Floating through life can be an exhausting process. Trust me, I have tried and it is not worth the effort (or lack thereof).
Growing up, it seemed that every couple of years I would wake up to the arrival of a new sibling. I finally gave up on having a younger sister after Brother #5 came along.
In reality, I slept through the 60s….I had no idea what all the fuss was about the Beatles, the drug culture, Vietnam War or any of that. Insulated as I made myself, each day was pretty much the same: wake up, do what I was told, wait for the sun to set and do it all again the next day.
The intervening years had me floating through what I have jokingly called “my nine brilliant careers.” It wasn’t that I didn’t commit to anything….it was just that many opportunities came my way and I tended to embrace them without any thought in mind as to where it would lead me.
I was reasonably content; I was certainly busy, and in the busy-ness of the days with children, home and work, it was easy to mask that I really was not all that content.
Well, this is not a path I would encourage anyone to follow. In my career as a freelance writer and health coach, I have learned something about what it takes to be in this world and be content.
It all revolves around doing what we want that makes us feel useful and, here is the important part, fulfilled.
In 2005, National Geographic researcher and writer Dan Buettner published an article that identified five places in the world where there was the highest concentration of centenarians — people who lived to be more than 100 years old, and were living healthy and vibrant lives.
He went on to publish his work in The Blue Zones, and what he found was that there were nine common traits of people in these areas (the Power9). One trait in particular fascinated me: having a sense of purpose. Those in Okinawa call this “ikigai”; in Costa Rica it is “plan de vida”.
People with a strong sense of purpose — what gets them out of bed in the morning with enthusiasm and joy — on average add seven years to their life expectancy. Studies also show that there is a detrimental effect for those who have no sense of purpose, or who have lost it for one reason or another.
Figuring out that ikigai can be a challenge, especially for those of us who have not made it a lifetime aim to live with a sense of purpose and meaning. To find it, Buettner suggests taking the time to make a list of our values, the things we like to do and then, the things we are good at. The cross section of these is the ikigai. Another way to look at it is to ask the following four questions:
What do I love?….. What am I good at?….. What can I be paid for now as a career?….. What does the world need?
Perhaps this is why I let life happen to me. First, I couldn’t isolate what exactly I love to do, was good at, that had a value big enough to create meaning, as well as a way to make a living doing it.
Beyond that, even if I could find that sweet spot, the risk of failure to achieve it was a huge stumbling block for me. I didn’t seem to be able to get away from the idea that what I could contribute to the world had any value to anyone but me.
Through the years, though, I have seen others successful in life doing work that mattered to them. Think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or any of those people on cable TV whose “rags to riches” stories involved them taking a risk to do something they love, and hitting that sweet spot in the process.
What I understand now is that all of these people had a vision, a goal and a plan. Their desire to do work that bounced them out of bed in the morning was greater than the risk of failing. More than that, their desire to be happy outstripped the thought of living a life doing something they disliked, simply because it paid bills, or was something that made others happy. They were determined to not be defeated.
In reality, we make life more complicated than it should be because our focus is out of line. It is far healthier to hit that sweet spot — the ikigai, and in doing so, everything else falls into place.
The challenge for me has been to take that risk. I believe that there are more of us who would rather take the risk of living life rather than merely existing day-to-day and going through the motions. This sense of purpose is the most important trait of the Power9 because without it, all the others (eating right, movement consistently, family/friends, etc…) can be achieved, but in all likelihood will not bring the contentment we all hope to have.