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I first heard the word ikigai from a teenager in Cambodia. I was volunteering at a school in the capital Phnom Penh, working with a group of seniors on their college application essays. One of them was a tiny, soft-spoken girl. I'll call her S. She came to Liger from a remote rural village near the border with Thailand. Her village school was where the teachers and students gathered in the dirt beneath a building on stilts. Like all the families in her village, her family was poor. But S. had been lucky. The school she now attended -- Liger Academy -- was a special private school whose staff combed the country for promising students. They lived on campus and received a high-quality education, all of that for free.
When S. went home on holidays, she would bring her school books, have local children come over and she would teach them what she was learning at Liger.
"That's my ikigai," she told me.
I was perplexed. Ikigai? It sounded Japanese, not Khmer, the Cambodian language. Whatever it was, I had no idea what she meant. S. explained that teaching other children was her passion, the thing that gave her supreme satisfaction. It was her ikigai.
Months later, I started researching ikigai. It was, in fact, a Japanese word. I learned that iki means life. Gai means worth or value. Literally, it meant life's worth. But, conceptually, it had more layered meanings and depth. It's often translated or interpreted as a reason for getting up in the morning. A Japanese friend likened it to the French expression raison d'etre, reason for being.
"It is what gives you an ongoing motivation for living your life, or you could also say that it gives you the appetite for life that makes you eager to greet each new day," writes Kenneth Mogi in Awakening Your Ikigai: How the Japanese Wake Up to Joy and Purpose Every Day.
The more I read, the more interpretations I found. I read about small ikigais -- simple daily daily rituals -- and big ikigais -- ambiguous, large-scale projects. A master sushi chef's ikigai was crafting delicious fresh sushi and delighting in his customers' appreciation of it. One person said his ikigai was his morning cup of coffee. Your ikigai can be, well, anything that motives or fulfills or makes you happy. If you know what that is.
To help me understand ikigai better, I spoke with Tim Tamashiro.*,Tim is a Canadian jazz singer and former radio host who immersed himself in the study of ikigai and wrote a book, How To Ikigai: Lessons for Finding Happiness and Living Your Life's Purpose. Our conversation has been edited for brevity.
RC: So, you're the ikigai guy?
TT: The ikigai guy. That's me.
RC: Is it a verb?
TT: I always look at it as a verb. It came from these Ama (female) divers (in Okinawa, Japan). They were these naked divers that go into the sea and they had a purpose to do everyday. These ladies went down to the sea and harvested the sea everyday and they came up with the idea of ikigai. That was life shell because they had a beautiful shell that was quite valuable. They thought we just enjoy this so much, this is what we call life shell. Life value. I think of it as a verb.
RC: What does it translate to in English?
TT: My understanding is iki is life in Japanese. And gai is worth. But the original version of it was iki-kai. Kai means shell. I think the island of Okinawa -- islands of Okinawa (where the divers were) -- started adopting that as something that I can do, something that I'm really good at that is something that I can contribute to the community at the same time, that I enjoy, enjoy the intrinsic value of having something special that I can do that I feel good sharing.
RC: How did you come upon ikigai?
TT: I've always had a strong connection to living with purpose. Right from the time I was a 20-year-old young man. I went out and found these different jobs and everything, thinking that the best paying job was the thing that was going to make me happy. But I was quick to realize it has to have more meaning to it for me to enjoy it. So, it was about eight, ten years ago, I happened to turn on the television one lazy Sunday afternoon. I was looking for something just boring enough to put me to sleep. I stumbled onto a show that had a furniture design competition and one of the contestants on the show made a couch that had an embroidery of four circles. It was the Venn diagram** for ikigai and he explained this. I just perked up and said, 'I'm pretty sure that's a Japanese word.' That's when I started snooping around about it. I thought it was really fascinating.
RC: What led from that to writing about it and becoming immersed in it?
TT: I was a radio announcer at the time when I heard about this ikigai thing. I'd done this for seven or eight years. I was going to be turning 50 and I started re-invent myself one more time. So, coming up for my annual contract, I just kind of said to the management, 'I don't think I'm going to re-sign. I think this is a good opportunity for me to go out and study the things I'm passionate about and learn a little more about this ikigai way of life. I came to make connections to it based on how it affects your overall well-being by doing what you love and doing what you're good at and how people embrace that.
(Tim spent the next year traveling, including to Okinawa where his grandparents were from).
(When I returned) I said to my daughter, "I think I want to take the next step and write a book about this." She said, 'You gotta go for this, dad."
RC: Even before you wrote it, what did you want the book to be about, to say?
TT: I wanted the book to make the point (about) knowing ourselves better and fulfilling our desires and needs. There's something very, very powerful in just knowing that you have come up with some sort of a description to name what it is that you do everyday and like that's all I have to do. For me, my ikigai I describe it as to delight and that includes sitting down and talking to you today. It also means walking around the block today and running into a guy I would see walking around the neighborhood a hundred times and had never stopped to talk to, and I stopped and talked to him today. His name is Mark and he has a beautiful dog. All these things are part of my ikigai.
RC: I'd imagine, in fact, I'm certain some people will say to this, 'That's great. But that's all pretty ethereal. I have got to go to my job and pay my bills. I don't have time to be thinking about my ikigai.
TT: Sounds touching/feely to me?
RC: Yeah. How do you respond to that?
TT: It is absolutely essential for self-actualization to be able to understand what it is that life brings us. Yes, we all need a roof over our head. We all need to have safety and security and to take care of our ego everyday and those types of things. But usually that's where people stop. And that's just the human mind. I never tied ikigai to a career per se. I always tied ikigai to doing what you love.
RC: What are the four directions of ikigai?
TT: It's do what you love. Do what you're good at. Do what the world needs. Do what you can be rewarded for. I took a little bit of license with the fourth.
RC: I'm looking at it in the context of retirement. Many people have difficulty finding ways to fill their time in a meaningful way, doing something they love, doing something they're good at. How does one, certainly a retiree, begin to figure out what your ikigai is?
TT: It does require intention and attention and action. My prescription is to do a three-step process that I call: explore, zero in and ponder. I encourage people to just try everything that they're fascinated by or they always wanted to do.. As I'm sure you've experienced, If you try something out and it really resonates with you, you go deeper with it.
RC: Is it a map rather than a recipe for happiness? Is happiness a word that applies here?
TT: I like to think of it as, by doing acts of ikigai everyday as opposed to just looking for stuff to do, you get that feeling of knowing that it's going to make a difference for you. especially, but also the other people you're doing it for. When you're actually doing it, it feels good and when you're thinking back on it and going. 'That was really, really fun. I want to do that again tomorrow.'
Dr. Akihiro Hagesawa is a Japanese clinical psychologist and associate professor at Toyo Eiwa University, who began studying ikigai more than 25 years ago. He says he became curious about ikigai after noticing that his dementia patients who had an ikigai did much better than those who did not. He found that the progression of dementia in those with an ikigai was markedly slower in the former group.
Dr. Hagesawa's definition of ikigai focuses, among other things, one's ability to live in the moment.
"I would describe it as the feeling that one is alive here and now and the individual awareness that makes him or her want to survive," he said. "It's finding meaning in the day-to-day living."
Dr. Hasegawa says the elements of ikigai are self-realization, willingness to live, sense of fulfillment in everyday life, motivation to live, sense of existence and sense of control.
What's his ikigai?
* Tim Tamashiro offers an on-line course via Skillshare: Do What You Love - Create a Meaningful Life with Ikigai https://www.skillshare.com/r/user/timtamashiro?gr_tch_ref=on&gr_trp=on
** Dr. Hagesawa disagrees with the popular Venn diagram representation of ikigai. He thinks it does not accurately represent the Japanese concept of ikigai.
Cover photo credit: Getty Images