The Alivelihood Question: How to Make Money While Doing What Makes You Come Alive?
When people sought my help in my philosophical practice, the most common question was: what do I do with my life?
I boiled this question down to their livelihood, which one dictionary defines as “a means of securing the necessities of life.” A livelihood usually involves making money, but not always. Here are some ways people support their livelihood:
Being supported by family
Universal Basic Income programs
Freeconomy, aka “moneyless lifestyle”
Criminal activities, e.g., theft
The people seeking my help are not only considering how to source their livelihood but how to source it well. Buddhistics call this being in the “right livelihood,” which I’ll define as getting the necessities of life, usually with money, in a way aligned with one’s deepest values. If a person feels they are on the path toward the right livelihood, the underlying bother of the “what do I do with my life?” question fades away.
The first options on the list above - job and career - are the default livelihood options many I talk to have. A job is doing work to earn money; a career is a succession of jobs that tell a story, making one employable in the job market.
In a Gallup report last year, 60% of people were emotionally detached from their jobs, while 19% were miserable. From my inquiries, many people were unhappy in their jobs and careers, and some felt they were in what the late anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs.” These jobs are unnecessary, filled with meaningless busywork and unnecessary meetings.
A candidate for the right livelihood could be “vocation.” A vocation can be a career, but it has spiritual connotations. It is the occupation you are deeply called to do. The people who seek my help sense a vocation is possible, but they feel stuck in their life, not knowing how to get there.
An alternative candidate, perhaps more nuanced than a vocation, is “ikigai,” or “reason for being.” The following diagram of the ikigai has been traveling through self-help blogs in recent years:
The intersection of finding what you are good at, doing what you love, which also happens to be what the world needs, and getting paid for it is a high bar for most to achieve. A third candidate comes from philosopher-blogger David Chapman, who proposes a more straightforward term: “enjoyable usefulness.” In response to the livelihood question, the sweet spot is doing something that makes you feel useful and what you enjoy doing.
Whether the answer to discovering the right livelihood is finding a vocation, ikigai, or something that puts one in an enjoyably useful state, the consideration of aliveness usually appears in my inquiries around livelihood. Aliveness, put most simply, is the state that makes you feel fully alive, often coming from creating or doing something that does not immediately translate to making money.
The people I speak to sense what makes them come alive but do not fully trust the sense of aliveness. Social philosopher Charles Eisenstein argues for “accepting what makes you come alive as a valuable source of information to guide your choices.” This philosophy has guided me since I left my career: when in doubt, follow the aliveness.
A fourth candidate for the right livelihood is “alivelihood.” I recently came across this term, which I’ll define as a livelihood sourced through following and trusting the aliveness, bringing about a life that makes you feel alive. This is contrasted to “deadlihood”—sourcing a livelihood that brings a sense of deadness to life.
Of all the candidates for the right livelihood, I am most attracted to the alivelihood option. I’ll propose the following living question, a question one should live with without forcing an answer:
How to make money while doing what makes you come alive?
I’ll refer to this living question as the “alivelihood question.” This question is the question I’d like us to live with. For many people, I imagine that making money and finding what makes them come alive must start as separate projects. However, I think these projects should be considered together because if they are, one day, there will be a chance they will be the same project.
Less Foolish is a communal newsletter that cultivates a culture of inquiry. Starting in July, there will be multiple contributors to this newsletter written by my friends. Some of these entries will be connected to live sessions via Zoom or in person, to which paid subscribers will have access.
The writings and inquiries will be highly experimental. For the first experiment, we will meet for three sessions on June 5, 12, and 19 @ 6 PM Eastern time, to engage in a collective inquiry to live with the alivelihood question together.
The Zoom link for this inquiry series is on the other side of this paywall.
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