Ikigai: How to Get from Work-Life Chaos to Confluence

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I called my kids yesterday while at the Dad 2.0 Summit in San Antonio — just checking in to see how their weekend was going, how homework was progressing, and whether or not anyone changed the kitty litter. After a few minutes with each of my three boys, our call time was coming to a close. The next set of breakout sessions were about to start, so I asked my youngest, Jackson, “Should I go to a session on how to create effective YouTube videos or one on work-life balance.”

Without missing a beat Jax replied, “The work-life balance one.”

Ouch! A pang hit my heart to be so far away. Again. As a self-employed keynote speaker, I’m  on the road a lot, and I miss my family. Many of the dads at the conference were also striving for some sort of guidance on how to balance their roles of parenting and providing for their family. So, I said my heartfelt goodbye —  “be helpful, be kind, do your very best work, and change the kitty litter” — hung up, and took a seat in the front row. 

The men on the panel all worked one or more jobs, often from home, and would say that parenting was their primary priority. They relayed their own versions of one the most humorous themes of the conference — “the chaos theory of parenting.” In other words, how despite our best intentions and efforts, a butterfly can flap its wings somewhere in New Zealand, and all of our plans for order and balance go to heck in a hand basket.

I am always open to ideas on how I can do better in moving from chaos to clarity in all endeavors. I took out my notebook.

The first nugget they threw out was the concept of Ikigai — a Japanese concept that brings together two words meaning “alive” and “things that make life worth living.” Ikigai is a practice from the culture of Okinawa that is credited for the long vibrant work lives and good health that allow the people in the region to thrive into old age. At the heart of this philosophy is the notion that one will allow the possibilities of the self to blossom by doing what you love, what the world needs, what you can be paid for and what you are good at. A confluence of all things important.

I like the idea of a confluence — a braid of energy, of flow. The concept of work-life balance never seemed to fit, nor did integration or harmony, but confluence…

Confluence (noun): con·flu·ence | \ ˈkän-ˌflü-ən(t)s — the flowing together of two or more streams…

Streams that can surge, flood or dry up. Streams that can feed one another or overwhelm, but streams moving in a common direction. Yeah. Cool. I like that.

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I feel lucky that on many days I am grateful for my confluence of the domains of Ikigai. I get paid to do work that is meaningful, with people I care about, and at something I’m good at. I rarely feel like I am “working.”  Yet in the same moments I often feel off-balance and wonder where does the time go each day, as many people do. So now I’m on the plane headed back to Denver crystalizing some action steps and ideas from the conference that can help get me move toward a better flow of confluence.

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  1. Creating the Mindset of Legacy: One of the panelists on the “work-balance” breakout reminded us, that in order to align our priorities of purpose, people, passions and profession, we need to begin with the end in mind — legacy. Earlier in the conference our keynote speaker Shaun T reminded us “legacy is not money.” He said, “don’t be afraid of death; focus on the true legacy you want your kids to remember you by.” Once you have a clearer vision of your legacy, you can set your daily path on that course by organizing your time according these values. My kids are 20, 18 and 14 — this will be our last year with them all living at home. I can start to count down the dinners we will have all of us around the table. I wonder, what are they leaving with? What has been my legacy for them so far?

  2. Getting Uncomfortable: Shaun T also suggested that we need to purposely push ourselves to feel uncomfortable — in imbalance — to create change. I witnessed this on several occasions during the conference when the men stood in places of courage to share powerful and vulnerable stories of living through depression and anxiety, of standing up for fathers’ rights (e.g., paid paternity leave), and advocating for their kids’ well-being like tigers (see Sam’s story). For me “getting uncomfortable” means sitting with stillness and being present with the grief of letting my boys go.  Which brings me to…

  3. Being Present with the Seasons of Our Lives: One of the highlights of the conference for me was the opening poetry reading by David Stanley. David read sonnets he had written as he cared for his dying father. The most poignant was when he gave his Dad his last bath before his Dad passed. The honor and dignity of one of his last acts of gentle kindness brought tears throughout the room. Parenting and passages come in many forms, and being present for the moments is challenging in our highly distractible world. Knowing I will face a number of these transitions in the upcoming months and years, I hope I can learn to practice more presence.

  4. Building in Structures for Success: I once took a “voluntary simplicity” course at my church. I failed. Given any project I will always find a way to make it “bigger, better, more” — my blessing, my curse. In addition to the more philosophical ideas above, some of the hacks I am taking away are tangible tactics:

      • Do one thing at a time, and get it to completion (multi-tasking is the devil’s work). Visually list all the tasks in column “A” (sticky notes on the wall will do), move ONE task over into the “in process” column, and when done move it over to the “Done” column. Then at the end of the day, you can get your dopamine cocktail of experiencing “goals accomplished.”

      • Ask yourself once a week “What’s one thing I can get off my plate?” With your partner or on your own ask, "How can we free up our time to do more of the things we love?”

      • Create spaces and rituals that mark the beginning and end of work. When our priorities’ spaces collide they contaminate. For those who work at home, we need to create a separate office space that is away from our family leisure space. We also need to get dressed for work each day — the “uniform” helps the mindset. Turning on certain music (e.g., Brain FM), can also cue the brain — “time to dig in.”


Thus, I’m taking away both inspiration and instruction, as I do each year at this conference. It’s good to know that pretty much everyone is challenged by hitting the right chord of harmony  with all the notes we are trying to play. So, now as my plane descends, I will shut down my laptop as instructed by the attendant and get my mind set on anticipating seeing our dusty, old Honda Pilot turn the corner of the arrival pick-up lane with my goofy Australian Shepherd Rocky’s full panting grin hanging out of the passenger seat window and my weary and grateful hubby behind the wheel.

It’s good to be home — dirty kitty litter and all.

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