How finding your ikigai might be the clue to doing what you love by Beth Kempton

When I was 19, I spent a year living in Kyoto, Japan, as an exchange student. I was thousands of miles from home, my Japanese was awful and I was living on a very tight budget. As I had so little money that year, I became an expert in entertaining myself for free. There was a standing joke in my language class that I was the strange foreigner who trekked the backstreets of Kyoto with a forward slant to my walk, heavy pack on my back and a mission to fulfil. This emerged from my tendency to finish class, open a map, drop a coin on it and go wherever it landed.

I also volunteered for lots of events and activities as a way to get involved with local people, improve my language skills and learn more about the place I was living. One of my favourite volunteer roles was on the editorial team of the bilingual magazine Life in Kyoto. We would meet up once or twice a month in the Kyoto International Community House, usually with tea and treats, and assign articles to write and copy to check.

Through this I befriended a group of wonderful older women, some four or five decades my senior, many of whom I am still friends with now they are in their eighties. It was one of those women who introduced me to the term ‘ikigai’ when she commented that I had it.

She struggled to explain what the term meant – and I struggled to understand her explanation – but over the years I have come to know it as having a hybrid meaning combining the joy of living with having a sense of hope, purpose, and motivation.

Joy and purpose are not necessarily always connected. We can experience joy in apparently ‘meaningless’ moments, and have a hard time doing something we know is intrinsically purposeful. The same goes for hope and motivation. We can be motivated but pessimistic about our chances, or hopeful but stuck.

But somehow these all come together in the term ikigai, and it certainly encapsulates how I felt in Kyoto, learning all those new things, connecting with lovely people and exploring the world and my place in it.

The word ikigai embodies a spectrum of notions which collectively remind us to appreciate what makes life worth living right now, and have a hopeful heart directed towards the future.

In recent years ikigai has been talked about in the West as being at the sweet spot of what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. But I’ll let you into a secret. The ‘Ikigai Venn diagram’ which shows this in visual form and has been shared thousands of times online and by life coaches and HR executives over the past few years is actually a Western construction which, while interesting in itself, overcomplicates and misinterprets the term ikigai. Ikigai isn’t always connected to money, although it is of course possible to earn money doing something which also gives you a sense of ikigai. It may have nothing at all to do with what the world needs, when it is just you experiencing the joy of living in a quiet moment by yourself.

Having said that, exploring the idea of ikigai can be a doorway to discovering what ‘doing what you love’ as a career might mean to you. Here’s how.

Ten tips for discovering your ikigai and doing what you love

  • Whichever way you approach it, to discover what you love, you have to pay attention. There are clues all around us, and inside us, if we are open to noticing them, and if we look. Even if the day-to-day is tough right now, notice what brings you a moment of joy, wonder, connection or happiness. Try to be really present as those things arise. A beautiful sunset, a smile from a stranger, a lovely piece of music. Those tiny moments are one aspect of ikigai right there.
  • Noticing small moments of joy helps you move to a more positive frame of mind, from where you can consider how to bring more of a sense of purpose into your life. This might be through connections with others, learning something new or making a contribution in some way.
  • If you don’t already have a solid gratitude practice, start making a list of all the things that bring you that sense of ikigai. Try listing at least ten things you are grateful for each day, without repeating any item. In the beginning it’s easy, but the longer you do this, the harder it gets and the more you are forced to notice details. Start noticing what you appreciate in your life already, and see else lies in that direction.
  • And then start to get really curious about things. If an idea pops into your mind, pursue it loosely, without too much attachment, and see where it takes you. If you keep being drawn to the same kinds of people, or ideas, or symbols, explore that. If you have some time on your hands, employ a little spontaneity. Pick up a magazine you’d not normally read, or listen to a new podcast, or ask a friend for a book recommendation. Approach new knowledge and ideas with an open mind and see which path is calling you.
  • Find ways to explore your creativity, and discover what lights you up.
  • Then think about all this in the context of making a living. Just because you are really good at something does not mean you should do it for work. Just because you have been doing something for the past decade does not mean you need to do it for the next decade. As you nurture your curiosity, open your mind and explore your creativity, you will start to see new paths opening up for you, and new possibilities for your life. If you can connect the kinds of things that bring you a sense of ikigai to the way you generate money in your life, you are likely to find more job satisfaction and shift to doing something that you love. Remember we change as we grow, so what used to be the dream job may end up becoming dull or repetitive. It’s OK to change as you go through your career. Keep coming back to what gives you a sense of ikigai, and keep exploring, and new possibilities will emerge for you.
  • And if you think that in theory you are already doing what you love, but you don’t seem to have a sense of ikigai, you are probably just running too fast to notice all the good in your life. Sometimes we find ourselves in a position where the day to day reality doesn’t match our expectation of a particular job or career. We are stressed, overworked and overstretched, and seem to rush from one thing to another. If that’s the case for you, it’s time to create some space in your life, to take stock of what you are grateful for, to notice the joy of living in the small moments of your day, and to give yourself the breathing room to see how to bring back a sense of purpose to what you are doing. Try meditation or yoga, or a walk in nature. Take a day off – or longer, to allow yourself a rest. Go on a retreat. Journal your thoughts, and your gratitude list, and remind yourself what it is you love about what you do. Spend time near water to clear your head, or have a soulful conversation with a good friend. And then get purposeful about how you can rearrange things to focus more on the meaning in your work and life.

Beth Kempton is the founder of dowhatyouloveforlife.com which offers support for career transitions and living well. A dedicated student of Japanese life, Beth has a Masters in Japanese is the author of Wabi Sabi: Japanese wisdom for a perfectly imperfect life, which has been translated into 24 languages. www.bethkempton.com

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