The Wabi-Sabi of Peak Performance

Imperfection clings to a person, and if they wait till they are brushed off entirely, they would spin for ever on their axis, advancing nowhere.
— Thomas Carlyle

Perfection is the enemy of success. Simply put: If we always strive for perfection before committing to action, that’s a sure-fire guarantee we will never achieve anything worthwhile. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against perfection. I want to draw attention to the fact that waiting for the perfect moment, or striving for perfection, can keep us stuck where we are—in the mud of life. In other words, the ideal of perfection should never be an excuse for inaction. Rather than waiting for everything to be perfect, it’s much better to prepare as best you can, then begin by taking the first step, and be aware of any errors, or missteps, along the way. Use your action and interaction with the world around you as a source of feedback, and then correct your course as you go. Aim for constant improvement, rather than reaching for the impossible ideal of pure perfection.

Learn to Love the Mess

As an entrepreneur I have realized that if you are ever going to have any success in business, or in life, you have to begin by accepting that peak performance—success itself—is a process of imperfection. Perfection is an illusion. Nowhere have I learned this more than as a martial artist for over two decades. In martial arts training, for example, we try to get as close to perfection as possible, but in actual application – when faced with a real, uncooperative, resisting opponent – we seek only a satisfactory “approximation” of that perfection. In other words, while perfection is something to consistently aim for, it will likely never be achieved, at least, not how we imagine it. Like it or not, we simply do not have that degree of control over anything in life.

My personal journey into embracing “the mess” (imperfection) began when I read this quote by philosopher Alan Watts: “To Taoism, that which is absolutely still or absolutely perfect is absolutely dead, for without the possibility of growth and change there can be no Tao [the way]. In reality there is nothing in the universe which is completely perfect or completely still; it is only in the minds of men that such concepts exist.”

I can’t tell you how long it took me to fully understand this. I am not even sure I like the uneasy truth. But, anyone who has practiced martial arts, and who has sparred with great skill knows that however well you might do in training, it can all quickly fall by the wayside, the moment you face a real opponent. In a real fight, with all its unpredictability and chaos, often the best laid plans of fighters instantly evaporate. Sounds a lot like business too.

Knowing this, what can we do about it?

Rather than try to overcome imperfection, one should learn to embrace it, to see its beauty. The Japanese have a wonderful term for this: “wabi-sabi”—an ability to perceive beauty in imperfection. The character Katsumoto in the The Last Samurai captures this understanding. Early in the movie he says, “The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one.” But toward the end of the movie, as he gazes upon thousands of cherry blossoms, with his dying breath he says, “Perfect . . . they are all . . . perfect.” He has come to understand that perfection is an illusion, and that there is great beauty and possibility in imperfection.


Educated To Be Perfect

In life, we are constantly pushed and told to be perfect. Mistakes are often ridiculed, or worse– punished. Everyone who has suffered through Western schooling will recognize the intense and relentless focus on getting things “just right,” and that making mistakes is frowned upon. As an author, and motivational consultant, Marcus Buckingham notes, when a child comes home with a report card, parents typically focus more on any D’s or F’s than on any B’s or A’s. As a child, you are instantly sent for extra lessons in those subjects you are failing at. Instead, Buckingham advises parents to focus on their child’s strengths: “You grow the most in the area where you already show some natural advantage, some natural area of talent or strength or passion. That’s where you start.” And the research agrees. According to a survey of more than two million people, Gallup researchers discovered that while weakness-fixing can prevent failure, it is strength-building that actually leads to success in the short and long-term.


Only In Mistakes Do We Learn To Win

The paradox, however, is that in order to find those strengths, you have to be willing, and be allowed, to make mistakes, to embrace imperfection; and through that experience you can discover what you are really good at. So, while we strive for perfection in the future, we embrace imperfection in the present, using it as building blocks for growth and development. Research confirms, again and again, that superstars in any field did not start out with overwhelming talent. Sure, they might have started with a slight edge, but the real difference in the long-run, is that they simply worked much, much harder than the rest of us. They have embraced their imperfection and their slight edge, and built on that. What’s more, this principle of building on imperfection applies in all areas of our lives, including our hobbies and professions.
Taking Action, Even When It’s Imperfect

At it’s heart wabi sabi implies not only that perfection is an illusion; trying to be perfect actually leads to stagnation (as Alan Watts noted earlier). While we may not live in a perfect world, we do live in a world filled with possibilities. But, moving from possibilities to real accomplishments requires action—not action tomorrow when you think everything will be perfect, but rather action right now, especially when you know everything isn’t perfect. As bestselling author, and personal development trainer, Marie Forleo noted, so many budding entrepreneurs fail because they never get started. They are constantly waiting for everything to be just perfect. Perfection is the enemy of action.

As a martial artist first, and later as an entrepreneur, I learned the hard way: I will never be one-hundred percent ready for anything. This is true for all of us, including you: You have to take some risk, launch yourself into action, and then figure out the rest as you go. Marc Ecko, American fashion designer, entrepreneur, and artist, in a video interview with Chase Jarvis, said much the same when he talked about taking action: telling his team that all they need to do is “…just get in the vicinity . . . like 70 percent,” and then, “because I know I am smart enough, or we are self-aware enough, that we will make up that delta between the 70 and the 100 percent.”

I realize how scary this can be for many people. But it’s not their fault. They have been conditioned to believe that everything has to be “just right” before they can move to the next level. Schooling did this, your parents probably did this too—and, as adults, you belong to a society designed to ensure you continue to conform. Every single piece of advertising and marketing repeatedly tells us how imperfection is bad, perfection is good. Just think of the photo-shopped models on the covers of magazines; we all know no one really looks so perfect in real life.Marketing is designed to make us all feel inadequate with who we are, and where we are right now.

Krishnamurti, a spiritual teacher, observed: “One is never afraid of the unknown; one is afraid of the known coming to an end.” And so they search for more knowledge, and hold onto what they already “know,” all in the vain hope of finding answers—even when the “answers” are no longer valid for the situation they now find themselves in. It reminds me of the famous quote attributed to Einstein, to the effect that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”


Applying Knowledge

Ironically, the true application of knowledge, especially in business, requires translating, or transforming, knowledge from the thinking mind into embodied action. And here’s the clincher: In order to translate knowledge into action, we have to move into the unknown. In other words, there’s really no way to hold onto tangible knowledge once you decide to express it through the body in action.

As the late Richard Feynman, a world-renowned physicist, so eloquently put it: “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain. . . . In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.”


Imperfect Doesn’t Mean Unworkable

A good starting point is to accept, that just because something might seem imperfect doesn’t make it unworkable. Applying knowledge, therefore, requires action, and action, by its very nature, always takes place in the present moment, where neither answers (past) nor questions (future) exist. The present moment is also precisely where wabi-sabi resides. The beauty of imperfection, then, calls on us to fully embrace the moment—and, as anyone who has tried to “live in the moment” realizes, it takes a lot of practice. But this is a practice we should all take time to embrace


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