Whenever words are carried by saltine winds over vast expanses of water, they somehow gain the magical property of resonating clearer in our minds. This is why we seem to fall head over heels in love with wisdom from faraway lands.
It explains our obsession with Ikigai. It’s why German shampoo and previously unheard of ingredients in Australian skincare products are in massive demand and are readily accepted. It’s why people take trips to the Far East and the heartland of Africa whenever they need to ‘find themselves’.
But I’m not sure if the average Indian practices yoga any more than the average Japanese strives for Ikigai.
The problem with Ikigai
Everyone I know online is obsessed with this wonderful Japanese concept - a way to find fulfilling work. Ikigai sounds like an antidote to our obsessive workaholism; our preoccupation with value extraction and monetisation. It sounded great to me too, until I heard a Japanese girl talking about how much she hated it.
She hated the weight of obligation that her parents’ unrelenting focus on Ikigai had forced on her. It sounded eerily familiar. It felt odd to arrive at the promised land and hold the fabled elixir of wisdom in my hands, only to discover that the very same chalice contained a localised strain of the poison I sought to heal.
I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with Ikigai. One of the beautiful things about borrowing expressions from other tongues is finally being able to encapsulate concepts with words that don’t exist in your language.
Like Zanshin - a Japanese word which translates literally to ‘enduring heart-mind’ but means a state of relaxed alertness in the face of stress or danger.
Or Pisan Zapra - a Malay phrase meaning ‘the time needed to eat a banana’.
Or Rückkehhrunruhe - the German word which perfectly captures the feeling of returning home after an immersive trip only to find it fading rapidly from your awareness—to the extent you have to keep reminding yourself that it happened at all.
There are other beautiful words in Farsi, Swahili and Hindi that bring to life all kinds of nebulous sentiments.
The dose makes the poison
The problem, as always, is one of framing. There is no magic elixir. No potent potion. There are certainly better constructs, and more useful frameworks. There are different ways of seeing, interpreting and interacting with the world.
Looking at the world through a fresh lens might reveal paradigms that had previously gone unnoticed.
Pokemon Go, at the peak of its powers, had dozens of office workers roaming the streets at lunchtime trying to stumble upon rare pokemon in augmented reality. I was one of them. The game took me down streets I otherwise would have ignored because this new view of the world taught me hidden treasures could be anywhere. It was a wonderful slice of time that made me and millions of others relive some nostalgia and exercise far more often. Conversely, it may also have led to 150,000 traffic accidents and 250 deaths.
It’s the dose that makes the poison.
Whenever our search for truth becomes obsessive - whenever we fixate on singular solutions, we will frequently unearth a path to pain.
Building better gardens
Every productivity system has legions of wounded adventurers who dived headlong into its waters only to find themselves overwhelmed and burnt out.
I’m not sure if the simplest summary is that different things work for different people, or that everything ceases to work for anyone when used the wrong way.
The fire that brings enlightenment is no different to the fire that burns. The heat that warms your soul is no different to the heat that stifles and suffocates.
What changes the outcome is the way the tool is handled and the environment in which it is cultivated.