Thinking Makes it So

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” – William Shakespeare

In a great post for Every, writer Simone Stolzoff writes that ikigai, the Japanese term for meaning in life. (And one that I’ve written about before.) Stolzoff says that perhaps the most famous Venn diagram in the world is related to career advice. “Four intersecting circles: what you’re good at, what you love, what you can be paid for, and what the world needs. At their intersection lies the all-holy Ikigai, your ‘reason for being.’”

But he goes on to say that when we apply ikigai only to work, we are missing the point. He writes, “As Japanese neuroscientist Ken Mogi writes, Ikigai is simply a reason to “wake up to joy.” It can be as small as taking your dog for a walk or your afternoon cup of tea.”

Stolzoff writes that he was once an earnest poetry major who believed that finding meaningful work was one of the most important tasks of his life. But then h e met one of his idols, “a poet named Anis Mojgani. At the time, Mojgani was at the top of his game. He had just won back-to-back titles at the National Individual Poetry Slam. He was the first person I had ever met who was able to make a living from writing and performing. He traveled the world to speak on college campuses and open for musicians. He was a verifiable rockstar of rhymes, my professional idol.”

He asked him about choosing a career, convinced that Mojgani would tell him to follow his passion. But he didn’t. Instead he said something that hit Stolzoff (and me) as profound and true, but hidden from most of us who work. “Work will always be work. Some people work doing what they love. Other people work so that they can do what they love when they’re not working. Neither is more noble.”

We expect a lot form our jobs. We expect them to pay enough to fund the lifestyle we want, to provide challenge, a creative outlet, and a social network. Some people drift form job to job, even career to career, seeking meaning and joy in their work. What if that’s the wrong approach?

Two thoughts on that. I have very strong preferences and dislikes; for me, almost everything comes down to “heck yes, or no.” I never understood how people could choose careers that seemed like drudgery to me. I marveled that there are people in the world who choose to spend all day doing things I dread: cleaning the house, mowing the yard, balancing accounts, doing taxes.

For some, their work falls in the sweet spot of “things people will pay me to do” and “things I’m good at doing.” Joy doesn’t factor into it because they have rich lives outside of work that bring them joy. What they’re passionate about, spending time with pets or children, making music, or knitting, won’t pay the bills. So they work to afford the time they spend on what brings them joy.

Others learned to find joy in what they do. They’ve come to appreciate the satisfaction in a job well done, to take pride in honing their skills and building expertise. They appreciate their customers’ joy, relief, and thanks for their work.

Stolzoff writes, “Meaning is not something that is bestowed upon us; it’s something we create. And as with any act of creation, it requires time and energy. He quotes philosopher John Dewey, “’We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflection on experience.’ The same can be said for meaning-making—we make meaning through reflection.”

In other words, no job is good or bad but thinking makes it so. Do what you love, or love what you do. Neither is more noble.

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