Ikigai: Seeking My Purpose

A Japanese Philosophy For Making Life Worthwhile

Ikigai: looking for my purpose. Compass on window sill, blue sea in the background.
Photo by Jordan Madrid on Unsplash

The Anti-Golf Approach

Ikigai is a Japanese concept that means “a reason for being.” It’s been on my mind as I watch the next stage of my work life unfold. It’s become an increasing preoccupation for me.

I talk to friends and colleagues and people who are in my life stage. Quite a bit gets said on the subject of looking forward to retirement. A couple of people have encouraged me to consider retirement because I “work too hard”. I asked one person what he would be doing with his retirement. The answer was more golf.

I haven’t played golf, I have no ambition to play golf and it’s not related to my poor hand to eye coordination.

You Will Drop Dead

Yes, you will. But I would like to drop dead while still having a reason for being. It’s said a lot of people do die not long after retirement. There needs to be a fake news check there. Yet several people have offered the theory when discussing the subject.

None of us has a say in when death arrives. For example, the flight I’m on now could plunge into the Alps in a ball of flame. Medical advances are stretching out our life spans. But us humans resist with crafty measures such as obesity-related disease factors.

Of course, we can take measures to maximise our normal life span. Good health practices such as nutrition and exercise. Not smoking, not drinking too much. I’m trying, I am.

A Reason For Being

This is at the centre of ikigai. It’s a word used in Japan to describe the things that make life worthwhile. That helps one believe in a sense of purpose. ‘Iki’ means life and ‘gai‘ describes value. Or worth.

In its broadest concept it speaks to value in living, the value of work, the value of doing. It doesn’t have to centre on a large undertaking. A series of small actions can lead to fulfilment and enable people to look forward to life.

There isn’t a direct translation to English, but I’m sure you get the picture. What gets you out of bed, what underpins one’s purpose. I was unkind to my golfing friends, if shooting 72 does it for you, good for you.

Contributing To Society

Much of the thinking on ikigai focuses on the output making a difference in other people’s lives. In Japan, celebrating older people for their wisdom and knowledge is the norm. Contributing this wisdom to younger generations, for example, can be a powerful ikigai.

Contributing to teams in the workplace can give purpose. As can working with volunteers at a local charity or community group. There are many ways to enhance your reason for being. It doesn’t need to be large scale, it needs to address your individual need for purpose. Quite often it comes from making a small difference in the lives of others.

Mental Wellness From Ikigai

It’s a very personal thing. My ikigai is to work. It brings me a sense of achievement and mental stimulation. Curiosity emerges from my ongoing work, so I open my mind to learning.

I try to learn every day. Whether reading or absorbing other media. Trying something and failing or succeeding. Listening to or observing others. Reflecting on previous events or turning over a theory in my mind – as any proud introvert does.

That sounds idealised and on the self-satisfied side. It’s not meant to be, it’s a very basic insight into how my mind works. I have to be ticking over mentally or I get tired or stale or even frustrated and sometimes as far as angry.

Having a purpose is key to keeping my inner curiosity fuelled and in turn, it leads to me feeling satisfied. It leads to me feeling content and happy. It makes me press on through more difficult times, as we all know that happiness isn’t constant. But ikigai can reassure that there’s a purpose beyond any difficult periods of life.

Will Society Take My Ikigai Away?

My job gives me great joy and I want to do it for a long time. But that can’t happen. I can’t recruit talented people and not give them a chance to take my job. A business, like any organism, needs to refresh itself every so often, or it will get stale at best. There comes a stage where it’s good for everyone that I vacate my role. Good for everyone but me.

Then I will be in my sixties and that’s not the best time to get a new job. Unless it involves Walmart and placing groceries in brown paper bags.

We have figured out how to live longer, but society hasn’t figured out a way to put older people to good use. You’re supposed to step aside and let younger people drive the economy on. It wasn’t long ago when your sixties meant a short retirement, closely followed by death.

Welcome to almost my biggest fear. Being 65 years and one month old and not living near Walmart. Now what? It’s not getting old that worries me. It’s not having something meaningful to do, that’s my bete noire.

Diversify Or Die

I’ve got to carry on being curious and engaging in business somehow. Golf doesn’t appeal. Cruises don’t appeal. Golf cruises definitely don’t.

The plan is to diversify. I have been an executive coach for many years, sometimes taking time out to grow my business. Then going back in and coaching new clients. Good training means the skills remain. My ability to attract the right work still developing.

Recently I invested in a start-up, a music label. A talented young producer, an experienced music manager and me. We now have two studios and are looking to build a talent portfolio. Watch out for producer Raf Riley and manager Marc Williams of the new Loup Ent label. It’s not their first time around the block, they have already been the force behind several young London artists.

I’m sure other things will come along. But that will only take me so far down the road. There comes a time when a grey-haired old guy won’t be an effective coach. A time when I can’t add value to a music label. I’m not even sure what grime music is today, let alone what comes next.

Plan, Don’t Drift

My plan is to plan. Knowing my ikigai isn’t enough. Some commentators propose that ikigai is “purpose in action”. I agree with that, being one of those “I plan to …” types has never been my style. Doing has been my chosen style. I would rather do and fail than be a one of those “if only” types.

I’ve got a plan for another ten years. Seeing through my work at my current job and passing the baton to someone younger and better. At the right time, not too late. Business is always in evolution, revolution or decline. I will not contribute to the latter by my presence.

Building a coaching and mentoring practice is a goal. But being a little picky about who I work with. Building on my existing education in this practice. Using my experience to help a young producer build his music label. I didn’t imagine another startup, but here I am again and it feels great.

No drifting between now and the start of my septuagenarian decade. I’ll need to work hard on a plan for long. Blazing planes or too many Big Macs notwithstanding, I may be able to roll for a few more years. I reckon it will be guiding a wholly-owned business of my own that I can pass on to another generation.

As an aside, I saw a good article which suggested making three lists. What you like to do, what you are good at, what your values are. At the crossroads of those three areas lies your ikigai. That’s a pretty helpful process. I read it and ticked mine off and I’m content I’m in my sweet spot.

Keep On Keeping On

I’m glad I wrote the last two paragraphs. I didn’t have a clear vision of my roadmap and now I do. That’s a lot of ikigai for any one person. I know me and I know that this is how I need to be.

Of course there will be some slowing down, I’m not expecting to travel as much on business, for example. But I do know there can’t be much intellectual slowing down. Once the flame of curiosity dies, I expect more than one flame will die.


Also published on Medium.

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