Notes on Creating a Life Worth Living

  • by Rob Bell

I once volunteered to give a sermon.

I’d never given a sermon. How do you put together a sermon? I had no idea. I took a walk to think about it and had a few ideas, so I wrote them down. A few more thoughts came the next day, so I wrote them down. I read some passages in the Bible, which spurred some more thoughts, so I wrote them down.

And then Sunday morning came and I stood up to speak. I clearly remember standing there about to start my talk and knowing that this was what I was going to do with my life.

It wasn’t just the speaking part that I loved, it was the preparation and the nerves and arranging the ideas and going over it again and again, trying to make it better — I loved everything leading up to giving that sermon. I loved the whole process.

There’s another memory I have of that morning that’s mixed in among the trembling nerves and explosive joy, one that hasn’t left me twenty-five years later. I specifically remember thinking that even if I wasn’t very good at giving sermons, I had found something that would get me out of bed in the morning . . .

The Japanese have a word for what gets you out of bed in the morning: they call it your ikigai. Your ikigai is that sense you have when you wake up that this day matters, that there are new experiences to be had, that you have work to do, a contribution to make.

Sometimes this is referred to as your calling, other times your vocation, your destiny, your path. Your ikigai is your reason for being.

If you’re like a lot of people, the moment the words path and vocation and calling come into the conversation, let alone a new word like ikigai, a thousand questions come to mind. Questions about paychecks and responsibility and passion and what you wish you could do if only you didn’t have those bills to pay . . .

Figuring It Out

We are always in the endless process of figuring out our ikigai.

Your ikigai is a web of work and family and play and how you spend your time,

what you give your energies to, what you say “yes” to,

what you say “no” to,

what new challenges you take on,

things that come your way that you never wanted or planned for or know what to do with —

your ikigai is a work in progress because you are a work in progress.

Knowing your ikigai, then, takes patience, and insight,

and courage,

and honesty.

You try lots of different things. You volunteer, you sign up, you take a class, you do an internship, you get the training, you shadow someone around for a day who does something that intrigues you. You follow your curiosity. You watch for things that grab your attention. this is much easier when you’re younger and have less financial pressure and fewer others depending on you, but it’s true no matter how old you are.

You explore the possibilities because you can’t steer a parked car.

The one thing that unites the people I know who are on satisfying and meaningful paths is that they kept trying things, kept exploring, kept pursuing new opportunities, kept searching until they discovered their ikigai. And then from there they never stop figuring it out because they understand how absolutely crucial this is in creating a life worth living.

Someone Should

When you pursue your path, exploring the possibilities as you search for your ikigai, pay careful attention to things that make you angry and get you all riled up and provoke you to say, Someone should do something about that!!!

The someone may be you.

Some people find their ikigai by asking, What do I love to do?

Others find theirs by asking, What makes me angry? What wrongs need to be righted? What injustice needs to be resisted?

Listen to your life. Look back on the moments when you felt most connected to the world around you. think about those experiences in which you felt the most comfortable in your own skin. Reflect on when you were most aware of something wrong in the world and your strong response to it.

Be honest about your joy. Sometimes our ikigai is jammed way down in our hearts somewhere because we were told early on, You can’t make money doing that, or That isn’t a real job, or That’s a waste of time.

Ask yourself: Am I not pursuing my path because of what someone has told me is and isn’t acceptable?

Which leads to another truth about your ikigai: It may involve a paycheck and it may not.

I once recorded an album that no one cared about.

I had written a number of songs so I booked time at a studio near my house, but I didn’t have a band at the time so I had a friend play the drums and I played everything else. I had it mixed and mastered and I made a few copies for friends.

Who didn’t say a thing.

Literally, I would play them the songs and when each song was done they’d say something like, I heard it’s supposed to rain later this week, or Didn’t you say you had some queso dip you’d made? I’d love to try it . . .

Quite quickly I realized that no one cared about my music but me. Which was awkward at first, and then freeing.

Some things you do for you.

You do them because it gives you great satisfaction and it puts a smile on your face and that’s it.

And that’s fine.

It’s not just fine, it’s necessary. It makes you a better person, it fills your soul, it opens you up to life in its fullness.

So don’t apologize for it, enjoy it.

You may love doing or creating or making or organizing something, but that’s different from it being your job. If music was my job, I’d hate it. What often happens is that we love doing a particular thing and so our next thought is, I should do this for my job.

Here’s the problem with that impulse: Getting a paycheck for doing that thing you love may actually ruin it.

Interests, art forms, talents, hobbies, missions, passions, service projects, and causes all have their proper place in our lives.

Some things we do fill us with life so that we can give ourselves to our work in the world with greater love and vitality and passion. Some things we get paid for, some things we don’t.

There’s a good chance your ikigai will change over time.

Relax, this is normal.

You may get trained to do one thing but end up doing something very different.

You may get your dream job and then get fired.

Or the company may have to lay people off or there’s only one opportunity at the moment in that particular line of work and it’s in New Zealand. Or Bangladesh. Or Ohio.

Someone you love may get sick and need you to care for her, you may have a child with special needs whose primary care falls to you, you may become injured and not be able to do that thing that you’ve done all these years.

That may happen.

And it’s okay.

It’s all part of how your ikigai gets worked out over the course of your life.


Several years ago I was talking with a very wealthy man I know — let’s call him Wayne. Wayne doesn’t have to work another day in his life. that kind of wealth. And yet all he wanted to talk about is how bored he is.

It’s the inertia of options: If you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything in the morning, that’s what may happen. You may not go anywhere or do anything.

As it’s written in the book of Genesis, we make our way in the world by the sweat of our brow. too much money, not enough money, too many demands, not enough challenge, stressed from all the responsibility, bored and restless and ready for more responsibility — there is a tension at the heart of our humanity that none of us can escape.

To be here is to embrace the spiritual challenge of your ikigai, doing the hard work of figuring out who you are and what you have to give the world.

This is work we all have to do,

because we’re all a piece of work,

in the endless process of exploring our ikigai.

I get up in the morning and I sit down and start working on my next book or talk or show because it’s the most natural thing to do

and yet

it regularly takes all of the discipline and focus I can possibly muster to stay here at this desk and keep working.

I can’t imagine being anywhere else

and yet

some days I can’t imagine anything more difficult than. the. next. sentence.

Your ikigai is exhausting and exhilarating, draining and invigorating, all at the same time.

There are moments when nothing in the world seems more difficult, and yet you can’t imagine doing anything else.

There is a paradox to your ikigai because sometimes the easiest thing to do and the hardest thing to do will be the exact same thing.

Selling your house, giving away possessions, working multiple jobs for a period of time,

going back to school and moving in with friends or relatives,

sharing a car with your partner and riding your bike more,

investing all your savings in a new venture, living on the other side of the world for a year — your friends may not understand,

your co-workers may not get it,

your extended family may think you’ve lost your mind —

that’s okay.

Better to receive some odd looks and have a few people roll their eyes than spend your days wondering,

What if I did that . . . ?

Take that step.

Make that leap.

Try that new thing.

If it helps clarify your ikigai,

if it gets you up in the morning,

if it’s good for you and the world,

do it.

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Excerpted from How to Be Here by Rob Bell. Copyright ©2016 by WORB, Inc. Published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.