Intentional Lifestyle Design: A Case Study of Haruki Murakami

Most of my life, I have been drifting along without any purpose and without really knowing what I wanted to achieve. I just kind of reacted to the circumstances instead of planning ahead by setting goals for myself. My actions were mostly based on what I believed others expected me to do.

For example, I went to law school because it felt like an easy way to pretend that I had control over my life. If family members asked me how I was doing, I could say: “Oh fine thanks; I just got into law school”. It sounded good. It was a respectable education. To some degree, I guess I wanted the prestige of the profession.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really like going to law school, but I had absolutely no idea what else to do, so I stuck with it. Now that I actually have a job within the legal field, I find it even worse than studying the subject. So I want to find another way.

As I’m trying to break out of the traditional 9-5 lifestyle, I look around for role-models or mentors. People who have actually achieved the kind of lifestyle I want for myself. It’s critical to seek advice from people who suit my objective. For example, if I want to break out of the 9-5 lifestyle I shouldn’t take advice from people who’ve been employees all their life.

This means that I won’t listen too much to my parents, teachers, bosses (unless they’re entrepreneurs) and politicians. Their interests are not necessarily the same as mine. Many powerful people actually have an interest in that a large percentage of the population stays employed, in debt and consuming products made by others.

Instead, I have to actively seek out mentors. People who have actually done what I’m trying to do. I find it a bit difficult though. The problem is, I don’t know many persons who’ve broken out of the 9-5 lifestyle. So I have to reach out to strangers and ask them to meet up with me. I need to get out of my comfort zone and meet the right persons in order to see what’s really possible and learn from their experience.

I’ve already reached out to a couple of self-employed lawyers as I hope to learn more about what it takes to own a small law-firm. I can see that scenario as a possible solution for me within the next 5 to 10 years.

Haruki Murakami

However, there’s also another way to seek inspiration from successful people; read about their experiences. Thankfully, many inspiring persons have written about their life and experiences, so we get the chance to learn from them.

In this post, I’ll focus on the Japanese Author Haruki Murakami. Mr. Murakami is quite clearly a very talented writer with his books sold all over the world. But he’s also a former owner of a jazz café. After a couple of years, he decided that he wanted to be a writer. In his book “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” he reveals some of the thoughts behind his lifestyle. What I find particular fascinating about Murakami is his ability to go his own way. He only does what’s right to him, not what everybody else wants him to do.

Murakami writes:

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve gradually come to the realization that this kind of pain and hurt is a necessary part of life. If you think about it, it’s precisely because people are different from others that they’re able to create their own independent selves. Take me as an example. It’s precisely my ability to detect some aspects of a scene that other people can’t, to feel differently than others and choose words that differ from theirs, that’s allowed me to write stories that are mine alone. And because of this we have the extraordinary situation in which quite a few people read what I’ve written. So the fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets. Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent.

I especially notice the last line. It’s just not easy to stand out in a crowd. I feel like I have a natural urge in me to fit in. By being an employee, I suddenly have to work really close with people who I don’t know well, and I can’t choose who I’d like to work with and who I don’t want to work with. In almost all other areas of my life I can choose who I spend time with. But not at work. Still I can feel this natural urge to fit in with the co-workers. However, I think Murakami is right when he says there’s a price of emotional hurt to be paid if I want to be ‘independent’.

As stated above Murakami opened his jazz club soon after graduating from college. But it wasn’t easy. He writes:

Most people I knew had predicted that the bar wouldn’t do well. They figured that an establishment run as a kind of hobby wouldn’t work out, that somebody like me, who was pretty naive and most likely didn’t have the slightest aptitude for running a business, wouldn’t be able to make a go of it. Well, their predictions were totally off. To tell the truth, I didn’t think I had much aptitude for business either. I just figured, though, that since failure was not an option, I’d have to give it everything I had. My only strength has always been the fact that I work hard and can take a lot physically. I’m more a workhorse than a racehorse. I was raised in a white-collar household, so I didn’t know much about entrepreneurship, but fortunately my wife’s family ran a business, so her natural intuition was a great help. No matter how great a workhorse I might have been, I never would have been able to make it on my own.”

Murakami goes on about his career change from being a self-employed owner of a jazz café to becoming a professional writer:

The work itself was hard. I worked from morning till late at night, until I was exhausted. I had all kinds of painful experiences, things I had to rack my brains about, and plenty of disappointments. But I worked like crazy, and I finally began to make enough profit to hire other people to help out. And as I neared the end of my twenties, I was finally able to take a breather. To start the bar I’d borrowed as much as I could from every place that would lend me money, and I’d almost repaid it all. Things were settling down. Up till then, it had been a question of sheer survival, of keeping my head above water, and I didn’t have room to think of anything else. I felt like I’d reached the top of some steep staircase and come out to a fairly open place and was confident that because I’d reached it safely, I could handle any future problems that might crop up and I’d survive. I took a deep breath, slowly gazed around me, glanced back at the steps I’d taken here, and began to contemplate the next stage. Turning thirty was just around the corner. I was reaching the age when I couldn’t be considered young anymore. And pretty much out of the blue I got the idea to write a novel.

 

Every day for three years I ran my jazz club—keeping accounts, checking inventory, scheduling my staff, standing behind the counter myself mixing up cocktails and cooking, closing up in the wee hours of the morning—and only then writing at home at the kitchen table until I got sleepy. I felt like I was living enough for two people’s lives. Physically, every day was tough, and writing novels and running a business at the same time made for all sorts of other problems. Running a service-oriented business means you have to accept whoever comes through the door. No matter who comes in, unless they’re really awful, you have to greet them with a friendly smile on your face. Thanks to this, though, I met all kinds of offbeat people and had some unusual encounters. Before I began writing, I dutifully, even enthusiastically, absorbed a variety of experiences. For the most part I think I enjoyed these and all the stimuli that they brought.”

So he doesn’t just close down the bar and starts writing. It’s a gradual move towards being an author. In that way he allows himself to test the waters to see if he can really make it as a writer, while he still have security in the jazz club.

Most people I knew were flat out against my decision, or else had grave doubts about it. “Your business is doing fine now,” they said. “Why not just let someone else run it for a time while you go and write your novels?” From the world’s viewpoint this makes perfect sense. And most people probably didn’t think I’d make it as a professional writer. But I couldn’t follow their advice. I’m the kind of person who has to totally commit to whatever I do. I just couldn’t do something clever like writing a novel while someone else ran the business. I had to give it everything I had. If I failed, I could accept that. But I knew that if I did things halfheartedly and they didn’t work out, I’d always have regrets.

 

Despite the objections of everybody else, I sold the business and, though a bit embarrassed about it, hung out my sign as a novelist and set out to make a living writing. “I’d just like to be free for two years to write,” I explained to my wife. “If it doesn’t work out we can always open up another little bar somewhere. I’m still young and we can always start over.” “All right,” she said. This was in 1981 and we still had a considerable amount of debt, but I figured I’d just do my best and see what happened.

Intentional Lifestyle-design

 In the book Murakami often reflects on his own lifestyle, and he reveals that his lifestyle isn’t a coincidence but an actual choice:

After I closed my bar, I thought I’d change my lifestyle entirely (…) Not long after that I also gave up smoking. Giving up smoking was a kind of natural result of running every day. It wasn’t easy to quit, but I couldn’t very well keep on smoking and continue running. This natural desire to run even more became a powerful motivation for me to not go back to smoking, and a great help in overcoming the withdrawal symptoms. Quitting smoking was like a symbolic gesture of farewell to the life I used to lead.

Haruki Murakami also shares some interesting thoughts about how he doesn’t get motivated by others telling him what to do:

When I was at school I never much cared for gym class, and always hated Sports Day. This was because these were forced on me from above. I never could stand being forced to do something I didn’t want to do at a time I didn’t want to do it. Whenever I was able to do something I liked to do, though, when I wanted to do it, and the way I wanted to do it, I’d give it everything I had. Since I wasn’t that athletic or coordinated, I wasn’t good at the kind of sports where things are decided in a flash. Long-distance running and swimming suit my personality better. I was always kind of aware of this, which might explain why I was able to smoothly incorporate running into my daily life.

 

I think I can say the same thing about me and studying. From elementary school up to college I was never interested in things I was forced to study. I told myself it was something that had to be done, so I wasn’t a total slacker and was able to go on to college, but never once did I find studying exciting. As a result, though my grades weren’t the kind you have to hide from people, I don’t have any memory of being praised for getting a good grade or being the best in anything. I only began to enjoy studying after I got through the educational system and became a so-called member of society. If something interested me, and I could study it at my own pace and approach it the way I liked, I was pretty efficient at acquiring knowledge and skills.

I relate to this a lot, and I think it might be part of the reason why I don’t like to be an employee. I do have a relatively high degree of freedom at my job, but at the end of the day I don’t get to decide what to do and when to do it. Every time I’m told to do a specific task in a certain why I can feel my motivation instantly evaporate completely into the air. It was a kind of relief to me when I first read Murakami’s thoughts; it wasn’t just me who felt that way.

Murakami goes on about how his new lifestyle affected his life:

The happiest thing about becoming a professional writer was that I could go to bed early and get up early. When I was running the bar I often didn’t get to sleep until nearly dawn. The bar closed at twelve, but then I had to clean up, go over the receipts, sit and talk, have a drink to relax. Do all that and before you know it, it’s three a.m. and sunrise is just around the corner. Often I’d be sitting at my kitchen table, writing, when it would start to get light outside. Naturally, when I finally woke up the sun was already high in the sky.

 

After I closed the bar and began my life as a novelist, the first thing we—and by we I mean my wife and I—did was completely revamp our lifestyle. We decided we’d go to bed soon after it got dark, and wake up with the sun. To our minds this was natural, the kind of life respectable people lived. We’d closed the club, so we also decided that from now on we’d meet with only the people we wanted to see and, as much as possible, get by not seeing those we didn’t. We felt that, for a time at least, we could allow ourselves this modest indulgence.

 

It was a major directional change—from the kind of open life we’d led for seven years, to a more closed life. I think having this sort of open existence for a period was a good thing. I learned a lot of important lessons during that time. It was my real schooling. But you can’t keep up that kind of life forever. Just as with school, you enter it, learn something, and then it’s time to leave.

 

So my new, simple, and regular life began. I got up before five a.m. and went to bed before ten p.m. People are at their best at different times of day, but I’m definitely a morning person. That’s when I can focus and finish up important work I have to do. Afterward I work out or do other errands that don’t take much concentration. At the end of the day I relax and don’t do any more work. I read, listen to music, take it easy, and try to go to bed early. This is the pattern I’ve mostly followed up till today. Thanks to this, I’ve been able to work efficiently these past twenty-four years. It’s a lifestyle, though, that doesn’t allow for much nightlife”

I feel like I went through a similar change after I stopped drinking alcohol. And I hope to be able to do something similar as Murakami. Not that I think I’ll ever become a famous author. But I hope to have the courage to go my own way, and believe in my ability to find a way out of the 9-5 lifestyle.

 

 

4 Comments on “Intentional Lifestyle Design: A Case Study of Haruki Murakami”

  1. Thanks for this interesting article off the beaten tracks. We’ve recommended it on http://www.firehub.eu.

    Personally, I have noticed that even if I made lifestyle choices that do not fit in the mainstream, and thus taken risks, I need the security of my 9-to-5-job. I don’t really like this job, and I have reduced my working hours so that I have every other friday off work.
    But I would not have the courage like Murakami had to quit completely and do something radically different. Sometimes I wish I had this courage, but it seems that this steady income, this stable but not fulfilling job gives me the security I need to have the interesting life off the beaten tracks for my life outside of the job world.
    Would that be an idea that would comfort you, too?

    I enjoy my life outside work, I have hobbies, friends, a boyfriend, I live in a community, I am a caring aunt for friend’s kids and so on. I recently started learning something new that could become my side hustle – or just another hobby. We’ll see.

    1. Hi Noemi!

      First, thank you so much for recommending the article, I’ve noticed a lot of traffic coming from your site!

      And thank you for the thorough and interesting comment. You touch on the very core of a complex question that I also struggle with a lot at the moment. I guess it’s all about finding the right balance, and of course it differs a lot from person to person. As you point out, it has a lot to do with ‘risk vs. security’ and it’s very tricky to balance the two, as we see in different areas like investment-strategy, work-life balance, entrepreneurship vs. employment etc.

      On one hand, I want the security of my 9-to-5 job (that’s why I’m still here). On the other hand, I think it’s important to take on some risk at certain times in our life. There’s actually a lot of good ‘side effects’ that comes from taking risk: For example, it tends to enhance our performance as we ‘have a lot to loose’. It sharpens our focus and senses so to speak. It can also be a great way of putting ‘intended incentives’ to impact (and maybe change) our behavior in a preferable way, or to ensure we’re moving in a certain direction. If you think about it, a lot of great, successful people have taken on quite a big amount of risk at some point in their life.

      The Lebanese-American author (and former trader and risk analyst) Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written about it (in a way I suppose) in his book “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder”. I haven’t had the time to read it yet, but it’s first on my list!

      This is also part of the reason why I love the concept of Financial Independence so much, its like an insurance that allows us to take on much more risk than we would have done otherwise.

      It sounds like you’ve already managed to find a pretty good balance that suits your situation, and I’m sure it will only get better over time as you seem very aware of where you want to go. I would love to make an arrangement like yours sometimes with less work, but still being able to enjoy the security that comes with a full-time job 🙂

  2. Hi WWE,

    This is Mrs W here from What Life Could Be. I’m also one of the co-organisers of FIREhub.eu along with Noemi and some other people. I’d like to give you a bit more information about the project – do you have an e-mail address I can contact you on? If you don’t want to write it in the comments you can send it to hello at firehub dot eu.

    Thanks!
    Mrs W

Leave a Reply