What Martin Eden can teach us about Ikigai

Martin Eden is a 1909 novel by American author Jack London. It was recommended to me by one of my coaching clients, and many times in sessions, he would ask “Have you read Martin Eden?” and then “Have you still not read Martin Eden?”

I hadn’t and for some reason I could not access a print copy (although I just looked on amazon JP and here it is! There is some magic going on here about why I could not get a copy before!) My client said that it had really influenced him when he was younger and continued to influence him to this day. I was intrigued by what he had to say, but just couldn’t get a copy.

After almost 2 years of coaching, my client announced that the big day had finally come. He was being transferred from Tokyo to Dubai, and as a farewell gift, he promised me a copy of Martin Eden. He also tried to find a copy in print and could not. Then, in the most beautiful gesture, he gave me his beloved copy. It has traveled around the world with him. It’s so meaningful to receive a pre-loved book. Complete with a few pencilled notes, it’s a bit battered, smells wonderful, and is totally unique. I’ll admit, it must’ve been dusty in the boardroom or perhaps it was allergies? Not a dry eye in the house…

So as well as imagining my client as a young man when he read this and remembering the context of the coaching sessions when he shared incidents that were meaningful for him, I also saw many parallels about the concept of Ikigai.

Martin Eden meets a girl, that’s how so many great books start right? I need to say “spoiler alert” from now on!

When your lover is your Ikigai

He meets a girl. He sees a different type of life for himself, and he starts to educate himself. He’s a sailor, a working class boy and decides he wants to go after this middle -class girl, Ruth. So Ruth, for a while, is the object of his Ikigai, his reason for living. She is his reason for doing everything. He betters himself so that he can come her exalted world and be with her.

Through this course of education, he discovers a love for writing, for creativity and he is producing this work. He also sees a business chance to earn good money based on what he reads in magazines. But, of course, the path to success is not smooth and he receives rejection after rejection. There’s a lot of discussion around that, the challenges of creativity, the challenges of getting recognition, the soul crushing experience of repeated rejection.

But through this journey, Ruth is always very much the North Star. Eden’s reason for getting out of bed is so he can be good enough for her. He faces a lot of criticism from people around him to get a job, get a position, stop this messing around with writing. He’s often living in extreme poverty. He’s losing weight. His clothes are in the pawn shop. He’s in debt with no more creditors and Ruth is this terrible middle-class bourgeoisie girl who has no idea about his struggles. She just keeps saying “come and work for Daddy”. Whilst he believes in her and himself she has no concept of what he’s really doing with her as the object of his Ikigai.

When work turns you from man to beast

There’s a shift at one point in the story where Eden gets a job in a laundry. He’s had enough of the creative struggle and says, “I need to make money. I don’t want to go sailing again.” There is a really amazing description about the transformation that overcomes him with this work. He becomes a beast of a man. He’s so exhausted from the constant machine and the speed. He works and works and works and then they’d go out and obliterate themselves on a Saturday night, come back to work on Monday. Plus ca change, Tokyo in the 21st century.

Alcohol allows him to separate from himself. To not be part of the machine. To escape from the physically challenging, mentally challenging, exhausting work. Through this experience of this endless work where you think you’re done, and then another bag of fancy starch comes in. It’s just not sustainable. Martin quits. Joe (his boss) quits to become a hobo. Martin goes back to his writing. Reading this segment from over 100 years ago really resonated with some of the stories of my clients and how they feel about their work. When your day job takes so much out of you that you can’t even live on the weekend, something is broken. There is more to life than this. What choices are you willing to make?

When your Ikigai betrays you

Later in the book Eden’s fortunes change and he finds wealth and fame. And of course the people who shunned him now court him. And his ikigai crumbles.

He realizes how fake fame is, how fake recognition is, how nobody cared for him with the work that he had already done, how nobody invited him for dinner when he was penniless. And finally (I was screaming “YES!” internally) there’s a rejection of Ruth. He finally realizes, thank goodness that he was just in love with an image of her. It wasn’t the real woman, it was the idea of her. So his object of his ikigai proved false.

And with this loss of ikigai, Eden literally has no reason to get out of bed. He cannot see the purpose of his life. He has everything he said he wanted. He has recognition for the things that he produced. The woman he loved says, “I’ll have you now.”

But her realises it’s just empty and fake. He feels that this object of his Ikigai, his focus on why he was alive, what drove him, is ultimately meaningless. And he is so exhausted that he is not able to find a new Ikigai. All his energy and life force is gone. The focus on a single idea of a possible future meant that he could hardly draw pleasure in the present and then by the time he realised the expected outcome, he had no ikigai left.

Why you need a reason to get out of bed

It reminded me that this concept of having a reason to live is so important. And that also we need to remember the journey is the goal. When we get “there” it might not be what we imagined.

At the end of the book, Eden is tired of life. He no longer has the capacity for joy, he can’t see any hope. It’s heartbreaking and a such a waste of a talented soul.

I don’t want that for anyone in my life. I want people to wake up with a reason to do what they’re doing, to feel they are valued for who they are, to feel loved, to love, and to have the joy of creating something. That doesn’t mean painting a picture or writing a book. It means by being in the world, merely by existing, you’re making a difference to somebody’s life.

I thought that “Martin Eden” raised a lot of interesting ideas about Ikigai, about our purpose, how we choose to live, the stories that we tell.

So my invitation is to think about what drives you. What would happen if you felt that it was suddenly false? How would you handle that “betrayal” of your ideal? Would you put something else in its place? Would you carry on ahead with no different ideas? Or would you say, “Okay, done.”

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