In the corner of my home office, there’s a small brown sofa. The cushions are sunken, evidence of countless nights laying down and staring at the ceiling while I dreamed up my company, Jotform. One of the legs is chipped, a reminder of when we hauled the sofa from our third-floor walk-up to a moving van, then traded New York for San Francisco. Today, there are stray marker zigzags here and there, from when our kids were little and didn’t see the need to limit their art to coloring books.
Some people might view it as a ratty sofa in desperate need of reupholstering. Or maybe they’d replace it with one of those modern daybeds, the kind you see in glossy architecture magazines. But to me, that sofa tells the story of my life, my family, and my business. Its flaws give it character. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Until recently, I thought my furniture choice was just evidence of sentimentality — and a questionable sense of design. But as it turns out, it also aligns with the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. As explained by Leonard Koren, author of Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, wabi-sabi is finding beauty in things that are imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It’s an aesthetic ideology, but it can also be a way of life. I’ve found that the tenets of wabi-sabi can serve as a guide for entrepreneurs to be both balanced and productive.
Here, a closer look at some principles to consider as you start or run your business.
Find beauty in the imperfect
In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote,
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
In other words, to be happy is to be the same. To be unhappy is to be unique.
I try to apply a similar way of thinking when I consider our work as a company. To strive for perfection, be it a flawless product or a bump-free history, is not only senseless — because as any entrepreneur will tell you, occasional flubs are unavoidable — but it’s not a goal worth having. Because imperfection is not only okay, it’s a necessity in today’s competitive market.
In a recent story, Harvard Business Review highlighted several of the missteps in Amazon’s trajectory — like the acquisition of TextPayMe and the launch of a remote card payment device, Amazon Local Register. The authors pose the question: How did the company become so successful despite these unpromising moves?
The answer is that Amazon is an imperfectionist, a concept we’ve developed over several decades of helping companies and nonprofits, and one that we believe is vital for organizations striving to prosper in today’s uniquely uncertain economic environment… [I]mperfectionism is an approach in which companies grow not by following a strategic framework or plan, but through multiple and frequent experimentation in real time, incrementally building up valuable knowledge, assets, and capabilities on the way.
Experimentation is a critical part of growth. Imperfections are what ultimately create your company’s unique story and define it against a million and one competitors.
Focus on the feeling
Mark Reibstein wrote a NYT bestselling children’s book on wabi-sabi. As he explains:
Wabi-sabi is a way of seeing the world that is at the heart of Japanese culture . . . It may best be understood as a feeling, rather than as an idea.
Similarly, Andrew Juniper, author of Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence, emphasizes the emotional aspect of wabi-sabi. Juniper notes, “If an object or expression can provoke in us a feeling of serene melancholy and spiritual longing, then that object can be considered wabi-sabi.”
In business, we focus far too often on what we should be doing — hitting X target by Y date — and not enough on what actually feels good, on a gut level, while we’re doing it. If we apply a more wabi-sabi approach to our work, then the goal would be to invest your time and energy in things that provoke a feeling of contentment, and trust that doing work that actually feels satisfying will ultimately benefit your company. That’s why in my new book, I urge readers to regularly consider what type of work feels most personally meaningful to them — aka “the big stuff — and to automate as much of the rest as possible.
To tweak Juniper’s words, if a project provides a feeling of spiritual longing (if it speaks to us on a deeper level) then that project can be considered wabi-sabi. Be conscious of what those tasks and projects are and do what you can to make more time for them.
Embrace the transience of everything
Explaining the basis of wabi-sabi, Leonard Koren writes:
Things are either devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness.
Koren tells a sort of wabi-sabi parable, about a traveler looking for refuge, so he builds a hut out of tall rushes to create a makeshift grasshut. The next day, he unties the rushes, deconstructing the hut, and the traces of his temporary abode are barely there. But the traveler retains the memory of the hut, and now the reader knows about it, too.
Wabi-sabi, in its purest, most idealized form, is precisely about these delicate traces, this faint evidence, at the borders of nothingness.
This gets at various principles of wabi-sabi — embracing imperfection, being in harmony with nature, and accepting that everything is transient.
One of the biggest mistakes an entrepreneur can make is not anticipating constant change. Even a company’s competitive advantage will be in constant flux — and that’s not a bad thing. Instead, it’s a motivator to continually strategize and innovate. When it comes to running a business, the old adage — if it ain’t broke don’t fix it — just doesn’t apply.
For example, Jotform customers seemed satisfied with reviewing form submissions to understand the responses, but we’re always on a mission to make our products more useful and our users’ lives easier. So last summer, we released Digest Emails, which delivers a summary of a user’s form submissions in one email. They didn’t ask for it, but we gave it to them anyway. Today, we’re determining whether users appreciate this new feature (so far, so good).
Our company today looks nothing like the bare bones online form company I founded 17 years ago. You might even say that that company no longer exists. Depending on how you look at it, it’s a sad or a beautiful thing.
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