You can’t mass produce uniqueness

Do you spend part of your time working on and worrying about “self improvement”? If so, it is important to not inadvertently stamp out your uniqueness, in favor of a mass produced version of “perfection.”

Here’s a story to illustrate my point.

On a recent afternoon I went to a pottery shop outside of Tokyo, and happened to meet the potter who had stopped in to check on her staff.

After looking around the shop I invited the owner over and we chatted. The first thing she talked about was how a potter never knew what was going to wind up coming out of the kiln. Each kiln opening she said, was somewhat like Christmas morning. Sometimes you got many wonderful gifts, and sometimes you wound up with coal in your stocking. Like when most of the pieces explode in the kiln due to severe changes in atmospheric weather conditions. It is the serendipity she said, that makes the work so magical. “It helps you to stay humble, and you learn to surrender to and accept the unknown,” she said.

Next, she talked to me about design and functionality. Topics important to most all potters. “No sense in having a good looking piece that is awkward to use, and no sense having a boring looking piece that is highly functional.” she said.

Since I was definitely going to buy something, I picked out six pieces to choose from, set them on the counter, and asked the lady to tell me a bit about each piece.

“Let me share with you how I recognize the hoped for imperfections in my work,” she said, “By talking about three of the pieces you have interest in.”

“Notice with this first piece how the glaze is not of consistent thickness over the inside surface. I tried the best I could to smooth out the glaze,” she said, “But this is a very tough glaze to work with.”
“Nonetheless, for me, it is the inconsistency of the glaze that makes this piece so interesting.” she said. “It is the inconsistency that makes for the range of color that the glaze exhibits in this piece.”

“With this next piece you notice that the bowl is not fully round in shape. I am a small woman, and this is a large piece for me to throw on the wheel. In fact it is the biggest piece I am currently able to throw. I love making some this size, because these bowls really test my limits. There is a certain tension present when the shape goes out of being fully round, and this is what draws me to this piece.”

“Finally” she said, “With this third piece you will notice that the price is considerably less than the other pieces.”

“It is a good piece of work,” she said, “but I feel it is a bit ‘too good’ and thus looks like it could have been machine made. That is why the price is considerably cheaper.”

“The shape is perfectly round, and the glaze flows evenly over the entire pot, and thus the piece does not have a sense of uniqueness. I have stopped making this shape and size because I know how to make them all too well. When they come out this perfect I feel like the soul of the pots get left in the kiln.

She bowed ever so much, and said “Would you like some tea? I have some locally grown strawberries, and it is always best to eat them at this time of year, with a warm cup of tea.”

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