As a child he was forever building something. Lincoln logs were a perennial Christmas gift. He played with them so much he wore them out. One year he got a Lego set for his birthday. On the shelf in his shop, he still has a little building be built in 1951. With his dad’s help, he built a treehouse when he was nine.
At twelve someone bought the vacant lot next to his house. When the contractors came to start the house, he was totally captivated. He didn’t want to miss anything, so he left the window open in his bedroom, so the sounds of machinery and hammers became his alarm clock. He sat a folding chair up beside his house so he could watch. The foreman of the company building the house noticed him watching. At the end of a day in early May, he invited this young spectator to come over for a walk through.
When they were done the builder said, “This is a great job, you get to do something every day that’s going to make life better.” With his parents’ permission, and the first of many hardhats he’d wear in life, he became a carpenter’s helper, at twenty-five cents an hour. And even though he could have easily walked home for lunch each day, his dad got him a lunch bucket, so he could eat with the crew.
As a side benefit, he was allowed to salvage wood from what would be discarded. The guys on the crew chipped in, bought him a tool belt, and filled it well with a carpenter’s essentials. He felt totally empowered! With a little help, be built a small tool shed for his dad. It had its flaws, but he designed it, he built it, and someone’s life was made better because of it.
It wasn’t until years later that he realized that the chance to be part of that initial house building, the scrap materials he was allowed to salvage, the tool belt, and the help with building the shed, were real gifts. Those gifts gave him purpose and meaning and the dividends would last a life time. Even though he didn’t know it as such, he had found his ikigai. (Ikigai, is an ancient Japanese concept that refers to something that provides one with a purpose in life and offers a reason for living. A French term with Latin roots, raison deter, embodies the same concept.)
He never forgot what the builder said on his first walk-through at a building site. He really liked the idea of creating something usable that would make life better for others. It didn’t shock anyone who knew him that he became a carpenter. He worked on a crew for several years, learned his craft, and saved what money he could. When he thought he was ready, he branched out on his own. A supportive and patient wife made that possible.
They went through some lean times financially, but within a few years, he was making a way for his family, and he was living a life he enjoyed. When a near-by farm went up for sale, he bought it. Within three years he built sixty-three houses. It was the first of many housing developments he’d build. Over the next fifty years, he built thousands of homes, improving life for a lot of families in his corner of Idaho. He had come a long way since his Lincoln Logs and Lego days, but he was still fascinated with building something useful that could make life better for others. His company slogan pretty much said it all. “We build a house that you can turn into a home!”
At eighty, he turned the company over to his children and grandchildren. They had been running things for years, and they were ready to take over. He entered a new phase of his career. He was going to be a birdhouse builder. His small shop was well fixed for this new venture. Hanging on the wall was the tool belt the crew had bought him more than sixty-five years earlier.
When his retirement was announced there was a story in the local paper. When asked why he decided to retire, he said he felt it was time to change his focus. He shared his interest in the mountain bluebird, the state bird of Idaho. He said, “My plan is to keep building houses, so that someone can make them a home. Now those someones will be mountain blue birds!”
If you havn’t yet discovered your ikigai, keep looking. If you have, don’t be too quick to give it up. When you need to adapt it a bit throughout the various stages of life, do it. We all need Ikigai!