Ennui et Ikigai

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Let’s start at the beginning, and identify what these feelings are first. Two foreign words, crept like so many into common English usage. One from our closest neighbour and oldest rival, and one from the Far East. Testament to a european history of internal conflict, exploration, and exploitation, here they are in our minds and on our tongues.

Ennui is old french, from the 17th century most likely, and derives from the word for annoyance. However in British English it has taken on a much more nuanced and specific meaning, and has become one of those words which is so ambiguous that the meaning has become essentially subjective. For want of a better definition, it’s a feeling of dissatisfaction and restlessness, arising from a lack of stimulation or engagement.

This is something most graduates (and i suspect adults generally) can relate to, after three years of intense academic and social involvement, life after can easily fall into a routine, and a routine is where ennui flourishes. Forced out of the cozy bubble of university and into the snarling world of life, and particularly work, it can feel like nothing will be the same again. Relationships inevitably break down, friendships drift, and you realise the things you thought could be forever can’t be.

University felt like a breaking free, of parents, of home, of preconceptions about who you were and what you could do. Graduation is the opposite, you find yourself forced into a world where you have to fit in, the sarcasm which seemed so edgy and charming at university just makes you seem like a bit of a dick. Forced to revert into what you thought a mere three years had helped you  move away from, it’s normal for many graduates to feel listless and lost. It’s unsurprising, and unspectacular, two things which only help ennui to develop. Regardless of how one decides to earn money, you’re probably starting at the bottom of your chosen field surrounded by people who know the work, and world, much better than you. It’s a time of constant adjustment, while having to maintain the veneer of competence; in many ways the polar opposite of university. No longer special, you’re part of the furniture, and that can be difficult. 

On the polar opposite of ennui, we have ikigai, a Japanese word. The concept is that it’s simply a reason for being, the raison d’être, if we we’re sticking with French. However it’s more extreme and particular that that. It’s at the cross section between what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. As a recent graduate, you’re lucky if you can reasonably figure out one of these aspects, in any meaningful way.

For most people achieving this feels about as far away from reality, as France is from Japan. Made all the worse by the social feeds of friends and peers, who are ostentatiously achieving ikigai, or something near to it. The first thing to remember is that most of those same peers feel exactly the same way, and most likely look at your social feeds and share your thoughts. As your feeling of dissatisfaction is tactically endorsed and subconsciously encouraged, by your peers apparent successes and climb towards ikigai, theirs is too.

It’s worth mentioning that ennui is not an immediate sensation, it comes on in creeps and waves. Beginning with a general dissatisfaction, which over time encroaches into boredom and tedium, and eventually, left unchecked, into ennui. Likewise climbing out of it cannot be done in one sharp move, it requires time and effort, with long periods of introspection to tackle the root causes of the phenomenon. To move in one go from ennui to ikigai, would be tantamount to emotional suicide, not to mention impossible. The change would be so drastic and sudden that the mind would unquestionably struggle to recognise the change that had gone on. As such it is right and proper that it takes time and effort to reverse the effects of ennui, before one starts to make progress in coming close to ikigai.

The first step is recognising the effects of earlier mentioned social media feeds on how you judge yourself, and others. Realising that you almost certainly also post a portrayal of your life which you don’t recognise as reality will help you come to terms with the fact that this is normal, and in-line with what the people you’re judging yourself against are doing. Everyone is going through their own internal struggles, but it would be uncouth to post about this. Instead the done thing is to accentuate the positives.

Maybe this is in a vague hope of convincing yourself that this is how you live, or to convince others that you’re doing as well as your parents expect you to do. It all relates to ego, whether that is our own view of ourselves or others views of us. Essentially the social feeds are a vapid aspect of modern life, and while serving a purpose in our current culture, they’re by no means a measure of how anyone is doing. Essentially, take what you see on Instagram and Facebook with a pinch of salt.

Once you’ve recognised this, you’re on your way. It’s a hard habit to break, but realising everyone is struggling is a first step to finding your own feet. The second is recognising that your job, at this stage does not define you. It’s the first question everyone asks, but honestly, they don’t care, and nor should you.

In a time when so many people are struggling to find full-time work, you should take pride in having any at all. You’re probably not in the gig economy, you can probably afford to pursue your real interests, and ultimately by being in that situation you’re doing better than an awful lot of people. Think about how you want to answer that question, next time it’s asked. What do you do? It sounds like you’re being asked about a job, but in reality it can easily be turned to be asking about what you care about, what drives you forward, and what makes you tick. Choose to hear it like that, shoot back with your passion, not with who pays into your pension.

I heard a story once of a man at a dinner party, who was asked what he did. He responded that he was a poet, and the guest politely asked if they would know his work. He explained to them that while he was a poet he earned his living working as a manager for the NHS, until such a time that the poetry could pay for itself. Immediately this turns the conversation on it’s head, and allowed him to engage the rest of the conversation around his passion, rather than his work. Likewise the other guest was encouraged to talk about things they really cared about, rather than comparing the differences in how management worked in both of their industries.

It’s so easy to see how simply talking about his job could have taken them down the wrong path, but by taking a different approach both were able to walk away with much greater understandings of one another, and what really turns them on! This sort of conversations is a perfect example of how two, or more, people can support each other in moving away from ennui, and towards ikigai. Likewise describing yourself as a mother or father first, can have the same effect. You may be a surveyor, customer assistant, or a barman, but unless you feel it’s your calling, your reason to get out of bed in the morning, why start a conversation talking about it. If you want to start saving whales, or working with the mentally ill, take steps to get there, and you’re on your way to escaping ennui. 

I can’t tell you how to achieve ikigai, I certainly haven’t found it myself, but the steps above are how anyone can begin to move away from ennui. It takes months to get there, and moving into a job which I want to talk about has certainly made the second half much easier. However even before that I was taking steps to recognise and combat ennui, and by reading this I hope you can start to recognise that you’re not alone. People suffer, and we all pretend we don’t. Once you recognise that, you can start to move onto the second step, and drive your own perception of yourself into a more positive place. From there, who knows what’s next but the world is your oyster, and when Shakespeare wrote those words, he meant you needed to jam the sword in to get the pearl.

So jam the sword in, and believe in yourself.