There’s a theory of self-development called Ikigai* (see an explanation here) in which you can consider the intersection of four elements: what you are good at; what you love doing; what you can be paid for; and what the world needs. If you list items under each of these headings, and then identify the areas where your items overlap, then you will have found your “Life Purpose”.
Ideally, there will be one or two items on your list which feature in all four categories. That is, you will discover that you are good at cooking, that cooking is something you can be paid for, that you love cooking, and that the world needs cooking. Voila, you have found your life’s purpose: you are a cook.
There are of course weaknesses with this process, as there are with any technique that simplifies complex choices to make neat Venn diagrams.
I am totally good at ironing, and I quite like it (so soothing, meditative and useful…), and I guess I could take in the ironing of folk who need to have it done, and be paid for it. But I don’t see ironing as my life’s purpose.
Another weakness of this particular model, as pointed out by John Malesic in the New Republic (you can see the whole article here) is that it is based on a capitalist appreciation of value, and that it can lead to horrors such as exploitation in those areas where you do what you’re good at and love doing … but you don’t get paid. Go to the New Republic to see John Malesic’s critical and clear-sighted version of the Ikigai meme here.
Doubtlessly, simple-thinking techniques like the Ikigai meme might be of assistance, sometimes. This particular exercise could be useful as a time management technique, or as an affirmation of how you choose to spend your waking hours. At different times of the day, the year, or your life, you might need to prioritise one of the “like/good at/world needs/can be paid for” factors over the others. A classic example is that you prioritise earning money to live on over doing what you actually love doing, by undertaking an unfulfilling job. Another example is that you brush your teeth every day, even though you don’t love it, you’re not especiaily good at it, and you’ll never be paid for it (while the Tooth Fairy always comes through for those who neglect their teeth…how unfair!). We all know that oral hygiene has other rewards than $$$s.
This is especially true for creative and artistic folk (not the oral hygiene comment – the recognition of what our choices are). The value that the world assigns our work is often wildly removed from the time, effort and worth of our creative endeavours. I could be paid by the minute for ironing or gardening or dog walking, all of which activities I actually enjoy. I’d probably not be paid enough to live on, mind you. If I could have just a dollar for every minute I spend reading and writing, well – how many minutes are there in a year? Over 525,000? I’d be quite well off.
So why do we do it? Why do we spend so much of ourselves on a creative pursuit that will (except in very rare cases) always be undervalued by the society in which we live? One in which we can easily be exploited – “here, let me publish your story for free. It’ll be good for you in the long run”. Sure it will – maybe.
I wonder if another way to look at this conundrum is to consider the old notion of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need. In Maslow’s model, a person theoretically can achieve higher goals once their lower level needs are being met. For example, if you’re worrying about where your next meal might come from, you’re probably not wondering about where to buy your next house.
If we are fortunate enough to be born into (or to move to) a stable, affluent society, then many of our lower level needs are probably met within a manageable framework. I note that ‘creativity’ is situated at the peak of this hierarchy, as one of the self-actualisation needs. I’d question that – for me, writing is certainly not something that I indulge in because I have all the esteem and the self-esteem, all the money and the resources, all the love and the friendship, etc etc, that I require!
I believe that our needs as humans, and our decisions about how to prioritise our time, involve a much more fluid interaction between us and our environment. Rather than being the ‘surfeit dream of someone with a full belly’, to rephrase the old saying, creativity may be triggered by some of the most life-threatening situations. Creativity may indeed help solve some of the basic needs for life and safety, although admittedly it may also compromise our needs for love/belonging or esteem – not every creative output is well-received.
So why do we do it? We writers write because we are writers. It’s what we do, regardless of reward.