The Teaching Ikigai: Passion, Mission, Vocation, and Profession

Is Teaching Your Ikigai?


I love and hate the self-help book section. It is packed full of gems like Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, and many others that make the wheels in my teacher-entrepreneur brain go crazy. However, I also have visions of myself as the teacher that is seen staring at the self-help book section in a bookstore with a crazed look in her eye, teacher bag thrown over their shoulder, dark bags under each eye, that just seems in need How many of us can relate to this image as we struggle with the teaching profession as a whole and the day-ins and day-outs of being a teacher? Enter in why I picked up this cute little blue book by Penquin press. I was tired, and it seemingly seemed to address a question I ask myself all the time:

Is teaching my purpose in life?


I walked by this book on the display shelf and thought to myself, "Dear Heavens, THAT is the existential question of all teachers isn't it?" Are we doing what we find to be our life passion? I know am good at teaching, I know that the thought of a student rewriting a draft makes me awfully happy, and I love grammar for petes-sake. However, I also know how I feel when I write blog posts for Writing Mindset, have time that does not involve grading papers, and love the idea of opening up a paper/stationary shop downtown. I like to wonder. The essential question we all ask ourselves on good days or bad days is that is this teaching thing our ikigai? For those of you that are unfamiliar with the book. Your ikigai is the reason for your being and the intersection of your passion, mission, profession, and vocation (9). See the image below for further clarification. 


I immediately paused in the store when I turned the book over. You might have paused at the picture as well. Is teaching the blue between? The numerous quotes, memes, and posts about how teachers take the act of teaching into their identity is vast. As teachers, we define our lives by teaching. Period. If we don't, we are often made to feel bad about our dedication to teaching. I know for me, I have a light switch inside of me that never shuts off when it comes to teaching. However, I am wondering if teaching is really the epicenter of my personal being? My purpose for life? While I sip coffee and ponder my existential quest for being, I wanted to also highlight some key aspects of the book that I came across. Don't get me wrong, I love this thing we call teaching. I particularly love working with middle schoolers on writing; however, I also am open to the idea that I was made for other reasons as well.

Book Highlights

Highlight #1: Don't retire.

This idea was the first of many in this small book to make me take a moment to think. I am bombarded in my current position with people that are counting down to the time they get to retire. It was recommended I "buy years" so that I can retire sooner. I recently logged into my Office of Retirement Services account for the first time recently (after 8 years) because I was curious about what I was getting into my account. Was it enough? The book recommends and actually gives TONS of examples of people who have not retired on a small island off of Japan that are living past 100 years of age simply because they didn't stop working. This brings a new definition to #can'tstopwon'tstop. The book highlights the ideas of how if you remain active, your body and mind will do the same.  What if we as teachers don't factor in retirement? Should the end of teaching be something that is not marked by retirement? What should it be marked by? According to the text, teachers shouldn't need to retire if it is our true ikigai. With the number of future teachers reaching an all-time low, who will replace those that leave?

Highlight #2: Take care of your body. 

Cue the eye roll. But seriously. I recently published a post about adding exercise to my workweek and how that was going. This book recommends everything you have heard before: eat right, take care of your body through exercise, meditate, and have some sort of spiritual practice. I loved the concept of how to not fill your body all the way full with food. They call this the 80% rule (14). The people of this small Japanese island that they cite as having some of the key secrets of a long and fulfilling life go on to explain how they implement the 80% rule in their lives. Simply, stop eating when you feel 80% full. I always underestimate the advice that is given about health because at the end of the workweek, I am choosing to be in survival mode rather than thriving mode for my body. I would stay up late to grade papers, but I won't stay up late to do yoga or work on my abs. Bottom line? Make an effort to take care of your body. I am recovering from a cough at the present moment, and my goal is to get back on track with my exercise regime in order to continue to help maintain a healthier lifestyle. 

Highlight #3: Tackle stress. 

The book sums up a study by the American Institute of Stress that says that most health problems are caused by stress (22). There was also a fascinating table that compared the fight or flight response between cave dwellers and modern humans (24-25). The point of this table is to illustrate how the stress has taken on a role in the everyday life-no matter the profession. Cave dwellers had to worry about actual survival; we worry about making sure grades are submitted on time and that the typed email response to a student's mom won't offend them. Admittingly, I exist September-June in a state of stress. I use July and August to recover, but I know that I am stressed during the school year. I have my mug that boasts, "I can get a year's worth of work done in 10 months" that my husband got for me because it is my canned response when people give me the "well, you DO get summer's off" response. What sane person wants to put a year's worth of work into a 10 month period? I love that mug, but I think it speaks more about the nature of stress considered at a teacher's workplace than it does about the ability to conquer the work we do. 

Highlight #4: Refocus Sunday neurosis

The book defined Sunday neurosis as "without the obligations and commitments of the workweek, the individual realizes how empty he is inside" (41). I didn't find this quotation poignant because I feel empty inside when I think about the workweek, I stopped at this quotation because as a teacher I find pause on Sundays because I am overwhelmed at the number of obligations and commitments I have this week that feels like I have to work through them. I love working with kids, but there is too much that is not teaching involved in the business of teaching. If I look at my schedule-at-a-glance, I realize that the tasks involved in not actually teaching may be the reason I challenge if teaching is, in fact, my ikigai. For example, think about: meetings, professional development, attendance, data reports, testing, forms to fill in for child study team, copies, sending lesson plans, and more. All of these tasks are part of the career of teaching, but they are not the working with students that fulfill a passion. 

Therefore, how do we fix Sunday neurosis as defined as the fear on Sunday that the weekend is over and we are about to enter a to-do list spinning of checklists and commitments that is the workweek? The answer is to find flow.

Highlight #5: Find flow. 

I love the 7 steps that outline how to find flow in your work (58). Blogging gives me the feeling of flow. Flow is when you are working on something and time or the stress response are no longer evident in your thought process. I get this when I think about Writing Mindset, when I am working on a new lesson for students, and when I find an idea for a lesson that can make kids think. I don't get flow when I am grading 122 essays, or when I am trying to accomplish the weekly reminder tasks or answering emails, or doing the laundry. The book outlines this as a need to find microflow or an opportunity to clear the mind of other thoughts to help establish flow later on (81-82). Therefore, the tasks that I don't want to necessarily do give me an opportunity to clear my mind and think about something else. I think this mentality is the key to helping me conquer the paper problem or the lack of energy to start on a stack of papers; however, I am not sure how to achieve microflow yet. This is on my to-do list to ponder. 

Highlight #6: Cultivate antifragility. 

I stopped cold in this section of the book. Antifragility, as described in the text, goes beyond resilience and overcoming adversity, it is the person that becomes better because they went through something catastrophic (174). I like the idea of trying to make yourself less fragile because I don't consider myself weak by any means, but I know that during tough times I see a problem as something to get through, not something to be embraced. Even though I have named this blog Writing Mindset, and have taught a multitude of growth mindset lessons to my students, I still see problems as all people see problems, as something that must be endured. I observe problems in life as something that I am willing to tackle, but I am not necessarily embracing the idea of 6 hours of parent-teacher conferences next week. Trying to be more antifragile means finding goodness in grading, goodness in mundane tasks that lack flow, and goodness in tasks that make me question whether or not I should be a teacher. 

Next Steps

I watched the movie Lucy again last night. I love this 2014 film about how a 24 year-old woman who gets conned into being a drug mule, those drugs leak into her system, and she unlocks 100% of her brain's "cerebral capacity." Some quotes from the movie:

Lucy: Humans consider themselves unique so they've rooted there whole theory of existence on their uniqueness. One is their unit of measure, but it's not. All social systems we've put into place are a mere sketch. One plus one equals two. That's all we've learned, but one plus one has never equaled two. There are, in fact, no numbers and no letters. We've codified our existence to bring it down to human size to make it comprehensible. We've created a scale so that we can forget its unfathomable scale

Lucy: Time is the only true unit of measure. It gives proof to the existence of matter. Without time, we don't exist.

Looking at these two quotes, I can sum up these quotes with more questions: How do we use our time as teachers more efficiently? How do we focus on the actual time of instruction we have with students? By reflecting on these two questions, here are the big points of consideration for this blog post:

Writing Mindset Reflection Questions:

1.) How do we use our time to find flow in the everyday acts of teaching?

2.) What can other areas of life be explored as our potential ikigai? Do these areas intersect with teaching?

3.) How do we develop antifragility?