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The View From Unretirement: Want a happier, more fulfilling retirement? Try this Japanese concept.

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Typical New Year’s resolutions, financially speaking, tend to be things like:” I’ll save more,” “I’ll reduce debt” or “I’ll become smarter about investing.”

I’d like to offer a different one for 2023, particularly for people who are newly retired or nearing retirement: “I’ll find my ikigai.”

What exactly is ikigai (pronounced ee-kee-GUY) and why should you try to find it for retirement?

Ikigai is, as you might suspect, a Japanese word. It combines “iki” (which means alive or life) and “gai” (which means benefit or worth). Loosely translated, ikigai means “the reason to get up in the morning,” so it’s similar to “raison d’être” in French.

The four parts of ikigai

Ikigai means finding what you love (your passion), what you’re good at (your vocation), what you can do that the world needs (your mission) and what you can be paid for (your “profession,” though getting paid could be financially or psychically through volunteering or mentoring).

In my unretirement, now one year in, I’m finding my ikigai through freelance writing about personal finances and retirement; volunteering on weekends at the nearby Furniture Assist charity in New Jersey and mentoring through NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute and the Gerontological Society of America’s Journalists in Aging program.

I first heard about ikigai in 2019 when I wrote a Next Avenue series about the five Blue Zones around the world, where people live the longest and healthiest. One of them was Okinawa, Japan, where ikigai originated.

Recently, I read three ikigai books (“Ikigai,” “How to Ikigai” and “Awakening Your Ikigai”) and then interviewed five experts on ikigai and retirement: “How to Ikigai” author Tim Tamashiro; retirement coach Mike Drak and bloggers Susan Williams (Booming Encore), Sam Dogen (Financial Samurai) and retiree Wayne Karatsu (Your Inspired Retirement.

I’ll share their fascinating paths to finding ikigai and their advice below.

Two reasons to find your ikigai in retirement

But first: Why should you bother to spend time and effort trying to find your ikigai in retirement (even if Japanese doesn’t even have a word for retirement)?

For one thing, it will likely make your retirement more fulfilling, partly by helping others.

For another, it might let you live longer. Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine researchers asked 43,391 Japanese adults between age 40 and 79, “Do you have ikigai in your life?” Seven years later, 95% of those who’d said they had ikigai were alive; 83% without ikigai had died.

Five people sharing their ikigai paths and advice 

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what five who’ve found their ikigai told me:

Mike Drak, retirement coach and author

Mike Drak admits he initially “failed” at retirement, after being forced to retire from his Canadian bank job in 2014. That led him to co-write “Retirement Heaven or Hell: Which Will You Choose?”

Now a retirement coach, he’s helping clients avoid making the mistakes he made and teaching them about the importance of ikigai. And in the new, free, retirement-planning book Drak co-wrote, “Longevity Lifestyle by Design,” there’s an entire chapter on ikigai. 

“One of the reasons I failed at retirement was I didn’t have a source of purpose to retire to. I thought, if you have enough money life’s supposed to be good,” Drak told me. “I found out that’s not the case.”

Then he saw the famous ikigai diagram. “When I first saw it, I said, ‘This makes sense to me. So, I’m aligning my strengths that I was born with to the skillsets I developed and finding a source of work [retirement coaching] that really lights me up for the first time in my life.”

The ikigai diagram.

Becoming Better

Drak says finding your ikigai in retirement is “making a fulfilling, meaningful lifestyle.” And, he adds, “it’s a beautiful thing when it fits. I think more people, once they wake up to ikigai, they’re going to go, ‘Wow, why didn’t someone tell me about this before?’”

Drak suggests consulting with friends and family when you’re searching for your ikigai. Ask them what they think you’re good at because maybe they can crystallize it for you in a way that you couldn’t yourself, he says.

“They know where your strengths are,” Drak notes.

He did this for an ex-banker struggling with retirement. The man told Drak that he decompressed by building his basement and constructing a cottage with his father. Drak recommended the man hire himself to do renovations, part-time, in retirement.

“Now he’s got this beautiful lifestyle where he is doing renovations in the summer and he and his wife go down to Costa Rica in the winter,” says Drak.

Tim Tamashiro, former jazz radio host and storyteller

When Tim Tamashiro, now 57, left his CBC 2 radio job hosting a jazz show in 2017, he says, he decided to “focus on his work.” That meant the work of finding out how best to spend his time.

It led to what Tamashiro — who has also been a professional singer — calls his “ikigap year,” echoing the kind of gap year some young people take before college to find themselves. His experiences that year ranged from building houses in the Dominican Republic to seeing an eclipse in Oregon.

The ikigap year led to Tamashiro’s 2018 TEDx talk, “How to Ikigai” (which has nearly 600,000 views) and his book, “How to Ikigai.”

Says Tamashiro: “I think ikigai is absolutely essential in retirement. We have the extraordinary opportunity and time to explore what it is that brings us joy.” (He hopes to write an ikigai retirement book one day.)

Tamashiro sums up his own ikigai in two words: “to delight.” That means giving speeches and workshops and singing. Recently, he was offered a contract to sing on a cruise ship for four months.

He stumbled on ikigai one Sunday afternoon roughly 15 years ago, watching a furniture design competition on TV.

“One of the contestants made a couch and had embroidered the four circles of ikigai together on the back,” Tamashiro recalls. “I thought, ‘This is amazing,’ and just started googling and learning as much about it as I could.” Then he learned ikigai came from Okinawa, where his grandparents were from.

Tamashiro says finding your ikigai takes work. “It really requires exploration,” he notes. “The interesting thing about ikigai is it doesn’t necessarily show up in obvious ways.”

He recalls struggling to understand what he did on a regular basis that he found rewarding.

“I ended up sitting down with a friend of mine and kept on using the phrase, ‘I just like to win people over and make friends. I really enjoy that feeling of ensuring that they’re having a good time,’” says Tamashiro. “But when I thought about it a little bit more, ‘delight’ is what really resonated with me and gave me a real clear sense of things that I could do a million different ways every day. And so, that’s what I settled on.”

In September, Tamashiro discovered a new part of his ikigai: He went to Thailand and became ordained as a Buddhist monk. “I have a lot more tools than I could have ever dreamed of now to be able to just settle the sparkles in my mind,” he says.

Tamashiro expects to write a book about monkhood in his spare time during the cruise where he’ll sing.

He suggests retirees searching for ikigai consider starting not a side hustle, but a “side helpful” —volunteering or mentoring.

“There’s ample evidence in positive psychology that shows that doing things on behalf of other people has a great deal of impact on our overall well-being,” says Tamashiro. “So, a ‘side helpful’ is something that doesn’t come with any sort of monetary reward, but it does come with a heart reward.”

Wayne Karatsu, former water tester

In 2019, at age 62, Wayne Karatsu retired from his job as a Los Angeles County water tester, where he also wrote training manuals. He felt a little lost.

“I took six months to just try to find what I was interested in,” Karatsu says.

During that time, he saw Tim Tamashiro’s ikigai TEDx talk and read Ken Mogi’s book, “Awakening Your Ikigai.”

Since then, he’s been discovering his ikigai. “It did take a good amount of work and self-reflection,” says Karatsu.

Following the ikigai diagram, Karatsu discovered his passion was music (he has loved listening to it and sharing it since childhood); his profession was writer; his vocation was teacher; and his mission was helping others.

Now, his ikigai in retirement combines all four.

Karatsu volunteers by helping young people who are aging out of the foster care system. He also writes the Your Inspired Retirement blog and newsletter sharing music, movie, podcast and article favorites with readers.

“The blog is something that eventually will provide income, hopefully,” says Karatsu.

Sam Dogen, the Financial Samurai blogger

Retirement typically starts in your 60s. But for Sam Dogen, it started at age 34 in 2012 when the San Franciscan left his lucrative career in finance.

His ikigai combines writing the popular Financial Samurai personal finance blog, which he began as a side hustle in 2009, and mentoring young people.

“As more people read Financial Samurai and shared their stories, I felt like, ‘Wow, this is so much more meaningful trying to help people with their personal finances than trying to help money managers and large institutions make money,” says Dogen, now 45.

Nailing down his ikigai, Dogen says, meant coming up with a list of what he loved (interacting with people and writing), what he was good at (sales and communicating), what the world needs (“more clarity about finances”) and what he could be paid for (his income-producing investments and his writing).

In retirement, Dogen has also spent three years as a high school tennis coach, mentored 12-to-14-year-old foster kids and published the personal finance book, “Buy This, Not That: How to Spend Your Way to Wealth and Freedom.”

In 2023, Dogen — who calls himself a “fake retiree” — plans to focus on assisting people with physical disabilities and mental illness as well as writing Financial Samurai, podcasting, returning to being a foster mentor and perhaps writing another personal finance book.

Dogen thinks it’s “inevitable” that retirees will find their ikigai.

“I think it’s inevitable because I believe long-term, we’re all rational beings and will stop doing the things that give us pain and discomfort and will start doing more of the things that give us joy,” he says. “I have faith that if you want to find that joy, you will.”

Susan Williams, the Booming Encore blogger

After spending 28 years in the corporate world doing strategic planning, organizational development and business transformation, Susan Williams switched gears to assist boomers in the “encore” portion of their lives.

Part of her new life is encouraging boomers to know their ikigai in retirement — the topic of one of her 2017 blog posts for the Retirement Wisdom site.

Williams, based in Montreal, now runs the digital media hub Booming Encore, cowrites books with Mike Drak and is on a personal mission with what she calls her “60 Before 60” project. That’s where Williams, now 59, aims to do 60 things — from running a 5K to visiting landmarks to trying out virtual reality — before hitting the big six-0.

She’s keen on ikigai in retirement because “you can really take a deep dive into some of these concepts that maybe you haven’t given some thought to before.”

Williams, however, challenges the part of the ikigai definition suggesting that getting paid is part of it.

“I think it’s a bit of a misnomer because in retirement, your pay could be a sense of satisfaction or accomplishment or a sense of purpose,” she notes. “It’s a different kind of payment.”

Her advice to find your ikigai: Think of skills you used during your full-time working years that can be easily transferable in retirement.

“And we also need to open ourselves up to the fact that ‘maybe there are other skills in my suitcase that I’m carrying around with me that can be applied — or even develop new ones,” Williams says.

One example she cites: “Somebody who loves to play the piano and loves spending time with children — well, maybe being a piano teacher for children might be a great idea. Not only do they get the satisfaction of doing that, they’re also introducing the idea of music to a young audience and increasing their capabilities.”

Ikigai, Williams says, “is really trying to get to the essence of who you want to be or what you want to do.”

But, she advises, “execution is critical.” Adds Williams: “I believe that going through the ikigai framework is valuable, but if it never actually moves to a plan, it could remain just an exercise that will end up sitting in a drawer and, worse case, even possibly become a regret.”

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