With the start of any new year, it's only natural to be thinking about what we want in life, how to achieve it, and whether we're currently on that path. You may not be interested in making any resolutions per se, but it's still a good time to check in with your goals or take a moment to think about your perspective of your professional and personal life.
With that in mind, every person deserves and is entitled to his or her own definition of success, and yet three particular goals seem to dominate the landscape of our mutual desires: health, longevity, and happiness. There's no doubt that genes play a role in each of these, but at the same time, we're empowered in many ways to affect how we fare in each category.
It's possible that no culture is more acutely aware of this--and practiced at it--than the Japanese.
Two concepts that are indigenous to that culture--neither of which has a direct English translation--demonstrate an incredibly wise approach to self-actualization and fulfillment in life.
1. There's a science to satisfaction, and the Japanese call the end result ikigai.
Ikigai refers to a deep, compelling motivation to do what you do on a daily basis. Finding that motivation doesn't have to involve guesswork, though. It's the predictable result of cultivating a sustainable career that you're also truly passionate about. Put another way, ikigai is what you have when you manage to find the intersection of what you love, what you're good at, what other people need, and what you can prosper by doing.
Understanding these various contributing factors as they relate to your life can have a powerful impact not only on the choices you make, but also on how you go about making them. On the other hand, failing to include any of the four in your decision-making process inevitably leads to a lack of some kind, from financial security to a sense of meaning or even self-worth.
That said, explaining ikigai is one thing--finding it is another. For that, you need to understand the second concept:
2. Wabi-sabi is the intentional valuing of impermanence and imperfection.
It makes a lot of sense to value those qualities since they apply to literally every aspect of the universe. Nothing is permanent. Everything--everything--is constantly transitioning at either a microscopic or macroscopic level. Perhaps the only thing that refuses to change with time is the fact that all things are changing. Hence, the importance of accepting impermanence.
Nothing is perfect, either. Isn't perfection just an idea--a common bit of hyperbole--as opposed to an achievable state of being? In that sense, it is actually the imperfection and the impermanence of things that make them what they are, be they objects, people, or careers.
As you pursue ikigai, the idea of wabi-sabi can inform the process and keep you grounded by reminding you that none of what you experience will be perfect, nor will it last forever--and realizing that makes it all the more achievable.
3. Ideas are great, but action is better--and there's proof that putting these ideas into action pays off.
I was first introduced to ikigai by Rajat Mishra, senior vice president of customer experience at Cisco. Mishra also serves on the board of Adruta Children's Home, an orphanage that helps 450-plus children realize their full potential. He has recently been named to Wharton Business School's 40 Under 40, Silicon Valley's 40 Under 40, and Cisco's Amazing People.
Mishra had a humble beginning in India. He lives his life with a deep sense of gratitude and humility, noting that true fulfillment and purpose come from meaningful work and meaningful relationships--ikigai at its core. Mishra said:
I feel lucky and deeply inspired to work at Cisco, working on something like customer experience, which I believe will change the world. Surrounded by leaders like Maria Martinez, whom I admire. And, in a company whose culture of giving back, caring for employees, and taking bold risks mirrors my own values of kindness, courage, and learning. As we start the new year, I want to let people know that a path exists where you can excel at your job, make money, do meaningful work, invest in your families--all while making an impact.
Mishra's wife, Deepti Juturu (named to Silicon Valley's 40 Under 40 in 2018), found her ikigai in a fast-growing start-up she founded, Prezentium--a company with a business and social mission. On the business front, Prezentium delivers designer-quality business presentations overnight and has expanded to hundreds of customers in two years without a sales team. On the social front, a part of her profits goes toward helping underprivileged children around the world--for example, Sonia Nabeta Foundation in Uganda, which helps kids with Type 1 diabetes. Juturu said:
Quitting corporate life and starting Prezentium when my daughter was 6 months old was hard. But I am reminded of my purpose every day--when a customer tells me that Prezentium played a role in building a business presentation that changed their career; when an employee tells me that Prezentium gave her the opportunity to get back in the workforce and find her voice; when my kids tell me their mom has courage; and when young children in Uganda believe they can beat Type 1 diabetes and change the world.
Overall, it's difficult, if not impossible, to tease apart all the genetic, environmental, and psychological factors that determine a person's success. What we do know is that the Japanese have longer lifespans than any other country in the world--with one village, in particular, being home to hundreds of residents over the age of 100.
Additionally, there is no direct translation for the word "retire" into Japanese--meaning they tend to find and stick to work that satisfies them so much, they never care to quit doing it. These facts combined seem to indicate that ikigai is something we could all benefit from possessing.
Achieving success is difficult enough, but many of us feel compelled to define it as well. Ikigai can give us a target. Wabi-sabi can steady our aim. Understanding their parallel roles can help us put to rest forever the debate over the importance of loving what you do versus doing what you love. Clearly, we should be striving for both.