I’ll finally be happy when…
Have you ever uttered that line to yourself? I’ve said this often while trying to concoct my dream multipotentialite career as “an educator, coach, public speaker, singer, dancer, classical pianist, and activist with a smile.” Over the years, I’ve tried to find just the right combination of these interests and passions to keep me smiling, always believing that true happiness was just out of reach. I thought I only needed to keep spinning that Rubik’s cube until one day – happy day! – everything would line up perfectly like it was always meant to be.
On that day, I would find the multipotentialite career that would give me the lasting happiness I was looking for.
One of the concepts I used to get me there is what you may know as Ikigai. Have you heard of it? The version I first learned taught me that your dream career, your one true calling, or even your reason for being – depending on how ambitious you get with it – must meet four criteria. It must be something you love, that you’re good at, that you can get paid for, and that the world needs. It’s often illustrated as a 4-part Venn diagram, with “Ikigai” in the middle where everything overlaps.
Ikigai sounded like a dream at first
When I first discovered this set of overlapping circles, I thought I had finally found The One – the framework that was going to make my dream of a happy multipotentialite career come true. All I had to do was pin down exactly what I was good at, what I loved, what I could get paid for, and what the world needed, then work my way up to finding a career path that answered all four questions. Happiness – via my One True Calling – would be waiting for me, right there in the middle.
But it wasn’t. Because that’s not Ikigai at all.
Don’t get me wrong—in my opinion, What do I love? and What am I good at? are inspiring and intriguing questions to ask, especially when it feels like the world is always trying to ask me What do you do for a living?
I found hope and joy in freely naming my multipotentialite gifts, exploring what I might want to do with each of them, and never having to choose just one to make me happy.
It helped me do all the things
Once I filled out my Venn diagram, I got busy passionately pursuing as many answers to the questions as possible. I got three degrees in education, using them to advocate for students who don’t usually get a voice at the decision-making table. Today, anti-racism and decreasing the stigma of mental illness is part of my daily, life-giving work. I accepted many full-time and part-time jobs developing curriculum of all kinds. I did public speaking, taught workshops, and hosted gigs. I taught and choreographed dance in studios, camps, and dance teams. This year I’m dancing in a musical again! I played piano for professional ballet company rehearsals, accompanied other musicians, played in bands, sang in choirs, and competed in a bunch of classical piano competitions.
As I chased this false concept of Ikigai, I even took the time to celebrate once in a while.
I did it!! I made my generation proud by becoming a paragon of hustle culture! I ran out of words in one of my LinkedIn job descriptions! As this terrible Fiverr ad states, I became a “Doer.”
And then I started to break down.
It helped me burn out
In the midst of celebrating the fact that I was apparently good at a lot of things I loved, some of which the world needed, and many of which I could also make a living doing, I suddenly felt…tired.
It turns out that what I am not good at is adding more than 24 hours to the clock. None of us are. (Time wizards: please get in touch with me at the bottom of this article.) And what I do not love is being so tired that I forget what joy feels like. And I feel quite confident that what the world does not need is another person who is stretched so thin that she is no good to anyone. In a capitalist society, getting paid is essential – I’ll give you that. But getting paid is also a great deal less rewarding when you are too busy and exhausted to appreciate the money you make (by getting paid to do things that you’re good at and that the world needs).
That’s because it wasn’t the real Ikigai at all
You can see where this is going, right? It was time to face the fact that doing more things I loved, making more money than the year before, and even contributing more to what the world needed was absolutely failing to give me the happiness I’d pictured.
The more things I did, the further I felt from finding that magical space in the middle of the diagram. So I did some research. What I found rocked my world:
First, Ikigai is not a Venn diagram.
Second, Ikigai is not about happiness.
Ikigai is about values and purpose
The framework I’d been working with—and that many of us have come to know as Ikigai—is a method that has helped many people identify their purpose. But it isn’t Ikigai. It’s not even Japanese.
It’s known as the Venn diagram of purpose, and Ikigai Tribe attributes it to Spanish author and psychological astrologer, Andres Zuzunaga, who created it in 2011. The diagram first publicly appeared in the book Qué Harías Si No Tuvieras Miedo (What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?) by Borja Vilaseca in 2012.
In fact, Ikigai Tribe says that Ikigai is NOT about making money, about what the world needs from you, or about what you’re good at. For a multipotentialite, this might be a relief!
But get this: Ikigai isn’t always about what you love, either.
That changed things for me. Does it change anything for you?
Living well isn’t the same thing as being happy
“If we understand and define happiness as fleeting moments of joy, delight and peace in the present, then ikigai is more in line with the characteristics of eudaimonia, the condition of human flourishing or of living well.” —Ikigai Tribe
Ikigai is not the short boost of dopamine that we associate with a feeling of happiness, either.
As I kept on researching the real meaning of Ikigai, I found the writing of Kentaro Mori and colleagues from the Tohoku University School of Public Health in Sendai, Japan. They explain,
In Japanese culture, having a sense of ‘life worth living’ (ikigai) is a commonly used indicator of subjective well-being. Ikigai does not merely reflect an individual’s psychological factors (well-being, hopes) but also consciousness about [their] motivation for living, because it has a meaning akin to having a ‘purpose in life’ or a ‘reason for living’. In the most authoritative dictionary used in Japan, ikigai is described as ‘joy and a sense of well-being from being alive’ and ‘realizing the value of being alive’
Real Ikigai gave me my breakthrough
As I read those words, I burst into tears. Happy tears, though.
It turns out that I had been looking for happiness at the center of a Venn diagram, instead of taking stock of the elements of my life that already make it a very good one. When I took a break from crafting the perfect, happiness-inducing multipotentialite career, I realized that I am already living a rich and fulfilling multipotentialite life. Joy has already found me.
Constantly spinning that Rubik’s cube to reconfigure the perfect multipotentialite combination – or perpetually adding more gigs to my hustle – was starting to detract from my sense of wellbeing. So I chose to stop.
A life worth living
What happens when you stop the hustle and start enjoying the living that’s already happening all around you? What changes when you devote yourself to a multipotentialite goal, but feel fulfilled by the process, effort, and focus you put into it instead of making your happiness contingent on a certain outcome? What emerges when you rest in the knowledge that the choices you make are enough? Well, you probably stop being a doer. And you’ll probably get better sleep.
To me, that is a life worth living.
Have you heard of Ikigai? What concepts have you used on your journey toward a fulfilling multipotentialite life? Share with the community in the comments!