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How auditors can find meaning in their work

IT's the end of yet another challenging audit season. Most auditors would savor this precious time to recharge and reward themselves after months of hard work. Constantly confronted with various factors — tight deadlines, lack of manpower, complex accounting issues and even difficult clients. Audit can indeed be tremendously demanding. Unsurprisingly, many auditors experience burnout, feel overwhelmed, overworked and underappreciated, resulting in exhaustion.

Meanwhile, others experience boredom from performing large volumes of similar tasks and dealing with the same clients repeatedly. Consequently, they feel dissatisfied and disconnected, failing to find meaning in what they do. Ultimately, they begin to explore alternative career paths.

In such a challenging profession, how can one actually find meaning?

The Japanese philosophy, Ikigai (IKI, meaning life and KAI, the realization of hope and expectations), has recently gained attention in the Western world as a framework for finding a sense of purpose and fulfillment in life. Ikigai, "a reason for being," can be found in the smallest daily rituals and the biggest parts of life like your job and the roles you have. It's not linked to status in society or the money earned. Everyone's Ikigai is unique, based on one's personal history, values, beliefs and personality (Gaines, The Philosophy of Ikigai, 2020).

For auditors who struggle in engaging with their jobs, this can be an interesting concept to explore. Through self-reflection and answering challenging questions, one may gain a much-needed direction, reevaluate career goals and determine a sense of purpose.

Ikigai is a way of discovering the delicate balance between pursuing your own passion, doing what you're good at, serving others and earning a living (Rohare, How to Discover your Life Calling with Christian Ikigai, 2018). Essentially, ikigai brings meaning, purpose and fulfillment to your life while also contributing to the good of others.

Ikigai doesn't necessarily require a drastic career change but rather a gradual process of identifying and nurturing the meaningful aspects of one's work. Auditors, often labeled as number crunchers, spend days buried in financial statements to ensure the accuracy and integrity of financial reporting. Without auditors, stakeholders would not have confidence in companies, and the entire financial system would probably be at risk. This is the deeper purpose to the profession and auditors can take pride knowing their crucial role in the society.

The search for ikigai begins with reflecting on your passions, abilities and values — factors that have certainly impacted your past decisions. At one point or another, you definitely wanted this career and boldly took on this path. You can reflect on why you were drawn into this field in the first place and focus on your driving force that led you to where you are and that will help you keep going.

A key ingredient of living according to your ikigai is the ability to reach the "state of flow," described by Hungarian American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a string of "best moments." Flow occurs when you are in your "zone," when your body or mind is stretched to its limit, in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Concentrating on the task

An important factor to achieve this is concentrating on one task at a time. This may seem impossible as auditors would usually resort to multitasking. However, scientific evidence shows that much energy is spent on quickly alternating between tasks, thus resulting in exhaustion and lesser productivity. Flow may be achieved by creating a space and time free of distractions, grouping and accomplishing related tasks according to priority, starting your work session with a prayer, a short ritual you enjoy and ending it with a reward. Flow is mysterious. Like a muscle, the more you train it, the more you will flow, and the closer you will be to your ikigai (García and Miralles, Ikigai, 2016).

Another key aspect of finding ikigai is cultivating a growth mindset, being open to learning and professional development, even in areas outside of one's comfort zone. Auditors who approach work with this mindset more likely find challenges as opportunities for growth leading to increased engagement and satisfaction.

Japanese neuroscientist Ken Mogi vouches for pleasure through "absorption in an activity." Work can become an end in itself — not something to endure to get something else, like a promotion or bonus. Mogi also uses Csikszentmihalyi's concept flow to illuminate how getting lost in even the most mundane of tasks can bring you a sense of reward and freedom. This is related to the pillars "releasing yourself" and "being in the here and now." Whether you're washing dishes or working through a spreadsheet, once in flow, you can gain pleasure from work and release yourself from the need for reward and recognition. Ironically, this can make you more likely to be rewarded and recognized.

Ikigai, as a way of life, doesn't just have to be about finding your mission. Of course, this doesn't preclude having goals or long-term plans. It simply asks you to be more present and make the most of the life you are living right now. Everyone experiences ups and downs in their careers. By finding pleasure in the flow, even the most mundane of tasks can become rewarding and help to see you through a rough patch (Hughes, What's Your Ikigai? Finding Meaning in Work and Life, 2021).

In the award-winning documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," sushi master Jiro Ono explains how he made his small, exclusive 10-seat sushi restaurant in Tokyo, Japan to be one of the best Michelin three-star restaurants. When asked if he'd had difficulties or regrets working at the same job for nearly 50 years, he said:

"Never complain about your work. No matter what you do, never complain about your work. You have to fall in love with your work... dedicate your life to mastering your skill... keep trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is."

This is a good illustration of ikigai as a devotion to what one loves, an effort toward mastery and accomplishment, and a never-ending journey that also brings a sense of fulfillment.

The conceptions of ikigai may vary, yet there is a general agreement that finding this motivating purpose in life is associated with greater fulfillment and happiness. As you discover your ikigai, you must have the courage and make the effort to stay on the right path, accepting that though the world and the people living in it are imperfect, it is still full of opportunities for growth and achievement.

For auditors, finding ikigai may require a mindset shift, embracing the deeper purpose behind the profession and realizing fulfillment in one's contribution in society, more than viewing work as merely a means to a paycheck. By nurturing the profound aspects of work, maximizing the "here and now," and cultivating the growth mindset, the closer you will be to discovering your ikigai, your purpose beyond balance sheets.


Ryan A. Sabug is a managing partner of Alas, Oplas & Co., CPAs. He is a member of the Professional Development Committee and Media Affairs Committee of the Association of CPAs in Public Practice and currently a treasurer of the Rotary Club of Makati North.

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