Have you ever realized how our incredibly complex brain makes it hard to follow a singular line of thought? We Homo sapiens underwent a mutation in the wiring of our brain about 70,000 years ago that gave us the ability to think. We didn’t just care about hunting for the next meal anymore. We didn’t restrict ourselves to the land we occupied. Nor did we stick to primitive tools to hunt down animals. Below is a passage taken from the best-seller Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.*
Beginning about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens began doing very special things. They drove the Neanderthals and all other human species not only from the Middle East, but from the face of the earth. Within a remarkably short period, Sapiens reached Europe and East Asia. About 45,000 years ago, they somehow crossed the open sea and landed in Australia—a continent hitherto untouched by humans. The period from about 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, and bows and arrows and needles. The first objects that can reliably be called art date from this era, as does the first clear evidence for religion, commerce and social stratification. This constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it?
We’re not sure.
We have many theories, but no conclusive proof yet. The point, however, is that we slowly developed the neocortex in our brain, which gave us the ability to reason, make complex decisions, develop language, believe in fiction, and sacrifice short-term gratification for long-term gains.* It also gave us the ability to hold competing thoughts in our head and make hundreds of decisions every single day. This is why finding your ikigai is not a simple exercise.
Tim Urban, a famous long-form blogger,* captures this chaos well with what he calls The Yearning Octopus (which is really a pentapus, but we’re not complaining).*
Source: The Yearning Octopus. Urban, T. How to Pick a Career (That Actually Fits You). Wait But Why. November 6, 2019.
The Yearning Octopus posits that at any point in time, you have five micro-humans in your mind who each have their own agenda and demand your attention and cognitive resources.
While the Personal tentacle probes you to follow your passion and find meaning in what you do, the Social tentacle wants you to follow the path that will earn your parents’ respect. Your Moral tentacle is deeply concerned about the well-being of the thousands of Syrian kids who are enslaved, but your Lifestyle tentacle thinks you should just relax and enjoy your own life sitting by the beach. All the while, your Practical tentacle is in panic mode because you don’t have enough money to pay the rent on Tuesday.
Everyone has a Yearning Octopus inside of them.
Mine would look different from yours.
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And yours would look different from anyone else’s.
You will tend to rank the five tentacles based on your life experiences and beliefs, such that one of them always takes the upper hand. Your job is to identify how they are ranked inside your head and understand the motivation behind each of them. Maybe it is your mom masquerading as the Social tentacle and urging you to follow a career path that she never got a chance to. Maybe the Practical tentacle trumps all others because the 10-year-old you never forgot what it meant to live in poverty. It is crucial that you figure out which motivations are authentic and which are simply imposters. Urban urges you to ask yourself:
Do you treat the words of your external influences as information, held and considered by an authentic inner you, that you’ve carefully decided to embrace? Or are your influences themselves actually in your brain, masquerading as inner you? Do you want the same thing someone else you know wants because you heard them talk about it, you thought about it alongside your own life experience, and you eventually decided that, for now, you agree? Or because you heard someone talk about what they want or fear, and you thought, ‘I don’t know shit and that person does, so if they say X is true, I’m sure they’re right’—and then you etched those ideas into your mind, never again feeling the need to question them?
Unearthing the answers to these questions and finding your ikigai requires doing something that no one really likes to do: introspection.
In its most basic sense, introspection is akin to visiting the dark and scary basement in your mind by asking yourself tough questions and observing your thoughts, with no judgement. Just observe what surfaces and take note of it, and repeat the experiment all over again. You can gain inspiration to do this by reading articles, such as the one written by Urban, and others found online.* There is no dearth of information in this age of information.
Know that however you do it, you can’t escape the dreaded activity of being alone with your thoughts.