Want joy in life and work? Use Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi – Sophie Licht

Profmed, South Africa’s largest restricted medical aid scheme for professionals, is producing an eight-episode vodcast series that explores how we can take care of today, while simultaneously building a positive vision of the future. The seventh episode features Sophie Licht, a photographer and the founder and CEO of Ispot coaching, an independent business coaching firm. Originally from Antwerp in Belgium, Sophie uses the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of Wabi-Sabi to provide business and personal coaching services to business professionals. This philosophy helps us to find beauty and meaning in things that are imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. As Licht explains below, business leaders must accept transience and imperfection in order to achieve greater emotional well-being, joy, and presence in their lives and work. – Claire Badenhorst

Sophie Licht on what Wabi-Sabi means:

Wabi-Sabi is actually a Japanese aesthetic philosophy that speaks to the beauty of imperfect, incomplete, and impermanent. When I stumbled upon that article in a magazine while doing my coaching in my photography, I kind of said, this is my home because my coaching speaks to imperfect me in my journey as well as my clients, and I also do a lot of work with business owners. So it’s all around the theme of imperfect, incomplete, impermanent, and that’s what I would like to maybe share with you today. Wabi-Sabi is a view or thought of finding beauty in the imperfect and that kind of encapsulates it because the Kintsugi Art is also an aesthetic stemming from Wabi-Sabi and it is about mending broken pieces with gold and lacquer so that we can beautify and make the imperfect kind of count. The scar is beautiful.

On why she started pursuing this philosophy:

I need to explain where this is coming from. So here I am, a few years old in Belgium, loving my life and my space, and my parents decided to bring me to a boarding school in Switzerland at the age of 16. It’s one of the best schools in the world. I was super excited and scared to be there. My parents like to throw me in the deep end, so picture me, 14 years old with my bandana and my backpack. And my father said, great, I have to buy a couple of cigars, so I’m leaving now, and he just leaves with the car going at probably 150km per hour. I’m running after the car like a nerd and people are laughing at me, and I’m thinking, whew, this is going to be something. What can I do to survive this space because even if [it’s] very beautiful, you are still left on your own device, there’s nowhere to go home at night. It took me three months. My aim was to become the funniest girl in the school.

It was super tiring because for three years I had to make everyone laugh. So it was me on steroids for three years and it started this discovery of, hold on, so being me is not enough, I need to make people laugh because that’s what works. I’ve been voted the funniest girl in the school – it was in the newsletter. I thought I did it and actually, what an exhausting story. So after that, the whole unraveling of Wabi-Sabi is my journey of, can I come back to myself because it’s going to be less tiring, and how am I going to do this? That’s how Wabi-Sabi started.

On how we always strive for perfection: 

When I work with business owners, you know, with companies of all sizes, I can see how stuck they get with, ‘it’s not the perfect value proposition’, ‘I don’t have a campaign’, ‘my story isn’t right’, ‘let me go back to business cards’, and that’s not where it is, quite frankly. It’s in the selling. It’s in the growing. It’s in the marketing. But that’s about showing up. So it really is about completion versus perfection and it’s about action. That is one of the pillars of Wabi-Sabi.

On what ‘impermanence’ is about:

If I look at that first pillar of impermanent, impermanent is if things are transient. Where do we need to be more so [than] in the now, right? And it’s such a hard thing to do because we are either stuck in the past or in the future – very rarely in the present moment. So past would mean if you are in regret, if you are in sadness, if you are feeling guilty, if you glorify the past, you know that you are in the past. You need to rope your mind back into the present moment. If you are in the future, in worry, in anxiety, in this kind of tension, you know that you are future-based – you need to rope your mind back in. It’s something that I’ve learned at one of the courses, the Art of Living Course, that I’ve done.

I always remember this because when you’re in the present moment, I’m now with you and nothing else counts. Nothing. When I’m in my coaching sessions, I’m in that coaching session and nothing else counts. So we are in collections of now moments, and what I love about the present is [it’s] actually the edge of the future. But if we’re stuck in any other space, we’re not fully present and there’s a tool that one can work with. The one is, as I’ve shown over here is a sense of resiliency and emotional fitness.

Resiliency has been spoken about a lot during Covid. People are a little bit weary and tired. You have the six domains of resiliency. One of the cornerstones of it is your vision, right? So clarity is power. When you know your outcome, you feel clear, you feel better with yourself and the world around you. You feel more resilient because you know that you are moving in the direction that you [are] choosing to.

On not being in control:

We often say, change your story, change your life. It’s about having a background that is strong enough in order to have a really cool foreground to move towards. Your past does not have to equal your future unless you live in there. Since the arrival of Covid, it has intensified the fact that we are not in control but [the] truth is we are not in control. We never are. So what it actually has done for us is brought us a bit of a reality check that we always need to be in the driver’s seat of our lives and not be on automatic.

Emotional fitness is another really interesting one because we often go to the gym to ensure that our physical well-being is there and that we exercise our muscles. What about our emotional home? Emotional fitness is actually about being fit emotionally and what is our recovery time when we have a setback?

On her clients becoming more resilient: 

It’s been very varied, but mainly extremely resilient. You know why? Because you have no choice. Right? So it’s that sense of hunger. So when you are salaried, there is a little bit more luxury to kind of, you know, feel a little bit down and under because we get paid at the end of the month. But when we don’t get paid, we have to make things happen. We have to move with what we have. We just don’t have the time. So, yes, what I have seen with most of these businesses is that when they do feel down, that recovery time is a lot faster because they just can’t afford to be down.

On imperfection:

This one is about focusing on becoming, on striving for excellence and not perfection. It is about action and being decisive. We speak to the fear of hesitation, right? Because if we think we’re not perfect, we’re not going to do what we’re meant to be doing. This tool that we are needing to work with is being much more decisive and not letting our thoughts and our thinking and feeling run our lives.

What’s interesting about our brain is that we are designed to simply survive. That is our modus operandi. So what the brain is going to do is when it feels that there is a moment of stress coming on, it’s going to magnify this particular signal and alarm that there is a sense of danger. So perhaps when you put your beautiful shirt on this morning, you didn’t feel any kind of stress. But if you think of the first date with your wife and maybe there was a sense of being nervous – think about the thoughts that you spoke to yourself about that. Now, if you buy into this consistently, this is where, again, we rob ourselves from doing what we are supposed to do, becoming the best version of ourselves.

One of the mechanisms of the brain is called a spotlight effect, to bring in hesitation. Mike is in panic mode or is anxious. Let us just magnify the risk and ensure that he stays put. So what we need to do then is move through our hesitation and into action and one of the big coaching rules that we have is act independently of your thinking and feeling because we have so many thoughts per day. Some say 6,000. I’ve heard 10,000 – even more. So there’s a lot of thoughts running and also feeling – I don’t feel like doing it; [I] will never feel like doing anything uncomfortable.

What’s interesting is your physiology is in partnership with your mind. So if you get your physiology on your side, if you get your focus right, if you get your languaging right, you can actually move through that sense of imperfection and kind of coach yourself out of a situation to be in action.

On the final pillar of incompleteness:

So the final pillar speaks to incomplete[ness]. Nature is like that sense of, where does it start and where does it finish? Everything is in constant evolution, isn’t it? So if you think about the first pillar, we spoke about the need to be in the now moment and feeling resilient and having emotional fitness. When we spoke about imperfect, we spoke about action and being quite decisive. Incomplete is the journey around growth. And I mean, that’s very important for businesses as well, right? When we hear businesses needing to pivot – how do we do this? It’s essentially being able to listen to your customers. Ensure that innovation is led by customers, ensuring that a lot of conversations are happening for us not to be stuck in what is known as the past and not be as adaptable. So the tool is ultimately resourcefulness, right?

What it means is that I have heard business owners speak about – ‘I don’t have enough money right now’, ‘we don’t have enough people to help us out’, ‘we don’t have capacity’ – instead of focusing on what is there, and what we always have which is a constant is our resourcefulness. What does it mean? Our commitment, our creativity, our intelligence, our success stories – this is such a big list, but resourcefulness… and it’s unique and we all have it. So that’s one of the big sources of energy that one can have and manage, is to have a sense of ultimate resourcefulness.

Something that I spoke about or that is often mentioned in our personal development course is that success is 80% psychology and 20% is skills or mechanics. You can be the best engineer, marketer, technician, doctor, but if you don’t have the emotional state to back yourself up, you just have a great set of skills. But it’s going to be a little bit harder to make it in life. So psychology is what we mainly need to work on. What does it mean? Not needing to go to a psychologist, but working on our emotions. It speaks to emotional and mental state. It speaks to your mindset. It’s a pillar that really speaks to finding the strength within to deal with change and evolution and do more than just seeing change pass by. It’s actually about being an active participant in the change.

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