December 28, 2018

Rejecting My Ikigai

While most people say you should follow your dreams, I have instead opted to divorce my raison d’etre from what I do to make money here in Japan.

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of others; instead, seek what they sought.”

— Matsuo Basho
Someone contemplates their ikigai while walking the Kumano Kodo somewhere in Wakayama Prefecture

2018 has been a very, very strange year for me. In many regards, it was by far the best year of my life. What made it so much greater than the others you ask? Well, for starters, as far back as January, my personal brand really began taking off as traffic to this blog started shooting through the roof. Hell, even the almighty Tim Ferris shared one of my articles in his weekly newsletter, 5-Bullet Friday. Life was good, or so it would seem from the outside. Nevertheless, 2018 has been a year of inner turmoil much like the ups and downs of a thrilling roller coaster ride as I struggled to sort out what all this means. While I think I’ve finally nailed the answer, looking back there were more sleepless nights than I care to remember as I navigated what was my dark night of the soul.

Alright, this really shouldn’t even need to be stated but this article obviously isn’t going to be one of my usual travel guides. No, this week we will be taking a break from exploring any of Japan’s numerous hidden gems. Instead, I want to take you through the tumultuous twists and turns that have characterized my past twelve months. In doing so, I hope to introduce to you, the reader, the unique Japanese concept of “ikigai” and why ultimately I ended up electing to walk away from mine. This will be a rather long post but hopefully I can provide some insights regarding complicated decisions involving work, meaning and purpose.

OK, let’s rewind to the closing months of 2017. As the year drew to an end, I felt like I was on top of the whole goddamn world. Over the previous three months, I had really gotten my act together. You see, I had been the most consistent ever in my personal commitments and I was hitting up the gym five days a week. Moreover, I had also settled into a way of eating that was working well for an always-on-the-go nomad like myself. In addition to rocking things on the health front, I was also starting to be noticed by the powers that be. Hell, I was even invited to visit Mt. Takao by none other than the Tokyo Metropolitan Government itself! Even now, it baffles me how straightforward and on track everything seemed back then.

So, what happened to cause all of that to go out the window? Honestly speaking, there wasn’t a clear, defining moment marking any significant change. Instead, as the curtain on 2018 opened and the opening months rolled by, I oddly found myself becoming more and more jaded with the Japanese travel industry. While being inundated with requests from various players, it was becoming increasingly apparent that those in charge simply didn’t have a bloody clue. As an often co-commiserator and fellow veteran of the trenches aptly stated it in this scathing piece, “Government tourism departments were, not so long ago, the place where elderly gentlemen were ‘put out to pasture’ in a place they could do no further damage.”

Prior to my gradual disillusionment in 2018, I had been planning to leverage the notoriety my personal brand was generating to pivot into consulting gigs. I figured that I could leave my marketing job at a major Japanese agency (yes, I have a job outside of this blog) and assist the struggling rural prefectures with targeting tourists who could better appreciate their distinctly local flair. I mean, not to toot my own horn or anything but there are few people out there in Japan who could better guide locations such as the so-called Kyoto of the North to get noticed on the digital map. It’s just kind of what I do.

Alas, life’s a bitch as they say. Despite my inner knowledge of Japan’s business conventions and expert skill set in digital marketing, my efforts were met with nothing more than confused responses. Were my plans too advanced? No, instead as it turns out, the older aged decision makers were unbelievably out of touch with the state of marketing in 2018. They simply didn’t have a clue regarding how to proceed other than continuing to kill a few more trees to assemble flyers that no one wanted in the first place. Lest you think I’m over exaggerating, know that I was quite literally asked what this “sharp” thing was all about when referring to hashtags. In 2018! It’s a miracle that this country is realizing ANY success as a tourism destination.

Now, is everyone out there a bumbling fool? No, absolutely not! In fact, a few heroic souls come to mind such as my padawan Yuko Yamasaki at Tourism Oita who are making miracles happen despite being mired in red tape and bullshit. Similarly, places like Mie Prefecture also have their heads on straight and recently selected myself and several photographers to be the prefecture’s ambassadors. Unfortunately, these pockets of sanity remain exceptions to the rule as the majority of the country is woefully out of touch with the world-wide convergence on digital platforms.

Destiny Calls—What’s an Ikigai?

A Venn diagram of what the world Ikigai is that defines it as a combination of what one is good at, what one loves, what one is paid for and what one needs
“But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

-Gandalf the Grey

So, what the hell’s an “ikigai” anyway? As can be seen in the above Venn diagram, this Japanese term refers to the intersection of what one can be paid for, what one loves doing, what the world needs, and what one is good at. While largely unused by many Japanese these days, the word ikigai conveniently rears its head every now and then in the world of motivational self-help. For simplicity’s sake, you can think of it as being one’s raison d’etre to use the more common western nomenclature. It’s basically something akin to a god-granted mission.

Now that we’re on the same page in regards to definitions, just what do I mean when I say I walked away from my ikigai? When destiny came a knocking, why did I turn the lights off and pretend that no one was home. Despite drowning in opportunity to work in tourism and even having a shot at what I believed would have been my dream job (a CMO role at a startup that’s crushing it), why did I turn it all down? Well, the true answer, as narrow as it seems, is that I simply realized that I didn’t respect the clientele who’d be paying me. Rather than become embittered by the incompetence of the uninformed geezers calling the shots, I decided to avoid them completely.

Hang on a second, didn’t the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche say that the man who has a why can bear any how? What the hell could possibly be more significant than the pursuit of one’s ikigai? Well, how about sanity for starters? While I’m inclined to agree that the pursuit of meaning should be priority numero uno, recall that one of the defining elements of ikigai holds that it is something that the world is willing to pay for. Therein lies the rub. While I am certain that I could have earned a living, I’m equally sure that I would have hated every moment of working within the inbound tourism industry. It’s just that much of a backwater, at least in regards to marketing.

So, what did I decide to do instead? Well, if you refer back to the ikigai figure above, you’ll see that there’s still three other overlapping circles remaining! After flip flopping on a direction for months on end, I finally had the realization that I could have my cake and eat it too. All I had to do was continue with my agency marketing career while genuinely pursuing what brings me meaning (traveling and this writing this blog) on the side. Sure it runs counter to the present-day entrepreneurial platitudes of following your passion but at the end of the day, it works for me.

Why Would I Reject My Ikigai?

Light shines through an ominously dark forest somewhere in Japan as a metaphor for finding the path after rejecting my ikigai
“The only thing that matters in life is what you think about yourself when you’re by yourself and have nothing but your own thoughts.”

— Tom Bilyeu

The conclusion to decouple my method of making a living from what I do for meaning and purpose was not one that I arrived at easily. No, in fact, as I hinted in the opening paragraph, this conundrum tortured me to no end resulting in many restless nights. I only started to unravel the tangled web of competing priorities and points of view during the summer of 2018 when I stumbled across the above quote by Tom Bilyeu from Impact Theory. From here, I was able to reason there was no purpose in chasing a dream if the daily grind of actualizing it would drive me batshit crazy. That’s just asking for a mental burnout which is not exactly conducive to feeling good about oneself.

With this portion of the puzzle solved, the next thing I did to arrive at my current zen-like state was to do some frighteningly deep soul searching. While spending the night at Mt. Osore, the interstice between this world and the Buddhists afterlife, I poured over my life with a fine- tooth comb. While critically analyzing myself, I came to the understanding that I simply do not have much headroom when it comes to stress tolerance. This honestly shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, I’m a wayward soul with a penchant for wanderlust. I avoid responsibility like the plague. As soon as I HAVE to do something, I immediately want to start running in the opposite direction as fast as possible.

When this notion finally clicked for me, all the pieces started to come together. I would keep my current position at the agency as a means of generating an income and staying on top of my marketing game. Then, on the side, I would leverage these assets to continue documenting my adventures across Japan while also giving pro bono consulting to anyone willing to listen. In structuring my life this way, I’d empower myself to play MY GAME in the manner I choose to. By not charging for council, I’d have no burden of responsibility to a client and could therefore walk away whenever necessary. Moreover, I could also deliver the bitter truth that needs to be told and those in charge could take it or leave it; fragile egos be damned.

Of course, by opting to give it all away for free, I’ve caught a lot of flack from my entrepreneur friends. While they recite the typical bromides and speak of potential fears, I just don’t see it that way. I certainly get where they are coming from but at the end of the day, we’re just cut from different cloth. More than anything, I’m looking to reduce the amount of stress and unnecessary responsibilities in my life. Here, my job at a listed Japanese company is actually quite the boon. I need not worry about headaches such as a visa sponsorship, taxes, or health insurance. No, all these woes are managed for me which leaves me free to whimsically follow the road wherever it takes me. What’s more, given how the laws are set in Japan, I quite literally can never be fired. Talk about job security!

Now don’t get me wrong. I strongly desire to have an impact just as any startup founder would. The only difference is that I’ve opted to remove the financial component and solely chase meaning and purpose when not at the office. I’ve traded the volatility of the start-up world for the drab yet safe option of a steady paycheck and a job for life. Of course, part of me cringes just at the thought of typing that; “Man up bro!” it vainly cries out as if I were suddenly posed by the spirit of Gary Vaynerchuk. Still, turning my back on my ikigai was without a doubt the right decision. It’s honestly a miracle that I was able to figure it all out despite the current entrepreneurial rah-rah culture.

What to Do After Rejecting My Ikigai?

After rejecting my ikigai, I want to see more gorgeous views like this of Mt. Fuji from nearby Kawaguchiko in Yamanashi Prefecture
“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself.”

— Viktor E. Frankl

Before wrapping this long winded rant up, there’s one final thing that I need to touch on; what does all this mean for this blog? Here, you need not worry faithful readers; I have no intentions to turn this into a business. After all, I travel first and foremost for myself. Honestly, the many in-depth guides and social media posts are naught but mere added bonuses to what really drives me. You need to remember, when I started documenting Japan’s hidden gems, I had no idea that things would grow to the scale that they did. I really only wanted a platform to document and recount my adventures on the road. If anything, I’m deeply humbled by the fact that people even care enough to hear what I have to say. Franky, to think that nearly 100,000 people visit this site per month really boggles my mind.

Now in terms of monetizing my writing via other means on the back end, I’ve decided that it’s simply not something I’m looking to do either with this blog. Should you find what I have to say is of value, I’ll graciously accept any donations via Buy Me a Coffee as the travel expenses that I incur going to these off the beaten path destinations really do add up. While I certainly try to avoid additional costs where I can, transportation throughout Japan tends to be rather pricey. Similarly, if any local prefectures are willing to host me, I’ll humbly oblige. Outside of these two notable exceptions though, I’m through trying to turn a profit from my adventures. After all, I have a full time job for that. This is all about my personal meaning and purpose!

With that said, here’s to another great year of putting Japan’s unknown destinations where they belong on the digital map!