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Day 03/04/2015

{ Kintsugi } A Beautiful Visual Metaphor To Help You “Fail Forward” …*

When the Japanese mend broken objects, they fill in the cracks with gold. They believe that when something is damaged, it becomes more beautiful.”

I came across this delightful quote earlier this week while reading an article about failing forward. These days, with the growing popularity and accessibility of methodologies like Design Thinking and Lean Startup, the concept of iteration–a slightly more glamorous variant of the term “failing forward”–has become increasingly mainstream. Given the critical role of failure in learning and innovation, I am all for this failure revolution. Yet, it is not failure for failure’s sake that we are celebrating but its transcendence. We try something; we fail; we pause and reflect on what we did and where we went wrong; and hopefully we are able to extract some valuable lesson(s) from the experience that will inform our decision-making and behavior in future scenarios.

The transcendence of failure–the movement from raw input (this does not work) to reflection (why did this not work?) to insight (this is where we went wrong/what we could have done differently), is a process. And all processes have an inherent emotional component that cannot be ignored or brushed aside. The emotional responses accompanying each failure will vary greatly based on the circumstances– from the inconsequential to the heartbreaking. The hardest failures to transcend, the ones that are most painful to reflect upon, work through and learn from are usually the ones that blur the boundaries between verb and noun–those instances where we find it difficult to separate our sense of self from our actions; where, “I failed” toes the line with, “I am a failure.”

On an intellectual level, it’s easy to tell oneself to reframe, to approach the failure as a learning opportunity, a gift in disguise, a growing pain. But having failed many times at many things, sometime rather catastrophically, I know all too well that in the midst of experiencing our most painful failures it can be extremely difficult to pay attention to our intellect. When you’ve spent a full week in the same pair of sweatpants unable to peel yourself off from your couch, it can be quite easy to become cynical about the idea of reframing failure. It may feel as though this particular failure is final, as though there is no redemption possible, no lessons to be learned; just a lifetime of mediocrity spent in your own failed company. I think that it is precisely in these times that the beautiful Japanese notion of kintsugi becomes a powerful aid and effective prompt to help us emotionally engage with the process of transcending failure.

What I find fascinating about the concept of kintsugi, which refers to the Japanese craft of fixing broken objects with gold or silver lacquer, is the fact that cracks and brokenness are highlighted and celebrated rather than dismissed or dissimulated. The broken object once repaired takes on a new value, becoming in some ways more appreciated than it was while intact.

I’ve been taking an online course taught by Brené Brown on the Power of Vulnerability in which she talks about the importance of finding good metaphors to talk about certain emotions–specifically shame–that we are incapable of speaking about on an intellectual level without our emotions taking over.

“People hear the word shame and they’ve got one of two responses; one, “I have no idea what you’re talking about and I’m pretty sure that happens to other people;” or two, “I know exactly what that is and I’m not talking about it.” We have a visceral reaction to the word shame.
Shame hates having words wrapped around it. When we speak shame, we cut it off at the knees. The reason metaphors are so helpful is because of our reactions to the word shame. And here’s the thing, if I talk to you intellectually about shame, I will lose you in about 10 minutes because you’ll know this is uncomfortable, it’s a little bit dark and it’s totally not relevant—”I don’t care what she’s saying.” It’s true if I intellectually talk to you about shame. If I walk you into shame, you’ll be like, “Oh hell yeah, this is relevant and I cannot hear a word you are saying because I am in shame.” Because shame is very much about the limbic system, it’s all about fight, flight and freeze. There’s no prefrontal cortex. If I’m staying up here in the prefrontal cortex, where we think, when that fight or flight system kicks in, our prefrontal cortex comes completely offline.”
-Brené Brown

I think kintsugi is an amazingly powerful visual metaphor to recall and focus on as we experience some of the most crushing and painful emotions that result from deep failures. The process of transcending failure is quite similar to the practice of repairing broken ceramic with golden bonding. The object having been repaired emerges more beautiful, more valuable than when it was intact. In the same manner to applying gold to the fragmented pieces, engaging in the process of transcending our failures allows us to grow, to come out stronger and wiser than before the failure.

Next time you find yourself unable to intellectually motivate yourself to engage with the process, I urge you to remember the beauty and the lesson of kintsugi.

Kintsugi: The Art of Broken Pieces from Greatcoat Films on Vimeo.

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