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Wabi-Sabi: Just what a Perfectionist needs to Let-go

Truth be told, I have never heard of the term "Wabi-Sabi" until my wife and I were looking for a renovation style for our upcoming unit. "Is it some Japanese sauce?" I asked since the closest thing that came to mind was the wasabi sauce.

Don't be fooled by its seemingly cute (at least in my own opinion) name! Wabi-sabi has a very profound meaning which is very worthy for city dwellers (who are constantly exposed to the glim and glamour of everyone else's success) to address.

The Definition: What does Wabi-Sabi mean?

It is actually quite challenging to define Wabi-Sabi and there are numerous different ways to interpreting it. After consulting numerous sources, my interpretation of Wabi-Sabi slants more towards the appreciation of imperfection in nature/life. Stemming from Zen Buddhism, Wabi-Sabi's origin traces back to the Tea Ceremonies in ancient Japan. Here's a great video on the whole concept:

For those who didn't manage to watch the video (please do later!), the term Wabi-Sabi should NOT be interpreted separately (as the literal meaning of each term is pretty negative). While there may be tinges of melancholy that stems from the appreciation of impermanence, Wabi-Sabi is a meaningful perspective to equip ourselves with as it challenges the very perception of "Flawless = Beauty".

Perfection — Bane or Boon?

There is no wonder why perfection is celebrated. It relates to the simple fact that perfection is rare and due to scarcity, anything that is close to perfection is sought after. If we follow the development of the term "perfectionism", we will notice an interesting change in the interpretation of the term. I remember that I used to identify myself as a perfectionist with pride. I mean, what can be better than a person who strives for the highest standards in everything he/she does. Better still, it also nicely highlights the gritty trait of being able to push through tough times to achieve those high standards.

Yet, in recent times, "perfectionism" has become a cliche answer that we quote in interviews when we are asked about our weaknesses. More and more of us are realising that while the pursuit of perfection is an earnest endeavour, achieving perfection is simply not feasible. This relates to the Law of Diminishing Returns and Pareto Principle (80/20 Rule) which explain the fact that the returns for every unit of effort decrease with each additional unit invested. This also relates to the concept of Opportunity Cost since our time and effort can be better spend on other areas where it can yield us higher returns, instead of being spent trying to get something from great to perfect.

Why Wabi-Sabi?

Being once entrenched in the concept of perfection, I struggled at the very thought of accepting something "imperfect". I am that person who would ensure that the margins in the documents are precisely standardised, alignment of the icons and text boxes are optimally spaced in a presentation. So getting me to accept designs that could have been "perfectly" symmetrically was a battle against my instincts. Yet interestingly, as much as it was difficult for me to intuitively accept these changes, I seem to recognise deeper inside that I would grow should I be able to learn to APPRECIATE "imperfection". I made a breakthrough after having more conversations with my wife. I learnt to see through her that what I would have been deemed as imperfection can be otherwise perceived as Character. While it was a really simple statement, I came to a sudden realisation that with that simple and minor tweak in perspective, what was initially lumped into the "imperfect" group are in fact all unique in their own ways. Since no two items are "flawed" in the same way, by the concept of scarcity once again, shouldn't they be the more valuable ones?

Handcrafted bowls — Imperfectly beautiful & unique as compared to the perfectly factory-manufactured bowls

Wabi-Sabi helped me appreciate how we too are uniquely flawed and that's why we are all irreplaceable. It taught me how to celebrate ageing and look forward to how life shapes us (just as much as how we attempt to shape life). If we compare ourselves against a pre-casted mould of perfection, then we inevitably would notice all the edges that fail to fit and feel lousy about ourselves (imagine comparing a factory manufactured bowl against a handcrafted one). Instead, we should adjust our standards and learn to see how we are a unique product of our experiences, which as long as we are alive, is still constantly evolving. There is much beauty around, in everything, in everyone and in ourselves! Cheers to Wabi-Sabi.

Thanks for reading! I explore themes relating to the pursuit of a balanced and fulfilling life. Should this interest you, do subscribe to our email mailing list (at the bottom of this page) and check out my other posts here. Have a great week ahead!

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