Finding Purpose: Ikigai, The Japanese Concept Of A Life Well Lived

Not too long ago I was speaking with a friend about her decision to make a career switch. She’s a baker, like me, but is thinking about getting into the user interface side of the tech industry. We’re the same personality type on the Myers-Briggs so I can see her doing that type of work well. While we were on the topic, she sent me a link to an article about finding your Ikigai, a Japanese term that translates to finding your life’s purpose. And what’s more, there’s a practical guide to finding out what this is for you! I was hooked. But first, let me tell you a little about why this was so exciting for me to read about.

The Drift

Drifting through life listlessly was something that I knew all too well. I had drifted through my teens, twenties and through most of my thirties before I got a sense of how I wanted to live my life and the direction I wanted to take it in. This article, for me, was just frosting on the cupcake (thanks Sarah). A logical way to organize your passions is just the type of thing I’m passionate about and partly what this blog is about for me. But it took a lot of drifting for me to get to this point of self discovery.

The drift first started for me when I was in childhood still. My family had broke apart in what felt like one fell swoop and from that point on I had lost the support and foundation I had previously felt from my family. I was on my own from a very early age and it seemed that I was failing every test that life was throwing my way. It was a strange journey.

I remember looking at pornography as early as eight-years old, drinking when I was thirteen. Skipping school and falling in with the “wrong crowd” when I was in middle school and later, moving from sketchy apartment to unstable living situation until my late twenties. This was something that I attribute to not having many, if any stable role models growing up, showing me how to live a sustainable life. Just me, floating from uncertain situation to uncertain situation.

Role Models Matter

I’ve said before on this blog, my role models were living life like Jim Morrison, so I lived like him. And we all know how that story ended. But I studied Jim none-the-less, to find a sense of belonging as well as trying to have a good time while doing it. But as Modest mouse so aptly put it, the good times were indeed killing me.

I was drinking too much and avoiding all the relationships in my life, including the one with myself. It was a lonely place to be. I continued down this path until my early thirties, when things began to shift for me. But before that, I had literally no healthy role models to speak of and nothing to aspire to.

I kept shifting career focus in my schooling and it took me almost sixteen years to get my bachelors degree from start to finish! I changed my major twice and racking up close to 100k in debt in student loans and credit cards. This was a terrifying place to be. And all the while, no one thought to step in and intervein on my behalf. I understand that I was an adult, but I was also left to raise myself from the age of eight. Any guidance would have been helpful.

But unfortunately I was also the type of person who would scoff at the idea that I needed guidance. Mostly because I was taught that it was a sign of weakness to need somebody else’s help. This was the opposite of a healthy, well adjusted way of moving through life. I go into this some in my post on “Isolation and Being a Man“, about the unhealthy lessons I was taught on having to do it all on my own. Which is impossible, but that part of the lesson was left out of my schooling.

The Outcome

The outcome wasn’t good. I was left almost completely on my own save for a handful of supports, who thank God for them or things could have been really terrible for me. But I was still very much on my own, without any idea on how to move forward in my life.

My career was stagnant and I had little direction on where to go to do what I wanted while changing my life’s trajectory. I had some ideas on what I liked to do, but no idea how to shape that into something that I could make money from doing. This is the point where I needed to come up with a plan to make things happen for myself.

The Plan

This is where and when I started to take control of my situation by looking at what my strengths are and finding out what I liked and disliked. Luckily for me, I love it when a plan comes together : ) My MBPT is INTJ, so I’m a big picture person. This fits in beautifully with the Japanese concept of Ikigai, which in its most fundamental elements is; what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs and something you can get paid for. Where all of these elements come together, this place is known as your Ikigai.

So my plan then became to look at my strengths and likes and then put them together to come up with a way to make them my focus and passion. And hopefully I’ll help some people along the way. So I began looking at the elements that come together that make me, me.

The Elements

I’ve always known that I like to organize things. Whether it’s a spice cabinet or my budget, I enjoy bringing different components together to be functional and coincide in harmony. I believe this is why bullet journaling is so appealing to me. It’s a place to organize thoughts and ideas while adding your own character to the process.

I also enjoy the different elements that come together that make a house, a home. I enjoy burning candles and the ambiance of a dimly lighted room. I enjoy engaging the senses through essential oil diffusers and softly playing music in the background. Being in the kitchen cooking meals is another source of enjoyment for me. The smells and heat from the range, smoker and oven, foods fermenting on the counter in colorful jars. The small things that come together to create a cozy environment.

Our shared green space is also something that’s been a resource for me. From some of my oldest memories of chanterelle picking with my uncle in the verdant mountains of Vermont, to hiking Killington on the Appalachian Trail a few years back, preserving these spaces is important to me. The fresh air and the scenery alone are well worth it, not to mention the environmental benefits keeping these spaces healthy brings.

And finally, bringing family and friends together in a sustainable way. A way where we can enjoy each others company in a non-judgmental, caring and kind way. Where we can enjoy and take comfort in the support and love we provide for one another. These are the things I love.

I also find refuge in writing. When I’m in the middle of putting a piece together, or come up with a fresh idea to write about, there’s a feeling of novelty, a sense of a new beginning. And being able to clearly communicate to others, be heard and hear others, is also something that’s very dear to me. Giving voice to the voiceless. Oh, and building things : )

Bringing It Together

Now that I have a good idea of what the elements of my personality are and most importantly, what brings me a sense of joy, I can use these as a jumping off point, into my Ikigai.

As an example of how my interests intersect my career path, I’m currently work in a family shelter. A sort of holding place for families experiencing homelessness. Although the circumstances are definitely sad, the attitudes are generally upbeat and surprisingly positive.

One of the ways I’ve been finding fulfillment at the shelter is by going through each area in the building, finding a new section of the shelter that needs a little TLC, and then organize and clean the crap out of these spaces.

A few weeks ago I started cleaning and organizing the pantry and kitchen storage in the shelter. If you’ve read my post on rotating your food stores, you’ll know I’ve already done a version of this in my own home. There’s a certain satisfying feeling I get when I look in my fridge and cabinets and see all my foods neatly organized as though they were shelves in a grocery. This probably hits me in a most primal place of food security, survival.

The Ikigai for me here is; I love to organize things, and especially food, the families needed a kitchen that was functional and well stocked with fresh foods, and I was getting paid for it. But watching the families gather in the kitchen and use the items I recently stocked was a rewarding feeling and the drive behind wanting to organize and clean. Watching them find joy in my work.

Living in a shelter, I can only imagine the amount of insecurity they are experiencing. So having enough food to fill this basic need must be a huge burden lifted from their day to day concerns. One more thing I’m able to help them with while also experiencing a sense of joy in the task.

And what’s more is, I was offered a full time position at the shelter helping to coordinate resources for the staff and families in helping find them permanent homes. So my love of organizing helped to show my dedication to the tasks that I take on, enough to be seen as indispensable. And all this by following where my interests lay.

Doing it For Yourself

When I was drifting, I didn’t have a focus, an anchor point. So I drifted from person to person, looking to be validated externally by what their expectations of me were. As a result, I wasn’t really living a life that was true to what I wanted, or what I even liked. This was no bueno, plain and simple. But that doesn’t mean that all of my previous experiences where negative ones, or something to be dismissed.

For example, I’m a baker by trade now and have worked in a variety of different capacities over the years. From bread baker to pastry chef, I’ve made a lot of baked goods. All of these past experiences have not only given me a great deal of appreciation for cooking and a zest for eating, it’s also given me the chance to work with some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met. Such is the case with my current employer. Without their guidance and wisdom, I wouldn’t have made the choices and gained the experience to make me more of the best version of myself. And I will forever be grateful for their guidance.

What this means is, even if you’re not in your dream job right now, which I imagine is the case for most of us, find what you do like about the job you’re doing now. What are the aspects or tasks you have now that spark a little bit of creativity? What are the areas that bring you a sense of satisfaction when you complete them? Find these tasks and see where you can take them. Here is the starting point to finding your Ikigai.

I hope this has been helpful in some way. If you’ve found yourself in a place where you aren’t enjoying the different aspects of your job, maybe it’s time to dig a little deeper. Who knows what you’ll pull out. And maybe in the process, you just may find your calling. Peace, and thank for reading : )

Image Credits: “Ikigai- Japanese concept meaning ‘A reason for being’” by Mikel Agirregabiria Agirre is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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