This Japanese art principle can teach you to turn failures into success

This is the art of kintsugi. Image: Ethan Sykes/Unsplash

Ephrat Livni
Senior Reporter - Law and Politics, Quartz
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  • Kintsugi is the practice of repairing broken items with gold glue to make them more beautiful and stems from the 15th century
  • It ties in to the Buddhist notion mottainai - regret at waste
  • As humans, we often see our own imperfections as failure, and those of others as strength

Like a favorite cup or plate, people sometimes crack. We may even break.

Obviously, we cannot and ought not throw ourselves away when this happens. Instead, we can relish the blemishes and learn to turn these scars into art—like kintsugi (金継ぎ), an ancient Japanese practice that beautifies broken pottery.

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Kintsugi, or gold splicing, is a physical manifestation of resilience. Instead of discarding marred vessels, practitioners of the art repair broken items with a golden adhesive that enhances the break lines, making the piece unique. They call attention to the lines made by time and rough use; these aren’t a source of shame. This practice—also known as kintsukuroi (金繕い ), which literally means gold mending—emphasizes the beauty and utility of breaks and imperfections. It turns a problem into a plus.

Golden repair

According to art historians, kintsugi came about accidentally (which is fitting). When the 15th-century shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa broke his favorite tea bowl, he sent it to China for repairs and was disappointed that it came back stapled together. The metal pins were unsightly, so local craftsmen came up with a solution—they filled the crack with a golden lacquer, making the bowl more unique and valuable. This repair elevated the fallen bowl back to its place as shogun’s favorite and prompted a whole new art form.

Kintsugi used a golden adhesive to repair broken items.
Gold adhesive is used to repair the broken item. Image: Haragayato via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

The idea behind kintsugi and the elements it used weren’t new, however. The glue is made from the sap of the Rhus verniciflua plant, which has been employed in Asia for about 5,000 years to adhere things, initially the parts of weapons. And the concept underlying kintsukuroi was already gaining ground in Japan at the time; it stems from the wabi-sabi aesthetic philosophy, which cultivates appreciation for flaws.

In the 16th century, Japanese tea ceremony masters rebelled against the prevailing taste of luxury and opulence, instead prizing simple items marked by time and process. They celebrated irregularity, rough surfaces, asymmetry, and defects in tea ceremony implements and settings. “These qualities often appear in the aging process or result from happenstance during the creative process … At other times, these effects are deliberately brought about by a destructive act of a tea master, such as breaking one handle of a vase,” explains philosopher Yuriko Saito, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, writing in the journal Contemporary Aesthetics.

The golden repair method also corresponds to the Japanese notions of “mottainai,” an expression of regret at waste, and “mushin,” the need to accept change. Kintsugi is the Zen Buddhist philosophy as it’s applied to physical items—emphasizing engaging with reality, the materials on hand. The shogun Yoshimasa could surely have replaced his favorite tea bowl, but he didn’t want to waste it. By making it more beautiful after it broke, the local craftspeople respected the changes that time and use wrought on the bowl, and demonstrated that these can be appreciated and even emphasized rather than trying to hide the wear and tear.

A beautiful mess

You probably don’t expect other people to be perfect. You may in fact appreciate when people expose their vulnerabilities, show old wounds or admit errors. It’s evidence that we’re all fallible, that we heal and grow, that we survive blows to the ego or to our reputations or health and can live to tell the tale. Exposing vulnerabilities by admitting error creates intimacy and trust in relationships, and fosters forgiveness.

Still, though we’re often relieved when other are truthful, we’re afraid to expose ourselves. That’s too bad. Psychologists call this distinction “beautiful mess effect.” We see other people’s honesty about their flaws as positive, but we consider admitting to our own failures much more problematic.

According to a recent study by psychologists at the University of Mannheimin in Germany, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (paywall), this tendency stems from the fact that we understand other people’s experiences abstractly yet see our own concretely. We feel the things that happen to us viscerally and physically. What happens to others, however, functions more like an instructive tale, because the pain of failure isn’t our own and the distance gives us perspective. We all understand in theory that bad things happen. But we also feel really bad when they happen to us, and condemn ourselves.

In a series of seven tests, researchers demonstrated this self–other difference applies when subjects evaluate the effect of exposing vulnerability in various situations, including admitting errors and discussing bodily “imperfections.”

“Vulnerability is courage in you and inadequacy in me,” writes University of Houston research professor Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly, about the transformative power of exposing what we might consider weaknesses. Like the kintsugi craftspeople who repaired the shogun’s bowl with gold long ago, Brown sees imperfections as gifts to be worked with, not shames to be hidden.

The ordinary in extraordinary

It’s absurd to be embarrassed about missteps and failures in our lives because they happen to everyone, and no experience is wasted. Everything you do—good, bad, and ugly—can serve as a lesson, even if it’s one you would never want to repeat again. Indeed, errors can be the most important and effective experiences of all.

Things fall apart. That’s life. But if you’re wise, you can use every scrap, patch yourself up, and keep going. That’s the essence of resourcefulness. It’s mottainai.

Likewise, the physical evidence of existence that accumulates over time and a life well-lived can be a source of pride rather than shame. We don’t have to try to look young and flawless, like we’re all brand-new products manufactured for Instagram. White hair, lined skin, scars, the extra pounds that show your gusto for a good meal—these don’t have to be dyed, pulled taut, hidden, and lost. They might be seen as signs you’re doing something right, that you persist, which some philosophers argue is the meaning of life.

“Our aesthetic judgments based upon perfection and imperfection almost invariably have consequences that affect the quality of life, the social and political climate of a society, and the state of the world,” aesthetic philosopher Saito writes. When we expect everything and everyone to be perfect, including ourselves, we not only discount much of what is beautiful but we create a cruel world where resources are wasted, people’s positive qualities are overlooked in favor of their flaws, and our standards become impossibly limiting, restrictive, and unhealthy.

The kintsugi approach instead makes the most of what already is, highlights the beauty of what we do have, flaws and all, rather than leaving us eternally grasping for more, different, other, better. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, in Japanese Zen, the practitioner sits and works with what is.

“The ordinary mind is the way,” according to the 9th century Zen master Basho. He explains, “What is ordinary mind? It is the mind in which there are no fabrications, no biased value judgments, no preferences, no time or eternity, nor dualistic thoughts such as common and sacred.”

In other words, the experiences you have, and the person you already are, suffice. You may, of course, occasionally chip and break and need repairs. And that’s fine. But reality is the best and most abundant material on the planet, available to anyone, for free, and we can all use what we already have—including our flaws—to be beautiful. After all, our cracks are what give us character.

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