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Stuck in Midlife Crisis? Time to U-Turn -- ikigai part 1

Bryan Liu
7 min read
Stuck in Midlife Crisis? Time to U-Turn -- ikigai part 1
Van Gogh chiming in on the "life" voyage

Table of Contents

(this is part 1 of a 3 part series)

Do you feel dissatisfied with your job? Are you itching to leave it all behind and wanting to do something that resonates with your soul? You are not alone. When the world was slowly returning back to normal post-Covid in 2021, a phenomenon happened. Workers were not coming back to the workplace, resulting in a massive labor shortage across all industries and functions. They called it – the Great Resignation.

I certainly was dissatisfied with my career. Fifteen some years after college, I have switched careers numerous times – a computer engineer (staple Asian male career); a futile attempt to break into the financial industry (then ‘08 happened); a marketer marketing tractors in rural China (how I ended up there is another bedtime story); a software engineer working at startups that imploded more spectacularly one after another. I was getting paid more and more, and yet  I was further and further from fulfillment. What went wrong?

Then, in 2021, I saw an internet meme, and it forever changed my mind and my career path. It is ikigai

Ikigai – the treasure map to find your North Star

Ikigai is a Japanese term (生き甲斐) which essentially means Reason for Living, in other words, living on purpose. In 2014, blogger Marc Winn published an article “What is your ikigai”, and it went viral on the internet.

This was revealing to me because it clearly showed me where I was on the map. Professionally I was stuck in the “Profession” intersection (how ironic isn’t it), but emotionally I didn’t know what I love anymore and spiritually I was addicted to my own pains. Ikigai, like a treasure map, showed me what was missing in my career and life.

Thus began my journey to find my ikigai– my North Star, my purpose.

How to interpret ikigai

Before we go any further, I must note that I don’t like how the internet has interpreted ikigai (article for another time). The venn diagrams are insightful, but “how to find your ikigai” was never sufficient. Online interpretations preach about finding your ikigai but never bother showing you how. In addition, unactionable and cryptic labels were added to the intersections without any explanations. To help better understand this treasure map, let us discard what’s out there and to start anew.

I will interpret the ikigai map in 3 parts:

  1. Part 1 – Why you have been sailing backwards
  2. Part 2 – Treasures in the Creator's Paradise
  3. Part 3 – Tactics to rapid experiment and unstuck yourself (TBD)

In this post, I will focus on part 1. Here we go.

The story about you and how you relate to the World

Our life story is about how we relate to the world around us and what we should do with ourselves. Ikigai is asking us to understand what we love to do and what we are great at doing. It also asks us to understand what the world needs and what the world is willing to pay for.

When we do what we love and what we are great at and also serve a need in the world and get paid for doing so, we’ve discovered our ikigai. This is our North Star which will guide us in the direction of happiness,fulfillment, and abundance. The 4 circles in ikigai are like compasses, and they each show us a dimension that reveals our ikigai.

However, the secret to discovering our ikigai lies not just with the 4 circles, but in the order of how we navigate through them.

You have been sailing backwards in your career

Imagine you are on a boat and want to sail towards your true North, a destination where you’d find happiness and purpose. You’ve been sailing for quite some time, but somehow you feel anxious, worried, and frustrated. You look at your compass, and suddenly you realize your compass had been faulty this whole time and you were sailing South. You’d eventually reach North, but it’s gonna take an awfully long way to get there.

The faulty compass is configured this way: find the professions that pay the most, go to schools to get trained in the skills, then get hired and get paid. When you have money, you can then buy stability, upgrade your living standards, and afford love. After all that, you can then live a purposeful and happy life.

What if we can navigate differently? Let’s take a look at some people who've sailed in the reverse. From Elon Musk to Steve Jobs, these entrepreneurs pushed the envelope of human civilization with their creations and companies. But interestingly, both of them stated that money wasn’t the motivator. Instead, their desire to improve and better the world with their gifts and curiosities drove their behaviors and actions; money is the byproduct.

Consider reversing the above faulty compass: start with the needs of others that resonate with you, develop a love to help those needs, acquire skills to address those needs, and get paid doing so. When the compass is configured this way, you tap into the powerful motivator of helping others, and then intrinsically develop the drive and curiosities to acquire skills necessary to do the job. This pushes you to become the expert on solving those needs, and other people will then pay you for your expertise. This virtuous cycle not only addresses the needs, but also allows you to tap into your hidden potential while enabling economic progress. It’s a win-win-win situation.

Sounds almost too good to be true? Allow me to elaborate with the following parable of the stonemasons.

Parable of the 2 stone masons

One day there are two stone masons laying bricks. You ask the first one what he is doing, and he answers, “I am laying down bricks. This is the only job I can get and pays the bills. The work is hard and my boss is pushing me too much. I hate this job.” You ask the second stonemason what he is doing, and he answers, “I am laying down bricks. I am thankful I have this opportunity, because I am building a Cathedral. I am working on honing my skills with great bosses. I’m loving my job and it pays the bills.”

The moral of the story is the perspectives. One mason prioritized his financial needs first and love and service last. The other did the reverse – putting the needs of others first and his own financial needs last. Both are doing the same job and get the same pay, but one has the perspective of scarcity while the other of service. One mason is merely making ends meet, while the other is building the Sagrada Familia (it’s been under construction for over 100+ years).

The shift in their perspective and how they viewed their situation revealed different paths to their ikigai, just one is obviously in the opposite direction.

How I reversed course in my career

For a very long time I was not content nor fulfilled with how my career was progressing. After hopping through careers and jobs, I was pretending to seek meaning, but, truth be told, my motivation was money. Obviously that led me to a dead end, and I grew to dislike my software engineering trade. This was a real predicament because my livelihood depended on this trade.

To turn my ship around, I quitted my job and exited from this industry all together. Instead of answering requirements from higher ups, which oftentimes came from the whims of the CEO or some VP, I focused on the small needs right in front of me – my brother’s and mine. My brother and I were trading crypto and doing things manually. It was very time consuming and laborious. I saw a need to automate this process to make our lives easier. Thus I applied my software engineering skills and built an automated trading system for us. It was a long and hard project, but in the end it was very satisfying and fulfilling. I made my brother’s (and mine) life easier, and I am hooked on this process. For the first time in a long time, I felt agency and sovereign. I felt alive.

This new pattern showed me a more fulfilling way to navigate my life and career. Now, I see the needs in others that I genuinely care about – finding meaningful careers, realigning identities, building better life habits, etc – and I can actually apply my skills to make real impacts. And I know I will be financially fine because people do pay for experts to solve these needs.

I’ve found a path towards my ikigai, and now every morning I can’t wait to wake up and start paddling towards it.

Cool, but how do I reverse course?

In this post, I wanted to open your mind to the ikigai treasure map and the importance of navigating towards your North Star. But there’s a lot more to the map. Do I follow my passions? What if my passion doesn’t make money? What even is my passion? To understand the nature of these problems, we must dive deeper into the multi-dimensions of intersection. Each dimension of intersection reveals another insight on this treasure map, guiding us eventually to our treasure – our ikigai.

Reversing your course can be scary and risky, but with proper strategies and tactics you can properly navigate through the choppy waters without sinking. I am going to show you how in the next post.

Stay tuned for <Part 2 – How to read the map of ikigai and find your Vision, Mission, and Abundance (TBD)> and <Part 3 – Tactics to rapid experiment and unstuck yourself (TBD)>

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