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Ikigai Is Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid Of Retirement

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生き甲斐, pronounced ikigai, is a Japanese concept that means “reason for being.” What makes you get up in the morning without an alarm clock because you’re just so damn excited?

From 1999 – 2001, I had to get to the office by 5:30am because I was a lowly grunt in the investment banking world. Making photocopies of last night’s research, getting coffee for the traders, and making presentations was all part of the morning equities routine. But I was excited because I had a fast-paced job right out of college in NYC.

From 2001 – 2007, despite having to continue getting to work at a goodness forsaken hour, I was still excited because I got a new job in San Francisco with the opportunity to build my own little business out west. Working in a satellite office gave me my first glimpse of what entrepreneurship could be like.

But when the financial crisis hit in 2008, my excitement turned into fear. I no longer went to the office because I loved all that went on in the stock markets. I started setting multiple alarm clocks to ensure I got in on time because I didn’t want to give management a reason for firing me. It was depressing to come in and see everything crumbling so quickly.

Despite a recovery by 2012, my excitement for work no longer existed. Work had become a bureaucratic nightmare, so I figured a way out. In retrospect, what I thought was my ikigai for 13 years was simply a job where I traded time for money. Helping institutions make more money felt shallow, even if some of the institutions were responsible for a teacher’s pension.

But through work, I learned how to be a better communicator. Through the practice of writing daily newsletters about what went on in Asia while we slept, I slowly found my ikigai through storytelling. Clients and colleagues alike would regularly reach out to say how much they enjoyed the newsletter.

Now that I don’t have a compliance department breathing down my neck with Financial Samurai, it’s a joy to help make people believe a little more in themselves by showing what’s possible.

A Closer Look At Ikigai

According to Akihiro Hasegawa, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Toyo Eiwa University, the origin of the word ikigai goes back to the Heian period (794 to 1185). “Gai comes from the word kai (“shell” in Japanese) which were deemed highly valuable, and from there ikigai derived as a word that means value in living.”

Japanese people believe that the sum of small joys in everyday life results in a more fulfilling life as a whole,” writes Hasegawa. I believe it. Small things for me like winning a high school conference tennis title and watching my boy take his first steps collectively bring an immense amount of joy.

Mieko Kamiya, author of the book, Ikigai-nitsuite, explains that as a word, ikigai is similar to “happiness” but with some subtle differences. He writes, “Ikigai is what allows you to look forward to the future even if you’re miserable right now.”

One sunny October day in 2011, I found hope that there could be life after finance. For a couple years prior, I was in a funk, no longer enjoying the day-to-day of the business.

After three hours of hiking up and around Santorini, Greece, I stopped to rest at an open bar overlooking the crater. I had my iPhone and the bar had WiFi. Perfect!

Discovering my ikigai in Santorini, Greece 2011
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My moment of hope: October 2011, Santorini, Greece

I ordered an overpriced $10 Mythos beer and began to check my messages. In my inbox was an advertising client based in London whom I had worked with before. He said he’d pay me $1,100 if I’d put a link on the homepage of this site.

I told him sure! So he sent me the code, I managed to copy and paste the code onto my homepage with my iPhone, and he Paypaled me the $1,100 within 10 minutes after I was done. The whole process took 30 minutes.

That was the moment when I finally realized I could finally escape my job. I immediately ordered another overpriced $10 Mythos beer and devised my layoff plans.

Ikigai Is Why You’ll Be Fine After Retiring

Despite having enough money to survive, after you retire you’ll always be worried for an unknown period of time. My worry lasted for about two years before I could confidently say that I 100% no longer feared running out of money or had made the wrong decision.

After you retire from a conventional job, you’re not going to just sit on your hands and do nothing. You will naturally start doing what provides you the most amount of purpose. And because you will be so focused on making sure retiring when you did was the right choice, you will inevitably find your ikigai!

Please take a look at this graphic explaining ikigai. It might look like a lot of New Age mumbo jumbo, but ikigai has been around for centuries.


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Now it’s time to list all the things that will help you find your ikigai. Here’s my list.

What I Love:

  • Connecting with people
  • Learning different perspectives
  • Traveling abroad
  • Creating something from nothing
  • Getting recognized for my efforts
  • Reading great stories
  • Taking care of my family
  • Writing

What I’m Good At:

  • Telling stories
  • Doing what I say
  • Not giving up
  • Building partnerships
  • Simplifying the complex
  • Getting the most out of my body and mind
  • Writing

What The World Needs:

  • Access to free financial education
  • More interesting stories
  • Geographic, racial, and socioeconomic diversity in personal finance
  • As many different perspectives as possible
  • A stronger support network for those most in need

What I Can Be Paid For:

  • My writing
  • My speaking
  • The Financial Samurai brand

After going through this exercise, I understand why I’ve been able to keep Financial Samurai going since 2009. Writing doesn’t feel like work. Instead, writing is a joy that lets me experience a couple of the things that I love: creating something from nothing and learning new perspectives. If I haven’t written for a couple days, I start feeling antsy, as though I hadn’t exercised for a couple days.

Now that I’m in my 10th year of running Financial Samurai, everything from coming up with the editorial calendar to finding products that fit my work has become second nature. So far, I’ve never experienced writer’s block because I’ve found there is always something interesting happening in the world.

As a big proponent of public libraries where I spent so many hours as a kid, I’m on a mission to improve free financial education. It’s not right that only the wealthy or super talented get to go to the best grade schools or universities. The system is so stacked against the poor it’s preposterous once you discovery all the details. Knowing that what I write can help someone with fewer means or talent get ahead really motivates me to never quit.

Finally, I love that no reader pays me a cent to read anything. Asking for money or for business always feels a little bit off. Because I’ve built a brand in the personal finance space, financial companies come to me. I get to then pick and choose which product makes the most sense for the community. Then I go deep because it’s likely I’m using the product or have invested my own money in the product as well.

Having a viable passive income stream has helped me turn Financial Samurai into a predominantly storytelling website. I really just want to write stories I would want to read. If I had retired without enough passive income, it’s highly likely this website would be mostly about product reviews – good for business, but boring to read.

Always Find Your Ikigai

No matter whether you are still working or in retirement, always keep searching for your ikigai. It will not be easy getting all the parts to fit and your desires may also change over time as well. But it’s absolutely worth going through this exercise to improve your life.

After you’re done listing all your points, proceed to list out all the relevant jobs or businesses that fit as many of your points as possible. Brainstorm. You may not get them all, but I’m sure you can get most of them if you are flexible with your income requirements.

With a family to now take care of, running Financial Samurai has become even more meaningful. I’ve got so much to learn from readers who are more experienced parents. There are so many family-related financial topics to write about in the coming years. Finally, I’m absolutely excited to use Financial Samurai to teach my son how to communicate better and run an online business.

Please move on from your job if it no longer excites you. The labor market is as tight as it has ever been. There is a better fit out there if you spend time looking. Do not settle! For those of you who’ve hit your retirement number, or who have achieved a net worth equal to 20X your average gross income or more, I encourage you to consider taking a leap of faith.

I promise you. You won’t turn into a zombie in retirement, mindlessly wandering through a field of despair. Rather, with renewed vigor, you will rationally move towards doing the things you love. If you still don’t believe me, know that the Okinawans have the highest life expectancy of any country: 90 for women and for men, 84, a significant 8-9 years longer than American life expectancy.

Having something to live for truly matters.


The Fear Of Running Out Of Money In Retirement Is Overblown

Overcoming The One More Year Syndrome To Do Something New

How To Retire Early And Never Have To Work Again

Readers, please share with me your reason for being! Have you found your ikigai? Or are you still on the search? Why do we settle, when there is so much opportunity?

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