I’ll Have Mine With Wabi-Sabi

In Western society we obsess about perfection. The perfect mate. Perfect car. Perfect job. Perfect looks. Perfect life. It never ends. As a collective we sand-down the edges of ‘real’ reality until there is no real substance left. At what point do we evaporate into a forgettable mist of bad reality shows?

Enter wabi-sabi.

Put simply, ‘wabi-sabi’ is the Japanese idea of finding and accepting true beauty in the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. From an aesthetic viewpoint, its characteristics often include asymmetry, uneven roughness, simplicity, economy, modesty and austerity.

When one admires the large stones ‘floating’ in the otherwise perfectly manicured sands of a zen garden; one experiences wabi-sabi. When one enjoys tea from a rustic and irregular handcrafted tea bowl; one tastes wabi-sabi. When one sees a picture of Marilyn Monroe’s face – flawless, save for that one beauty mark on her left cheek; one sees wabi-sabi. It’s that thing ‘not quite right’ that somehow brings it all together in a unique, beautiful experience greater than the sum of the parts.

But wabi-sabi needn’t be just shorthand for aesthetic appreciation of the subtly imperfect. It also speaks to something more profound and fundamental.

Throughout nature, not only can imperfection be part of unique beauty, it often spurs the very existence of the system to begin with.

Wabi-sabi is the grain of sand that irritates the oyster to create the pearl; the unique conditions that make every snowflake unique; even the maverick techno-evangelist pushing the world to ‘think different,’ moving technology from function to art form.

When scientists began modelling the evolution of learning with mathematical models called neural networks, they discovered that homogeneity lead nowhere across generations. Introduce a random stressor, however, and magic (specifically, learning) happens. Similar results have been found in other systems such as genetics (mutations, transcription errors), mathematics (eg. Stephen Wolfram’s work with cellular automata), and politics (war, economic upheaval).

In short, same breeds same – but at a cost. A system that is too perfect eventually collapses as it lacks the resilience and evolutionary building blocks to withstand uncertainty. As scary as it sounds, when we introduce (or allow for) a measure of randomness, magic can (and often does) happen – and systems flourish.

Nature has gotten this point naturally, adversity is fundamental to evolution. Perhaps not surprisingly, humans tend to have to work at it. Frequently we’re in denial or just miss the point entirely. Or, perhaps, we just try too hard?

In business, it may seem prudent to hire clones of yourself, but the real business successes are found when you boldly hire for skills and personalities beyond your own. Likewise, new businesses and industries are formed to address an economic imperfection. Remove the imperfection, no business.

So then, more than just a pretty, imperfect race – we truly are the product of wabi-sabi. Instead of trying to eliminate our imperfections or alienate individuals courageous enough to be different – perhaps it’s high time we acknowledge them as a key variable in the mathematics of our survival.

They truly are the rocks in our zen garden.

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