In 2016, the term ikigai entered our collective consciousness New York Times bestseller of the same name. This Japanese philosophy proposed that our dream job lies at the intersection of four intersecting circles: what we are good at, what we love, what the world needs, and what we can be paid for. Although it seems quite complicated ikigai appealed to modern-day proponents of pop psychology because many of us have already aspired to it in our lives.
From a young age we learn that work is a calling, a core tenet of our identity – a blueprint to change the world. For this reason, we are taught that if we are fortunate enough to find the profession that will define us, we value it over stable wages or a steady career path, as demonstrated by the passion principle. The saying goes, “If you love what you do, you don’t have to work a day in your life.”
Unfortunately, it is precisely this principle that paves the way for abuse. Employers might use the sheer seriousness of their hires as justification for overwork, underpay and exploitation and expect them to shoulder the brunt of the work. Unfortunately, those same employees see these challenges as a way to pay their dues or expand the food chain.
When dreams meet reality
Toni once found herself in this position while on the accelerated path to a leadership role in a global FMCG. Despite the enviable glamorous perks, just three weeks into the job, something felt terribly wrong.
“With no training whatsoever, I was pushed into a leading e-commerce role for 17 different brands. I stayed up until 2am monitoring sales and planning campaigns while also completing my line manager’s to-do list,” she shared. When asked if she had any guidance during her first-ever full-time job, Toni said her manager was “too busy in meetings every day from 9am to 6pm to support her.”
Although those growing pains were supposed to go away in six months, waiting could have killed Toni. “I didn’t have to call in sick anymore because the work just added up and made me feel even sicker. I also spent most of my weekends sleeping to recover from everything I had been through that week and didn’t let much else I do with my life. The worst part is no one knew what I was going through because I was still producing results.”
After less than six months in this position, she knew there was no other way out.
Like many who attended The Great Resignation, young professionals may be so traumatized by past experiences that they no longer dream of work. People have started to view jobs as a means to an end, turning the common “live to work” cliché on its head. In fact, this has become one of the most important criteria for young professionals, to the point where recruiters are aware of it. They know that workers’ lives are no longer about building a career, and part of the selling point of some job opportunities is the flexibility to pursue other ventures.
Valerie, for example, only envisioned working in PR but was ultimately discouraged by the high turnover and poor mental health infrastructure when entering the industry. “People have been saying goodbye longer and longer and are hardly able to finish big projects because they are just so tired,” she lamented. When she started looking for another job, she settled on a tech company that offered her the rare privilege of unlimited paid vacation time.
“Everyone in the organization has their own thing going: some are streamers on apps, others are small business owners. What really sealed the deal for me was when my hiring manager told me I could devote so much time to volunteering, which is something I really care about.”
A marketing graduate from a Big 4 university, Dexter never dreamed of doing “predictable” work in media planning, budgeting and analytics for brands. So instead of accepting offers from other agencies promising higher pay, he stuck with an employer that provided unparalleled support for his side business: sports media.
“I spent my childhood in summer clinics and followed the NBA religiously, so you could say sport is a big part of who I am and what I love,” he shared. “My current position as a content producer for a sports channel allows me to work with athletes and reignite a passion for creativity that I thought died after college. So I am really grateful to have this opportunity alongside my existing commitments.”
Dexter once thought that putting a single job prospect on a pedestal was the norm. But his current attitude has prompted him to redefine his view of a job: “Rather than striving for what’s perfect for us or where we want to stay forever, I prefer to think of a job as a place where I can be myself develop skills needed to get where I otherwise want to be.”
Confirm the misalignment
Despite success stories from those who separate passion and work, some may say it’s just not for everyone and will be inclined to make work their life. However, there also needs to be self-reflection on where this is coming from and whether this status quo is toxic.
“For those I’ve coached, denial comes from the fear of getting out of that harmful or toxic situation and realizing they’ve relied on it so much that they can’t move forward,” said Kurly De Guzman, a globaler Career and leadership coach. “They tend to be like, ‘What if I get out of here and can’t find a job?’ Maybe it’s human nature to get stuck rather than make a mistake.” However, if we continue to look for ways to make something work when all the signs are pointing otherwise, we’re set for continued disappointment for De Guzman .
He advises that the first course of action should be to acknowledge the misalignment. “It’s not what you want for certain reasons. List them so you know exactly why you are feeling this way and can therefore gauge how big the problem is.”
We should also check if this is a recurring pattern or a temporary burden from a project or task. If it is the former, which of our needs are not being met? Which of our values is violated?
Sometimes our answers can be to do our part of the inner work. “You may have let your pride get the best of you or succumbed to poor work practices that sapped your energy. It’s important to point out when that’s the case, because if you don’t address these issues, you’ll never be satisfied, no matter where you move,” De Guzman shared.
Know how much power lies within you
Of course, the company and its processes (or lack thereof) can also be to blame, which should normally be remedied by opening up to management. But when all efforts are exhausted with little enthusiasm from above, it’s best to quit instead.
“Traditional companies believe that a high salary is enough to ensure a lifetime commitment from employees,” said Danica Octa, president and CEO of Metamorphosis Group, a career development and empowerment company. “But job seekers are headed towards growth. If organizations don’t meet them in the middle, they risk losing high-potential talent,” Octa explained.
Octa noted that the voices of this generation are growing, that they “know that many jobs are no longer sustainable, that they exploit talent and don’t always care about the well-being of employees.” As a result, young professionals are slowly redefining the role of a career in their lives, depending on their existing priorities.
“In our 20s, we might just want a place with flexible hours. In our 30s, we might start looking for holistic benefits like health care or paid vacations. As we get older, we may just want security. Meaning is never set in stone and should never be left in the hands of others.”
But since we are not always aware of this, it can happen that one stays somewhere where one does not belong. Octa mentioned that this particular gap in knowledge and self-reflection was her rationale for founding Metamorphosis. Not only does she believe in democratizing resources through conversation and training, but also in sharing personal stories that can help debunk long-standing misunderstandings in the world of work.
“Regardless of what stage of growth you’re in, sharing what a job means to you can help show other people more realistic and flexible pictures of what we can get out of our careers.”
Research your target elsewhere
Admittedly, the idea of shifting our mindset to work is difficult to grasp when we’ve relied on our jobs for multiple aspects of our personality.
“A job can affect how well you know yourself and how you understand both the world and your space in it,” said Elizha Corpus, a personal and professional coach. “They give you a routine to go about your day, interactions with some of the best and brightest in the country, and even a found family. No wonder we could feel lost without her.”
But a full life should never be found in an office cubicle. Indeed ours ikigai was not created to guide us to the ideal 9 through 5, but to help us identify it activities that make us feel alive! “When we host workshops to develop our purpose, we never tell our participants to only think about their careers and what they mean in life,” Corpus explained.
“Careers are just one side of who you are and are not meant to define who you are. If we keep thinking that, we often get screwed and forced to meet standards we may have based on what other people consider success for us.”
Outside of work, we are already someone’s child, someone’s sibling, someone’s friend. We may not know it yet, but we can also become a spouse, parent, member of a niche Facebook interest group, etc. It seems wrong to conveniently gloss over these realities just because we are no longer the culmination of our childhood dreams of having a corner office in a building in the sky. – Rappler.com
Angel Martinez is a cultural critic and social trendsetter with a degree in Communications Technology Management from Ateneo de Manila University. Her essays on the internet, identity, and their intersections have been published in VICE, iD, Rappler, CNN Philippines, and The Philippine STAR. When she’s not knee-deep in the written word, she’s happy to recite the entire Notting Hill press conference scene and cuddle with the two best dogs in the world.