Don’t Throw Away the Broken Pieces

by Professor Francesca Gino Harvard Business School

As I was teaching online last month with Bozoma Saint John, Chief Marketing Officer at Netflix, and my dear Harvard Business School colleague Frances Frei, I came across an idea that brought me back to the time when I was researching Rebel Talent.

On that journey, I stumbled upon an ancient Japanese art form known as Kintsugi, which came across to me as rather unusual.

We spend time marvelling at art for its beauty and perfection, rather than thinking of it as an opportunity to expose imperfections.

Kintsugi is different. It is the Japanese art of broken pieces. It is built on the idea that by embracing flaws and imperfections, you can create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art.

Kintsugi artists consider every break in a piece of pottery to be unique.

Instead of repairing an item to look like new, the 400-year-old technique actually highlights the “scars” as a part of the design. Imagine breaking a vase (something I’ve done numerous times!) and then putting it back together with a lacquer dusted in gold or silver.

In doing so, you create beauty from the brokenness.

That’s not how we usually experience the mistakes we make at work.

When we face failure or difficult circumstances, we try to put them to the side: to forget about them rather than elevating them.

But the philosophy behind Kintsugi can help us view and navigate these situations differently:

Through the very process of repairing broken things, or overcoming our failures, we might create something more unique, beautiful, and resilient including ourselves, thanks to what we learned.

This way of thinking doesn’t come naturally. So, here are three strategies that can help us use difficulty and failure to become stronger and more resilient.

See the Beauty in What’s Broken

Osteria Francescana is a three-Michelin-star restaurant that was named the best restaurant in the world in 2016 and 2018. It’s run by a “rebel” Italian chef, Massimo Bottura. One of the most famous dishes at Osteria is “Oops, I Dropped the Lemon Tart.”

Its origin is quite literal: One evening, the chef responsible for desserts accidentally dropped a lemon tart. Instead of screaming at him, Bottura was inspired to create a new dessert, a smashed lemon tart served on a colourful plate.

Bottura embraced the idea of Kintsugi by letting go of his original vision and celebrating the initial setback with a creative twist on a classic dish. Similarly, we can learn to embrace the unexpected and turn a setback into something good by approaching any situation with curiosity and perspective.

How can we look at a broken tart differently? How can we turn a mistake into an opportunity? By building a habit of asking such questions, we can learn to put a positive spin on what looks like a problem.

Sit with Our Mistakes 

Instead of charging forward and putting our mistakes behind us, often the best thing to do is sit with them for a moment.

To be able to truly let go, we need to acknowledge what we’ve lost and what we’ve learned from it.

Failure is painful, after all. But if we take the time to pause and pick up the pieces, we can acknowledge that things fall apart in life.

Roughly translated, Kintsugi means “golden seams” or “golden repair.” The philosophy of Kintsugi challenges us to find the silver lining in any situation.

Failure can often give us the chance to grow: to reinvent ourselves and reassess our goals. But, don’t throw away the scraps. Without them, we lose the opportunity to learn. 

Find Value in Our Vulnerability 

We’re often afraid of acknowledging our own fragility and believe that others will judge us negatively for it.

But fragility can be a powerful, and positive, force.

When we see others being vulnerable, we call them “brave,” but we don’t extend the same charity to ourselves.

Their flaws demonstrate their fortitude; our flaws are evidence of failure.

In fact, a great deal of research shows the benefits of expressing vulnerability: self-disclosure builds trust, asking for help boosts learning, admitting mistakes fosters forgiveness, confessing one’s feelings leads to new relationships, and asking questions rather than providing answers leads those asked to feel flattered.

So, I ask you: What will you do the next time something breaks or falls apart in your life? I hope that the philosophy of Kintsugi will inspire you.