It’s Sunday evening and you're enjoying how wonderfully quiet it is, probably after a weekend of rest or pleasurable activity that came after a long hard week. Tomorrow is Monday, it should be just another day of the week, and the beginning of a new work week. But for you, Sunday nights are often spent in the habit of trying to not think about Monday. As Sunday comes to an end, you feel a familiar, quiet desperation in the middle of your chest, like a punch deep in your solar plexus. It is a hurt without pain, a feeling that something inevitably difficult will happen tomorrow.
Tomorrow you will return to “work”, the block of time and creativity that you have agreed to trade for a roof over your head and food on your table. If you play it right you will trade enough time, experiences, and shiny things to confirm—and justify—your duty and commitment. You will return to your post daily, to do things that you know you were not really put on the earth to do.
I have been there more than once. I’ve spent the wonderful weekend with friends, or by myself, and felt the Sunday night looming over me as it starts to turn dark outside. I’ve stepped outside for privacy, and gone for a walk to watch a stillness settle on the city. There is a change in the color and temperament of everything around me as the hours progress from sunset to night, knowing that tomorrow I will be trapped in a room with people that are indifferent to my interests.
You’ve been there too, in some form or another. You’ve sighed and wondered how you got to this place in your life. How it became that you were not making art but somehow pushing someone else’s ideas up the hill or tolerating ideas that made your mouth taste of tin.
That would make anyone hate Mondays, despise the rest of the week.
Someone once introduced me to this idea of ikigai which, translated from the Japanese, means “reason for being.” Until then I had no idea that there was such a singular word in any language for what I had thought about for most of my life. Ikigai is not about finding the right job or field of work: that's the sensible assumption in a culture infatuated with productivity and cash—markers of success.
Every profession has examples of people who can be expected to deliver reliably at superhuman level. They're competitive and they're also miserable with their life: they've spent a lifetime becoming better at something they're good at, without giving too much thought to how that might play out in the long term. Easy to do when they're young and rewarded for performance. But eventually, when they're not paying attention, it suddenly hits them that in the course of their life, they've changed—their sense of purpose and value has altered —and their old role can't satisfy new criteria.
I ran into a senior level advertising guy on Sixth Avenue once. A couple of years before, we'd worked together. In front of me now, he was on a bike with a messenger bag. He stopped and greeted me cheerfully. He was lighter and had a big smile, I almost didn't recognize him—I'd actually never seen him show any emotion when we'd worked together. Apparently, after close to two decades in, he'd quit his six-figure gig, pared down to essentials and made his exit from advertising for good. When I ran into him, he was “trying out different things”—delivering documents on a bike was on the list to try out for this month.
But back to ikigai . It seems to be about something significantly deeper than picking the right job. It might have more to do with picking the right way of life that works with the things you care about. It's what comes out of the other side from asking yourself the essential questions:
• What makes my life worth living?
• How can I move in the direction of being more useful in the world?
These aren't small questions. Getting clarity about one's place in the world has profound effect on how to perceive the world, and in turn how we respond. There's growing scientific evidence that the feeling of ikigai is essential to a healthy mental and spiritual life, and indeed to good health.
If tackling these questions makes you slightly uncomfortable, know that you're not alone and that these remain perennial questions. It might be a discreet invitation to take a good look at what you value, consider if it's just a bug in the operating system, or time for a rewrite of major parts of your internal software so that you function more authentically—no matter what you're doing or in whatever profession you have engaged.
Afew years ago, after figuring there had to be more to life than what I was doing, I took a hard look inward and decided to test a few ideas. What did I wanted to accomplish with my life, what fields of work I was comfortable enough to involve myself in, and what kinds of personalities were tolerable? I knew it would require some radical thinking, that it would cost me friends and mean discomfort.
But it was essential. Because I would hate to make it to the other side of another decade of my life only to look back and see decades of a life not worth living. I have not looked back.