How often do you reflect upon your vocation or ikigai?

Today is April 12 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you reflect upon your vocation or ikigai?” A precise definition of vocation can be found in the observation by British-American poet Wystan Hugh Auden “You owe it to all of us to get on with what you're good at.”

The Japanese word that comes closest to resembling vocation is ikigai(pronounced Ick-ee-guy) - a reason to get out of bed each morning. The Japanese island of Okinawa, where ikigai has its origins, is said to be home to the largest population of centenarians in the world. In Blue Zones: Lessons on Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, Dan Buettner suggests the practice of ikigai contributes to longevity. To identify ikigai Buettner suggests making three lists: your values, things you like to do, and things you are good at. The cross section of the three lists is your ikigai.

If you are looking for a strategy to navigate the chaos of life, ‘get on with what you are good at,’ that is, find your vocation or ikigai. That’s how bartender Jasper Cipolla and singer-songwriter John Prine navigated the chaos.

The Wall Street Journal published an article about Cipolla, a New York City bartender for over 60 years. He served drinks three nights a week at an Upper East Side Italian restaurant Il Vagabondo. According to 83-year-old Cipolla “I think the greatest word is ‘vocation.’ It’s what you have that God gave you to do all through life…mine is being a bartender, being with people.”

Although he has found his calling in life Cipolla has had his share of tragedy. He has outlived three of his five children and his wife of more than 50 years, who he said he fell in love with at first sight at the jewelry factory where they both worked. “It’s like being an actor. The show must go on,” Mr. Cipolla said. “I have to work. Everything I have, the love for them, it’s in my heart.”

Cipolla’s story is important for the simple fact that one’s ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’ can be anything at all. Too often people think that the words ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’ deal with a member of the clergy, or some white-collar professional such as a doctor or lawyer. The reality is working as a bartender, driving a taxing, or owning a sandwich shop can be a ‘vocation’ or ‘calling.’ So too is being a singer-songwriter like John Prine.

In the late 1960s, while Prine was delivering mail, he began to sing at open mic evenings at the Fifth Peg on Armitage Avenue in Chicago. Prine was initially a spectator, reluctant to perform, but eventually did so in response to a "You think you can do better?" comment made to him by another performer. Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert heard him there and wrote the first review Prine ever received “Singing Mailman Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words,” calling him the “singing mailman” and a great songwriter.

Kris Kristofferson discovered Prine, took him under his wing and put him on stage with him at New York’s the Bottom Line shortly thereafter, legendary Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler offered him a record deal the next day, and the rest is, literally, singer-songwriter history.

Prine became a central figure in the Chicago folk revival, which also included such singer-songwriters as Steve Goodman, Michael Peter Smith, Bonnie Koloc, Jim Post, Tom Dundee, Anne Hills and Fred Holstein. Joined by such established musicians as Jethro Burns and Bob Gibson, Prine performed frequently at a variety of Chicago clubs.

Over a career that spanned more than five decades, Prine was given virtually every award ever created for songwriters, including Grammys, lifetime-achievement honors, and Songwriters Hall of Fame inductions. In 1984, he left the major labels and started his own DIY version, asking fans to send in checks—something that succeeded enough for Sony to try to buy his label from him. (Prine, of course, refused.)

On the pursuit and necessity of vocation Anaïs Nin wrote:

“You have a right to experiment with your life. You will make mistakes. And they are right too. No, I think there was too rigid a pattern. You came out of an education and are supposed to know your vocation. Your vocation is fixed, and maybe ten years later you find you are not a teacher anymore or you're not a painter anymore. It may happen. It has happened. I mean Gauguin decided at a certain point he wasn't a banker anymore; he was a painter. And so he walked away from banking. I think we have a right to change course. But society is the one that keeps demanding that we fit in and not disturb things. They would like you to fit in right away so that things work now.”

Both Cipolla and Prine were aware of their vocation. Are you?