Ikigai - The Search for Meaning


I have had this tenuous relationship with self help books. I have read quite a few of them. Yet I view them with skepticism. My skepticism works similar to Douglas Adam's proof of non existence of  God. In Douglas Adam's book, there exists a miracle fish called Babel fish which when put into someone's ear can translate any alien language into their own tongue. Now something so useful could not have evolved without the intervention of an intelligent creator, could it have? Instead he goes on to use the very fact to prove the intelligent creator's non existence. How? This is how. Now most religions hold that the basis of God is faith and there cannot be any proof as proof defies faith. Now, the existence of Babel fish offers proof which makes the faith hypothesis collapse thus disproving the existence of God. Now I came up with a similar logic to say  self help books do not work based to the fact that they are the highest selling genre of books. My reasoning goes like this - if the prescriptions in these books worked, why would we need so many more? The very fact that there is an ever burgeoning need for these books seems to indicate the books do not work. Anyways, I still continue to dabble in these books every now and then hoping to find the elusive Holy Grail of personal productiveness, happiness, sense of purpose and accomplishment et al that everyone is looking for. Or at least what I hope everyone is looking for. I don't know if I will ever find it or is it going to be ever elusive like the question of existence of God. But I shall look for common threads across these books and try to relate to my life experiences and share my insights here. 

So I started this book Ikigai I have been hearing a lot about. Of course I didn't buy it - it came as a gift to a family member and me being the only reader in the family, it ended up in my book collection. I really loved the look of the book with its lovely sky blue cover and nice binding. All this stuff about not judging a book by its cover and all works only in theory. In fact when I published my book, I paid more to my cover designer than to my editor - so you know how things stack up. 

Getting back to the book, one of the first concept it introduces is Viktor Frankl's Logotherapy. Interestingly when I was passing through my phase of depression, Viktor Frankl's 'Man's Search for Meaning' was one of the books I looked to for relief. Thinking of it, it was probably the right book but I was just not in the right frame of mind to really absorb and implement in my life. I guess it was partly because I was very much in the middle of the very things that was causing me depression. I wonder if it would have worked if I had a week or a month's break to pick up the pieces and get my life back together. But Victor Frankl was able to get himself out of his depressed state of mind right in the middle of being incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp. I can't imagine the Nazis giving him a week off from the concentration camp to go to a luxurious retreat and attend therapy sessions to regain his mental state to be able to come back and face the situation better. Anyways it so happened the situation ended within a week of my reading the book and I was back to a relaxed state - a vacation with my family and back to my favorite children's books and all that. So Victor Frankl or no Victor Frankl I recovered my mental state and was all geared up to get back in to the ring. What happened after that and how I once again I faced yet another disastrous situation 2 years down the line is a different story. But let us follow one thread at a time.

So what Frankl says is the way to maintain one's mental poise is to have a deeper sense of purpose in life which is what this whole idea of Ikigai is also all about. Somehow the purpose is something that has always eluded me. I had them. But they were always abstract and distant like making some path breaking discovery in a field of science or technology, or writing a defining work of literature that would stand the test of time or  help establish a socio political system that would bring... Yes...…'World Peace" Now I am sounding like one of those Miss Universe contestants, ain't I? But come on. I did write a paper on best system that can usher in peace, prosperity and advance human civilization for a course on History of International relations and got a A for it. So I guess I have at least some standing to speak on the topic. Anyways whatever I had as purpose were very distant with no visible path to achieve them from where I was. Then I had immediate goals like getting into the country's best technology school, getting into the country's best business school, joining one of the world's leading strategy consulting firms and things like that. Each of these I achieved but felt a sense of emptiness in life post achievement for there was no next step after that. What was missing were the steps leading from these immediate goals to my ambitious life goals. Or maybe my life goals were just way too ambitious. I don't know. Even at 40, foundering in the dark as clueless as I was at 20, still I don't want to let go of those big dreams. But I begin to wonder if my life would have been better if my dreams had been smaller like becoming a managing director of my firm or even the CEO of my firm. Right now even these things have begun to look distant while I continue to chase the mirage of bigger things in life. Something like becoming a managing director at my firm could have been easily achieved by now - many of my friends have actually got there already. But in some odd way like the fallacy of the Babel fish, the very fact of my missing out on more achievable success, wants to make me pursue the doomed path to greater glory. The human mind you know never gets this concept of sunk cost. Having wasted this much of my life pursuing seemingly impossible goals, endangering my chances at more achievable goals, I don't want to let go of those dreams as that would be an acknowledgement of the wasted years. I still desperately try to unravel a hidden meaning in all those lost years.

But the problem I mentioned must have always been there. But why was I pushed into depression by that particular project and not any time else? Usually, while there was a general sense of lack of purpose, there were always some immediate successes that kept me going and always convinced me that it was just a matter of time before I was on the path to achieve my true destiny. But this was one of those projects that looked truly hopeless. There was a logjam with no way out. It was like I was struck in a car without a break. The car keeps moving and you can't do a damn thing about it. You are just stuck there looking out of the window as the trees fly past and the car heads towards an obstacle or a cliff. But no obstacle or cliff is in sight. You can no longer take the uncertainty. So much so that seeing a cliff or a barrier may actually bring some relief. You know waiting for a disaster to strike is actually worse than the disaster itself. That was how it was. The project looked like it wouldn't end. And I could see no way to successfully complete the project. So we seemed to be slogging away aimlessly day and night, going around in circles with nothing to look forward to. It almost felt like being stuck in Vicktor Frankl's concentration camp. Though the situation was not that bad. After all it was just a job. Any day I could just hand in my papers and walk out. But somehow that didn't seem right. There seemed to be some invisible barrier preventing me from taking that path. 

Again as usual I have stated the problem well. But what about the solution? How could I have avoided it? Now thinking back I feel I should have defined what success looked like at a project level and laid down the steps to achieve it and what the possible barriers could be to prevent those steps from being accomplished. And then had an open and frank conversation with my boss and client stakeholders about the same.  But then this is easier said than done. An open and frank conversation is one of the most difficult things to have. Most real life business situations are ones in which you really do not have a clear sense of direction but you can't tell that to the client who is paying you through his nose. The client wants a sense of reassurance and certainty for the money he is paying. Your competitor is going to offer him that if you don't even though he may be as clueless as you are. So you have to fake it and pretend you know where you are going and figure it out along the way and then when you reach the end pretend as if you had everything planned out all along. The thing is I had done it in the past. But the difference was that the faking part was done by my manager, not only reassuring the client but me as well, leaving my mind free of anxieties to direct my energies towards finding the path. And usually I ended up finding the path - all that my manager had needed to do was to provide me a feeling that there was a safety net if I fell. This was the first time my manager did not provide me that safety net. So the entire burden of success or failure rested on my shoulder. The manager had sufficient credibility with the client though other projects and if this project failed, I would be the one held solely responsible. And that was weighing heavily upon me. 

So again we are at a roadblock. So what does one do when one can't be transparent with one's client stakeholders and your manager is not being supportive? When one does not get the answers from one's seniors, one has to look towards one's juniors. And that is precisely what I did. And there I got the answer.  One of my juniors who had experience working with the very same manager explained it all to me - when you know your manager is not going to be supportive, one has to fake it with one's manager as well. And then the safety net? There are two ways to go about it. One is  to have a hubris of infallibility which is what this junior colleague had. But that was not how I was. I was always the one plagued with self doubt. So what was the way for me - if no one built a safety net for me, I had to build it myself. So what was this safety net. I had to imagine the worst case scenario of failing at the project, imagine it in detail and have the back up plan ready. That would be the safety net while I would again look for the path like I had in all my earlier years when my manager was providing that net. 

So was I able to crack the situation the next time around? Here is where the whole thing gets anti-climactic. I never faced exactly the same situation ever again after that. So I was back to winning ways? No. Not really. I got stuck in what is called the Anna Karenina principle  based on a line from Tolstoy's famous book that says "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Similarly I guess successful projects are all alike. But unsuccessful projects fail in different ways. So I have had projects fail in different ways but never like this one. I live in the hope  that I would eventually have seen all possible permutations and combinations of failures to be able to predict and prevent any new ones.


  1. What a wonderful post. I had so many thoughts when I read it - need to list them down some time soon. Would love to read your paper on the best possible system. I look forward to reading our new posts.

    1. Hey, read this again, and was about to write almost the same thing I had written in the earlier comment ( just saw it). Lovely piece. Again. Would love to read your paper on the pwrfect system.

  2. Hi TF I can relate to this ...a whole lot of theory but struggling when it comes to practicality ... that's the line between EQ and IQ I feel and I believe that I am stronger in the latter but lacking in the former .... and we will keep looking for answers in self help books !

    1. True. EQ is going to become all the more important with machines continuously taking up the IQ based tasks. I will probably have retired by then but going to be big in my son's time.

  3. Good one Karthik! I could relate to most of what you had written. This reassures me that I am not alone on this journey.

  4. Ha. In a similar position with self-help books. The one thought coming out of almost every such book is ‘Have a goal and pursue it like a hound.’ Well, I haven’t yet found the perfect goal which could inspire me to pursue it so here I am.


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