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The Japanese secret to finding joy and purpose at work

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Don't follow your passion, find your "ikigai" instead.

So much of life’s best magic happens in the space of creative tension.

You can find that space between two people who fall in love and who are markedly different … or in the improbable combinations of fusion cuisine (how about a Chinese-Italian entrée?) … or in types of music that bring the classics back to life with an unexpected beat.

In our lives, these spaces of creative tension can end up becoming missed opportunities. (I’m convinced that if I had a more creative outlook, and if I were more alert to life’s possibilities, I’d be able to turn most of the tension points in my life into something more fruitful.)

Take the perennial tension between your sense of high calling and the possibly more humdrum reality of your job as it is. Or your clear and well-defined passion … versus your very evident need for an income that will save you from living in your parents’ basement.

Most of us, myself included, experience these tensions as a kind of frustration. But what if we saw them as an opportunity instead?

Defining the space where magic happens

Enter the Japanese, with their wonderful concept of “ikigai,” which is untranslatable but roughly means “the thing that you live for” (or more loosely, “the thing for which you gladly haul yourself out of bed in the morning”).

In essence, it’s a sustainable passion. It’s getting paid to do something that you love and excel at, and that other people really need.

As the diagram suggests, ikigai is not so much an idea as it is an intersection. It’s the very personal answer that you give to four basic questions:

  • What do you love?
  • What are you good at?
  • What does the world need?
  • What can you get paid for?

Two of those questions are about you and your skills and passions, but the Japanese rightly recognize that you are only half of the equation. Most of us can’t just take ourselves as our sole reference point because, well, we live in a world with other people who also have needs and interests and life is meaningful when we are able to connect with them and serve them in some way.

So, the whole notion of “follow your passion” will work wonderfully as long as your idea and your passion happens to be something that will resonate strongly with other people. And it’s also true that very specific niche interests can find an audience of like-minded people on the internet. But the overall point remains firm: we have to have one eye on ourselves and one eye on the wider world. And that creative tension between the inner and outer worlds is one part of the ikigai map.

IKIGAI GRAPH

When a piece is missing …

As the diagram shows, we tend to lose something when one of those elements is missing or underrepresented in our chosen career. Which of these four “missing-piece” scenarios resonates most with you?

You’re doing something you love, excel at, and can get paid for, so you feel some job satisfaction … but perhaps you also struggle with a feeling of uselessness, because you’re missing that key component of helping others with their needs.

Or perhaps you’re getting paid a good salary to do something you’re quite good at and that the world needs – but you don’t really love it. Perhaps you find yourself feeling empty or going through the motions. Your job doesn’t spark any joy in you. If it were a sock, Marie Kondo would say to throw it away.

Or maybe you’re doing what you love and what the world needs, but your salary is barely enough to cover the rent. So your feeling of job satisfaction gets canceled out every time you get your utilities bill or your credit card statement. Stress wins.

The last “not quite” scenario is that you’re getting paid enough to do something the world needs and that you also enjoy but (shhhh) you’re not really all that good at it. You might wonder, “When are they going to realize that I stink at my job? How much longer before I get fired?” That’s not a good feeling either.

Bracket for a moment any job dissatisfaction that comes from accidental factors – personalities in the office, temporary situations that are not intrinsic to the job, or external factors like a long commute or a not-so-wonderful work space – and focus on the essentials. Is your job dissatisfaction caused by a missing element (or two) from the ikigai diagram?

Finding your golden space of sustainable passion

One of the wonderful things about the ikigai diagram is that no two people will fill that middle space in the same way. It gives broad enough parameters so that literally millions of types of jobs could fill that middle space.

And I suppose there are also many ways to interpret the question, “Is this what the world needs?” There are people who study ants for a living – they’re called myrmecologists, and maybe that will come in handy for a crossword puzzle someday, so you’re welcome – and I’m sure they find their work meaningful and helpful for humanity. (And in fact, there is great value in adding to our human store of knowledge about the natural world.)

Human traffickers might have a harder time answering that question, as would drug dealers and some lobbyists on K Street. But most professions do have an aspect of service to a larger ideal, so finding satisfaction with that element may involve diagnosing how deeply we need to see and experience the positive impact of our work firsthand.

There are also factors that can be overcome. Perhaps you love the idea of translating for a living and you really enjoy foreign cultures, but your Arabic is not really up to snuff yet. If you have the time and means to get further training and practice, the “what you’re good at” segment of the diagram does not have to be a permanent barrier. You can expand what you’re good at. In fact, if you love something and it pays reasonably well and really meets a need, then you should most definitely increase your skills so that you can get to that sweet spot in your personal ikigai diagram.

And there is no reason to be stopped by the obstacle of not getting paid enough to do something you love, are great at, and that meets a need. Some people have to start a blog and hoof it on their own for a while to convince the world that what they have to offer is worth paying for. And before too long, the effort pays off.

The point is not to give up if you seem to have three out of the four pieces. Some of those pieces can be “fixed” or you can grow into them with training or overcome them with some ingenuity and effort.

If you had the chance to do something that ticked all four boxes and made you come alive in your job, wouldn’t you look for ways to do it?

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