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A Better Career Starts With Better Assumptions
Update + The Lie of Ikigai Part 2: Bringing purpose back down to earth
I just know you were on the edge of your seat waiting for Part 2 of this essay, refreshing your inbox hourly and wondering if I was still alive! My apologies for the delay.
I was just a bit distracted. First, our voyage from Japan to Thailand had some hiccups, then there were all the Thai massages to catch up on and fresh smoothies to drink, then I got some sort of daycare-borne illness*, then I developed some sort of carpel tunnel** and, AND!, I’m writing a book. Which is ironically kinda about being distracted. Go figure.***
It’s for pollinators like me, who need to let their brains and bodies run free.
It’ll be the fourth book I have tried to write, but I’m excited about it because I’m going to do it my way. Kinda like how I would do a wedding if Uri and I were to ever get married, No bridesmaids or walking me down the aisle, but definitely lots of dancing.
The first book I tried to write was about a management framework (the 7 Hats of Leadership | hat #1: therapist | hat #2: teacher etc) that I still believe is really helpful, novel, and needed. It is the book I wish I had at my disposal when I became a manager. But you know how tedious business books are to read? They’re even more TEDIOUS to write. Next!
The second book I tried to write (Working Title: Butterflies) was a retaliation against the tedium of the first. Auto-fiction meets romance novel (but importantly, without all the awful euphemisms for sex and penises). In short, it explored the butterfly effect of my earliest romantic relationships. It is so fun to rewrite your own story and make it more interesting and profound but, out of respect for the characters (i.e. the real people in my life), I don’t think the time is right to put it out in the world.
The third book was about fun. If you’ve read anything here or talked to me at all in the last 6 months, you know I’ve been pretty fired up about how we don’t have a proper understanding of what fun really is and how to have more of it. The couple books (yes, there are only a couple!!) on this topic suck. If that sounds harsh, you should see what I originally was going to say about them. Anyway, I knew I could do better.**** I have a framework that goes deeper than “find a hobby” and “spend time with people who are fun.” But as I began drafting it, it just didn’t feel right to tell people to have fun. I needed to show it.
Enter my fourth book. Will I finish it? Time will tell, but I think the timing is right (affordable daycare + nothing else to do with my time with a 12 hour time difference between me and everyone I know). Plus I’ve just told you all that I’m doing it so I’ve backed myself into a corner*****!
If you’re curious for sneak peeks or to provide feedback, let me know!
*fun fact: Thailand is the worst place in the world to lose your sense of taste
**as I type this with a taped up right hand to manage the pain, I like to think people assume I’m injured from some Muay Thai training camp and not just from spending too much time holding my 25lb baby with one hand
***also, ALSO!, if I’m honest, I am nervous I over promised in my last essay and you’re now expecting an earth-shattering, world changing career navigation framework when really I just want you all to see you’re trying too hard…
****I do very much admire these authors for actually finishing their books, which must have been very tedious to write 😉
*****And this strategy is how I got myself from Cairo to Cape Town by bicycle (in other words, it works!)
JDS DREAMS OF A THIRD OPTION
To refresh your memory, in Part 1 of this Essay, I went through a journey in Japan, first observing that ikigai could only work in its original culture and context (a reader pointed out there is a term for this: anachronism!), then realizing that even then it was full of flaws! Including the fact that the Japanese aren’t using a framework like ikigai to navigate their careers.
With that understanding, I highlighted how the basic premise of ikigai* was not going to work for the vast majority of the population, and certainly not in 2023 when “what the world needs” is both so in flux and out of step with “what the world will pay for.”
But what’s the point in me tearing something down if I can’t offer something better right? This is my attempt to present a model that still leaves room for ambition and alignment but isn’t built on such a shaky foundation.
Speaking of a shaky foundation, let’s start by laying out all the assumptions a model like ikigai* makes so we can start to develop some more helpful ones.
*from now on, I’m using “ikigai” as a shorthand for all the career planning frameworks and tools that essentially provide the same recipe for success (figure out what you’re good at + interested in + what the world needs + will pay for, then try hard enough for long enough until…success??)
WE ALL WANT TO FEEL USEFUL
Assumption #1: You have a single, important, BIG ✨ Purpose ✨
Against my better judgement, I once joined a softball team after being convinced it was a nice way to spend a summer evening.
Our first game was indeed a beautiful summer evening, but with so many people on our team, I swung my bat a grand total of three times. When we weren’t at bat, I stood somewhere out in the field, let’s call it the left field aka whichever part of the field is least likely to be used. Over the course of two hours, zero balls came my way.
Have you ever felt so useless that you want to crawl back into your mother’s womb?
It sucks. It’s frustrating. It’s awkward. It’s lonely.
The others on the team had a totally different experience though. They caught and threw and hit some balls. They high fived and cheered and laughed all the way to the bar where they high fived and cheered and laughed some more.
I wished I had the opportunity to at least get a run or catch a ball so I could join in on the fun. It feels damn good to help a team. Instead, I felt disconnected and like I was wasting my time.
I lied and said I had a migraine so I could go home. I missed my mom. I don’t think anyone even noticed that I left.
Whether it’s on the field or in an office, we all want to feel like we’re doing a good job in this world and making the most of our time. We want to know that our contributions are valued. We want to feel seen.
This is why ikigai is so alluring.
Not knowing how you can be useful is the best way to spiral into existential crisis (or make you want to crawl back into your mother’s womb). We crave purpose and ikigai gave us a recipe to find it.
The thing is, lightning doesn’t have to strike for us to figure out what our ✨Purpose✨ is.
We don’t need to become the world’s foremost expert in carbon capture through fungal networks (is that a thing? It should be) to have a ✨Purpose✨, we just need to make ourselves useful.
I had no purpose on that softball team. I was hoping to be the kind of recreational softball player that drew not just high fives but crowds of admirers who would be able to look back and say “I saw her play her first game, before she went on to inspire millions of girls and invent world peace,” when I probably could have just offered to warm up the pitcher or buy the first round of drinks.
I just needed a damn 🪨purpose🪨* that evening to feel like I was adding some, any, value. Instead, I felt useless, so I quit as soon as I started.
Assumption #1: You have many 🪨purposes🪨
🪨 Focus on being useful.
*Because probably no one has ever seen this before: it’s a rock emoji, meant to be the opposite of a star, meant to symbolize coming back down to earth and giving up on your (my) dream of inventing world peace (at least for now). Also, Uri can correct me on this, but I think rocks make more stable foundations than gaseous stars.
THINK HOBBIES, NOT HUSTLES
Assumption #2: Your ✨ Purpose ✨ should be found through work
A college friend of mine is the perfect example of someone who turned her passion into her career.
She worked in finance. After several years of feeling like she couldn't bring her whole self to work, let alone wear jeans, she was totally burnt out. She managed to land a rare, coveted, job as a beekeeper with the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was one of only a few full-time beekeeping jobs across all of New York City. She was thrilled; I was proud of her!
She quit her high pressure job, only to find out that beekeeping in New York City was……extremely high pressure. Nasty workplace politics. Brutally long shifts on her feet, braving all elements. Demoralising days selling honey at farmers markets.
Turning beekeeping into her career sucked all the joy out of it. How often have we heard professional athletes and famous musicians say the same?
To be clear, I would never advocate people stop doing what interests them, whether that’s telling stories or spending time in nature. I just don’t think we should expect to get paid for it (or change the world with it).
The original definition of ikigai is simply “reason for being.” No fancy venn diagrams, just something that is considered to be “felt in the soul, often in the moments that have the least to do with work (moments we might say we "feel alive" or "the moments we live for," like time spent with loved ones),” as a reader of my last post shared with me.
We start to struggle when we assume that our reason for being, our “purpose”, needs to be found at work. I don’t expect Uri to satisfy all my possible needs, why would I expect my job to?
Even if I felt my job truly was aligned with my reason for being…what happens on weekends? Or when I retire*? We need to feel we have purpose outside work, at least if we hope to have a truly fulfilling life.
Assumption #2: You can (and should) have 🪨purpose🪨 outside work
🪨 Focus on being useful wherever you are, including outside of work.
*Note to self: start learning how to play pickleball as soon as your wrist is healed!!
WE WON’T FIND PURPOSE BY LOOKING FOR IT
Your ✨ Purpose ✨ is something that can be “found”
In Part 1, I told you how my dad found his ikigai as an anti-poverty advocate.
Only I lied. He didn’t find his ikigai. He stumbled into it by fulfilling an immediate need in his community, one that he himself had. People who need social assistance weren’t aware of their rights, and the workers processing their claims took advantage of that, trapping them in the infamous cycle of poverty.
Sometimes you just have to clean up the mess that is right in front of you.
If I had a nickel for every hour I spent wondering what the best use of my strengths and interests was…I’d buy a bunch of subway ads telling people they are asking themselves the wrong question.
I would have been better off asking myself “what can I do right now to help?” Not “what can I study in school so that 10 years from now I might be in a position to make $1m/year so that I can have enough cash flow to invest in promising young entrepreneurs from under-resourced communities.*”
No. What can I do right now?
For example: I’m guilty of dreaming of how I could transform our broken education system before I ever attempted to help one person close to me rethink the value a public school teacher provides.**
For example: I’m guilty of feeling incredibly relieved that we finally have full-time affordable childcare, because my god is watching a toddler full-time ever exhausting in a way I never expected, while not yet learning the names of his teachers.
Assumption #3: 🪨Purpose🪨 emerges and evolves
🪨 Focus on being useful wherever you are, including outside of work, by paying attention to what is currently needed.
* who will go on to invent world peace, obviously
**In case this is coming across as preachy: I am hardly walking around practicing what I preach, I write this as much as a note to self as to others.
WE ARE UNIQUE, BUT OUR PURPOSE DOESN’T HAVE TO BE
Assumption #4: Your ✨ Purpose ✨ is unique
Another underlying assumption in ikigai is that I should be serving the world in a way that only ✨I✨ can. By design, the intersection of each person’s venn diagram was something likely to be useful and unique.
It’s no wonder ikigai became so popular in the West: it affirmed our individuality and sense of agency, not to mention delusions of grandiosity.
Why should I bake cookies for my softball team if anyone can do that*. According to most career thought leaders, I should focus my precious time on doing something only ✨I✨ can do.
If everyone thought that way, we’d have no nurses, no plumbers, no civil engineers, just a bunch of self-absorbed founders and creators.**
Take this reddit*** post that was in my inbox this morning:
It pains me to see posts like this (and I see them all the time). Not because I worry we’ll soon have no public school teachers left (though I do), but because this way of thinking and approaching our careers is pushing us all into personalized career bubbles that are supposed to make us happier but in the end just serve to separate us from each other, which makes happiness all the more unlikely.
Fortunately, the work we do isn’t the only, or even the best, way to express our individuality.
You can be creative, with what you wear. Unique in what you eat.**** Memorable in how you greet others (like Uri’s “pleasant good mornings” and “ok thank you byebyes” that put smiles on faces everywhere we go).
How you show up at work and home is at least as important to your “purpose” as what you do for work.
Assumption #4: Your 🪨purpose🪨 can be shared, even banal
🪨 Focus on being useful wherever you are, including outside of work, by paying attention to what is needed, even if it’s as simple as looking your barista in the eye as you thank them.
*Must. Figure. Out. World. Peace. Through. Softball…
**My dear founders and creators, I am one of you, I mean no harm, but also, let’s admit it, we are a little too self-absorbed these days
***Why did I only discover how AWESOME reddit is this year?
****Maybe? I don’t know, I just like how that sentence rhymed. But my point remains: There are as many ways to express your individuality as there are humans
OK JDS, WHERE’S THIS THIRD OPTION!
You might now be asking yourself why I’m not answering the big question of how one figures out what job they should have.
Like “Cool Jen, I’ll hold the door open for old ladies, but there are a 4.98 million jobs to choose from in the U.S. right now* and I’ve been unemployed for 4 months.”
Like “What is that high school student worried about wasting his potential supposed to do though.”
I hear you, I’ll try to get to that in Part 3**. In the meantime, I wanted this post to help you see that we’ve systemically devalued thousands (millions?) of jobs and that while I think we’re stuck with capitalism, we can at least start to individually inject more dignity and respect back into the system. That starts with paying attention to the small needs around us.***
Too many humans, not enough humanity (what the happiest people I know can teach us about job satisfaction)
Bio-diversity (what nature can teach us about choosing a job)
Wasted potential (what we can do to avoid this regret)