You know how sometimes, a book enters your life at just the perfect moment, and tells you exactly what you needed to hear at that particular time? I’ve previously had this experience twice: first in 2016 with Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes, and then in 2018 with Rachel Hollis’ Girl, Stop Apologizing. And now I’ve got a third title to add to the list: Tim Tamashiro’s How to Ikigai: Lessons for Finding Happiness and Living Your Life’s Purpose. I borrowed the audiobook from the library, and it’s been my bedtime reading since January 1st.
The Okinawan concept of ikigai is deceptively simple. Ikigai, or your life’s purpose, can be found in the intersection between four factors: what you love to do, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you will be rewarded for. Pretty obvious, eh? But ask yourself: how much time do you actually spend contemplating what makes you happy, and how much effort do you actually put into incorporating it into your every day? The author also has a TED talk on the subject.
There were three things in particular in this book that resonated with me:
First, the Karate Kid example.
In The Karate Kid, when Daniel complains about painting the fence, Mr Miyagi shows him how the chore actually builds muscle memory for karate moves. Daniel is impressed and asks “What now?” to which Mr Miyagi responds, “Karate today, come back tomorrow.” Similarly, Tamashiro says, practicing ikigai is like practicing karate, and emphasizes the principle of “Ikigai today, come back tomorrow.”
I love this. First it’s a mantra that’s easy to remember. More importantly, it frames ikigai as a practice. Repeating karate drills and kata make them easier to perform over time, and it also opens up opportunities for doing more complex drills and katas, and for having a deeper understanding of the karate moves themselves. Perhaps because I trained in karate myself for years, this analogy struck home for me. It makes so much sense that contemplating and pursuing my life’s purpose is a skill I need to hone every day, rather than a far-in-the-future goal I can only dream about.
Second, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Self-actualization is at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s pyramid acknowledges that we first need our basic needs to be met — basically, four layers of his hierarchy, which includes food and shelter, respect, etc — before we can find self-actualization. In Maslow’s pyramid, the lower-level needs are requirements for every day, whereas the higher level ones, including self-actualization, are nice to have after the lower-level needs are already met. Tamashiro posits that self-actualization, or ikigai, is actually just as essential an everyday need, and recommends mindfulness and meditation as a means to figure out your ikigai and incorporate it into your everyday.
I’m a big fan of Maslow’s hierarchy. In fact, one of the snags in this book for me is the (to me false) dichotomy Tamashiro seems to set up between pursuing one’s ikigai and unwillingness to give up creature comforts. For example, Tamashiro recommends taking an ‘iki-gap year’ to figure out your purpose, and says you may need to make sacrifices, but you can’t wait till after retirement to pursue your ikigai. He gives the example of quitting his cushy but unfulfilling CBC job at 51, and relying on savings and his wife’s salary. To his credit, he and his wife did agree that since he was the one who quit his job, he’d also be the one to drastically cut back on spending, so she wouldn’t have to sacrifice much of her current lifestyle.
But while I agree that living your ikigai shouldn’t be put off, taking an ‘iki-gap year’ is a privilege that isn’t possible for many. Even if I give up takeout and Starbucks completely, and move to a cheaper place, my reality is that I can’t afford to give up a full year of work. And for people who have dependants, the ‘iki-gap’ option is even less realistic.
That being said, the idea that your ikigai should be incorporated into your everyday does resonate with me. Tamashiro’s examples of ikigai (to delight others, to care for others, to help others) are broad enough to apply to a wide range of situations, and certainly, living my ikigai would add meaning and worth even amidst the daily grind.
And finally, the story about the dragon slayer.
Spoilers about the ending to the story, which is found in the penultimate chapter.
In this story, a woman is orphaned by a dragon attack, and makes it her life’s mission to slay that dragon and protect the other people in her hometown. The story begins after the dragon is slain. The woman, living comfortably among the rich rewards from her king, is feeling restless. She decides to slay another dragon, except there are no more dragons around. Soon, she encounters an old wise man, who tells her of a dragon hiding in a cave atop a mountain. He sends her on a quest to find that dragon, with two conditions: she takes a little orphan boy with her, and she reflects on her ikigai along the journey. When she gets to the mountain, she realizes there’s no dragon after all. But the journey has made her care for the boy, because they’re both orphans looking for family, and this makes her realize that her ikigai isn’t about slaying dragons, but about caring for others.
I love this, because it’s so easy to imagine that our ikigai is a particular task or set of tasks. I was skeptical at first about how vague Tamashiro’s examples of ikigai tended to be, because obviously, who wouldn’t want to delight others or make others happy? But the story of the dragon slayer made it make sense for me. So often, the tasks that fulfill us and give us meaning are rooted in something deeper. And reflecting on what that something deeper could be opens up possibilities about the things we could do to live out our life’s fulfillment. This also makes it easier to incorporate ikigai into various aspects of our lives, even aspects that may not always excite us. And best of all, we don’t need an ‘iki-gap year’ to make it happen.