Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on wellbeing and performance science. Grace writes a regular column on happiness & leadership for WRAL TechWire.
My dermatology check-up this week made me think back to a column I wrote a couple of years ago about our search for perfection, as our natural tendency is not to see beauty in imperfection.
My doctor, who has been practicing for decades, said that I have more sensitive pigmentation than anyone else she’s seen. Translation: I have off the charts hyperpigmentation, i.e. freckles and age spots. It is naturally assumed that we would want to rid ourselves of these imperfections.
She suggested preventative measures and immediately prescribed me Tazarac and urged me to consult with a recommended aesthetic dermatologist.
Her reaction to my scan and assumption that we want to whiten and clarify our skin made me think about imperfection. I’ve actually come to accept my hyperpigmentation tendencies as long as there are no health implications. I have makeup that makes the facial pigmentation less noticeable, and I try to lather protection on the rest of my body to prevent more damage. But other than that, I’ve more or less decided not to spend more time and money on correcting all my many imperfections.
These thoughts gave me a minute of pause to think about our quest for perfection.
I reread my own column from July 8, 2022, and share an updated version with you today.
Perfection is not a good thing; the beautiful art of imperfection
In my meditation practice, I came across and grew intrigued by an image accompanied by a quote from songwriter Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
I then learned of the fascinating art of Kintsugi. The cracks in this form of pottery are filled with gold to create an even more beautiful and unique offering. The broken piece is made whole again.
In my HappinessWorks™ workshops, I teach that perfection is not a good thing.
The ancient art of Kintsugi celebrates imperfections.
I share my own imperfection story and how getting through the challenges of my depressive episode from two years ago and returning back into the light has made me stronger.
I see this art form as similar to a positive mindset shift, through visualization and other positive psychology techniques, one can be made whole again and even more beautiful than before and the new whole becomes a reason to celebrate rather than to focus on a missing piece.
Asian melanin and the skin
Asian women have a tendency to develop hyperpigmentation because we have more melanin than Caucasians. Having blemish-free, pale skin has been considered desirable by Chinese women dating back to the Han Dynasty. I have hyperpigmentation on my face, and for years my mom would ask what treatments I was using to “fix” my complexion.
I realize she was critical only because she cared. As her dementia progressed, she would ask me less often. In her last years, I would “rejoice” whenever she would bug me about my imperfections. I knew her concern came from a place of love.
I also celebrate that Asian skin has a thicker dermis and therefore more collagen and elastin, so we will age more slowly!
Failure and blind spots
I tell my coaching clients that failure can be a good thing. Just as Kintsugi fills in the cracks to create something more beautiful than the original, what we learn from our failures makes us much stronger. We do not realize our full potential until we go through dark times. I have found that to be incredibly true after getting through the challenges of my depressive episode just over two years ago and returning back into the light. I am now able to share more empathetically to broader audiences and am able to help more people become happier, and therefore better leaders.
All of us have blind spots and so when we break, we are usually caught off guard. Gaining visibility to our cracks or weak points and knowing how to fill them in, is what makes us stronger. Figuring out these areas takes intentional investment and openness. That investment can be made by working with a coach or assembling your own personal board of directors. Being vulnerable and open to talking about our challenges is critical to optimizing positive outcomes. This not only helps in our healing, but also helps others to open up to gain benefit too, which completes the virtuous cycle of increasing well being and happiness.
Asian artwork that is broken and fixed by Kintsugi is considered inspirational and Zen-like. Beauty is revealed in broken things, and often the reformed artwork increases in value due to its unique and more exquisite outcome. Embracing your personal challenges and working through them can create many of the same elements in you.
I was so nervous
The CEO of a client organization told me that some of her leaders said apologetically to her, “I was so nervous!” after presenting at their latest board meeting.
I believe that it is important to be a little bit nervous before a performance or a talk. I certainly know this from my keynote and piano performances. This happens because you truly care. Channeling your fear to your advantage will result in a winning outcome. I have learned to turn around and say, “I’m excited!” instead. (“How can stress bless?”)
As we learn to accept our flaws, we also can learn to cherish things more. The Kintsugi process of traditional restoration takes several months to build back the resilience that once was. In putting together fragments of ourselves, we should embrace and celebrate a big accident, and have faith that we will be reborn into a leader with even more resilience.
The gift of Kintsugi
A couple of years ago, I thought of what special gift I could give my partner’s daughter for her birthday. She had graduated high school as valedictorian and would be entering Princeton that fall. I wanted to give her something very special to take with her.
I studied many possibilities and selected a unique Kintsugi gift in hopes that having a piece of something once fragile, made strong and even more beautiful would be a source of meaning as she embarks on her college journey.
Songwriter Leonard Cohen perhaps said it best, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
May we all continue on this road to discovery.
Ask yourself these questions:
What areas in your work and life do you strive for perfection?
When do you think this is good and when do you think it keeps you from moving forward?
What areas could you benefit this year from being “imperfect” instead of striving to be perfect?
About Grace Ueng
A management consultant, leadership coach and human performance expert with Savvy Growth, Grace has been covered in The Wall Street Journal, Inc., and MIT Technology Review. Leaders call her when seeking a strategic review of their business, when going through a pivot point, or when they’d like to have a thinking partner to hold them accountable to stretch goals.
Her company offers workshops to improve team effectiveness: Savvy’s Seven: What You Will Learn.
Join her Happiness & Leadership community to be more productive leader: click here