect for you to get started. All you have to do is make the best use of your attention, experience, knowledge, motivation, potential, resources, skills, and time.

Start with what you have and make a little progress. You’ll probably find that you don’t need as much as you originally thought, and anything additional that you really do need can likely be acquired as you go.

Strip things down

Wabi-sabi living spaces tend to be simple and uncluttered. That’s not to say that they are overly sterile or spartan. They are homey, but are also minimalist and utilitarian and feature personally curated artefacts.

We can apply this principle to a lot of life’s undertakings by stripping things down to what really matters.

You don’t have to solve all the big, tough problems. Solve the little, easy ones first. You don’t have to build a widget that does everything. Build a widget that does one simple thing better than the other widgets.

You don’t have to do everything right. Focus on doing one thing right and go from there.

Change what you don’t like

You’re a work in progress, and so is everything you work on. Nothing is really ever finished, so if you don’t like something, change it. Maybe different is better, maybe it’s not. But don’t be afraid to tinker and tweak, and don’t be afraid to show your work.

Perfectionism is mostly just a bad habit. You can change it by experimenting, improvising, and aiming for good enough. Wabi-sabi is fluid, spontaneous, and unashamed.

Besides, don’t they say that practice makes perfect? Keep practicing, keep making changes, keep making small improvements, keep shifting perspective, keep taking new approaches. You’ll actually get closer to perfection that way than by trying to realize some ideal vision before you’ve really even started.

Imperfect can still be great

Embracing imperfection does not mean lowering our standards. It means not letting our standards hold us back.

The basic wabi-sabi principles enable us to accept – even appreciate – the imperfect,  impermanent, and incomplete. When we do this, we can overcome the constraints of our own standards and expectations and start moving and making real progress. We can learn, we can innovate, and we can grow.

Wabi-sabi allows us to recalibrate our standards so that they are no longer unreasonable or out of reach. Imperfect can still be good enough, excellent, or even great.

One person can sit around waiting for all the improbable – if not impossible – conditions required to achieve perfection to materialize. Another person can just get busy trying to at least be good. Who’s more likely to do great things? Who will have more regrets?

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