Ikigai and What to Do Today (and Today and Today)

New years, like birthdays, are popular times to look at the year ahead and take stock at the year past, and I certainly join in as well.

One topic that’s come up with several friends and acquaintances both online and off for the past few weeks has been job satisfaction as well as what to do with one’s life.

My current main breadwinning gig, project and program management, has nothing to do with what I studied in school (technically). And while I have had iterations of this sort of job that have been fulfilling, I’ve had so many versions of it that aren’t fun that I have been honestly surprised at how fulfilling my current gig is.

Combine that with some miserable jobs working at what I’ve trained for and for which one is usually supposed to have unbridled passion (e.g. acting, writing, film, and assorted TV stuff) and I’ve often had some questions about that whole job satisfaction/life purpose thing.

So I was very excited when I came across the concept of “ikigai” in the past few years.

Ikigai, not dissimilar to “raison d’être” is most simply “a reason for being,” but you, like me, might have first seen ikigai explained via a Venn diagram like this:

Courtesy of a talented person at the Toronto Star

This, incidentally, is my favorite of many versions of the Venn diagram, because it manages to address some of the gaps I’ve found in jobs that are theoretically not my passion, but satisfying — as well as jobs that should totally be more in “dream job” territory that are none-the-less, unsatisfying.

I found this version of the diagram in this article by Laura Oliver. Her piece goes into greater detail about the origins of the term ikigai as well as some of the people studying ikigai and happiness in general. Spoiler alert: Kurosawa fans will find new resonance in the film Ikiru.

Speaking of studying happiness, job satisfaction, I would be remiss to not mention that reading up on ikigai has certainly complemented my reading of works such as Drive by Daniel Pink and Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (you can also go into Flow or his more academic explorations of the concept).

Okay, so digressions that may add to your reading aside, back to some of my connections to ikigai.

From reading more about it and analyzing Venn diagrams like the one above, I finally had some answers regarding my satisfaction and dissatisfaction with both day jobs and dream jobs. For example, when I’ve been in a job that pays me and that people need, I’ve felt some emptiness, even if I’m good at it. And certainly I enjoy esoteric movie and sci-fi trivia, but possessing or exercising this knowledge doesn’t make one feel useful (outside of Wade Watts in Ready Player One).

From this reflection, I’ve come to a few personal conclusions that I’ll share in case they help in your own exploration of “ikigai” and your life’s purpose.

Finding a job that fits “Ikigai” is extraordinarily difficult and probably isn’t worth pursuing to the exclusion of all else.
For where I am now in my life, this is a big one. I have responsibilities outside myself as so many of us do, so I can’t pop off on an adventure like I conceivably could when I was younger.

That doesn’t mean I need to throw up my hands, lamenting my inability to emulate Bilbo Baggins or the heroes of countless bildungsroman. No, I can take action. I don’t want to wait. Never wait.

Life, as they say, is what happens when you’re making other plans. I want to enjoy some of that life while I’m alive. I’m a program manager, so I’ll be making plans regardless. This leads to:

Getting to “ikigai” may require more than a single job
Look at that Venn diagram above again. Do you have anything you like to do outside of work? Do you actually like spending time with your family? (Okay, maybe not the best question to ask some people who spent a lot of time with them during the holidays, but it stands).

The fact is that there’s plenty of stuff we love that isn’t in a job and that could be addressed in a hobby or activity. The most interesting people I meet at work do a lot of different things in their off hours (always a humbling reminder not to judge people by the one facet they show you in one arena).

Heck, I know many actors and creatives that engage in hobbies and activities outside of the creative work they do.

To me, this realization is liberating. I don’t have to find the perfect job. If I can find enough other things to do in addition to “the dayjob” that scratch the passion, mission, vocation, and profession itches, I’m good.

Not everything has to be monetized or professionalized
In our amped-up, hyper-entrepreneurial world, where everything you do is folded into your personal “brand” which must, of course, be a source of revenue and a core part of your definition as a “thought leader” or some such thing.

Um, no. It could be that, in the land of the overabundant graduate degrees, it’s hard for people to define themselves as amateurs. It could be, in the age of the eternal side hustle, that people just puttering about various hobbies is deemed insufficient.

But I’m thinking it’s probably a good idea to have some things where you don’t try and be an expert — or even if you’re trying to gain expertise — you’re not depending on that expertise for a new revenue stream.

In other words, not only may ikigai require more than a single job, not all of those jobs need to be “jobs.” You are allowed to have fun sans monetary ROI.

I used a Dremel tool for the first time this weekend. Believe me, “Dremel tool craftsman” or “woodworking wizard” ain’t gonna be my job titles any time soon. Still, I’m sure glad I got the Dremel tool, look forward to learning to use it better, and am quite sure I’ll be budgeting some time to use it on many more weekends to come.

Percentages Matter
I suppose some people could deal with having a dayjob that is nothing more than a vocation or a profession. I find I need at least a little bit of passion to get through the day — though perhaps Daniel Pink would say I’ve simply found a profession or vocation where I can exercise enough autonomy and mastery to derive meaningful purpose. “The dayjob” remains important for me and, my guess is, a lot of us. It looms large both mentally and the amount of hours I spend on it each week.

Your job mileage may vary, but I’ve found I need to be very aware of how much I’m hitting my goals for passion, mission, profession, or vocation. If I’m feeling out of sorts, it’s usually because one of those itches isn’t being scratched or scratched enough. I guess this what people sometimes call “life-work” balance, but it’s more complex than just “life” and “work.” Home chores sure are work, on the one hand. Work can be full of joy and passion for another.

With that in mind, I doubt I’ll ever have “the answer.” I’ll forever be re-balancing things, both from external forces and my own needs. At least I feel like I have more of a framework to know how to adjust. How am I doing today? And tomorrow, that will be the same question… because it will then be today. And so on and so on. Oh, I’ll be mindful of my trajectory, but every day offers new opportunities for course corrections.

Have some thoughts you’d like to share about finding your life’s purpose or just tasting the strawberry on the journey? Comment below.

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