Finding Ikigai in Writing

Visual taken from this article

I was inspired to write this by fellow Medium user Brian Kurian and his article “For The Love Of The Game — Don’t Let Money Ruin Your Passion For Writing”. So this one’s going to be off the cuff and free. After all, it’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m spending it doing what I love.

I challenge you to remind yourself why you work so hard to write the things you choose to write about.

I accept your challenge Brian.

1. Love

Screenshot taken from this Mazda advertisement

This might be the only commercial I’ve ever actually enjoyed watching, simply because I feel the genuine passion in Mr. Takanashi’s voice. He’s doing what he loves, what he’s good at, and he’s being paid to meet a need. That’s ikigai.

(Okay, and I admit I’m tired of seeing sleek and shiny cars cruising up and down random mountainsides or along scenic ocean-fronts, and trucks driving around in the wilderness with “epic” slow-motion cuts to mud splashing or dust flying. What might be more relatable is a shot of a father taking his son to get his first pair of truck-nuts.)

Allow me to tell you a little bit about how I discovered my love.

From a young age I was captivated by the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings movies, their awe-inducing universes, their fantastic stories and interesting characters. Probably sounds familiar.

I also played my fair share of video games, especially narrative-driven ones such as Assassin’s Creed (back when the series was still good) and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (back when the Battlefield series was still good), or the Elder Scrolls series and Fallout series (back when they were still good) that have incredibly rich world-building and quests.

I was beginning to see what’s creatively possible, expressed in different mediums. At first I thought I wanted to be a movie director. Then I thought I wanted to be a video game developer.

Meanwhile, I still wrote unfinished stories; in one, I specifically remember exploring the places that I wish Star Wars would go, focusing less on the Jedi and Sith and instead wondering what it’d be like as a Clone. Are they really any different from Droids, or are they also mere pawns, except for a different cause? Is “I” in their vocabulary? How can I find their humanity between the lines of their programming? What would Saving Private Ryan meets the Muunilinst 10 look like? Questions of greater concern to me than those on my math homework.

Fan-fiction, or thinly disguised derivatives, is a common place where writers get their start. It’s where I got mine.

It took time but I followed Ariadne’s thread and realized in high-school that I wanted to be a writer. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to direct films. Rather, I wanted to write scripts. And it wasn’t that I enjoyed writing code (quite the opposite, as I found out from an elective class I took). I wanted to write quests and lore.

My love was for storytelling.

2. Talent

Simon Cowell from American Idol

Compilations of Simon Cowell’s funniest American Idol reactions and insults is a dangerous YouTube rabbit-hole, found right next to Gordon Ramsay. It makes for a good demonstration of the point that love isn’t enough if you want to do something for a living.

Surely almost all of the contestants loved music and singing. But not all of them had the talent to do it themselves.

I’ll admit it right here: I’m not a talented enough storyteller yet. My origin story may be making you want to fall asleep. Or worse.

Anyway, I’m a naturally gifted writer.

Writing and storytelling are like the two circles of a Venn Diagram.

Before my dabbling in fan-fiction, I knew I was good at reading and writing. It was my favorite part of the school day since elementary. I was always one of the few kids who enjoyed reading out-loud in class.

English was the easiest subject for me. Too easy. In high-school I had to take AP and honors courses to keep myself sane and engaged; otherwise A’s were a breeze. Maybe you can relate.

My senior year I had a personal curriculum made with the help of Mrs. Anderson, my wonderful guidance counselor, meaning I didn’t have to take gym (the only person I’d want to shower with would be a girlfriend, not a bunch of guys) and could take a different class instead. So the last four of my six hours were Newspaper, Journalism, English 12, and AP English Literature. A nightmare for most students who dread writing a single essay.

However, writing and storytelling are like the two circles of a Venn Diagram. There’s a lot of overlap, but ultimately they’re different, requiring specialized skills and tools. Technical writing is obviously not the same as writing a novel.

Check out Zach J. Payne’s excellent article Informalize Your Writing for more on this point. He states: “A lot of the Medium articles I read come off sounding like academic papers.” I’m guilty of this myself.

Now, none of this is to say that I never mispell a word or have perfect grammar, for example. Far from it. There’s forever more to learn. I have many weaknesses. Strengths must be maintained and kept sharp, or else they rust and dull.

But I had that initial knack. And I know that I have the potential to grow. As writers we need to challenge ourselves, or else it will be like the ikigai diagram says. You’ll become complacent.

On the other hand, if you’re struggling with fiction because you don’t have the talent yet, you’ll experience uncertainty. God knows I’ve got a lot of THAT.

3. Need

Picture taken by me for my high-school newspaper

When I’m writing, I’m meeting internal and external needs.

To finally address Mr. Kurian’s challenge, I write because it is cathartic. I can express whatever emotions I am feeling, and give some definition to them. Then I can share those thoughts more effectively with others if I choose. Or, sometimes the act of getting it down on paper is enough.

I write because it helps me think. You can slow down, and rewrite as often as you want (a gift and a curse, it turns out).

I write because I believe I have something valuable to say. Something that will benefit others. Being aware that you’re not alone in a struggle can be as relieving as the solution. Sharing a new perspective may provide key insight, knowledge, or information. Spreading a message can contribute to a cause you support or can totally change a person’s life.

Let’s be clear. There’s nothing wrong with just writing for yourself if you don’t care about making money. Take journaling, for instance. Integral to personal development.

Similarly, even if you’re writing for an audience, I believe it ought to be an audience that you belong to yourself, even if you only belong to it in a general or indirect sense. If you don’t care about what you’re writing, then why bother?

For our purposes here, I’m assuming that you, like me, eventually want to make a living doing what you’re passionate about. This requires an audience. One that’s willing to pay for whatever it is that you’re providing.

Assuming these people exist, you need to love what you’re writing. Otherwise you’ll be dissatisfied — if not miserable — at best. People want to read writing from an author who’s interested in what they’re writing, because the emotional investment shows.

This is why passion projects often take-off if it turns out that there’s a market, even though that wasn’t the original goal. Passion projects meet the prerequisites. You can either catch a wave or create one.

So who’s your audience? What needs are you meeting? Think deeper than market. Deeper than money, or sheer entertainment.

Remember to meet your own needs, too.

4. Money

From a scene in The Wolf of Wall Street

I’m not going to get into methods on how to make money by writing. I wouldn’t be speaking from experience. There’s countless resources on Medium alone for researching this, from people who walk their talk.

Instead, I want to stress the idea that if you love what you do, if you have talent, and if there’s an audience willing to pay for it, there’s a good chance the money will come.

If you put the cart before the horse and worry over money before having even found your passion, I promise you’ll fail.

I don’t want you to fail. Set-backs, sure. Challenges? Necessary. But fail?

I want you to succeed in the end. The only person who knows what you want, is you. We’re all at different stages in this journey and are traveling to different destinations. Some want to be authors, others bloggers, others journalists, a combination thereof, or something else entirely.

If you haven’t found a passion, that’s fine! Your purpose right now is to figure that out.

If you’ve found your passion but don’t have the talent yet? Have a growth-mindset. Continue learning or practicing, even when you reach the minimum “good enough” level of talent.

If you’re passionate and talented but haven’t found an audience yet, create one, or keep looking. And don’t feel like you have to pigeon-hole yourself. In spite of what some may say, just because you write for one audience doesn’t mean you can’t write for another, and another, if you have the interest, experience, and skill.

While all four aspects are of equal importance to ikigai, there is an order to them. Your inner passion is the foundation. Start building there. It’s what informs your interests, as well as your talents.

Then find ways to use those talents and bring value to the world.

I hear you asking the same question I got hung up on: What if we do all that but can’t make a living regardless? That happens, you know!

In Admiral William McRaven’s book Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life… And Maybe the World, he recounts the “sugar cookie story” from his Navy SEAL training.

According to Buck Stewart’s article 5 Ways to Change the World According to a Navy SEAL Admiral, the lesson of the “sugar cookie story” was that “sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go against you. The world isn’t fair, and the sooner you realize it the better off you’ll be.”

My answer, then, to your question.

Don’t stop doing what you truly love, what you’re talented at, what people need, something priceless, because you aren’t making money. Go find a job.

But don’t give up on yourself.

Don’t quit.