My Ikigai Journey: from slipped disc to jumping out of bed

So how did this lass from Bury, in the north west of England, become so interested in this Japanese concept of Ikigai?

Of course, moving to Japan in 1999 with proximity to the culture would be a simple explanation but I did not become aware of the concept until 2017. It was only after I discovered my Ikigai that I discovered Ikigai.

I wish I had known about it in 2015. It really was my “annus horribilis”.

The year began with me laid up in bed with a slipped disc. Agony whatever I did, unable to lie comfortably or move around, unable to take care of my family or commute on a crowded train to Tokyo to go to work. I could not sit or stand.  Lying down was not even that much respite. I endured some terrible physio that probably made the issue worse before I asked around locally and finally found someone who could help.

But during these weeks as I struggled with pain and felt let down by my body for the first time in my adult life, I started to sink into depression. I cried when I could not carry my infant son, or even do simple jobs around the house, I could not play with or comfort my daughter. There were no more impromptu dance parties, tickle fights or circus skills. I was never a great cook but now the act of shopping, cooking and cleaning up was more than I could handle.

Who was I as a mother?

So to my husband. He had to take on all the caregiving, as well as his full time job. As a Japanese salaryman, even at an enlightened company, the fact that he could not do overtime every day was beginning to take its toll. And as for intimacy…well, that was very far from my mind.  And not only in the physical sense. I had no energy to listen to his troubles, no fire in my heart to support and cheer him on. I was locked in my own suffering and frustration.

Who was I as a wife and partner?

And then my work. Truth be told,  I was glad not to have the commute. Something had shifted in my engagement and satisfaction. I had been with my company since 2004. They were challenging but enjoyable years. However, after my second maternity leave I came back to a different job, with a different boss. And to be frank, I was underperforming in my role. I had no fire in my belly for the work. More importantly  for the first time in my career I did not feel a sense of belonging and camaraderie with the people on my team. I could not see where the role would take me.

Who was I in my career? What was my role in the firm?

In the key places where I defined my identity,  (mother, wife, professional),  I felt a failure. I felt I had nothing to offer.

There were a few bright spots.  I had an incredibly supportive network of women through my leadership of a Lean In Circle, a peer to peer networking group, that I founded in Tokyo. I also had the camaraderie of my local running group although obviously running was off the cards during this period.

With perfect 20:20 hindsight, I see that the slipped disc was a great way of getting me to slow down. I was forced to take stock of my life and what I valued. 

The slipped disc was certainly a real issue. I have the MRI scans to prove it. I can’t help but think that I was sending myself a warning. Something had broken inside me and I could not get out. Be warned, gentle reader, that I will talk a LOT about listening to your body. The signs that our parasympathetic nervous system sends us are an incredibly valuable message.

Then slowly, slowly, the pain relief started to work. I was able to return to “normal” life and pick up all those roles again. But the seed had been planted and the nagging thought in my mind was there.

“Without these things, these roles that I thought defined me, who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose?”

Big questions with no easy answers. And as a harried working mum with a young family, they were questions that were easy to ignore.

Around the time that I started to recover, I had dinner with a friend, Renee. 

“How are things?” she asked. 

“Not so terrible” I said, trying to reframe my current situation, to put it in perspective of my #firstworldproblems. I wanted to remind my self that in the great scheme of humanity that as an Oxford educated, white woman in a white collar job in Tokyo with a healthy family, a lovely house and many options and support, things were indeed not so terrible.

“But darling, Jen! Not so terrible is not the goal. You deserve more. Everyone does!”

And then it hit me, that I was settling. I started to think about how it was possible to give myself permission to ask for more. It wasn’t greedy or self indulgent to want more and by aiming only for “not so terrible” I was holding myself back. By settling in a role that I wasn’t engaged in, I was also becoming a drain on resources in my firm. I was transforming into the very type of colleague that I most disliked: The safe, the bored, the clock in/ clock out, the ranks of the disengaged. 

Was this the limit of my potential?  Why am I here? What is my purpose?

Around the time of this dinner, a couple of other moments of clarity came to me. Once we start to pay attention, the messages start coming thick and fast. Perhaps that is why you are reading this now?

Realizing that I had been sent a wake up call in the form of a shut down of my body, I had decided to take action. I was working with Anne Good,  an executive coach,  and drilling down on these questions of purpose, strengths and life design. On our regular Skype calls, we focused on creating possibilities for potential next steps. I developed awareness of my unique strengths. I met fabulous people with really interesting jobs through informational interviewing. I clawed back the agency and control that I had lost over the last 12 months. I found that I was improving relationships within my team, meeting inspiring people with interesting stories and leaning into what I loved.

I attended a speech by Dr. Bob Tobin, author of “What do you want to create today?” and he asked the room “What is your dream?” And in that question, I had the saddest realization. I don’t have a dream. I can’t see beyond the hamster wheel of my work and family life. I am coasting, waiting for things to happen to me. I could not believe it but the truth was staring me in the face. I had given up on the idea of hopes and dreams for myself.

And yet, and yet… I started to see something, a power and presence in me that emerged when I was facilitating the LeanIn Circle. There was a monthly moment of flow. It was during those meetings that I felt the most energized.  The most useful. The most me.

From these insights about strengths, possibility, dreams and flow, a new perspective emerged. There might be something else out there for me that could work!

I announced in a session that I wanted to return to L&D and to pursue options in facilitation and coaching. Anne, my coach asked me, “What if you stay in this job and spend the next 6-12 months studying to be a coach?”  

Shudder – it was a  visceral reaction, the churn in my stomach. I may have even been a little sick in my mouth! Overwhelming feelings of dread at the thought of showing up every day and becoming a little more broken each month. 

But then, the practical side of maintaining the status quo held me. What would I do instead? How could I make a living? I was terrified of that too. 

This is where I realized the importance of all those informational interviews. Meeting diverse people who can suggest options of how to live or choices to make that you did not know were possible. I met with Ted Agatsuma, an experienced HR professional who was now working as a consultant. I bemoaned the jobs which I had seen on the market in L&D and Training. 

“I want to be a practitioner, Ted. I want to be in the room with people and see the aha moments with them!

“The only way that is going to happen is if you set up your own company and freelance,” he told me in a very matter of fact way. And just as the words “I can’t set…” started to come out of my mouth, I stopped myself. What if I could? What might it look like?

And from that moment on, it was all systems go. With the support of my family and the promise of paying my half of the mortgage for a year from my husband, I set about planning the launch of my sole proprietorship. 

I had dinner with Ted on February 26th, 2016. Resigned in early May and the business was launched on June 29, 2016 with the help of the first professional I hired, Yasuko Mori, who remains my wonderful and supportive Tax Accountant. 

Looking back on my personal experience,  I see how useful it would have been to use the Ikigai framework. Once I had a clear understanding of what I loved, what I was good at, what I could be paid for and what the world needed, I was able to take action. Once I worked out what would make me jump out of bed rather than battle the pain of a slipped disc, I was able to start moving forwards.

So as I said, It was only after I discovered my Ikigai that I discovered Ikigai.