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August 13, 2021

What's Your Ikigai? Finding Meaning in Work and Life

Matthew Hughes

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What gets you out of bed in the morning? Is it career progression or your kids? Your Friday night plans or a hot cup of coffee? 

This is a question we all wrestle with at some point in our lives and there's rarely an easy answer.

But in a time of immense global uncertainty, it pays to pause and reflect on your life and on what's important to you. There’s never been a better time to consider your personal ikigai.

What Is Ikigai?

Ikigai can be translated as "to live (iki) and reason (gai)" – essentially, what is the source of your daily motivation?

Ikigai can be adopted as a practical philosophy for life, a way to find strength in tough times, and even as a long-term career planner. It can give value to mundane, humdrum activities, while also helping you to identify what you truly value

I think it's fair to say we don't all spring out of bed every morning propelled by our core reason for being. Many of us reluctantly accept we've hit "snooze" on our alarms as much as we can get away with, and drag our weary limbs out of the sheets.

So how can you find your ikigai?

The Four Elements of Ikigai

A Venn diagram of "the four elements" of ikigai has blazed a trail through team chats, boardrooms, and HR presentations in recent years.

Albert Liebermann and Hector Garcia popularized this way of applying ikigai with their book, "Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life."

This diagram shows ikigai as the convergence of four areas of life: what you love, what you're good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.

The very center, where each area overlaps, is your ikigai – your reason for getting up and where you should focus your efforts to find ultimate fulfillment.

Whether you’re a janitor, journalist or Jeff Bezos, if you find your Ikigai, you’ll find pleasure and value in what you do.

The Five Pillars of Ikigai

Beyond your career, ikigai can become a framework for approaching life in general. Tokyo-based neuroscientist and author Ken Mogi identifies the five central pillars of ikigai as:

  • Starting small
  • Releasing yourself
  • Harmony and sustainability
  • The joy of little things
  • Being in the here and now

According to Mogi, these pillars formed as a natural extension of the Japanese mindset and culture. Still, he acknowledges that anyone can adopt these tenets in their life.

Much like mindfulness, the key is to be present in the moment. At the same time, it's unmistakably about looking forward – the anticipation of that cup of coffee or weekend activity. And crucially, it's about savoring the moments when they arrive.

Many of us live our lives always planning the next thing, trapped in a constant state of busyness. There's truth in the adage that "life is what happens when we're busy making plans." I'm certainly guilty of living around the corner: "If I just get here, or do this, I'll be happy, I'll be content."

Yes, I eagerly anticipate that morning cup of coffee, but by the time it arrives I've usually got one eye on the clock, my mind frantically calculating the fastest route to the office while I'm throwing on my jacket.

Where Buddhism teaches you to shed the things you crave to find freedom and peace, ikigai is about appreciating and consciously enjoying those things once you have them.

Mogi uses the examples of a tea-pouring ceremony and the daily routine of a Sumo wrestler, both of which require the application of the pillars. Taken in this way, ikigai can be found in simple pleasures, like your weekend hobby or morning exercise routine. Iikigai teaches you to look forward to something and savor the moment when it arrives.

Ikigai and Your Career

Taking the cue from the four elements diagram, seeking your ikigai is akin to finding your dream job.

Imagine combining what you love, what you're good at, what the world needs, and – the kicker – what you can get paid for. Is it even possible?

Finding Your Calling

This seems especially tricky if, like me, you haven't got a clue what you want for dinner, let alone what your ultimate calling in life is.

We've all heard stories of dramatic career changes in pursuit of dreams. Like ditching the nine-to-five to become a ski instructor, or quitting a high-powered corporate role to retrain as a midwife.

But it doesn't have to be so drastic.

Consider which types of tasks give you the most pleasure in your current job:

  • Do you enjoy managing people or working in isolation on technical tasks?
  • Do you get satisfaction from solving complex issues or prefer giving presentations and chairing interviews?
  • Do you like directly managing stakeholders or do you love to get stuck into a spreadsheet?

By slowly sifting out the aspects of your work you don't enjoy, and increasing what you do, you can start to gain a sense of your ikigai.

Saving the World

But does this cover the trickiest aspect to ascertain – is it something the world needs?

This selfless, giving aspect of ikigai traditionally manifests as giving yourself over to something other than yourself. This isn't perhaps as difficult as it first appears.

You don’t need to quit your job to go retrain as a vet or start a charity. The first pillar of ikigai teaches us to 'start small.' Giving yourself over to something else can be as simple as offering to buy your elderly neighbors some groceries, taking a day out to volunteer, or providing apprenticeships to underprivileged community members. Small moments and gestures of kindness can have a dramatic impact on how you feel about the other areas of your life.

Many organizations already engage with the third pillar of ikigai ('harmony and sustainability') by adopting a "triple bottom line" – placing profit alongside the impact on the planet and people as a measure of success. This approach to social responsibility can manifest a greater sense of purpose that has a subtle, but powerful, effect on how we relate to our work. Especially on a dreary Monday morning...

Finding Flow

You might be thinking that finding your ultimate calling is all well and good, but right now you're struggling to feel engaged in your job and it doesn't look like there's a way out of it any time soon. Ikigai, as a way of life, doesn't just have to be about finding your mission: it can help you today – right now!

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 uses Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of being "in 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 the 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.

Of course, this doesn’t preclude having goals or a long-term plan. It simply asks us to be more present and make the most of the life we're living right now.

We all experience ups and downs in our careers. By finding pleasure in the "flow," even the most mundane of tasks can become rewarding, and help to see us through a rough patch.

A Philosophy for Life

Japan is a notoriously work-obsessed country. Along with innovative workplace developments (including the game-changing kanban and Kaizen systems), Japan is also known as the land of crammed dawn commuter trains, limited paid time off, and it even has a word for death from overwork (karoshi).

It might be tempting to consider ikigai as little more than a coping mechanism – a way of stretching yourself to the limit in a brutal work environment. But ikigai is more than simply maintaining hope and concentration in high-pressure situations.

Blue Zones

In David Buttner's book, "Blue Zones," he identifies several areas of the world with peculiarly high numbers of centenarians. This includes Nuoro in Sardinia, Loma Loma in California, and Okinawa, Japan.

He describes the northern province of Okinawa as the "ground zero" of longevity. It just so happens to be the home of ikigai, too.

In his 2009 TED talk, Buttner recounts his meetings with these Okinawans. He met a woman cradling her great-great-great-great granddaughter. He also hung out with a 100-year-old fisherman – on asking what his ikigai is, the man said catching fish to feed his family three times a week.

Buettner identifies several aspects of each long-living community, including committing to something beyond yourself and having a sense of purpose. Retirement can be a difficult transition to make. But Okinawan residents with a strong ikigai (including a 102-year-old practicing karate teacher) don't experience a sense of loss or lack of direction when they retire – their purpose for life continues.

As Buttner puts it, cultures with a high percentage of centenarians all have a "vocabulary for a sense of purpose." This is crucial for a successful retirement.

Looking Forward

Now, I don't know about you, but I stress about the little things, don't have a solid career plan, and I can struggle to concentrate on mundane tasks (let alone find joy in them).


Since discovering ikigai I've unwittingly adopted certain aspects of the five pillars. I found myself stopping to enjoy the rain on my walk home, rather than speeding up to avoid it (the joy of little things); I try not to take credit for all the little work "victories" (releasing myself); and I try to take at least 30-minutes a day to do exercise or mindfulness, anything that slows my racing mind (being in the here and now).

By combining the perfect career-seeking powers of the Venn diagram, with the more foundational five pillars, you can build up to something new.

I'm not there yet, but I can almost see my ikigai. It's in my peripheral vision, just around the corner – but I'm choosing to look at the here and now.

Recommended Resources

These Mind tools resources offer more insight on finding purpose, motivation, efficiency and proficiency in your career. Mind Tools members have full access to the following tools.

Creating Job Satisfaction

Improve Your Concentration

Theory Z

How Can Stoicism Help You at Work?

Deming's 14-Point Philosophy

Working With Purpose

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4 comments on “What's Your Ikigai? Finding Meaning in Work and Life”

  1. This is very interesting for me because I like helping others, yet always wondering if it's my calling.

    1. Hi Catherine, thanks for your comment. Hope Ikigai helped you see more clearly what your calling may be?

      Mind Tools Coach

  2. Good Morning,
    I love the idea of Ikigai and introducing this to my 6th grade students who will be going into middle school soon. I would love to teach a lesson on this. Do you have any lessons or activities I can bring into the classroom? Thank you. Noel

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