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The Lie of Ikigai (Part 1)
How a beloved career planning tool is leading us astray + Thursdays with Uri: the quest for mastery!
My exploration of fun in Japan (see: Japanese playgrounds!) wouldn’t be complete without a closer look at craftspersonship (see: Thursdays with Uri recording + transcript below!) and ikigai (see: my long rant below that might throw you for a loop but don’t worry, I’ll pull it all together in Part 2!)
The Ruling Career Planning Tool
If you’ve given any serious thought to what you want to do with your life, you’ve no doubt come across ikigai: a Japanese concept meaning ‘a reason for being’.
In case you haven’t, the basic premise that has been exported to the West is to lay out what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. Find the overlap across those four and voila! You’ve unlocked “the secret to a long and happy life.”
Sounds great right? It’s no wonder some version of ikigai has become the foundation of pretty much every career transition and exploration program out there, for both kids and adults.
I know because I’ve worked for, invested in, and advised dozens of them (in other words: I’m deep in this space!).
Think: American Dream meets Ikigai. Career planning where even if you don’t figure out what you want to do with your life, at least we make some money off your confusion.
But I think we were delusional to try to rebrand a thousand year old life philosophy from the land of bonsais and Buddhism for self-serving and capitalistic purposes, just as we’re delusional to think that any career guidance or frameworks that worked in 2016 (when this book popularized ikigai for a western audience) will work today.
Kids today intuitively know this.
They know because they’re already trying to become as successful as Kylie Jenner and Mr. Beast, and they’re already learning that it doesn’t matter how many TikToks or YouTubes they create, how easy it is to spin up a website or store, how cute they look or smart they sound, or how many hours or years they invest, there can only be so many winners.
Unfortunately, the assumption in every career exploration and readiness program I have seen is that the formula for success (work hard enough + long enough) will work because the foundation (some version of figuring out what you’re good at + interested in + world needs + will pay for) is solid.
It’s just not squared with reality.
In today’s post (Part 1) I’m going to explore why it’s woefully misguided to expect ikigai to solve our career woes.
In my follow-up post (Part 2), I’ll be exploring why we were so drawn to this venn diagram in the first place, what purpose it served, and whether there’s a more suitable framework to replace it (spoiler: I think there is!).
In the Land of Ikigai
I’ve only been in Japan for a month now, but I was immediately struck by the different orientation to work here.
Just look at the hours of this bakery that I’ve been trying to visit for two weeks: 11:30am-5:00pm Thursday and Saturday.
One Saturday I showed up at 4:30 and she turned me away. So I tried to go earlier on a Thursday, only to find a sign on the door saying she’s “taking a break” (!!) this Thursday and Saturday.
Forget trying to get great coffee before 10:00am. Or really any time on a Monday or Tuesday.
Meanwhile, you can buy the best donuts in the world, but only on Thursday or Saturday after 11am (and you’ll need to line up early because they sell out!).
In fact, all around Japan you’ll find restaurants closed when they were supposed to be open. Why? They sold out.
These aren’t new restaurants that underestimated their inventory. These are storied institutions, run by masters of their craft.
They don’t make more ramen just because the demand is there, nor do they charge more because the willingness to pay is there. They simply call it a day.
With the little I’ve learned about the culture so far, I assumed the reason was twofold:
they don’t need to work more: if everything else is reasonably priced, why price gouge or open your doors 7 days a week?
they don’t want to work more: unlike what I’m used to seeing in North America, the Japanese are not willing to compromise their craft for profit. Their goal is mastery, not wealth.
“Ahhh, so this is what it is like to be in the land of ikigai!” I thought.
Which is to say, it’s a lot simpler to figure out “what the world will pay for”, when you don’t believe you need to be paid a lot.
I thought of how Japan gave us Mari Kondo, while America gave us Bezos.
You just have to compare the garbage piles in Tokyo with those in NYC, and you’ll see what I mean.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget in our interconnected world, but North America is not Japan!
Have you watched that super cute Netflix series called “Old Enough” where 2-5 year olds are sent on small errands on their own?
Well it turns out this isn’t just a stunt for a show🤯!! And it’s not just reserved for small Japanese towns. There are tons of tiny humans (not 2 year olds, but possibly 5-6 year olds), who make their way to and from school on their own in Tokyo, the world’s biggest city!! It’s quite a sight for me, coming from New York.
Using ikigai as a career planning framework in North America is akin to us sending a 6 year old to school alone, on the subway, in NYC.
It’s not necessarily a recipe for disaster, but it’s lacking a lot of cultural context.
After some of these initial observations, I resolved to get to the bottom of how ikigai works in Japan so I could figure out how to make it work better in North America.
Unfortunately, I learned that in fact ikigai doesn’t work in Japan. Or more accurately, that the Japanese don’t apply ikigai to work.
*when I say “we” or “us” in this post I’m referring to the cultures I know best: Canadian and American (and where most of my network is based/from). Please forgive my generalisations, I’m hoping they help to make a point, not to erase the fact that millions upon millions of people who live in North America bring cultures of their own to the mix (including, Japanese Americans & Canadians!).
Finding Your Ikigai = Success
I didn’t consider cultural differences at all when I bought heavily into the ikigai promise while searching for a more meaningful and satisfying career three years ago.
I just wanted to satisfy my creative itch,help others, and connect with awesome people. All goals I achieved. Sometimes I even made some money!
The optimism I felt from finding my ikigai led me to encourage others to find theirs.
From 2019-2022, both as a friend, and as the Program Director for a career transition accelerator, I guided hundreds of mid-career professionals through their mid-career breakdowns.
Whether they were burnt-out or bored, laid off or chronically unemployed, disillusioned or directionless, ikigai felt like a solid foundation to walk on in the search for some professional hope and clarity.
Finding Your Ikigai = Success
By the end of 2022 though, cracks in this foundation started to emerge, even for the most privileged people in my network.
Exhibit 1: Journalists
My good friend Dave found his ikigai as a journalist.
Dave has reported on topics like labour shortages and criminal justice reform for media conglomerates like ABC, CNN, and PBS. Unfortunately, he has been out of work for over two years.
He is willing to work for very little pay. He is willing to move. He knows the world needs this work, but it’s taking everything he has not to give up.
What should he do now?
Exhibit 2: Social Workers
My dad found his ikigai as an anti-poverty advocate.
By his estimate, he has helped ~3,500 people avoid eviction, get access to their entitled benefits, or secure visitation rights with their children. He is the city’s last line of defense before homelessness. He is where food banks and churches send people they can’t help.
He’s had enough donations to at least get by for 20 years, but now he can’t afford his insulin and he lives with bedbugs.
What should he do now?
Exhibit 3: Artists*
My good friend Ciara found her ikigai as a film producer.
As with Dave, there were promising early signs that the world valued her art. Several years later though, the emotional and financial strain of continuing to try to break into this competitive field is starting to take its toll. She’s debating investing in a bootcamp so she can find a job in tech.
What should she do now?
Exhibit 4: Teachers
My friend Ashley found her ikigai as a teacher.
Ohhh, don’t get me started on teachers. I know a lot of people like Ashley (dedicated, hard-working, caring, tenacious..) who are so burnt out it scares me.
They come to me for help breaking into ed-tech, not because they’re tired of being underpaid and overworked, but because they’re tired of being disrespected and used as proxies for political battles.
It’s no wonder that even with a quarter of a million students disappearing from public schools, the teacher shortage is so bad districts now have to subsidize their housing, strip away the qualifications required, rely more heavily on substitutes and online tutors, and increase class sizes. So yea, Ashley wants a new job.
What should she do now?
*Exhibit 5: Me → I’ve been following my ikigai for the better part of the last four years, but I can’t work with this low income indefinitely! Not to mention, my interests have changed, especially now that I’m a mom and the climate crisis is worsening. What should I do now?
Work Hard Enough + Long Enough = Success
To suggest Dave, Ciara, Ashley, and my dad find their ikigai now, in 2023, is an insult.
They did find it. But the world has changed.
We’re in a period of rapid change. Covid. Climate Change. ChatGPT. Quantum computing...I think you already know this though.
As a result, people like Dave, Ciara, Ashley, and my dad are left with a couple options:
Option #1: Try harder*
We’re told if we just try hard enough for long enough, it will work out. I guess mental health be damned?
And I guess if it didn’t work out, you were either not talented enough, patient enough, smart enough, or hard working enough? Shame on you.
Option #2: Pivot**
We’re told these times call for soft skills like adaptability, creativity, and flexibility. So we re-skill and up-skill, becoming more and more over-skilled; anything to avoid being under-skilled.
Never mind that you might pivot to yet another field that will soon fall out of fashion or favour and have to start the whole process over again.
Never mind that I want to live in a world with journalists and artists and teachers and social workers.
*Don’t get me wrong, I believe this formula could work for most people if they had sufficient financial and social capital. I just don’t think it’s realistic to expect these to appear out of nowhere.
**Don’t forget to go back to Option #1 after you choose Option #2!
Working Hard Enough + Long Enough = Success
They don’t tell you this in school, but whichever option you choose, you’ll need a good amount of privilege, delusion, or ideally both, if you are going to succeed.
It takes a lot (like a lot, a lot) of privilege to pull ikigai off in North America.
I know, I know, it’s tiresome to hear about privilege rearing its head once again, but hear me out.
The way we apply ikigai, and frameworks like it, just won’t work at scale. It presumes others (you can guess who) will pick up the slack.
If I’m going to sell more plastic junk to the world, someone has to pick it up when it’s thrown out.
If I’m going to write novels, someone else is going to have to care for my aging father and young son.
If I’m going to build AI-powered tools, someone else is going to have to pave our roads and stock our shelves.
Does their career, and life, satisfaction not matter too?*
As someone who sought ikigai the last few years, I’m guilty of wanting to ignore the answer to this question. I thought that as long as I was trying to help others, I didn’t have to think about how this bastardized pursuit of ikigai would play out at scale.
It’s much easier to believe a rising tide raises all ships (aka white collar—or even better, no collar—jobs for all!), and call it a day.
But there’s no way I would have been able to consider the career sweet spots that I did if it weren’t for (a) the credibility + network afforded to me by my Ivy League MBA or (b) my savings from the jobs that said MBA got me.
We can’t forget (c) my nationality, (d) my clean criminal record, (e) my native tongue, or (f) my age, all of which gave me pretty comforting back-up options.
There’s also (g) having confidence and agency instilled and nurtured in me from a young age by all adults in my life. I’ve worked with enough kids who didn’t have this to know it’s everything.
To tell someone who is missing even one of those privileges that they should find their ikigai is not only naive, it is also insulting.
There are so many reasons why it might not be feasible (or prudent) for someone to “find their ikigai”. Maybe they’re a single parent who can’t afford to take any risks. Maybe they’re on a work visa and unable to change jobs. Maybe (this is often the case in America) they truly need the benefits.
I’ve been in 2 of 3 of those situations, and let me tell you, it doesn’t feel great to think everyone else is out living their best lives while you’re stuck toiling away in a job you weren’t meant for.
Maybe you have the means to find your ikigai. Cool. We still need something better, something that acknowledges that most people can’t just try hard enough for long enough and trust that it will work out.
As I’ve shown above, we’re delusional if we think the entire world can apply a concept like ikigai.
Beyond that though, there is the fact that it was conceived in a completely different time and place.
What the world needs and what you can be paid for has changed drastically since the Heian period (794 to 1185!!) when ikigai originated.
Imagine life one thousand years ago in Japan. It’s the year 1023.
Wikipedia tells me that it was quite a vibrant and peaceful time in Japan’s capital, Kyoto (where I am currently based).
Art “flourished” and literature was “booming.” One of the first novels ever was written in Japan during this period! Unfortunately, most people couldn’t read and “all but a tiny few of its inhabitants” were poor.
The country was ruled by “hereditary dictators” and society was divided into strict social classes. The upperclass made up less than 1% of the population. Pretty much everyone else was a peasant and “we know next to nothing about the lifestyles, beliefs and customs of the majority of the people in Japan at the time.” [source]
There was no currency. Rice was the primary unit of exchange!
This is the world from which ikigai emanated.
Ignoring the fact that, like today, the vast, vast majority of the population didn’t have much say in the work that they did, it’s hopefully pretty obvious that the “job market” for the lucky few who did was still incomparable to today’s.
First, given that there were no trains to transport, machines to fabricate, or phones to coordinate, if you needed or wanted anything—be it art or food or a table—it pretty much had to be produced by hand, locally. If you wanted to buy something from China, you’d better be damn patient and have a lot of rice.
Second, even the aristocrats had but a few options: craftsman, clergy, artist, or join the court. Today, the options are dizzying. You hardly have time to commit to a path for long enough to get good at it before the rug is pulled out from under you and you find the world is no longer willing to pay for it.
We used to need and pay for teachers. Now we are being convinced that AI tutors will do the trick. We used to need and pay for cashiers, truck drivers, factory workers, farmers, accountants….the list goes on. Yes, of course some remain, but most won’t for long.
Meanwhile, we desperately need caregivers but what we get is more content creators pushing plastic crap.
What the world really needs is a reality check. Unfortunately, sooner or later, it’s gonna have to pay for it too.
It shouldn’t take a delusional belief in the American Dream—that you’ll be the winner in this winner-takes-all era—to feel professionally satisfied.
*To be clear, I’m not suggesting everyone should be able to escape jobs like stocking shelves or paving roads. Rather, I want to explore how we can raise the level of respect and satisfaction in all jobs.
Jen Dreams of Donuts
But even if ikigai did a good job helping us figure out what the world needs and will pay for in real time, it tells us nothing about what it means to develop a skill or interest.
Which brings me back to Japan. And another Netflix documentary: Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
In case you thought sushi was as simple as combining raw fish and rice, Jiro, an 85-year-old sushi master, will help you see there is so much more to it. This man is still refining his craft! Boiling rice and cutting raw fish. 🤯 Even his 50 year old son is still just an “apprentice” mastering rice.
I see this type of dedication to craft everywhere in Japan. Every time we visit the botanic gardens, a cashier runs (and I mean runs) out from behind the ticket window to bring us a stroller.
At the world’s best donut shop, you will get the world’s slowest service, as they meticulously wrap and label each donut with handwritten instructions for optimal consumption. The cream cheese one: eat in 8 minutes; advice I am happy to follow. The Earl Grey one: wait 3 hours; advice I am not happy to follow. Who do they think I am, some Zen monk?!
Or my favourite: the baristas wearing lab coats (!!!!) and taking careful notes in binders. Like they are doing actual science experiments. Be still my over-caffeinated heart!!
All these observations led me to a preliminary theory. For ikigai to work well you need*:
a super strong social safety net (so we don’t need to be paid as much)
a culture that doesn’t idolize extreme wealth or material possessions (so we can focus on doing work the world actually needs)
a culture that values the patience required to develop mastery (so we actually have time to figure out what we’re good at and interested in)
a deep respect for all fields of work (so we don’t need to worry about status or respect once we do) (and maybe so we won’t snap at a cashier who just took 10 minutes to wrap our donuts and then had the audacity to suggest we wait 3 hours to eat them).
Last I checked, America meets none of these conditions (and neither does Canada, sorry!).
But I wasn’t ready to give up. There’s still gotta be a better career framework lurking under this right?
*at a minimum, if we’re going to import concepts from another culture, we should at least aim for the whole package: a little forest bathing, Moai (an Okinawan tradition of forming social support groups that I just learned about), and minimalism never hurt anyone!
I brought my theory to Asaki, an English-speaking coffee shop owner who I’d gotten to know fairly well over my first couple of weeks in Kyoto.
“Is this how ikigai works here?”
She laughed at me.
“Japanese only know hard work. Work, then home, then work.”
I thought to the throngs of literal white-collared workers on the Tokyo subways commuting to their office jobs, unlike anything I’d seen in New York. She had a point.
“What about, like, your grandparents’ generation?” I asked, thinking of all joyous Japanese centenarians you see in the news. Didn’t they attribute their health and happiness to ikigai?
“Hmm no I don’t think so, they just did what they had to do.”
“Well, what about you?” I figured if anyone would have embraced ikigai, it would be this former kindergarten teacher turned cafe owner.
“I am different than most Japanese. That is why I want to move to Canada with my husband, so we can have kids that aren’t,” she paused to use Google Translate,“in a box.”
I told her how Canadians like myself might be surprised to hear that they don’t really use ikigai in Japan. “It’s very popular in Canada and America,” I told her.
When I got home, I couldn’t shake the question of why we’re embracing ikigai when they’re not, so I posted my question on r/japan.
Here are some responses I got:
生きがい is just a word that means motivation/reason for living. the original Japanese meaning is open to your own interpretation and choice. You get to come up with your own reasons for living
If you ask a Japanese person about it they’re not going to whip this Venn diagram out and have this whole explanation. They probably have never even seen this before.
the real meaning of "ikigai" has nothing specifically to do with one's job, anymore than the idea of "reason for being" does. "Ikigai" is not some special Japanese concept - it's just the Japanese word for something found in all human cultures. The people who made this chart just twisted the idea for "reason for being" to mean "working to live," then slapped a Japanese word on it to make it seem more legitimate by borrowing the cultural capital and "exoticness" of Japan.
Friendly reminder that "karōshi" is a common occurrence in societies that pursue"ikigai".
Karōshi: translated into "overwork death," is a Japanese term relating to occupation-related sudden death.
Well don’t I feel dumb.
Jen Dreams of a Third Option
Back to my initial question: what are Dave, Ciara, Ashley, and my dad supposed to do now?
Ikigai didn’t really work out for them (and now we have a better understanding of why).
They could try harder, for longer, or they could pivot, but their privilege and delusion are in short supply after years of this approach.
I don’t know about you, but I want to believe there is a third option.
One that centers career satisfaction but is also accessible, sustainable, and suited for a world with AI and the winner-takes-all network effects of big-tech. Ikig-AI?
Heck, even a framework that recognizes that our interests and strengths evolve, sometimes even spring out of nowhere.
Part 2 of this essay is my attempt to find that.
Next week, I’ll be digging into the assumptions underlying how we approach career satisfaction, and exploring some more helpful ones we could adopt.
6. Thursdays With Uri
This week we discussed:
where Uri gets his patience from
the connection between patience, curiosity, and mastery
the surprising thing Uri is trying to master
what software engineering and cooking have in common
Jen: Hello! Do you remember what I suggested we would talk about today?
Uri: Oh, Uh… patience? It feels like I have an unlimited capacity for patience.
Jen: Where do you think that comes from?
Uri: I think I've always had it.
Jen: So you don't think it was taught to you?
Jen: You think you are a patient person?
Jen: Give me an example.
Uri: Sometimes people need a lot of space to get a thought out. And I'm happy to give people the space to do that. In a sense it's a kind of a kindness to other people. I think when people feel rushed, they don't actually do a good job communicating. So it's in a sense of disservice to them.
Jen: If you could teach Teo anything, what would you teach him?
Uri: I think the number one thing that anyone can be is curious. Because the opposite of that is fear and anger and frustration. And I think curiosity is the only antidote for all of those things. It reframes the problem. If you're frustrated with something, ask yourself why?
Jen: Do you think most people lose their curiosity?
Uri: Oh ya. For sure.
Jen: Why do you think that is?
Uri: Because they want the world to work the way that they want it to work. Like I have an expectation for how things should run and if it's not meeting that expectation, then something's wrong. Period. Versus. I have an expectation for how the world should run. It didn't happen that way. How can I still thrive in that?
Jen: Or why is this time different? What happened?
Uri: Yeah. I think all the other things kind of like trickle into that. I think patience is one of those things that help you be more curious because you have to like, wait for an answer sometimes. I think all the things that I think are very interesting in the world come from curiosity. If you ever do anything at like a really high level, it feels like you're still discovering really interesting things about it.
Jen: Is there anything you're trying to master now?
Uri: Uh, yeah. Yeah.
Uri: It's very abstract in a sense. I don't want to be like a good cook. But I wanna figure out how to craft flavors, like accentuate certain flavors.
Jen: So why flavors and not software engineering, the thing you're paid for?
Uri: I think they're the same to some degree. I think the problem with software engineering is that it's tied to trends in that the experience that you create for someone... So I should say this: everything that we're doing now with software, it's more cosmetic than like, fundamentally the mechanics of how this thing works. There are a very few people who are like optimizing code to like, make pixels better on a television, for example. Most people are like writing software to create an experience for a television that has already been optimized. And so, you're now writing trends, it's like clothes. No one's like inventing new threads.
Uri: They're just like assembling them. And so that's the hard part. In order to stand out, you have to like really push a trend, and that's not that exciting to me. There's a few spaces in software that's really interesting to me. Like the experience for people who make things. That's something I'm working on. But the thing I'm trying to master is flavor.
Jen: Well, aren't I lucky to be on the other side of the table of someone who is trying to master flavors! Can you ever fully master something?
Uri: No, I don't think so. I don't think I've mastered anything. Yet. Or things that I think are noteworthy. You know, the problem with mastery, it's like I want to be able to master something that is also like a career, so then you can like really invest in going deep. But choosing something to master from afar is like really scary. It's like, do I want to dedicate the next seven years of my life to like going deep on this thing? Number one, I think, curiosity. And then...
Jen: …everything else follows.
Uri: Yeah. To the path of mastery.
Jen: Right. It's all connected.
Uri: It's all connected. We're all in the same soup.
Jen: Hahaha all right, well that's probably enough for today. Bye!
Uri: Bye bye.