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Ikigai: the Japanese art of giving a shit

Updated: Sep 15, 2019

Have you ever stopped to think about your purpose in life?

No, I didn’t think so….

Trying to work out what our purpose in life is usually ends up with us thinking we have no purpose. For most of us, our purpose in life is to go to work, make money and then spend that money paying for decisions we’ve made in the past that now cost money like mortgages, school fees, cars, holidays, children, brunch…

The Japanese version of your ‘life purpose’ is called Ikigai, although in the West, it seems far loftier than what the term ikigai actually means to people in Japan. Maybe it’s because the Japanese are more spiritual by default or maybe it’s because Westerners are notorious chest thumpers, but Ikigai is simply living your life with intention and purpose. Your purpose isn’t necessarily anything awe inspiring. It is not your life’s mission like a goal or the item on the top of your bucket list. It is your way of life. It’s what you give a shit about.

The modern explanation of ikigai usually accompanies a version of a Venn diagram like the one below with four key concepts: what you love, what you’re good at, what you can make a living from and what the world needs.

I prefer something more like the three “Good Life Buckets” that Jonathan Fields writes about in his book How to Live a Good Life which are: Vitality, Connection and Contribution. It takes the income part of out of the equation which I think tends to confuse people.

Sometimes the act of monetising your passion and purpose is the very thing that kills it. It turns it into a job, something to which you are obligated or tied to and upon which you depend and begins to be the antithesis of your ikigai. Here’s a little test. If you lived in a world where you didn’t need an income, ask yourself, would you still stay in your current job or would you choose something else?

Your career doesn’t necessarily have to be your ikigai, although there are very few people in the world who can actually turn their passion into a (well) paid vocation. We hear about those people on tv or in business magazines because they are outliers. If it was ubiquitous, it wouldn’t be a story worth printing.

I know it seems like I’m killing the ikigai vibe by banging on about work, but for most of us, it’s where we spend most of our time and where we spend most of our energy, and rightly or wrongly, it’s what we tend to prioritise – even over our friends, our family and our own health. I am not someone who rejects economic constructs where we become slaves to the dollar. Nor am I someone who espouses the virtues of following your bliss. I would never recommend anyone quit their job, Jerry McGuire style, to pursue their “passion” like a zealot. I would, however, strongly recommend reducing your commitment to your job and gradually transitioning your passion into something that you could live off. Following your bliss is following a feeling within. It does not mean quitting your job to seek fulfilment in a change of scenery.

Having purpose is something I do believe anyone can benefit from and since what we do and the way we live our lives is inextricably linked to our work – well, at least in most parts of the world - it would be of huge benefit if we could somehow blend our purpose with where we spend most of our waking hours. One way to bring some purpose into your day job is to transition your ikigai into your workplace. Alternatively, if work sucks the life out of you, try to reduce your hours at work so you can dedicate more time to your ikigai.

The Japanese say that one of the keys to living a long and fulfilling life is connection with others. As this article shows, lack of connection increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol which shortens your life and can change your wellbeing on a cellular level. An innate part of being human is to connect in the physical, not virtual world. Machine connection has been shown to exacerbate one’s feeling of isolation and lowers self-esteem.

My ikigai is to make people feel better which, fortunately for me, is something I find quite easy to bring into my workplace. The only way I can do that authentically is to be happy myself. I dedicate a lot of time and energy to making myself happy. I take myself on holidays, I make myself food I love to eat, I go to bed early so I can get lots of sleep, I move my body doing fun things, I spend time with people I love and spend very little time with people I don’t like. I actually like working, I like the team dynamics, I like learning about people, even the assholes. My highest priority in life is enjoyment so my ikigai is to bring that sense of joy to everything I do and share it with others.

Ikigai is not one thing, it is a range of things that contribute to your personal fulfilment. It is not the attainment of a goal or a quantifiable mission in life. It is the act of living a life you are proud of, your best life, determined by you.

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