Passion + mission + vocation + profession = “Ikigai”

Screenshot from businessinsider.com

Laura Oliver, writing for the World Economic Forum (via Business Insider), discusses the Japanese philosophy and practice of “ikigai” as “a way to live longer and better.” She explains:

While there is no direct English translation, ikigai is thought to combine the Japanese words ikiru, meaning “to live,” and kai, meaning “the realization of what one hopes for.” Together these definitions create the concept of “a reason to live” or the idea of having a purpose in life.

Oliver adds that according to experts, four key questions start us down the path toward the state of ikigai:

  • What do you love?
  • What are you good at?
  • What does the world need from you?
  • What can you get paid for?

Elusive combination

Okay, let’s be honest. Work and career opportunities that combine the answers to these four questions are not easy to obtain or create. We’re talking about the gold standard here. Nevertheless, if these inquiries can lead us to the best opportunities given current realities, then we’re better off for doing the exercise.

Unexpected difficulties

Furthermore, let’s acknowledge that what look like “dream jobs” from even the slightest distance can deteriorate into something much less in terms of reality. Many readers who have found this blog because of their experiences with workplace bullying, mobbing, or harassment can attest to that. So…the human side of our work environment may have a lot to do with ikigai, too, yes?

For those who have experienced the nasty side of work, perhaps the ikigai concept can help you think through your next options.

Skilled trades, too

In using the term “profession,” the graphic pictured above may suggest that ikigai has a white collar, professional bias. So let’s be sure to include skilled trades, among other things, as part of the mix. For example, take a look at this essay by Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft, which examines how deeply meaningful it can be to make a living via manual labor. (He later expanded the essay into a book by the same title, published in 2009.)

Avocations as an option

If that all-encompassing dream job proves to be elusive, then perhaps turning part of the dream into an avocation is an option. I’ve written about that possibility and how satisfying it can be, such as in this 2010 piece, “Embracing Creative Dreams at Midlife.”

***

Hat tip to Dr. Peggy Berry for the Business Insider article.

The 4-hour workday vs. no work at all: Utopian and dystopian visions of laboring

Could we be more creative and productive by working only four hours a day? If the work habits of folks like Charles Darwin are any indication, the answer may be a resounding “yes.”

In a feature article for The Week, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less (2016), looks at the work habits of highly accomplished creative people through history and finds that they:

…all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking.

As for Darwin specifically, he authored 19 books, including the paradigm-making Origin of Species. Once a workaholic, he settled on a daily schedule that looked something like this, as Pang writes:

  • “After his morning walk and breakfast, Charles Darwin was in his study by 8 a.m. and worked a steady hour and a half.”
  • “At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters.”
  • “At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary or greenhouse to conduct experiments.”
  • “By noon, he would declare, ‘I’ve done a good day’s work,’ and set out on a long walk.”
  • “When he returned after an hour or more, Darwin had lunch and answered more letters.”
  • “At 3 p.m. he would retire for a nap; an hour later he would arise, take another walk, then return to his study until 5:30, when he would join his wife and family for dinner.”

So, if you want to know how to write 19 books and fundamentally change the way we think about human evolution, you might start by cutting back on the work hours! Alright, maybe it’s not that simple — I’m guessing that Darwin’s mind was hard at work even during his “down time.” In any event, Pang’s full article is a thought-provoking read and challenges the notion that a constant nose to the grindstone makes us more creative.

When technology eliminates jobs

The idea of the four-hour workday may be enormously appealing to those who enjoy flexibility in their work schedules and who are involved in creative endeavors that generate income based on the result rather than the time clocked in on a job. But what about the vast majority of workers whose livelihoods require being present on the job for x hours a day? What if their work literally disappears? Yuval Noah Harari writes for The Guardian:

Most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. As artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs.

 . . . The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms. Consequently, by 2050 a new class of people might emerge – the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable.

If you want a prime example of how this is already occurring, consider corporate responses to fast-food workers who are advocating for a living wage: These workers are at risk of being replaced by robots. As Kate Taylor reports for Business Insider:

“It’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient making $15 an hour bagging french fries,” former McDonald’s USA CEO Ed Rensi said in an interview on Tuesday on the Fox Business Network’s “Mornings with Maria.” “It’s nonsense and it’s very destructive and it’s inflationary and it’s going to cause a job loss across this country like you’re not going to believe.”

According to Rensi, rising labor costs are forcing chains to cut entry-level jobs and replace workers with machines. Currently, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Panera are rolling out kiosks across the US, in part because of the rising cost of labor.

Long hours by choice…or not

Here in America, we love to extol the virtues of the work ethic, and for better or worse, it shows. For example, Ben Steverman reported for Bloomberg last fall on a new study by economists Alexander Bick (Arizona State U), Bettina Bruggemann (McMaster U), and Nicola Fuchs-Schundeln (Goethe U) shows that Americans put in some of the longest work hours per week compared to their European peers:

A new study tries to measure precisely how much more Americans work than Europeans do overall. The answer: The average person in Europe works 19 percent less than the average person in the U.S. That’s about 258 fewer hours per year, or about an hour less each weekday. Another way to look at it: U.S. workers put in almost 25 percent more hours than Europeans.

This study adds to the continuous string of research studies documenting the long work hours put in by Americans, including a 1997 International Labour Organization report showing that “US workers put in the longest hours on the job in industrialized nations.”

Of course, many of those working long hours aren’t doing so by choice. As has been reported over and again in the news media, the overall state of the American economy and labor market is such that millions of workers have been compelled to take two or three lower-paying, part-time jobs in order to make ends meet.

I think we’re in quite a pickle here. Overwork — by choice or challenging circumstance — is sapping creativity, health, and overall well-being. Technology — a term that instantly causes some people to experience paroxysms of awe and wonder — threatens to make a lot of people unemployable. At the very top, a small number of people (think the McDonald’s ex-CEO in Taylor’s article) stand to grow increasingly wealthy from this dynamic.

GTD? OMG…

Call it a lack of curiosity, but it took me a while to figure out that the acronym “GTD” referred to Getting Things Done, inspired in part by efficiency expert David Allen’s bestseller Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (pictured above). Now when I see references to personal GTD systems, I know that folks are talking about the tools and techniques they use to be efficient and productive. Usually they involve some type of notebook/journal (such as that pictured below) or digital app.

And all of this makes me very, very nervous.

You see, I’m not a GTD kinda guy. I think by most measures, I’m pretty productive. I meet most deadlines. I’m almost always at a place when I have to be (classes, meetings, social engagements, whatever), and in fact I typically show up early or right at the start. But when it comes to overall scheduling, I usually make it up on an as-needed basis. The thought of having a multi-layered GTD system sends shudders up my spine!

I understand fully how those juggling kids and jobs, or those with any type of military training, might be shaking their heads at my lack of discipline. But even they, too, must admit that their scheduling is largely imposed on them!

So, can one be both very productive and incredibly undisciplined at the same time? I offer myself as proof that the answer is yes, at least sometimes. I’m going to devote the biggest chunk of this afternoon to working in the library. And even though I have yet to decide what I’ll be working on, I think it will be time well spent.

The daily commute as an element of job satisfaction (or lack thereof)

Do you factor in a daily commuting experience as part of your overall job satisfaction? If you don’t, then maybe you should.

Shana Lebowitz writes for Business Insider on “how most of us underestimate just how miserable commuting can make us.” She cites research published in the Harvard Business Review:

That’s according to a team of researchers writing in The Harvard Business Review. They cite multiple studies that suggest commuting can be more stressful than actually working, and that the longer your commute, the less satisfied you may be with your job and with life in general.

Her conclusion? “Reduce your commute. As in, move closer to your office or find a job closer to your home.”

Urban commuter here

My commuting-to-work experiences have been exclusively by city subways. (I haven’t owned a car since 1982!) I’m more than willing to exchange suburban home space for the experience of city living.

After graduating from law school, for years I made weekday subway trips from Park Slope, Brooklyn to lower Manhattan. My love affair with New York was still in full flower, so I dealt with the frustrations, delays, and packed subway cars with (somewhat) stoic patience. The average door-to-door commuting time was 40-50 minutes, but it often felt much longer because of the miserable rush hour experience. When I look back at those years, I’m surprised there weren’t more displays of maniacal acting out by otherwise mature, sensible people!

For the past fourteen years, I’ve been doing subway trips from Jamaica Plain, Boston, to downtown Boston, where my university is located. The average commuting time is about 30-40 minutes, made much easier by the fact that a flexible work schedule allows me to largely avoid rush hour traveling. The biggest difference between this and my NYC subway experience is that I can usually get a seat on the train, which for me translates into opportunities to read a book, magazine, or newspaper.

Economic class impacts

However, I’m also cognizant of the fact that I’ve had some choices in this regard. In Greater Boston, for example, housing costs have driven more and more people into outer ring suburbs and beyond. Their lengthier commutes are often imposed upon them. Similar patterns are evident in other popular metro areas as well.

Of course, others choose to live in suburban areas, even if it means a longer work commute. Personally, I can’t understand the appeal of suburban living, but many of my friends feel completely the opposite way! In any event, smoother commutes — whether by car or by train — would be good for everyone. If we use this research data to inform how we can improve the quality of lives overall, then we should invest in transportation systems that ease commuting experiences to and from urban centers.

“What are they working on?”

Busy Saturday afternoon in Bates Hall reading room, Boston Public Library, Central Branch

One of my favorite places in Boston is the Central Library of the Boston Public Library (BPL). It is a beautiful, historic place that happens to be a great spot to work and study and to discover and explore books. It also has adapted to the times and offers lovely places to enjoy coffee and a bite to eat.

On Saturday I had some work to do, so I hopped on the subway to the library and found a seat in the sumptuous Bates Hall reading room. I snapped the photo above during a break. Whenever I work in Bates Hall, I like to gaze around at fellow library patrons and silently ask myself, What are they working on? 

On days like Saturday, college students clearly make up the largest category of BPL users, with textbooks and laptops visible on the tables. But you also see folks who are working on stuff that appears to have nothing to do with school. For example, sitting across from me today was a man who was carefully writing out pages in longhand; unlike most people, he didn’t have a computer or tablet with him. I wonder if people like him are working on something we may read or hear about someday, or whether it’s just their own little private projects.

The main reason for my visit was far more mundane. I was there to read and send feedback on student paper outlines and drafts. I could’ve stayed home or gone into the office to do that work, but sometimes the change of scenery makes me more productive and focussed. On Saturday, it worked, with an assist from the library’s public wifi so slowed down by the number of users in the building that it discouraged Internet surfing.

At times I will truly show my geek colors by picking a weekend afternoon to visit the BPL simply to hang out and read. I still subscribe to a lot of print magazines and periodicals, and on these occasions I will stuff a bunch of unread issues and maybe a book or two into my backpack and head off to the library for a reading mini-marathon. I’m not sure what it says about me that I take such pleasure in these visits, but I’m thankful for a place like this to host them.

The Central Library’s Italianate courtyard, during a visit earlier this winter

Working while distracted (and wired)

I was less distracted when this was my PC (image of Commodore 64 computer courtesy of Wikipedia)

I was less distracted when this was my PC (Commodore 64 computer, courtesy of Wikipedia)

Raise your hand if the daily torrent of news coming out of Washington D.C. continues to serve as an unwanted distraction, perhaps intrusion, at work.

If you follow the news at all and have access to the Internet or a news media source during work time, my guess is that you’re raising your hand with me. In fact, I cannot recall another sustained period of ongoing news developments that has so commanded our attention. Dramatic, sometimes disorienting developments seem to occur on a daily basis, and the practically instantaneous nature about the way news is reported in the digital era has created news cycles within news cycles.

To be sure, the political news developments today are attention-grabbing. But let’s not forget the role of technology in making them so of-the-moment. Imagine, for example, how completely distracting major events of the Second World War would’ve been had modern communications technologies been available to cover and report them. (Picture embedded reporters covering, say, carrier launches of aircraft during the Battle of Midway!)

Another more bottom-line impact is organizational productivity. How is this ongoing drama affecting the aggregate outputs of workplaces in both qualitative and quantitative terms? I strongly suspect the answer is not a positive one.

How do you take and keep notes?

photo-569

Janet uses a hardcover sketchbook for her notes.

Okay, dear readers — especially academicians, students, lifelong learners, frequent conference goers, and other “information society” folks — here’s my question: How do you take and keep notes?

This Way Out (1972), a classic early guidebook to non-traditional higher education by John Coyne and Tom Hebert, includes some marvelous chapters on lifelong learning skills and practices, pre-digital style. It says this about taking notes:

Make a decision now for life, just how you are going to keep your lecture and reading notes. We wish we had done this earlier so that we could have saved them. We’re always in situations where we take notes. Watching a TV discussion, public lectures, conversations. We have finally settled on 4-by-6 inch scratch pads, and yellow legal pads for interviews and long lectures. There must be better systems. One friend takes notes (any size), quotes and interesting miscellaneous Xeroxes, stapes them to 5-by-8 inch cards which he labels and keeps in a card file.

Of course, their note taking system is a blast from the past. The mere idea of recording notes onto paper is foreign to a lot of folks, especially in this digital age of tablets and software programs like Evernote and OneNote.

That said, I remain drawn to taking notes the old fashioned way. It is an aesthetic as well as educational preference.

For some reason, this topic has been on my mind recently. In a recent post I wrote about a fellow singing class student who keeps written notes on each voice class session. At annual board meetings and workshops of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in New York City, I’ve taken delight in watching peace educator Janet Gerson‘s use of hardcover sketchbooks to take and preserve her notes, as well as to host her artistic forays and distractions.

photo-568

And at times she goes artistic.

Alas, unlike Janet, and ignoring the sound advice of Mssrs. Coyne & Hebert, I have not developed a uniform personal note taking system. When I have my act together, I am biased toward Moleskine notebooks. But I also use other brands of notebooks and sketchbooks, my weekly (paper) calendar, scraps of paper, and yes, my computer and tablet. (Sidebar: Even Moleskine has bowed to technology, now offering a “Smart Writing System” that integrates paper and digital writing using a “paper tablet.”)

Individual preferences aside, for purposes of learning and retention, taking notes by hand may very well be more effective than typing them into a laptop or tablet, as suggested by a study published in the research journal of the Association for Psychological Science:

Dust off those Bic ballpoints and college-ruled notebooks — research shows that taking notes by hand is better than taking notes on a laptop for remembering conceptual information over the long term. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

So, this is my gentle case for taking notes like some of us learned in grade school. Here’s to heading over to your local stationery or office supply store and picking up a notebook or sketchbook, along with a nice pen that makes writing a pleasure.

%d bloggers like this: