Finding your ikigai in your middle age

Finding your ikigai in your middle age

A while back, I gave a talk dubbed “From titles to competence — lessons from a career without a high school diploma” at a hackathon. As I was working on the presentation, I developed a simple method for taking emotional inventory of my skills. Since then, I have introduced the method in other talks, and since it seems to be helpful for some people, I’d like to share it. This method doesn’t require you to be middle aged, I believe it works for all ages, but the more and the more diverse your experience of work and life, the more this method will point you towards your ikigai. I imagine this method is extra effective for people who never knew what they wanted to be as grownups, and perhaps still don’t.

What is ikigai? It’s well described in this Medium post by Itamar Goldminz, who I’ve also borrowed this basic explanation image from:

This method helps you clarify two of the four intersections in the image above: “profession” and “passion”. You can do step 1 of this method by hand. If you want the visualization (which I found more helpful than the raw list) you’ll have to type it into your computer in step 2. Despite it being more work, I highly recommend doing it by hand. Considering that this also is an emotional inventory, you may want to do it in whatever environment you find conductive for thought and reflection.

One last thing: I really recommend reading everything before you get started, so that you understand the whole process.

Around the time I turned 40, I had a series of realizations about myself. It was the best kind of crisis, because it led me to finding my ikigai (even if the “getting paid for it” part still is very modest). When I looked back on the 26 years I’ve been working, I realized that I had had 18 different full-time employments in that time. That led me to the question whether each job had brought me closer to my ikigai, or if it was random.

I started listing all previous employments. I also added any hobby or side project I had done, because with each hobby or side project, there were collateral skills and knowledge. Like playing computer games for example, which required me to learn about networks and troubleshooting computers. So, your first task is to make this list. We’ll call it “Activities” (I think this helps us to cast a wider net than “jobs”). This list is more of a brainstorm, so don’t worry about sorting it right now. Write down the things that come to mind, you can clean up the list later.

Once you have the list of activities, it’s time to make the

For each of the activities, make two columns. Like a pros-and-cons-list of sorts, but instead of “pro” and “con”, think about the particular activity, and which skills you got to use. The terms you use here can be as wide or narrow (or crazy) as you want. All that matters is that they make sense to you. For example, I used a very wide term, “networks and servers”, which I included for several activities:

I think it’s important to stress that this is not a résumé, this is your own personal inventory, so don’t be shy to list skills outside the job description.

So how do you decide if a skill goes in the plus column, or the minus column? Here is where the emotional part comes in. Imagine your dream position (without any title, it’s a position where anything goes). Then go down the list, and for each skill, ask yourself: would this particular skill be part of that dream job description? If the answer is yes (even vaguely), the skill goes in the plus column. If the answer is no, the skill goes in the minus column. Two things to keep in mind:

If you want, you can also add things that aren’t skills here, like attributes that are an intrinsic part of certain jobs, and which you have a strong feeling about. For example, my time at Ericsson and IBM taught me that I don’t like working for large organizations (probably because they prefer T-shaped competence to my X-shaped), so I added “working for large organization” in the minus column for both Ericsson and IBM.

The visualization helped me better understand which jobs I should say no to, rather than which I should say yes to. I believe that it is in the nature of this exercise that the plus list doesn’t fit a single title or job description (and if it does, I believe congratulations are in place).

I found a word cloud be a very helpful tool here. One word cloud with all the skills from all the plus columns, and one word cloud with all the skills from all the minus columns. If you are familiar with word clouds, you can probably do this step without further instructions. Don’t miss step 3 though, “Find your X”.

A word cloud is a visualization of a text, and uses size to show you how many times each word is found in the text. Each word is only shown once in the word cloud, and the bigger the word, the more occurrences of it. In your visualization size will be related to experience; the bigger the word/term, the more experience you have of it. Below you see my plus columns presented as a word cloud (in Swedish):

For this I used Word Clouds. I started by typing my handwritten notes into a Google Sheet (here’s a template in case you want a visual aid) in the same way as in step 1: two columns for each item on the activity list. Here is a very important thing for the visualization: when you type in labels consisting of more than one word, make sure to use _ (underscore) instead of blanks. This is a little cheat, because a blank space means “new word” and we’re interested in the whole phrase. You may have to shorten some descriptions, which is fine. Make sure that you are consistent with the naming, because to the word cloud generator, networks_&_servers reads as a different word than networks_and_servers.

Once you have the sheet, go to Word Clouds. Click on file in their menu and chose paste/type text. Then copy each plus column from the Google Sheet into the text box in Word Clouds. Remember to leave out the first cell in each column, we don’t want the activities in the word cloud. Once you’ve pasted all text from the plus columns, you click apply and the word cloud should show up momentarily. If you don’t see all items in the word cloud, move the slider just above the word cloud towards minus.

You can take a screenshot, or export the image to save it. Then repeat the process with the minus columns.

Once you have the two word clouds, you also have two list of skills (and perhaps attributes); one list of things that take you closer to your ikigai, and one of things that takes you further away.

If you’re anything like me, the word cloud of positive things seems incoherent and wild. That’s as good a start as any, and a better start than most. Now it’s time to draw your own X-shaped competence. X-shaped competence means asking yourself “what am I good at, and want to do more of?”. It’s derived from your skills and passions. It’s an acknowledgement of the complexity of you as a human being, and a better description of you than a traditional job title. Job titles tend to be one dimensional and driven by the needs of an organization. Job descriptions are often based on a T-shaped competence (a good general education, and a single specialization). T-shaped competence has less room for what differentiates us from machines, like passion.

To get your X-shaped competence, take four skills or activities you’re passionate about, and try to combine them. X marks the spot where your ikigai is closer. At least it did for me.

If you try this, and find it helpful (or not helpful), let me know. I’m @kazarnowicz on Twitter.

(This post is also available in Swedish.)

Finding your ikigai in your middle age

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