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What is Your Ikigai?

I remember my parents as always looking forward to their retirement years. Retirement in post-depression, post-WWII America meant you had put in your time, gave yourself to your profession (usually working your entire career at just one company), and your reward was to celebrate by living off the money put aside in pensions and Social Security for hard work you put in. My parents chose in retirement to travel around the world a lot, and my father became interested in his genealogy, while my mother was a museum docent, a volunteer who was still passionate about learning. 

But many people from their generation literally did nothing after retiring. 

Doing nothing in retirement is fine, if you feel you earned it and you sincerely enjoy whiling away your days. But what does it do to your health and well-being if and when you suddenly realize doing nothing is not what you want? And what does it say about a culture that sidelines people with millions of hours of experience doing stuff that could be of use to someone? People who we now realize are not only still creative, but may be at the peak of their creativity (examples abound: photographer Imogen Cunningham, painter Grandma Moses, Albert Schweitzer, scientist and mathematician Albert Einstein)? Where would we be without the contributions of people over retirement age?

There are many studies and books out today questioning the wisdom of retirement. But what about all workers, young and old? Are we achieving our Ikigai?

Ikigai is a combo of two Japanese words, “iki” meaning life, and “gai” meaning value. Together they mean “worth living for”. Worth getting up in the morning for. Worth investing one’s passion and talents in. The expression can be traced as far back in Japanese history as 700 A.D., and in parts of Japan it has become an integral part of the culture. Its health benefits have been touted for years, and where Japanese adhere closely to its tenets, people are living well past the average lifespan of the general population.

Four questions will test whether or not you are living your Ikigai:

  • Are you doing what you love?

  • Are you doing what you are good at?

  • Are you doing what you can be paid for?

  • Are you doing what the world needs?

Not only is it ideal to answer all the above questions “yes”, but to be missing one can upset the apple cart of balance in your life, as shown in this diagram:

If you’re doing what you love, what you’re good at, and what you can be paid for, but not what the world needs, you will end up feeling satisfied but useless, for instance. If you’re doing what you’re good at, and love, and what the world needs, but not getting paid, you will be happy, but you will never be rich. (Hello, artists?) And so on. Ikigai is a beautifully balanced concept that, if true for everyone, would certainly solve a lot of the world’s most pressing problems.

Not only does following Ikigai increase your enjoyment of life, but it also can potentially increase your lifespan. In Okinawa, Japan, the residents live well beyond the general population, because they consciously subscribe to Ikigai. I say consciously because, when asked, they can articulate exactly what their personal Ikigai is, what makes them want to get up in the morning and look forward to experiencing a new and exciting day. 

I think it’s important, when musing about your Ikigai, to start with what you love doing that makes your life and the lives of others better. For instance, if you want to be a musician, but only because it will bring fame and fortune to you, that’s not a great Ikigai. If you do it because you love the act of doing it, and it brings you joy to share it with others, that’s a pretty good start. If you start, however, with what you can make money doing, you may miss your passion entirely. 

Another important thing to consider is how your Ikigai will intertwine with other aspects of your life, for instance in regard to your family and friends. Will it enhance those relationships? If so, great! If not, back to the drawing board, unless these are things you don’t really care about.

Here are some humans and their passions, who made Ikigai (whether or not they called it that) work for them:

  • Steve Jobs - passion for perfection and beauty in technology

  • Mother Teresa - passion for compassion

  • Jane Goodall - passion for chimpanzees

  • JK Rowling - passion for storytelling

The thing to keep in mind is that Ikigai is a balancing act, and without the four tenets in balance, you have not achieved it. There are plenty of examples of people saying they’ve reached their Ikigai, when one or more of the four pillars is obviously missing. Money does not an Ikigai make, nor does being good at something. 

I have to admit, I did not achieve Ikigai in my music career, and that may be why it wasn’t difficult to let go when the time came. I believe I have a better shot with writing, and I am excited to go down that path and see what happens. 

What about you? Let us know what your Ikigai experience has been, even if you’re just now putting a name to it. We can all benefit from each other’s stories in our search for love, passion, making a living, and giving back.

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