Kintsugi – embracing the imperfect

Thanks go to Walters Art Museum (https://thewalters.org/) for providing this image of a 10th century bowl (accession number 49.2122 ) under the Creative Commons License.
About the author: Wolfgang Mayrhofer is Professor at WU Vienna, Austria. You can read more at his web-page and contact him at his email address

Have you recently updated or maybe for the first time crafted your CV? If yes, I bet you were trying to paint a convincing picture with few, if any, unexplained periods between your various appointments in order to demonstrate to yourself, potential employers and your peers on LinkedIn & Co that your career has been continuously developing. Maybe most importantly, you try to emphasize an underlying theme – some academics most likely would call it career logic – that holds all this together. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that – it is what we all do (well, more or less…) in order to look attractive on the job market and to our social environment.

Wolfgang Mayrhofer

At the same time, we know or at least sense that a closer inspection reveals a very different picture. What on paper seems like a logical next step in our professional development was the result of many sleepless nights weighing various options, being nearly torn apart by uncertainties linked with the decision and the consequences for you and your loved ones around you.

Likewise, our CV and how we talk about our careers rarely reveals, let alone emphasizes events or longer episodes that at least in retrospect are hardly something we are proud of and regard as praiseworthy or commendable. Examples include the promotion that we aspired primarily for its financial benefits and that turned out to be a nightmare in terms of workload and strain, our micropolitics that we successfully orchestrated in order to be appointed as member of a working party but that damaged some cherished personal relationships, or the moral compromises or even transgressions we made in order to push through a project which at that time seemed worth it but, in hindsight, did not merit our moral borderline manoeuvering. Silence about career relevant issues is even more prevalent for those instances where parts of our private life were in shambles or turmoil as a result of our career and/or heavily affecting it. Broken marriages, serious health issues, mental fatigue or burnout, and the death of a loved person are just a few examples of the myriad of instances when the thin ice of our seemingly ordered life cracks and we face existential questions that we often have no adequate answers for but still have to deal with.

Do we do ourselves and our social environment a favour with this kind of socially not only accepted, but seemingly required and widely applauded habit of glossing over the disruptions, cracks and breaks in our professional lives and replacing it with the beaming surface of a polished and smooth career trajectory full of success and happiness, with acclaimed social influencers and their web appearance as the prototypical example? I doubt it. Personal health, dependable relations and sustainable growth at a personal and professional level require a comprehensive, sober, realistic and reconciled view of oneself and one’s history. Smithereens, fault lines, irregularities and visible repairs of something that once was (intended to be) one piece are an essential part of such a picture. I suggest that we put this more to the forefront. It reduces the pressure of maintaining the image of the always good, bright and perfect persona and replaces it with a balanced approach that is able to integrate our personal bits and pieces into something new. Maybe Kintsugi (金継ぎ, “golden joinery”), the Japanese art of mending broken pottery can show us the way. It emphasizes the areas of breakages by using lacquer mixed with shiny materials such as gold or platinum. The mended piece then visibly displays its brokenness while at the same time gaining wholeness and showing a new aesthetic quality.

Pointing in the same direction, many wisdom traditions of the world cherish the art of bringing together the broken bits and pieces in our lives so that they may shine. Two examples may suffice. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, the view of Wabi-Sabi embraces transience and imperfection, emphasizing understated elegance, rustic simplicity, modesty, asymmetry, and a less-is-more attitude. And the Christian Psalms state that God does not despise a broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart.

Against this backdrop, maybe it is time for us to display our career more Kintsugi-like. This encourages ourselves and others to abandon perfection and replace it with greater depths of authenticity, soberness, and humility. In turn, Kintsugi-style careers on display reduce the pressure in the constant, breathless race towards one-dimensional career success, thus contributing to the greater good. For sure worth a try…

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