One of my Christmas presents was a book: The Little Book of Ikigai, by Ken Mogi. The term ikigai refers to a Japanese concept of attaining one’s purpose in life. Within the first few pages, I was flooded with recognition. So much of this concept voices thoughts I’ve been trying to put words to recently.
Much of my life has been about achieving success and recognition in the things I do. From my career in urban affairs to playing the violin, I was motivated by the appreciation others showed for my achievements. Talent and ambition went hand in hand. It wasn’t until a serious crisis in my life plunged me into introspection (which I describe in my autobiographical book. Passage of the Stork) that I realized that achievement and recognition have very little to do with happiness. And because you’re good at something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your life’s purpose.
The concept of ikigai has nothing to do with success or recognition, although some people who have attained ikigai in their lives are renowned for what they do. But that is because they show such passion and commitment to excellence that one cannot help but admire the fruits of their labor.
So if attaining one’s purpose in life isn’t about achieving success or recognition, what is it? It’s about being aware of the small things that make one happy. The delighted look on my grandchild’s face. The silhouette of trees in the fog. The luxury of the first shower in more than a week, after my accident. The transient reflections of reeds in water. The delicacy of a small bird perched on a branch before it flies off.
It’s this appreciation of small joys instead of large dreams that holds the key to one’s highly individual purpose in life. I don’t pretend to explain – nor do I completely understand – what ikigai is. But the first step is a small, humble one, that is for sure. Which brings me back to Christmas. Because isn’t this what Christmas is about? The small, fleeting beauty of light overtaking darkness, however briefly?