What Makes Life Worth Living?
In this episode, I speak with Gordon Matthews, who is an author and the Professor of Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
When I recorded the interview with Gordon, his university had been under siege for four days with the protesting in Hong Kong, so I was very grateful for the time he gave me.
We hit it off really well, and had a very enjoyable conversation on the subject of his book, What makes life worth living?
I hope you enjoy listening to this podcast as much as I enjoyed speaking with Gordon.
Nick: Gordon Matthews, you are the professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. You have authored nine books, I believe, including the book; What Makes Life Worth Living? How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of Their Worlds, which we will discuss in this episode. And you also can play a mean flute. Thank you for your time today.
Gordon: You haven’t investigated me too much.
Nick: So, Gordon, you first went to Japan in 1980 I believe. And while you were living there, you came across the word ikigai. Do you remember who introduced it to you or how you were introduced to the word?
Gordon: That’s an interesting question. Um, I don’t know how much is my own memory and how much is my later reconstruction of the memory, but I do have in my mind now a memory of climbing a mountain with a friend of mine and getting to the, to the peak. And I mean, it was no big deal. It was a small mountain near Sapporo, Japan. But getting to the peak and he just saying, “Wow, this is my ikigai!”, in Japanese. And then wondering what does this mean. And he explained it to me and in the Japanese, the rough Japanese, I understood at that point as, you know what, when you feel most good in your life, or the purpose of your life or whatever, that feeling you have of really being alive. And you know, I thought, “Whoa, that’s a really interesting term”. And I began investigating it and learned to read Japanese and speak Japanese well so that I could investigate it.
But it was really that encounter as I recall, that that brought me forth. And I began asking other people in casual conversations, you know, “What is this term ikigai? What’s it mean?”, and some people would have ready answers and some would say, “Whoa, I have no idea”. So it depends on who you’re talking to, but you know, I thought, why does Japanese have a term like this when no other language does? You know, in English you can’t say, “What’s your ikigai?” “What’s your purpose in life?’ Ssunds like a really weird question. Like you’re trying to convert somebody to a religion, but ikigai is a normal term and it fascinated me.
Nick: I had a similar experience, and it did stick with me. So I’m very glad you wrote, you wrote your book, but before going to Japan for many years, you had been asking yourself the question, “What makes life worth living? or “What’s the meaning of life?”, why do you think that was so?
Gordon: Well, you know, all of these are the mysteries oof personal biography. Why I was more concerned about this than others. I, you know, I’m not, I’m only me, so I can only, if you asked me why I was interested in this, God knows who can say, um, certainly I’m type one diabetic and that had an impact on my childhood of, you know, if my life may be shorter than other people, which hasn’t turned out, I’m now 64. But if that’s what I was thinking, then uh, uh, you know, “what do I do with my life?”. That was a factor. Then like many people at that age, I became involved in psychedelic drugs and that too caused me to ask a lot of questions – “What do I want to do with my life?”. So the term ikigai really did turn out to have a resonance with a lot of questions I’d been asking in my life of “What do I want to do with my life?”.
Nick: I see. It sounded like it really did. So, your book, What makes life worth living, look liked it was a labor of love, um, that involved you interviewing over a hundred people, so 52 Japanese and 52 Americans. And with the first draft of your book being your doctoral dissertation, you first conducted the interviews between 1989 and 1991, and then you published the book in 96. So can you share with us the journey of researching and writing the book?
Gordon: Sure. Um, it’s not a labor of love in the sense that any PhD student has to come up with a dissertation.
Nick: I see.
Gordon: And, uh, what I wanted to do, and I remember this at, at Cornell University in the US in the late 1980s, is do a project that was really close to my heart that I really wanted to do because you don’t want to spend five years of your life at something that’s, that’s you don’t feel a deep attachment to. And this seemed to be the most important question I could think of. Now, it was interesting. I had to refine it as I went along, but several teachers told me later that they really didn’t think I could ever do it. It was too vague a project and so on. You know, “what’s the purpose of your life? You can’t do research on that.” But I was quite fortunate to have this Japanese term, ikigai, which meant that I was doing, not philosophy, not psychology, but anthropology.
Hey, there’s this Japanese term that shapes how Japanese people think about how they live. And other people may have it too, but they don’t have a word for it. Let’s look into this term and how this shapes people’s lives. And then it occurred to me that the best way to look at ikigai is not in terms of individual growth and so on. And I certainly know that all the ikigai boom going on now is about “How you can be your own true self!”, and so on. Ikigai instead has the social dimension. It’s what ties you to the social world. You know, it’s what ties you to your world. And you know, one big question is “Why we don’t go jump off a building somewhere? Why we do live.”. And the answer to that is ikigai.
I’ll never forget an American cartoon that I described in my book about a guy who’s driving to work in the morning and there’s a huge commute and he’s thinking, “Why do I put up with this long traffic jam?”And then he’s in his office and the boss was shouting at him and he’s thinking, “Why do I put up with this?” The copier’s broken, “Why do I put up with this”. Driving home, “Why do I put up with this?”, and then he comes home and his little daughter throws her arms around him and says, “Daddy, I love you!, and he thinks, now I know why I put up with this. Well, that’s ikigai. It’s a bit too sentimental for many of our tastes, but nonetheless, that is ikigai. It’s what makes worth living. And it’s something in your social world, it can be your work, it can be your family, and whether it’s your spouse or your children or your parents, it can be a hobby you’re passionately devoted to. It can be a religious belief, but that’s ikigai.
Nick: Yes. When I, when I read that passage in your book about the father returning home to be greeted joyfully, and embrace his little daughter, it did remind me of moments in my life when I was in a job I absolutely hated and was quite depressed, but once I got home and saw my son – to see his happy face, it did sort of think, okay, well really life’s not that bad. You know, I have you in my life.
Gordon: That’s ikigai. Exactly. When you look at your son’s face and think, wow, that’s it. Yup,
Nick: I did eventually quit that job, which was a good thing too.
So, going back to your book of the 104 people you interviewed, you had to cut that down to nine pairs in order to really publish your book, and then of each interview, you had to cut it down to about 10% of what you talked about. So, I imagine that was quite a painstaking process. So how hard was that to do and how did you, what was the decision-making process to do that?
Gordon: That’s an interesting question. It took a hell of a long time obviously, because you’ve got all these transcriptions and how do you pare it down? Um, probably the biggest factor was finding a Japanese and an American who did seem similar in their lives because one major purpose of the book, uh, that was a time when people were looking at Japan as the strange and exotic economic powerhouse of the far East. Japan was poised to take over the world, many magazines were saying and so on. And I was trying to say that Japanese culture, yes, it’s, it’s real. But still, you know, a 33-year-old Japanese woman with a child and a 33-year-old American woman with a child may have a lot more in common with each other than they might with 99.9% of their fellow countrymen and women.
And that was an important insight I felt, that culture wasn’t all that important. Yes, people speak different languages and yes, they can’t communicate because of those different languages, but in their basic way of living and thinking they’re not very different at all. So that was a major purpose of it, to demystify cultural difference, really.
Now, the actual work that went into it was immense. Um, I remember just day after day slogging away at these transcripts, both transcribing tapes, which is as good as the interview may be, nobody likes to transcribe. And then beyond that, um, how much time it took just to select people. And I also remember being really disappointed because I would do interviews that were really great, but because I didn’t find a counterpart in the other society, I couldn’t use them except in brief quotations, and that disappointed me. I had to explain to a lot of my Japanese and American friends, “Hey, thanks for the interview, but you’re not in the book because I couldn’t find a counterpart”, which is a, you know, people really want it to be in the book, even though I disguise all names and disguise, make sure nobody could be identified.
So yes, it was a hell of a lot of work. Could I do it now? Well, I’m not sure.
I might add Nick. Um, I am now completing, I’ve just completed a book and then the book proposal about senses of life after death in China, Japan and the US.
Nick: Oh, wow!
Gordon: And so that’s very much, this may be my last book and I’m trying to make it a carryover for my first book. I want to go back earlier in my career because life after death, that’s a key factor. What happens to us after we die? And, uh, by interviewing a lot of people in these three societies, I want to complete the story that I began with this ikigai book.
Nick: I see. I’ll probably want to read that book as well. I was going to ask you, had you ever thought about publishing the interviews you hadn’t published in the book or had you ever thought about interviewing maybe the the 18 people who were in the book again?
Gordon: Yes. Well, I’ve done that actually for the life after death book.
Nick: Oh, great!
Gordon: And it’s, it’s fascinating in there because I sometimes include quotations from, with one person I just was going over last night. This is what he said in 1989 and this is what he’s saying in 2019 very different things. And I’ve called people on the phone to0, to interview them that way. I have also done a number of followup interviews, not so much in the U S but particularly in Japan because the group of people I interviewed in the ikigai group, there my lifelong friends and, many of them I’ve come to know very, very deeply. This is both because the ikigai interviews made his friends and also because in some cases I’d known that beforehand, but there’s nothing quite like talking to somebody about their ikigai and making them into lifelong friends very often.
Nick: Yeah. It sounds like it was a rewarding experience for you.
Gordon: It was indeed.
Nick: So if we, if we go, touch on the book again, it had three main aims; to, to introduce the reader to the Japanese concept of ikigai, to show ikigai, not only as a Japanese cultural concept, but as a cross-cultural concept and to explore the question, “what makes a life worth living?”. So if we look at the first aim, I’m going to pull some quotes from the book on how you could define ikigai.
Ikigai is what on a day to day and a year to year basis, each of us most essentially lives for, be it a lover, dream, booze or God.
Ikigai is the self’s culturally shaped meaning of life.
Ikigai is a direct answer to the question, “What makes life worth living?”
Would you like to add to this?
Gordon: Well, all of that seems quite true now. Ikigai is what makes life worth living and, and uh, there’s no doubt about it. Now, one of your quotes talked about, uh, booze as ikigai. Well, I think for an alcoholic it may be, I mean, alcoholism is a physical disease, the doctors say, but certainly there are people who, you know, what they really think about is, “Damn, I hate this job. I just want to leave this and go to the bar tonight and drink.” And then they have their first drink and you can see their face relax of “Wow!”, you know, so this happens to people. It can be booze, conceivably.
Now, what I don’t do in the book is make judgements. You know, uh, I personally think that it’s probably far better to live for your lover or your God than it is for booze. But having said that, you know, I’m not making these judgments. People live in various ways. Um, and so what I’m really careful to do is not have a Maslow hierarchy of needs here of “This is a good ikigai, and that’s a bad one.” No, I’m looking at how people fit within their social world in society.
But what I can say in terms of psychological judgment is if you have ikigai, you probably are considerably happier than if you don’t, because it’s something that you live for. But the curious thing about ikigai is how hard it is to figure this out. I’m just, I can tell you briefly an interesting problem I had recently. There was an argument I had with another scholar that came out a bit and I found myself not really caring very much and I thought,” Why is it that I’m not emotionally upset by this?” And I realized, well I think it’s because as I get older, what’s really important to me is not my career anymore. It’s my relationship with my wife, Yoko.
Nick: I see.
Gordon: And that’s what’s really key. And it was interesting saying, “Wow, I just figured this out about myself.”, which is rather strange. So this does change as you go along and it’s good to be aware of it. Having said this, most of us do have ikigai. It does change over the life course a few times. It doesn’t change every day. But for example, when you have a child that really does change your ikigai. I mean it really does, for the first time there’s somebody you’re living for. When you um, embark on a career change, it may have an effect on ikigai, it may at not. When you retire, it probably has an effect on ikigai. If you have been living for your job and now you don’t anymore, uh, when your children leave home. Yeah, that probably has an effect on ikigai. So depending on what your ikigai is, so it does change not often, but in life it does change a few times over the life course.
Nick: Yes. And I think obviously that may make sense. Um, for example, my son’s now 16 or turning 16 soon and he’s up, our upbringing has been more and more of more friendship rather than father and son relationship. And so we are, we are sort of friends closer to, I guess in a way equal footing. But when he was, when he was a two-year-old, and I think at around one and a half, two, you really see their personality develop.
And you also discover how much they love you and how much they see you as, it’s like your, you’re their, their personal rock star. They just love you and they’re so happy to see you. So you have this amazing love with a child and they’re not your intellectual equal, but you have all these wonderful experiences, and then as they grow up your, your relationship with them changes and obviously, yeah, in four or five years from now he’ll probably leave home and our relationship will be different and in some ways I guess he won’t be the the ikigai of my life, which he is now. And perhaps what he was even more so back when he was much younger. So yes, I do like the idea and I, I know it makes sense that ikigai does change over time and it’s basically where you are in your life
Gordon: And it’s still painful as hell when ikigai changes often. Uh, you know, when your son leaves in the future, you, you will leave on the best of terms still having a deep love for one another, but he’s not around the house every day. Yes, that’s painful. It’s more painful, obviously when bad things happen. I mean, you go to work and you lose your job all of a sudden, or you wake up in the morning, there’s this stereotype has it that there’s a note on the pillow saying, “Dear Gordon, I no longer love you. Goodbye.” Hopefully, that will never happen, but in any case, um, it, it, it does change or where you go to the doctor’s office and the doctor gives you a bad diagnosis or something like that. Certainly, it does change. It is inherently fragile. But nonetheless, the key to ikigai is it’s what makes life really seem worth it. It’s when you feel “Damn! It’s good to be alive!” And that’s an extraordinary feeling to have. And it’s wonderful that as human beings, we have an ikigai enabling us to experience that.
Now one point worth bringing up. I teach about this, and my students sometimes ask, can you only have one ikigai or do you, can you have many? Conceivably you can have several. But the problem is we’re bullshitting ourselves a lot. In other words, you say the man who’s a complete workaholic or the woman who’s a complete workaholic saying, “You know, I’m really doing this for my family. My family’s more important than work.” Well, not if you’re working 20 hours a day or 15 hours a day or 12 hours a day. And often if you say you have many ikigai, you’re trying to hedge your bets. Typically it’s one thing, and the way you get at this is to ask certain kinds of questions that will really get it your deep values.
With students, for example, I asked them, “Would you rather have straight A’s, a perfect GPA or would you rather have an ordinary grade and a boyfriend or girlfriend, which would be more important to you?” And they can sit and think about it and they can realize where their values are. Or I would tell students again, um, “You have just won a scholarship to a top university, but you’ve also found out your mother has a really bad diagnosis of a disease. And your mother says, could you stay here for me?” Which would you do?
Gordon: Or let’s say you’re a Christian and you have this deep religious belief, but your boyfriend laughs at it and says, “Look, who is more important in life? Me or God?” Which do you choose? Cause you may have to choose. And so these are ikigai questions. And when you ask people these questions, they do come up with an answer. And that does indicate ikigai.
Nick: Yes. I’ve, uh, I’ve, of the research that I’ve done, I, I think I found out that, uh, obviously our ikigai aligns with our core values. So in that sense, if we know what we value and care about,, we should be able to find our ikigai. Well, what you just presented was actually going to be my next question in you. In your book, you do present ikigai, a single commitment, whereas other authors, Mieko Kaiya, which I’m wondering if she could be called the mother of ikigai psychology?
Gordon: Yeah, I think so. Yeah. Kamiya Mieko, is absolutely brilliant and I don’t like most things written about ikigai very much, but Kamiya was really wise. Um, you know, and her book, I still use it now. She had a line that still strikes me now very deeply. She said in one of, in her book ikigai, you know, “Maybe the only people who really feel ikigai, are those people with terminal cancer”.
Nick: Yes. Yeah.
Gordon: Wow! What a shocking and extraordinary remark. What she means is that we get so caught up in day to day life that you forget about what’s really important. But if you know your time is limited, you know, you go outside and you feel the sunshine or look at the rain and think, “Wow, this is what life is.” Yeah!
Nick: You would definitely get clarity quickly on what you care about. You would appreciate what, what life offers you with the limited time you have.
Gordon: Yes, and what to remember is that we’re all limited. I mean, you know, whether you’re going to die in 80 years or whether you’re going to die in six months, you’re still going to die. And when you look at it that way, yes, this is how we live, but we forget about it. Mobile phones are the worst culprit in this. You know, I saw a beautiful rainbow on campus here a few months ago and I remember looking around at the students and they’re all immersed in their mobile phones as if that’s reality, not what you see around you.
Nick: I do have questions about, um, technology and, and things like social media, which we’ll get into. But yes, as I was saying, um, Mieko Kamiya presented ikigai as a, a balance of commitments, which you mentioned in your book. And then recently Ken Mogi published a book and I’ve heard him describe, ikigai as a spectrum, and it can be anything from small pleasures to the pursuit of life-defining goals. So it seems like ikigai can be difficult to define with slightly conflicting ideas about what it is by people who’ve researched it, such as yourself and other authors.
Gordon: Well, but look, look, people can write about ikigai anyway they want and I’m not going to criticize any given individuals here for what they write, but it’s not a matter of a day to day pleasures. It’s what you most deeply live for. Now, if you do deeply live for that, if for example you’re a cigarette smoker and you’re thinking all day about putting that one cigarette in your mouth, maybe that is ikigai. So I wouldn’t denigrate that altogether. But you know there’s a lot of self-help books out there now on ikigai, fine, they boom, probably make the world a better place. Now, this gets confusing because in Japanese itself there’s a lot of different ways of thinking about ikigai, and some people use it very metaphorically, but do you think I does have this particular meaning.
What is ikigai?
What ikigai is, there are two aspects to it.
- One is what makes your life most worth living. And that can be, again, as I said earlier, your family, your work, your religious belief and some various other things.
- Number two, the feeling of truly being alive. This is what ikigai is.
Now it gets confusing in Japan because some people describe ikigai in terms of self realization and others in terms of commitment to a larger whole. Both of these have uh, their, their reality in terms of ikigai But the point is, you know, in Japanese ikigai is, is a relatively specific concept and you know, that’s what we’re talking about here. If a given author wants to write an elaborate self-help book about ikigai as you know, finding your best self or whatever, fine more power to that person, but it’s not the Japanese sense of ikigai necessarily.
Nick: What you’ve just touched on too is actually my next question. Your one step ahead of me. So you do present those two concepts of um, jiko jitsugen again and ittaikan, and that was based on the Japanese media you were reading at the time.
Gordon: Okay. Well, again, then self-realization means that the form that your life takes is looking for your true highest, best self. And this very much comes off the ideas of Abraham Maslow and some of the other Western psychologist who talk about this.
Ittaikan instead means commitment to a larger whole, you know, however you live your life, it can take either one of these. For example, let’s say you’re completely immersed in your work. If you’re immersed in your work ultimately so that you can reach the highest point of prestige and status, the highest point in your life, uh, in terms of your career recognition or feel best about what you’re, you’re doing, that would be self-realization, I suppose. Uh, although, well, it’s confusing, but basically it would be.
On the other hand, if you are working hard as that person in my book, uh, Miyamoto, simply because you feel that, uh, the company and you are the same thing and you really want to help this company get better and your life is this company that’s belonging to a larger group.
The same thing is true with raising children. If for example, you’re completely devoted to your children because of them, that’s belonging to this larger group. If on the other hand, you know, I feel I’ve really realized my true self when I’m raising my children that self-realization. Now, is one better than another? No, but it might well be that self-realization is a little more dangerous because when you die, what you’ve lived for is probably going to continue.
On the other hand, when you die, yourself dies unless you live after death. And some people can see that. Some people can believe in reincarnations life after life and so on. But many of us believe that when you die, your life is over. And in that case, well “I’ve attained self-realization, now I’m going to die.” So what! I mean one could seriously say that. So there is a, an intrinsic issue with self realization that gets in the way a little bit. We all do belong to a larger social world. Having said that, um, I always felt that Japan was a little bit unfree and its degree of social pressure and uh, certainly we need a balance between living for a larger whole and living for one’s own self. This is key
Nick: Up until I read your book, most of the material I came across was more about jiko jitsugen – attaining self-realization or becoming one’s true self or their best self. And then when I read about ittaikan and commitment to group, it did click for me when I thought about Japanese culture and the way they live their lives. So just to go over a few things regarding the interviews, most of your informers did either mention family or work as their ikigai. And then there were exceptions, the shodo master, the writer, the, I Ainu Japanese wanting to liberate Ainu culture. And then for quite a few actually, their relationship with God or religion. There was this mix, for me and I always thought, well, you know, the shodo master or that the writer probably were the ones I had thought would they actively pursuing their ikigai. But from your book, I learned if we factor in this idea of commitment to group, family can be ikigai. Or if you really are truly committed to work, even though it might not be your dream job, it can be your ikigai.
Something that really shocked me were the, the two, the two interviews you did with the, the young females, and they seem to have no personal life ambitions. And I, I almost put the book down I thought these two girls appeared like that they really don’t want to do anything with their lives other than moving to the security of marriage. Now I might be interpreting that incorrectly, but those two interviews stood out for me. So what was it like for you to interview these people? And then I know some were friends, but most of them wouldn’t have been. After speaking to these people for three to five hours, did you walk away, sometimes shocked, sometimes inspired or, or confused?
Gordon: You’ve brought up things that I could talk about forever. I mean, there’s about 10 questions answers I can give you based on what you just asked me. Um, but let me go into this.
First of all, it was actually often more than three to five hours. There’s some people I interviewed for 10 hours. I went over and over again. And um, I did go very, very, very deeply into them. One story that still stays with me now that you know, just had an extraordinary impression on me was an older Japanese man. And I spoke to him for six or eight hours. And then at the very last interview, at the very end, he said to me, “Gordon, there’s one thing I haven’t told you.”. And he pulled out the drawer and he took a picture of a young woman and he said, you know, “During World War II, um, I was in love with this woman and I wanted to marry her. Uh, I felt she was everything to me, but, uh, the family forbade us getting together and she died a couple of years thereafter, but sometimes now I late at night, I just take out her picture and look at it.”
Gordon: Yeah. Yeah.
Nick: Was he still single or did he eventually get married?
Gordon: And he got married and that’s why this is so dangerous that I, everybody else’s account, you know, the marriage looked very happy and so on. But what I think he wanted to tell me was that, uh, there was this yearning in him, and he didn’t directly say it, but I think he was saying, my ikigai is this dream of this other possibility. I’m not sure. I don’t mean to be interpreting for him, but many of us do have these subtle areas that are extraordinarily important.
And the key to the ikigai interviews ,I realized is that most people don’t listen to other people very much. Now you’re listening to me and I really appreciate it. You know, so there are certainly exceptions to this and blogs and podcasts like this, but mostly in day to day life, we don’t listen to other people.
And so one good thing about anthropology is you sit down, you put your microphone down, you say, “Tell me everything in your life. I want to find out all about your life for the next, uh, uh, three or five or 10 hours. Tell me everything you can.” And you really listen to them closely. And that’s extraordinarily important. People will tell you a great deal. Now, do some people lie? Yes, they do. When it stuff close to them, I mean, often there were very funny stories. There’s somebody who had been married before times, but in her accounts, to me, she’s only been married three times. Well, why? I mean there’s all kinds of things that happened sometimes. Is it forgetting? No, it’s wanting to hide some certain issues. Of course, human beings do that.
Americans too, often want to appear happier than they might really be because you know, in America you’re supposed to be happy and if you show you’re vulnerable or you’re afraid, particularly if you’re male, that can be quite, quite dangerous to do, many men seem to think, but having said that, mostly people really do want to talk about themselves and you learn an extraordinary amount when you talk that deeply.
I felt very privileged to be an anthropologist because I realized some of these people I know better than I know my own parents or siblings really because I’ve never talked to them in such a sustained way. So it was a remarkable experience. By the way, I might mention that my father at age 92, I went and recorded his life story a couple of years ago. And I have a hundred, 150 pages now of what happened to him in his life. Um, all of you listening to this podcast do this because this is the legacy we have of the people we have known and loved. And it’s important to get that down. They don’t have to be ikigai interviews, but when you talk to somebody at length about their life, you probably are getting an ikigai a great deal.
Nick: That really clicks with me because my father is getting quite frail. And I won’t go into the history, but we were, we were separated for quite a while and there’s a lot I don’t know about him and we’ve reconnected quite a while ago. But I’ve been calling him every weekend. I did say to him, “Dad, you know I should interview you because I love the sound of your voice and there’s so much of about you that I don’t know”. So I think what you’ve just said is probably the best advice any child who still has apparent alive is to yeah, sit down and record an interview.
Gordon: Yeah, but, but you say any child don’t do it when you’re 15 do it instead when you’re older because then you could see it all in perspective.
Nick: Yes, sorry. you defibately want to do this when you are an adult yourself.
Let’s now touch on the cross-cultural concept. You developed a cross-cultural theory of ikigai, and I’m going to quote from the book;
As the products of culturally and personally shaped fate, selves strategically formulate and interpret their ikigai from an array of cultural conceptions, negotiate these ikigai within their circles of immediate others, and pursue their ikigai as channeled by their society’s institutional structures so as to obtain and maintain a sense of personal significance of their lives.
When I read that, I thought, “Wow! Gordon has gone really deep!” So we really need to factor in culture, society, our institutions, our closest relationships that determine how we pursue our ikigai or maybe even how our ikigai is determined by all these things.
Gordon: Now, let me talk about that theory in a much simpler way. I mean, we are shaped by cultural and personal fate simply and that you’re born into a family. You didn’t ask to be born in that family. No. You happen to be and we don’t. And you’re also born into a given culture, whether it’s Australia or America or China or Japan. You didn’t ask for that. No, you happen to be, we don’t come to consciousness as human beings until we’re maybe three years old and we have language. So we find ourselves shaped and by the time we understand who we are, we’ve already been shaped. That’s culturally personal fate.
Now ikigai, we choose from an array of cultural conceptions. Mostly their standard conceptions. You know, you, you marry, you go to work, you have children. Those are standard conceptions but you don’t have to follow those. There’s a whole array of different ideas you might follow.
I mean, I’m thinking of that book by John Krakauer, “Into the Wild” that a young man who went off into the Alaskan wilderness, you know, he was pursuing a completely different kind of ikigai or I’m thinking of the young American man who joined the Taliban and you know, was, was captured a shooting at American troops. I mean, leaving aside the morality of that, he obviously was, from what I read about him, able to go on the web, find out about Islam, decide this is the path for me. I mean again, that these are kinds of ikigai people can find from the cultural matrix. Now, most of us do find a relatively ordinary ikigai somewhere, but still there’s an array of choices.
Now after that, these are socially negotiated. This is what the people around you say. And this is really important because other people have this powerful effect on shaping what our ikigai is going to be.
You know, for example, um, let’s say that you, uh, are really interested in a new religion. You’ve read about it and you love it. And then your boyfriend or your spouse or your girlfriend says, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. Are you an idiot?” Well, you may or may not do what they say Or like some of my own students, they described to me how they found anthropology, and they really want to study anthropology. Then their parents say, “Are you crazy? We want you to be able to get a good job! Study nursing instead, or business instead.”
In fact, you can get a good job studying anthropology, but leave that aside. The point is that other people are this powerful shapers of our ikigai. This stuff is always socially negotiated. That’s simply a matter of, you know, other people saying this.
Whenever you’re in a relationship for example, and the other person says to you, “Do you love me?” That’s an ikigai question. Am I your ikigai? That’s what the question basically is. And these are all matters of social negotiation and we’re negotiating this all the time. Or let’s say you’re at work and your boss says, you know, you really need to stay late and do this. And you say, but look, I’m supposed to meet my daughter tonight. It’s her birthday. Yeah, but we got to get this project done. Well, that’s an ikigai negotiation, which is your ikigai. Is it your job or is it your, your, your child? So we do this all the time. It gets negotiated.
Now, the final factor here, uh, in shaping ikigai is institutional channeling. And this is basically, you can talk about culture as a matter of ideas, social negotiations, as a matter of people. Institutional channeling, as a matter of rules. What are the rules of society?
For example, you may really dream of being a doctor. That’s what you always dreamed of, but you get bad grades in chemistry, in biochemistry, well, you can’t become a doctor, or I find my ikigai in doing medical research and I’ve done this all my life, but then I reach a certain age and there’s a retirement limit. Maybe I’m 65 or 70 or 60 I’ve got a retire – that’s he rule, or let’s say that in Japan, I want to have a career and I’m female, but I’m married, and tax laws are such that if two spouses work, you pay far higher taxes. Well, that’s not an absolute rule, but it certainly is an institutional rule that may shape how I find my ikigai. It encourages me to find my ikigai and family rather than work. So these are institutional structurings that do shape it. Now, the final element of the theory you brought in is we find a sense significance.
We’re always looking for some sense of mattering in the world. When someone says, I love you to you, they’re saying, you know, you really matter to me more than anything else. We feel so good about this because it’s the sense that somehow we really matter and this is something that we all seek. We seek it in a variety of different ways. I noticed this in my class. Some students, what matters to them is getting a good grade and if they don’t get an A, they get a B, instead. You can see their faces fall. They’re heartbroken. Other students will come in dressed in the latest factions. They don’t care about the grade. No, they care about looking good, particularly for uh, uh, whoever they’re attracted to in a romantic sense.That’s what’s key here. So people find this a different ways, but nonetheless, they’re looking for the sense of significance.
Where is my significance? The protesters now in Hong Kong who are barricaded, uh, fighting off the police at another Hong Kong university, they find their significance in fighting the police and dying for it, some of them have told me. That’s another way of finding the sense of what’s really important in life. And it’s not a matter of necessarily a physically living, it’s a matter of where your deepest values lie. Again, you’re ikigai. So that’s that whole theory in a nutshell and I think it applies to almost all of our lives. You can apply this to your own daily life.
Nick: Just going back to the ikigai negotiation, there’s quite a few points I wanted to touch on. Can a relationship go beyond that? Let’s say you have child finishing high school and they desperately want to be a musician. And you have the parents who are both doctors and their parents were doctors and they say, no, you have to go to medical school. And this, this child loves music, and they can’t see their life without doing it. And their parents are saying, no, no, you’ve got to study medicine. So that, does that go beyond negotiation where the parents are blocking that that person’s ikigai almost to a point, that they’re almost like an ikigai killer – they’re killing that child’s ikigai.
Gordon: Yeah. And that certainly happens a lot. Um, when you’re speaking, you reminded me of a, a Japanese rock musician I interviewed who, he didn’t do this because his parents told him not to do this. Rather he was married and had a child and his wife didn’t say anything to him. She was a very patient person, but he realized he had to support his family. And I remember interviewing him and he would, his guitar was in a corner and he would look at his guitar with a sense of deep longing – that’s what I live for, but I had to live with my family instead. And he was happy he did it, but still he felt this great regret.
Now as for this, a young person say you wants to go to medical who wants to be a musician and the parents want to push him or her to go to medical school. Sometimes people can find a way to do both.
Gordon: In other words, the person could conceivably get a medical degree and also continue to be a musician in some way. But it’s hard to do because it’s a matter of what, whatever you put your time into. Work is famous for becoming what I call defacto ikigai. You may be at a job you don’t like very much, but if you have to be there 10 hours a day, five days a week, it becomes your ikigai. I mean, I feel this myself sometimes. I felt myself up this morning with a dream about my office. That’s not my ikigai. But nonetheless, that shapes me. It’s here. Obviously this has more of an effect that I would want to have thought. I’m department chair, so I’ve got to think about things there. So you know, that’s what happens sometimes.
It’s not simply parents blocking you. It’s all these different matters we have. And they do indeed have a powerful force in shaping us. Now what I tell my students often is I can’t create your ikigai guy for you. That’s strictly an individual matter. That’s up to you. All you can do is have self knowledge enough to make your choices right. And the two key choices are work and family or money and love. You gotta make money somehow, but how important is it to you? Typically what students do is choose the job that pays them the highest. But that’s a pretty stupid reason to choose because you’ve got to live there. This is your life. Now, some people who do that can grow to love it, fine, many more can’t. But money is the only measurement they can see at that time because they haven’t worked yet. In terms of choosing a lifetime partner, not, not, not a lover on a more casual basis, but a lifetime partner.
Um, you damn well better get beyond romance because we all have this powerful hormonal urge, uh, sexual attraction, but romantic attraction to that, that drives us. And yet you’re going to live with this person 20 years from now and you might not be having sex very often. Instead, it’s a matter of this best friend. You’ve got to be with this person and realize that. So that’s hard to do. And the fact that half of all marriages or more and in either unhappiness or divorce is a sign of how people make really bad choices. And so when I’m teaching, I guess my key, I can’t, I’m not a counselor. I can’t do this for students, but just know yourself. These choices are really important. Yes, you can get out of them, but know yourself. Now this goes back to your example of being a jazz musician.
I myself when I was 20 and 21 was going to New York playing jazz quite a bit. And I realized at some point in that that I wasn’t very good. I mean I was okay. I was a good amateur, but I wasn’t good enough to get professional. I’ll never forget one gig where I was playing saxophone at that time. And the guy who played after me was so much better than me that I just sort of wanted to go hide in a corner somewhere. And I realized at that point that, you know, it’s okay to do this cause it’s fun, but I shouldn’t have an ambition in this cause I just don’t have the talent. And that’s important to realize it. I think if you, if you fail in your eeky guy that way, it’s not that hard to accept. We realize, Hey, I’m just not that good at this if it’s a career ambition, and I’m very glad I changed. I’ve been very lucky in finding the career path I found. Um, on the other hand, uh, if you keep doing it anyway, uh, maybe that can be ikigai. I have a good friend who was 15 unpublished novels in his closet, and that’s his ikigai. And he says, look, I’m going to be known a hundred years from now. Now I’m not known now, but I’ll be known then. Maybe so. We can’t tell. So it’s a matter of choice and it’s not always a matter of never compromising. Sometimes it is and Sometimes it’s not. And by knowing yourself and looking at your internal feelings, you can get some sense of where is ultimately best to go.
I see. So it’s almost a combination of obviously knowing, knowing yourself, knowing your values, but also knowing what you’re capable of. Because if you do have limitations, but you’re wanting to pursue something and you really can’t, I guess that’ll become a source of pain.
Absolutely. That’s absolutely true. And this becomes most true in the case of relationships. I mean, what do you do if you’re married and have two children and you realize after 10 years of marriage that you know, this really isn’t the person that I want to be with. And we go back to self-realization and commitment to others. Commitment would say, “Hey, I made my choice. I should be with my family.” Self-realization might say, “No, I want happiness.” And so you divorced and stayed with someone else. Now many people can negotiate this and various middle paths. For example, if you divorce and still see your uh, your, your children once a week or twice a week or whatever their various ways this can be done. So it’s not necessarily all or nothing, but this is the kind of choice we have to make. And we do clearly get in this situation often in our lives because we can’t know how things turn out. We can’t know how other people, how these things will change over time. So this will happen. But still self knowledge is the best way to make your choices with your eyes open rather than your eyes shut.
Nick: What about expectation of others? Cause that that would seem to make sense. We have this idea of what we want and often we want, we want other people to be a certain way or we want things from other people, but in a way it’s our expectations that might make us unhappy or happy.
Gordon: Well, that’s certainly pro. Yeah. And it’s especially true with children as you know better than I do. Uh, that, you know, you have a child who, uh, is going in his own direction and he may or may not, or she may or may not do what you want them to do. So that’s very, very clear. Um, I’ll never forget my father when I was 15 or so, I was doing too many psychedelic drugs and my father came into my room one day and he said, Gordon, I know what you’re doing and I don’t like it, but I can’t stop you. And then walked out. I really appreciate that. He was just allowing me to discover for myself. And I began to moderate it much more after that. But that letting me go, I really appreciate here. Um, finally we have to let other people go.
Gordon: And of course, this is most painful in relationships when you have a spouse who example says, I don’t love you anymore. What do you do? Uh, how incredibly painful that’s been. Now to speak personally, I lucked into having a situation where that didn’t happen and, uh, I feel profoundly lucky I didn’t do this because of wisdom about ikigai. I just was dumb lucky, and that has to be known. Uh, I was extraordinarily lucky in this choice. And so that means that I can’t speak about this in some ways because I’ve been so dumb lucky in my life. But anyway.
Nick: That’s great. And you did dedicate a, your book too to your wife, Yoko. So that’s, that’s wonderful that she’s still, you’re a ikigai.
Gordon: Yup. Yup. Yes, indeed. Yup.
Nick: We’ve almost been going for an hour, so that’s touch on significance and I have a few more questions and I’ll let you go. So the relationship between significance and ikigai, I’m just looking for a quote here. You describe, um, ikigai as being precarious.
Nick: In your book basically you, you write that we are looking for a meaning in life beyond ourselves, some sort of, um, significance beyond ourselves. And I think this the quote I want to say:
The ultimate source of this precariousness seems to be that one’s own meaning of life cannot securely be linked to an enduring larger meaning.
If we want significance and we want it to be on beyond out our life, but we find no way to connect to a larger meaning, I guess that could make us believe we don’t have significance. And then maybe even contemplate again what’s the point of living.
Gordon: Yup. Oh, you’re absolutely right. That’s, uh, I’m, I’m moved and how deeply you’ve read the book. I really appreciate it. You’re, you’re getting it. A lot of my major points here, um, you know, the key is what the Buddhists were saying, uh, and still say that all life is transient. Nothing lasts. And, um, everything is going to go in the end.
Gordon: Now, some people can live with that. And despite the fact that it’s transient, fine, many more people can’t. Throughout most of human history. Uh, it’s been religion that provided a larger answer. You know, I think it was Milton who wrote, they also serve who only stand and wait. And what he meant by that I think was that even people who do the lowliest jobs, your janitors and so on, they too are serving God’s creation. They are part of a larger whole.
And the idea of going to have an after you die if you lived a good life or being reincarnated in different states and so on, is a larger meaning we would have to our life. Today in the developed world, the majority of people don’t have this very strong or at all. I mean, many of us are agnostics and some of us are atheists, meaning that, that larger meaning we can give up on. Now, how easily can we do this? How can we get by with a larger meeting? Uh, I was reading a book by a guy named Phil Zuckerman about Norway or about Sweden and Denmark and he’s about the societies of secular. And I remember a quote from them with one guy saying, 90% of saying, people don’t worry about life after death. They worry about paying their bills next month.
Nick: That’s true though!
Gordon: Yeah, exactly. Um, and what I think this comes down to is do we need a larger meaning or not? Some people clearly do. And I asked my class this, uh, in, in my midterm examination, which I’ve been grading, namely since religion provides the ultimate meaning of life, why aren’t most people today religious? Interesting question. And they’re not religious for a couple of reasons. One is simply the growth of science and technology. I mean, people 500 years ago in the West of God for granted. Now we take science for granted
Gordon: You know, science clearly is what we take for granted as reality, but science doesn’t provide that larger meaning. A second reason why we can’t be religious is that there’s so much variation. You know, you look at a group of people and one person here is a Zen Buddhist and one person here is, uh, an evangelical Christian, one person over here as an atheist.
Gordon: There’s so many different beliefs that how do you know what to believe? At the end of the day, you just throw up your hands and say, I don’t know. And that’s another reason why religion has lost its hold on us. Really. So how much do we need this? Um, interesting question. I think we could have ikigai and still lose it and it’s painful, but you can. One question that the Japanese people I’ve interviewed in my current book now My Life After Death bring up is, you know, say a young woman who has lost her husband, he’s died and she says, you know, I’m a computer programmer. I, I’m, I’m a logical person. Still, I’m completely convinced that after I die I will be with my husband again. I’m completely convinced. I don’t care about logic. I’m convinced. And this leads to that question. At the end of the day, does love conquer role or does death conquer all. Which wins?
That’s the question. I think logically most of us expect that death probably conquers all. All things vanish. However, who knows, who can say, we don’t know what happens after we die. And this comes down to ikigai to all ikigai again is precarious. It does vanish. It will always vanish at the end of the day. Nonetheless, having it is worth it. They say that better to have loved and lost than to have never have loved at all. And the same is true with ikigai better to have had this ikigai that makes you truly feel alive even though it’s going to vanish at some point.
Nick: Thank you for saying all that because I was, I was thinking, Ah, this book is so deep and there’s so many questions I could ask and I thought if I, if I start touching on religion, that’s a whole, uh, it’s another 10 questions we’ll probably never get to. But there was one point was the, and I’m not sure if I’m getting this right, was the collective, if there’s symbolism in, in a culture, there’s this collective connection where, um, everyone can find meaning and belief because everyone shares the same meaning in this symbolic religion. But obviously as you just mentioned, we’re living in an age where we are exposed to different cultures and different religions. And we can question our own upbringing or if we are brought up with a religion. So I did want to touch on that, but maybe we could do that in another interview, what I do want to touch on is when you wrote the book, the internet was in its infancy. Websites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter didn’t exist. There was, there’s no social media as we know it today. And we weren’t using mobile devices. Now the internet, mobile devices, social media and technology, are things few people could live without. And my question is, has this dramatic change in the way we work and communicate, has it made it easier or harder for people to find ikigai.
Gordon: Okay, that’s a really deep question and a hard question. Um, let me say three things, not based on that question alone, but three things that occurred to me. Speaking, number one. Um, one thing I really appreciate about these questions is this book I think was basically read by most anthropologists and social scientists simply because of what it said about comparing Japanese and American lives. And it’s surprising to me how few people have understood the underlying spiritual basis that the book is searching for. The last chapter was read by some people who found it to be very interesting. But most people, it’s just, Hey, I’m an anthropologist. I don’t want to be dealing with this. I’m a sociologist. I don’t need to ask these questions. So I appreciate you’re getting it at these, the barriers, which many of my fellow scholars haven’t.
Now the second point you made about the religion and what’s happened is, uh, there is a new religion which is nationalism. And I see now in China the number of people who do really deeply love their country and they’re always thinking about their country. Uh, that can be a powerful, uh, latter day religion that motivates people very, very strongly. So we’re not free of this yet. I, I’ve always found nationalism and even patriotism to be rather dubious. Why would you want to love your country? Uh, loving your family is natural in some real sense. Loving your country is not, it’s an artificial association of people. Yet people say, I will die for my country. Well, my country is my ikigai. Well, at that seems, again, I’m not saying don’t defend your country if it’s invaded, but to go off somewhere and kill people for the sake of your country is clearly a matter of being brainwashed by dangerous propaganda. It’s a latter-day form of religion, really. Not that religion hasn’t had its very good sides, but it’s obviously caused great human suffering just as nationalism does as well. So love your country in the Olympics. Don’t love their country in wartime is what I tell them.
Gordon: Finally, you come to the question of the internet and how that’s changed things and obviously the internet has had an extraordinary effect. And to get into that, it would go way beyond what I can talk about here. I am deeply grateful for having the internet. To me, it’s made the world a much better place in the ability to find out so much information. Um, I joke with my students that Google is the new God. God is dead but Google lives, simply because if we have deep questions, we go to the internet and ask and they tell us the answers that we used to have to pray for those answers. Now we Google it. Wow! What a strange matter that we’re in. Um, I also think that certainly one thing the Internet’s done along with many other things is to create a vast array of a greater array of choices.
So it used to be in traditional societies, it was relatively easy to find ikigai cause you did what your parents did. You know, there was a gender differentiation. Men and women did different things often, but still, you know, Hey, your parents lived this way. You do the same thing. And it would be unusual for a person to not to. In 50 years ago or a hundred years ago, there was a greater sense of, Hey, you find your individual path. That’s true. But today with the internet man, there’s an utter multiplicity of paths. This is not just the internet, it’s society in general, sense of what a person can do.
I mean today, one of my students is saying, I want to spend my life as a gay activist. Damn, you couldn’t have done that a hundred years ago. Another says, I want to be a professional, a musician, a punk rocker. Well that wouldn’t have existed. Or you know, I want to be a, I want to go work with Mother Teresa that couldn’t have been done. All these different arrays of possibility and I’ve only mentioned a few out of many of them that can exist. We’ve got all these choices and I think for young people it probably makes life a lot more difficult because who am I? Damn, I could be anything. It’s really tough. It was tough for me, but I’m sure it’s far harder today because of all the possibilities.
Now having said that, mostly society gives us a relatively limited range. However, what every young person has to figure out is within that limited range. Can you be happy? Because with the internet and with all these other sources of information, you certainly can lead your own alternative life rather easily.
Gordon: I mean, I know a number of young Hong Kong university graduates are now living as, as not just as, but as free vegans they call it. In other words, what that means is you’re spending your time going to dumpsters, getting food that’s thrown away and refusing to use currency. Wow! What an amazing step to take. I wonder how long they can last during that. But having said that, I mean people have these choices they can make as to how they want to live and that’s extraordinary that we have these choices. But it probably makes it more difficult for someone who is trying to find who they are in life. It probably makes it more difficult for them because there are so many around. And the internet is one major factor shaping these.
Gordon: Yes. When I wrote that or thought about asking that question, I wrote a few notes and I, I sort of came up with the, there’s, there’s more opportunity maybe for pursuing our ambitions or self-realization, but this perhaps this, this disconnection or deep disconnection from group. And as you mentioned before, you went outside and I mean disconnection from everything. You went outside, you saw a beautiful rainbow and everyone else on their phone distracted and seeing so many young people where, it’s almost they have to multitask to function. They almost have to be in a state of distraction to function. So I think, um, yeah, technology is great. We, we’ve got all this opportunity, we’ve got instant access to knowledge, but we’ve also got this, this problem of, you know, constant entertainment on tap and it’s so hard for people to you know, when I go out, I’ll dinner with my wife, I’ll generally leave the phone at home, but I’ve got my son saying “Dad , you know, I want to listen to music as we walk to the restaurant. And do I want to go through this argument with my son saying, no, you know, leave your phone at home for just for one time, for God’s sake. Leave your phone at home.
Nick: So yeah, I think when you wrote the book, you probably couldn’t have seen this, this dramatic change. And one thing I thought about mentioning was an example maybe of this was in Japan of hikikomori, where people shut themselves in for for many years and the only way they access the world is through the internet. Um, but that probably will lead us to another half an hour of talking and we’ve already spoken for an hour. So I’m very aware of how much time you have.
Gordon: Well, let me just react quickly to what you’re saying or if I could, yes, there is that ongoing distraction side, no doubt about it. That’s very, very real. However, on the other hand, some people would say that online friends are not real friends. I think they are. Um, I in some sense I have been, um, online quite a bit in the last week about the, uh, protest or occupation of my campus at CUHK, Chinese University of Hong Kong. And um, it’s been amazing to me on Facebook the, some of the expressions that I’ve gotten and I think some of those people, I might have never met them, but still, if I needed them for something, they would help. I mean, some people a couple of days ago came to the campus and delivered food for my family. Now, um, that was a person I knew and I appreciate her greatly for it, but I, I could probably have asked any of 200 people to do it and they would’ve done that.
Gordon: So there are real human connections despite the fact it’s online. Yes, you do have entertainment, you know, just like a, uh, like water on a faucet, water coming out of the faucet. It’s that full all the time. But I wouldn’t say it’s all that negative a thing. In terms of the effect on ikigai I think the big problem is there’s so many different possibilities now, but whether the daily use of mobile phones and computers, uh, really shapes how people find their ikigai a day to day basis, I don’t know. Um, one effect that I think online has had that’s probably a good effect isn’t finding romantic partners because, I’m not necessarily talking about Tinder, but I’m talking more about how many times when you meet somebody online, you get to know them rather well. Back when I was a college student, you went to a bar and pick somebody up! And I think it’s probably better to get to know them well then to go to a bar and picked somebody up? So there are advantages to this too. Now, yes, people can lie online. We all know that. But having said that, there is, the chance to get to know somebody well and figure out much better what you’re getting into. So there are good sides to it as well as bad. Uh, although I too am distracted to the point of, uh, of tears in my eyes looking at all the people who are distracted and their mobile phones. I couldn’t agree more.
Nick: Well, let’s, let’s end with, um, what you’ve been experiencing the last four days. The, the, the, the protests in Hong Kong. I was thinking about this and I was wondering could the protest is demands, um, and, and they desire, I, I know they had, it was a four or five demands, but also that their desire for democracy, could that be viewed as a like a short term, collective, ikigai, what they’re expressing at the moment or is that now I’m the more I think of it in now that that’s just wrong. It wouldn’t, it wouldn’t because,
Gordon: No, but you’re right. Let me interrupt. You are right. It is indeed a short term ikigai. I remember talking to protesters, uh, on Tuesday night and the protesters were saying that those people are the front lines. They all have notes and the notes are to their parents in case they get killed.
Nick: Oh wow.
Gordon: Well that’s the definition of ikigai right now at Polytechnic Uni in Hong Kong, you got all these protesters locked in with police surrounding them. Now, I have moral problems with that. I think it’s completely wrong to use violence. Um, I would much prefer a nonviolent approach where you’re lying in roads and getting arrested. I have less problems with violence towards things, but violent sorts of people is always going to be wrong in my view. Um, there are different arguments we make about this, so I’m not morally justifying it, but what I am saying is that these people who are willing to die in their confrontation with police, they have an ikigai very clearly.
Gordon: If you’re willing to give up your life for something that’s ikigai, hands down. Now, that’s a little bit like the nationalism I was talking about earlier and I’ve written in a whole different context about Hong Kong, people have learned to love their country, but it’s not the country China wanted. It’s not China, it’s Hong Kong, which is very odd. So there’s a whole elaborate political issue going on here. But nonetheless, uh, in these people’s hearts, this is real and this is an eeky guy because what you are willing to die for it is what year he got his, in a very critical sense.
Nick: Oh, you’re, you’ve reminded me. I learned quite a few words from your Japanese words, from your book. And obviously one was shinigai. Shinu to die. So shinigai, so is that what we could use in this situation or is it, is shinigai and ikigai different?
Gordon: You know, that’s an interesting question and I don’t want to get into shinigai because it’s a much more confusing term more over into people committing suicide and so on. Um, Ikigai links though to dying only in the sense of what you really live for, you’ll die for. I mean, you can see an example when, um, if you had in the worst of your nightmares, a home invasion or something, you might throw yourself in front of the intruder and be willing to sacrifice yourself if you could guarantee the safety of your family. Uh, you know, that’s what we would do instinctively. And those of us who don’t of course, are terrified by it. I remember that, uh, uh, Scandinavian movie that came out a couple of years ago and it was all about a man who when an avalanche came and was going to bury a ski resort, he himself got up and left the table, leaving his family behind. And the entire movie is about what happened. And he says, look, it’s just my natural reaction. I can’t help it. But in a sense by his, his natural reaction, he is showing what his ikigai is not. It’s a great movie to see the moral quandaries that this led him to. But the point is that what we are willing to die for is a matter of ikigai, and uh, that’s essentially important here.
Nick: Well, on that note, I think we should probably end and I usually ask at the end of these interviews, um, I ask my guests what, what’s their ikigai But um, I, I think I already know it’s your wife Yoko, which is, it’s so beautiful to hear that. Cause you wrote, you wrote your book in 1996 and here we are 20 plus years later and she obviously still is ikigai. That’s wonderful to hear.
Gordon: Yeah. And I certainly hope it can continue for as long as possible. And one thing, one thing about this of course, is as you get older, you have this ongoing joke of a, I say, Yoko, I’m going to die first. I don’t want to be without you. And she’ll say, “No, I want to die first. No, that’s not fair!” And so we have these wonderful arguments, but underlying this is a bit of truth that all things are transient and you have to be dealing with this. And again, it’s what I said earlier, better to have an ikigai even if you have to lose it than not have one at all. And the same is true for love.
Nick: Fantastic advice. I agree wholeheartedly. Thank you so much for writing the book and I look forward to your new book. Do you wanna plug that again?When’s that going to be published?
Gordon: It’s going to be a while. I’ve got to send it to my, to my editor and it’s going to have to go through reviews and so on. So it’ll be a couple of years. Keep your eye out. It’s on census of life after death in China, in the U S Japan. And China comparing these places and you know, I hope to be talking to you in three years time then about that book. But uh, for now I’m, I’m deeply moved that you read the book so closely. A lot of times I get interviewed by people who clearly haven’t read the book and they want to talk about ikigai and it’s, I can do it, but you know, you might’ve felt a little more homework, but I really appreciate the fact that you have done far more homework than even I’ve done. Thank you.
Nick: No that was a pleasure. I mean, as I mentioned in the email, I had to put it down so many times because I’m learning about ikigai and I was like, man, I just got slapped in the face. I just had not considered this, this aspect. And you really do go deep. So yeah, I know you’re not upset by, um, you know, the ikigai, Venn diagram and stuff. But for someone who spent so much, if it and obviously put their heart and soul into this book and to have this ikigai Venn diagram floating around and people just sharing it, not knowing what it really is. I, I’ts quite upsetting. I’m thinking, God, this is, this is the book everyone should read. So, um, yeah. What makes life worth living the how Japanese and Americans make sense of their worlds. I’ll leave a review on my website and I’ll be recommending people to buy it. And I do hope that we chat. Um, perhaps not in three years time, maybe in six months or a year’s time.
Gordon: Okay. This was deeply enjoyable. You were the reader, the ideal reader I envisioned when I wrote the book. So I thank so much and I’m happy to talk anytime. This has been an extremely, a great conversation. Thank you.
Nick: Great. Thank you. Gordon. I’m so happy to hear that. I will contact you soon then.
Gordon: Okay, great. Thank you very much.