Ikigai is a Lie | Part 3: The Source of Inspiration
Introducing a better roadmap for professional meaning + Reflections from Thailand
We’ve now been in Thailand for nearly 6 weeks, with ~3 more to go. For anyone who has been to Thailand, you’re right to assume we love it here! Believe it or not, I was actually surprised to discover that the hype about Thailand was totally warranted.
Obviously the people have been wonderful, the food is delicious, and the countryside is beautiful, but I couldn’t have anticipated how awesome the energy* would be.
Here are a few other things that have surprised me:
Everything sweet here, from desserts to fruit, is so perfectly balanced (unlike in Japan where everything was way too sweet for me, even oranges and grapes!). I did not expect to like desserts here, but I’ve been very impressed!
There’s no litter in the streets. It took me exactly five weeks to notice this.** After a driver asked me if I thought Chiang Mai was clean. My initial instinct was to say no…there’s air pollution and the sidewalks are a mess...so my mind kind of filled in the blank and jumped to the conclusion that no, it’s not “clean.” But then I paused and realized I hadn’t seen ANY garbage on the streets. Now I’m looking for it, and I can confirm, it’s not there!***
I’ve become an experienced enough recipient of Thai massages that I can pick up on the masseuse’s personality and mood during the massage. It’s fascinating how much a “traditional,” 60 minute massage can vary. One time I really felt that the masseuse was depressed. Sometimes I can feel how frantic and rushed they are, other times deliberate and caring, others fun. It’s been a good reminder that people will pick up what I put down, ie my own art cannot be rushed because others will definitely notice the impatience, whether they are conscious of it or not****
Alright moving on.
* A friend who lives here described the energy as “yielding.” It reminded me of an interaction I had in a Brooklyn playground where a mom was encouraging her ~3 year old to stand up for herself after a communal toy was taken from her (note that the child was not upset by this). The mom was teaching her to say “mine!” and “no!” She then told me how it was “a problem,” how she’d get videos from daycare and observe that her daughter “didn’t stand up for herself when the toys she was playing with were snatched” from her.
I couldn’t believe it. I had been modeling for Teo to just let things go (especially when a toy taken from him wasn’t “his,” but also when it was). Even when parents would rush in to apologize on behalf of their thieving toddler, I would wave them off with something like “oh don’t worry, he’ll find something else to play with.”
I honestly hadn’t considered that there was another way. I guess I too have a “yielding” energy. Which is all to say, I feel a nice alignment with the energy here 😉
There’s also a nice alignment with our current budget (to quote my partner Uri “it’s not even a shoestring, it’s a spiderweb. Shoestrings are too thick. This shit is complex to maintain.”
** I think it’s really interesting how hard it can be to notice the absence of something, even when I think I’m paying attention! It feels so good to open your eyes!
Like: when I moved to an apartment with more natural light in Toronto and realized I had been miserable without it
Like: how I didn’t notice that there were no pigs or clouds throughout Egypt and Sudan until I crossed the border into Kenya and suddenly they were everywhere!
Like: when I started dating Uri and found myself laughing all the time and realized just how little I was laughing in my previous relationship.
It makes me wonder how different my experiences would be if I could play them in reverse.
*** Note to self: be like that driver who helps people see what is missing! In most rooms I’m in, usually it’s people who live in poverty.*****
**** If you’re looking for advice in 280 characters or less, or emails that arrive on a schedule, you’ve come to the wrong place my friend.
***** I guess this is what you get when you’re raised by a communist, anti-poverty advocate as a father? Which begs the question…what is Teo going to get?!
BETTER ASSUMPTIONS FOR A BETTER CAREER
Last post I wrote about how we aren’t born with a single fixed purpose any more than we are born with fixed strengths and interests. Our purpose doesn’t have to be something super obscure or super impactful that requires the great detective work of a career coach or accelerator.
As a caveat: if you already feel like you do have a single, grand, guiding purpose, great!! Seriously. This is not at all meant to convince you that you’re doing it wrong if you are on a path that is working for you. Keep doing what you’re doing, and feel free to skip this post (or share it with someone else who might benefit from hearing a different perspective).
1. We all want to feel useful
When we don’t feel we can add value or be useful, we start to spiral into existential misery.
What does this mean for you? Find small ways to add value whenever you can. Help others feel like they have value too. In other words: pay more attention. I recently heard a quote from poet Jane Hirshfield:
“Zen buddhism can be boiled down to six words -- everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention. But if you pay attention, you will see everything changes and everything is connected, so all you need to do is pay attention.”
2. Think hobbies not hustles
We put too much pressure on our jobs to fulfil us. Ohh I know, the intersection of those four ikigai circles looks so promising! By all means, do what you love, just don’t expect to get paid for it. Do what pays you, just don’t expect to change the world with it. Do what you’re good at, just don’t expect to love it.
What does this mean for you? Don’t worry about finding the intersection of those ikigai cirlces. Fuck the intersection. Do stuff that pays you, do stuff you love/are interested in, do stuff you’re good at, and do stuff the world needs.* They don’t all have to be done at the same time!
At a minimum, look for ways to enjoy yourself and ways to add value outside work. I saw the perfect image for this reposted by a friend yesterday. It’s 10000000% ok for your life to look like this:
3. We won’t find purpose by looking for it
It’s better to search for what needs to be done right now than to wait for lightning to strike so you can fulfill your purpose.
What does that mean for you? There is no obstacle to you having purpose right now. You don’t need a fancy title or lots of money or a new degree to add value.
“Strive not to be a success, but to be of value.” - Albert Einstein
4. We are unique, but our purpose doesn’t have to be
We don’t have to have one single, big, important *PURPOSE.* We can find other ways to express our individuality.
What does that mean for you? Focus on being useful** wherever you are by paying attention to what is needed, even if it’s as simple as looking strangers in the eye when you greet or thank them.
Before we continue, I should warn you: I’m not trying to guide you to “success” (we’ve already explored why I am no longer pursuing “impact,” or “success”). The ideas I’m presenting here aren’t meant to make you rich*** (I think this was an implicit assumption when we imported ikigai, so I just want to call that out).
I’m not even trying to make you happier. If anything, I just want more people to feel the sense of freedom that comes from a little less striving and a little more being at peace with yourself.
Ok, so you’ve internalised some new assumptions and you are paying more attention, now let’s breathe some fresh air into your career!
*Some examples of how you can ignore the ikigai intersection:
Get Paid: walk dogs, work at trader joes, tutor online, sell antiques on ebay | Do What You Love: go to museums, ride your bike, read the news, watch reality tv | Do What You’re Good At: cook, compete in wordle, swim | Add Value: like more posts online, leave 5 star reviews
Get Paid: sell software | Do What You Love: spend time with friends | Do What You’re Good At: tell stories | Add Value: make introductions
** In my humble opinion, the best way to be useful/add value is to spread love. When I look around at what the world really needs, it’s not more stuff, it’s definitely not another 15-minute grocery delivery app or crypto coin, it’s more love, compassion, and respect (for all living things!).
*** And I am willing to bet that most folks reading this can stand to live with less, so honestly, I just don’t care about helping you make more money, and besides, there are plenty of people out there promising to help you with that. I’d rather focus on how to help you feel more full.
THE TOXIC AIR WE BREATHE
Speaking of pointing out things that are missing: discomfort.
Dating apps have saved us from the discomfort of striking up a conversation with a stranger at the bar, while also giving us the illusion, in the form of filters and swipes, that we actually know what we want.*
Shopping & food delivery apps have saved us from the discomfort venturing out in inclement weather, while also giving us the illusion, in the form of time saving services, that our time is too valuable to be spent doing anything tedious.
Personalization and optimization are the air we breathe, so ubiquitous that it’s become hard to see how they are the very thing preventing us from having the experiences we so desire.
Behind every opportunity to personalize and optimize our experience is the assumption that we are better off controlling our experience, and better off on our own paths.
If something has a “for you” algorithm behind what you see, or the option to filter results, it is assuming that your interests and strengths are fixed (and known to you!), that faster and more is superior to slower and less, that you don’t benefit from some randomness and discomfort, and that we don’t share enough common ground with others to warrant a shared experience.
I guess that’s all fine and dandy if your only goal is to have a comfortable and easy life. But if you want to feel connected to others and like your life has meaning, if you want to feel free, as I do, it’s important to see how technology meant to help us often ends up holding us back from the very things we need to thrive.
*don’t get me started on how I almost didn’t meet Uri thanks to these filters!! He was the 49th first date I had in 2018, and it was still just September when we met. I was squeezing Hinge of all its juice, determined to surpass my goal of five first dates per month. First, I met the men who met all my filters: those with graduate degrees, who weren’t religious, didn’t smoke, had progressive politics, and were at least taller than me. When I hit the bottom of that list (which came quicker than you might expect in NYC!), I lowered my standards. Just an undergraduate degree would do. Then moderate politics too. Eventually, I hit the bottom of every filter. And that's when I matched with Uri: Catholic, no degree, no politics, and best of all, no job. What could we possibly have in common? Not much it turns out. Just a shared love for New York and plant-based diets. But there was something else, something intangible, that couldn’t be captured by filters or first date small talk, that made me agree to a second. Though we were worlds apart, not just in education and income, but also in culture, it felt like we’d spent many, blissful, lives at each others’ sides. Five years and a toddler later, though I’m grateful Hinge brought us together, I’m even more grateful I didn’t let their stupid filters come between us.
FINDING FRESHER AIR
For the ten years that I worked in edtech, personalized learning was practically synonymous with the “future of learning.” It was widely considered the best hope we had for “tapping into the potential” of all the “underserved students” of the world.
Students who love dance should have access to dance classes. Students who are drawn to building things should be mentored by engineers. Students who need extra help should get 1:1 tutoring. Students who want an extra challenge should be able to start taking college classes in high school, and so on.
Even if all of the above can only happen virtually, it’s better than holding students back from their ✨potential ✨
Over the last decade, the proliferation of edtech tools has made this dream of personalized learning a reality in any classroom or home with an internet connected device.
The shift to online learning through the pandemic and the advances in AI/ML have only increased the extent to which we’re tailoring each student’s education to their unique interests, strengths, skills, and needs.
While there are obvious benefits to students having access to subjects, materials, and extracurriculars that interest them (increased engagement, confidence, skills, knowledge…), and tutors and tools that provide exactly the right amount of challenge, I wonder what else they are learning?
I don't think it's how to be fulfilled. It’s how to be successful--by separating from others,--and how to be comfortable--by sticking with things they already know they like (and in some cases, are good at).
The problem is, separation and comfort will never make us feel truly full.
I’m not arguing we prevent kids from doing what they are drawn to, absolutely not. I’m arguing that we nevertheless expose them (ahem, ourselves) to things they (ahem, we) think they (we) don’t or won’t like.
How else are we supposed to learn the joys of being wrong (see: the story of a naked mile) and overcoming our fears, the benefits of feeling bored (see: there’s nothing fun to do here) and lost (see: an unconventional perspective on fun), or the value of slowing down (see: people who rush) and spending time with people who we don’t like or agree with?
Unfortunately, personalized learning is just the first of many personalized steps on our modern journey into confusion and isolation.
Travel used to be one of the surefire ways to absorb these lessons, but even that is not what it used to be, and not just because selfie sticks and micro-influencers are crowding my money shot of the bamboo forests and and Shinto shrines in Kyoto.
What was once an adventure into the unknown is now totally knowable thanks to Google.
As I’ve written here, I recently travelled all the way to Japan from New York, with a toddler (ie, it took tremendous effort to get there), so I naturally wanted to make the most of this once in a lifetime splurge.
So what did I do? I scoured Google Maps for the best coffee shops. Before showing up, I read the reviews (do they have light roast coffee?) and looked at the photos (are they also serving food? That’s a tell-tale sign they don’t take their coffee seriously).
I repeated the process for vegetarian restaurants (are there menu options within my budget? Does the interior design make me feel good?), and ramen joints.
Each time I did this, I showed up and found myself in a queue with a bunch of other white girls. Great.
I wanted to believe I was a traveller, but these irksome blondes dressed like…me, sounding like…me, were a constant reminder that I was just a tourist (and the most basic one at that), not a wandering butterfly but a pesky WASP, descending on a coffee shop for just long enough to get my latte photo before moving on.
My six weeks in Japan were comfortable, curated precisely to my taste, and the experience was….mediocre.
Is it any wonder we expect a personalised career path now too? If we can find our way to the best ramen in Japan, without having to speak a word of Japanese, we should be able to find our way to a job we love.
But, just as tools like Google Maps and Translate complicate travel experiences by making them far more convenient and comfortable, but far less exciting and surprising, they complicate our careers.
Our dream job appears to be one LinkedIn alert, one Coursera course, one Glassdoor review, one online coaching session, one self-help book away.
In reality, the best jobs are now easier than ever to find, can be done from anywhere, are impossibly competitive to get, and are just as like as ever to ultimately disappoint us.*
You don’t have to be on Tinder to pick up on the idea that the next best thing, the soul mate, the job you’ve been looking for your whole life, the fortune, the status, the life-changing TV show, the feeling of freedom and fullness, is just a swipe away.**
It’s easy to feel like you’re doing it all wrong if you’re not in a dream job, not changing lives every day, not making more money, not happier. The truth is, another swipe is just as likely*** to lead to your life partner as it is a dick pic.
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for moving on, exploring, trying new things, and meeting new people; I am a pollinator afterall! But sometimes that’s not an option.
Maybe you’re a single mom living paycheck to paycheck, unhappy in your job, but you can’t find a new one. Maybe you don’t love where you live, but your kids are happy in their school. Maybe you’re ready for a new challenge but you own a business that employs a couple dozen people. Maybe your work visa is tied to your current employer.
Wishing for a freedom you don’t currently have is a particular type of torture, I know, especially when capitalist forces are constantly trying to persuade you that a better life is one purchase away. I have felt trapped in relationships I didn’t know how to get out of, in cities I didn’t feel I belonged in, and in jobs that were sucking the soul out of me.
Unfortunately (and fortunately!), wherever you go, whatever you do, whoever you’re with, there you are. Which is to say, I think we can sooner improve the stories we tell ourselves to make our current situation more enjoyable, than we can find that elusive dream job or soul mate.
So what’s a better story?
* Are there exceptions? For sure! But I know enough people who have landed their dream jobs, only to realize it didn’t revolutionize their life. They were just as (un)happy, just as (dis)satisfied, just as (un)settled, as they had always been.
** This happens with the media we consume too. I recently skipped the last two episodes of Escaping Twin Flame Universe because Love Has Won looked like a more interesting cult documentary and, optimization. Then I heard the last episode of Twin Flames was mind blowing. So I went back and finished it. Was I wrong for initially skipping it? Yes, it was fascinating. Did I need to go back and watch it? No: it was just another cult doc reinforcing my point that the stories we tell ourselves entirely determine our experience in this world.****
*** of course I don't know the actual statistics of this, it's probably closer to 1:100 than 1:1 if I had to guess though.
**** One such story is that it’s not just ok to be wrong, it’s good to be, it means you are growing, as you are meant to. How many cult followers might have been saved if they’d embraced this story instead of one that sounded more like “I know exactly who I am and what I need?”
THE SOURCE OF OUR FRESH AIR
I find it overwhelming to think through what I should do if I’m not where I want to be, but as soon as I ask what a tree would do, the path forward, not to mention the very air I breathe, feels more clear.
Let’s consider a tree that is not where it should be.
A pine tree is better suited for the Canadian Rockies, but may still find itself being grown by a Christmas Tree farm in Florida. It’s not ideal, but it can’t exactly transplant itself, and it definitely can’t become an orange tree. So what is it to do?
I like to imagine this pine tree would be at peace with its situation. It doesn’t have the curse of ads and influencers telling it that things could be better after all.
But in all seriousness, a pine tree will do the only thing it can do.
It can, and will, keep growing (even if it won't grow as tall as it might have in the wild).
It can, and will, keep creating pinecones (even if it creates fewer than it might have in the wild).
It can, and will, keep connecting with other organisms (even if it has fewer connections than it might have in the wild).
In other words, it can’t do anything on its own. It can’t grow without nutrient-rich soil, sunlight, and water. Nor can it change what it creates. It can’t create oranges despite finding itself in a climate that would favour them.
Notice that though it doesn’t have total control over its situation, it doesn’t stop.
Even if it looks like it’s standing still, it is not doing absolutely nothing.
Even if it is not where it “should” be, it is not “wasting its potential.”
Even if it is decorated with the gaudiest Christmas ornaments by a coupe of sunburnt Canadian snowbirds who think it’s a spruce tree, it is still a pine tree.
What I am trying to say is that it’s unnatural for us to try to control our experiences as much as we do. The ability to personalize and optimize nearly every interaction we have has amplified our disconnection (with ourselves, with others, and perhaps most of all, with the rest of nature).
Our air is metaphorically polluted. I propose that if we want to breathe fresh air again, we draw inspiration* from the very beings that provide it: trees.
Even when we are stuck, we still have an opportunity to create that which comes from the heart (whether it’s a meal for our kids or an email rant about trees).
We still can connect with others (including, maybe especially, other life forms!).
We still can grow.
* What a beautiful coincidence that the etymology of “inspire” is “from Latin inspirare: ‘breathe into.’ The word was originally used of a divine or supernatural being, in the sense ‘impart a truth or idea to someone.’”
WHAT WOULD TREES DO
That’s my alternative framework to ikigai: create, connect, grow. Be more tree. I’ll expand on this more in my next post, but for now, I’d argue that we must continue to grow. Especially when we feel too depleted to create or connect.
There are many ways to grow, but most require stepping outside our comfort zone. In other words, doing away with the comforts and conveniences of our smart phone apps!
For what it’s worth, it doesn’t matter how many times I remind myself of what a tree would do, I still regularly succumb to the temptation of a comfortable and easy option.
It’s a constant cycle of forgetting my true nature, remember it briefly, then forgetting it once more. Thankfully, even remembering once is enough to redeem six weeks of forgetting.
On my last night in Kyoto, I decided to throw caution to the wind and try a different approach: just walking into a random restaurant. 😱 Gasp! I know. But I’m lucky enough to remember how exhilarating pre-smartphone solo-travel in parts of the world where there was no shared language, used to be.
And what do you know? I ended up having the most delightful time. A proper cultural immersion. It was terrifying, it was awkward, it was not what I expected, but it was joyous. It was the most memorable part of my trip.
Once again, the promise of being able to optimize and design the perfect experience was precisely what kept me from having an enjoyable and meaningful one.
Once again, however briefly, I remembered what a breath of fresh air letting go can be.