Ikigai: A TCK Guide

I was introduced to the concept of ikigai just last year, through a professional coach. Ikigai is a profound Japanese concept that means ‘reason for being’. In essence, it is a path to self-efficacy, and ultimately, self-actualization. Ikigai is made up of 4 elements:

  1. Passion: that which you love

  2. Mission: that which the world needs

  3. Vocation: that which you can get paid for

  4. Profession: that which you are good at

When these 4 elements intersect, the epicenter of this is your ikigai. After reading and fully digesting the true essence of the model, I wished I had stumbled upon it earlier.

Growing up, my passion and mission both seemed quite clear to me. I have always held that my TCK experience was a major factor in bringing about this clarity.

Pakistan is a country of ‘poverty’ as described by institutions such as the World Bank and the United Nations. GDP per capita, human development indicators, and institutional writ are very low. In essence, there is no state social safety net. The math doesn’t add up — a country which is so poor was not plunging into outright civil war like other states which have a similar development trajectory. This is because the social safety net is society; starting from your immediate family, to your extended family, to your neighbors, to the average man on the street. This resilience intrigued me greatly, and was one of the reasons for my career choice to work in the development sector. I had found my mission early and continued to refine this element of my ikigai through my life in Australia.

When I initially moved in the late 90s, the Australian economy was doing fairly well. The indicators seemed to be positive, and even though there was to become a property bubble that would eventually burst, the country was benefiting (at the least, in pockets) from the mining boom. Even though the mining boom did end up creating a two-tier economy, the outlook on the surface seemed rosy (and at complete odds with the stagnation and volatility that has plagued Pakistan for much of the last 30 years). Then there was the social safety net: the state. Free schooling and healthcare, welfare payments, and other incentives were available to every citizen who needed a push in the right direction. Somehow though, the inclusive welfare hadn’t translated into inclusive human policies. Australia saw immigration, in its true essence, not take place till much later than the likes of Canada, USA, and England, and struggled with understanding and embracing people of non-English backgrounds — indigenous and migrant populations alike. It’s a struggle that I still see at the heart of Australian social issues, but one which the people have started to collectively take greater ownership of. In my mind, I classified this social welfare state as being in ‘social poverty’. The welfare was available, but the system was heavily skewed towards a certain subset of people. This social poverty was what led me to feel strongly about minority communities and focus on their issues within my development sector career. The mission element of my ikigai was complete, for now.

The elements of profession (that which you are good at) and vocation (that which you can get paid for) are both areas I grappled with for much longer. In terms of profession, I always knew innately that I was deeply passionate about social issues. The time I would spend juxtaposing these issues in different countries (not just Pakistan and Australia but globally), was anecdotal evidence of this. One of my development sector role models, and a strong motivator to join the development sector, was Muhammad Yunus. He was the founder of Grameen Bank which piqued my interest in micro-finance as an industry. Yunus’ belief that every individual has an inherent skill (wherever they may be, and in whatever income threshold) that needs to be harnessed, was something that struck me very strongly and was something I also saw in Pakistan and in the indigenous community in Australia. The ability was there; the enabling environment was what needed to be developed by key stakeholders. I knew I felt strongly about these issues, but was that enough to be classified as ‘something I was good at’, especially in this competitive world that we live in? I doubted myself, and therein lay one of the greatest roadblocks to my ikigai.

My father, uncle and their extended family were all chartered accountants, and there was pressure on me to continue the family’s professional lineage. Furthermore, my parents, just like many people from Gen X, felt development issues should be dealt with through charities and NGOs, and certainly weren’t a viable career path. This created a tide which was tough to swim against. Once again, I doubted myself, and my ikigai seemed elusive.

Fast forward almost 4 years after I took the categorical decision to move into the development sector, and I feel like my Ikigai process is turning in the right direction. I still have my pitfalls, and working in the development sector in Pakistan doesn’t pay well at the start. However, these 4 years of career growth have opened up many doors: professional and personal. The dented pay cheque is more than neutralized by the passion and zeal I have for the work I do and the people I meet. The money will come in due course — that’s an added perk, not the motivation.

I have also come to realize that one’s ikigai can change over time. That’s not something to be wary of, but something to embrace. One’s personal and professional life is inextricably linked, and without a greater sense of knowing what your presence in this world means and what you want people to remember you for, nobody can truly be in harmony with one’s self. Being exposed both to Australian and Pakistani culture as a TCK has shaped me greatly in this ikigai process. It has been my silver lining and my Achilles heel. But I would have it no other way.

Occupational Hazard

Occupational Hazard

Modern Day Phoenixes

Modern Day Phoenixes