You may be asking yourself, what is ikigai? You may have heard this term repeated around the internet recently, or maybe it’s the first time you have heard of it.
Ikigai is a Japanese word, combined from the word 生きる (ikiru) – to live – with 甲斐 (gai, or kai) – being worth doing, worthwhile. It is what gets you up in the morning and keeps you going every day, despite any hardships that life may throw your way. It is why you delight in your everyday life and is a way towards mindfulness and being grateful for every moment. In Okinawa, Japan, research shows*1CNN – https://cnn.it/3bEM5rY, HuffPost – https://bit.ly/3fMYJZn that the population lives very much with ikigai, which along with the local diet has provided long and happy lives.
The western culture equivalent is your passion or your purpose in life. What drives you to do what you do? Have you thought about why you go through your life every day in the way you do?
It does not have to be grandiose. In Japan, there are multiple tradespeople who are especially skilled in just one thing, because they made that skill their ikigai, their life purpose. Together with mindful and deliberate practice, they were able to achieve masterful skills, whether it be making pottery, silk handkerchiefs, fishing, or raising bonsai.
When you find your purpose, your passion, your ikigai, the “thing” that makes you tick, you’ll know because of the excitement you feel when you think about it. Even if practicing skills that are essential for your passion may be difficult, it’s knowing that it provides something meaningful that keeps you going. Anyone can practice a skill, such as playing the piano. But it’s a passion for music and for improving yourself that can drive you to practice for hours on end, constantly pursuing perfection.
Not having ikigai
I know what it’s like not to know my ikigai. My Japanese parents were strict and always expected perfection. I grew up with every aspect of my life meticulously planned. As a child, I didn’t think any deviations were allowed. I grew afraid of failure, and along with it, a fear of anything new that could lead to failure.
For college, I left my home state and went to a school more than 500 miles away. It was a chance for me to become an independent adult. However, faced with the sudden responsibilities of making my own choices and plans, I floundered and could not figure out how to regulate myself and my schedule.
Even while surrounded by the best professors and students around the world, I started giving up. Convinced that I was not smart enough, I talked myself out of my childhood dream of becoming an astronaut. I changed majors midway through school from aerospace engineering to electrical engineering. Even then, I chose a major that my boyfriend at the time was also in, not because that was my primary interest.
Without knowing why I was studying for this degree, my self-confidence plummeted. I couldn’t wake up in time for class. Then I was ashamed to show up after I had missed a few days, which turned into a few weeks. Homework assignments were left uncompleted because I didn’t know what had been covered in class. In the sea of hundreds of students in each lecture, I was a lost number. I started failing every other semester.
Seeing the light
Seven and a half years of being an undergraduate later, I grew tired of the life I was living. The constant cycle of failing a semester, going to the dean, promising to do better, getting put on probation for a semester, then going back to class, only to repeat all over again, was not something I wanted to continue. I wanted to make something of myself. I didn’t want to be stuck a student forever. Something changed in my mindset.
I started working part-time as a server at a sushi restaurant. That provided me the beginnings of structure, something that I had to plan for that had a consequence if I didn’t show up. I also made sure my class load that semester was not too hard on myself. I took the minimum I needed to graduate. And what was the result? I had the most successful semester ever in my college career and I was able to graduate with my electrical engineering degree. I had no idea what I was going to do afterward, but the lowest, darkest period of my life was over.
My life now
As I mentioned in my previous post, I eventually ended up working in the automotive industry. But before that, right after graduating, I worked for two and a half years at the Apple Store. I had always been an Apple product nerd and I was already the family tech for all things Apple. It made sense for me to at least try working with something I was already passionate about. However, as a recent college grad working part-time at a retail store, I realized I would not be able to afford my rent and pay my bills. As much as I loved working behind the Genius Bar, I decided to get a “real” job, something 9-to-5, that would use my college degree.
Nine years later, I still couldn’t shake off my ennui. I worked at great companies, with engaging coworkers. And yet I still felt a hole inside of me. Life was passable if work was going well. When it wasn’t and caused stress, things went downhill. I felt like I was spiraling again towards the dark abyss of my college years. This wasn’t what I had in mind when I thought of a career. The thought of doing this for thirty or more years horrified me.
The beginning of the change
Luckily, by then I had married my wonderful husband, who has a stable engineering job himself. He saw what I was going through and was supportive of me leaving the industry. I started watching YouTube videos on productivity, habit-making, and reading blogs and books about making money. In September 2019, I started applying for retail jobs that appealed to me. Most of them ignored my application, probably for being “too overqualified.” Fortunately, one responded right away, and I had an interview the next day. I had a followup interview the next week, and I was immediately hired to work in the electronics portion of the store.
It has been 7 months since I started working there, and I have not regretted it since. Even with the COVID-19 outbreak, where we stayed open and my shifts now start at 4 am to keep up with all the online orders, I have remained happy with my job. Helping others, helping the community, keeping the store neat and orderly, these were all things that made me happy and “sparked joy,” as KonMari*2About Marie Kondo – https://bit.ly/2Aymlkf would say.
I believe this is part of my passion, my ikigai, my reason and purpose for living. It’s what gets me up at 2:45 in the morning to get ready for my shift. It’s what keeps me going past the pain shooting up my legs as I finish my shift after walking 9 miles a day in the store. It’s what drives me to get ready for bed early, knowing that I’ll need my sleep to work the best that I can.
Do You Know Your Ikigai?
What is your ikigai? How did you discover it? Or are you still on your search? Leave a comment to share or post questions. I’ll explore them in future posts.
It’s not enough to have lived. We should be determined to live for something.Winston Churchill