What's Your Ikigai? Finding Meaning in Work and Life » Mind Tools Blog
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What’s Your Ikigai? Finding Meaning in Work and Life

August 13, 2021

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

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

Motivation has increasingly become a priority for organizations looking to maintain an engaged and eager workforce. And now into the mix, the COVID-19 pandemic has destabilized normal working patterns and added a large dollop of general anxiety for good measure.

It’s a time of immense uncertainty. But for many of us, it’s also a chance to pause and reflect on our lives and the world in general. 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 applied as a practical philosophy for life, a way to find strength in tough times, and as a way to identify what you want from your career. It can give value to the everyday “mundane” things, while also helping you to identify what you truly value.

I think it’s fair to say that not many of us 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 office cubicles, comms channels, 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 a weekend activity. And crucially, it’s about savoring the moment when it arrives.

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 example 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? Maybe it will take years to work out, but if you can find the sweet spot where those points converge, you’ll be leaping out of bed every day.

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: whether it’s ditching the nine-to-five to become a ski instructor, or quitting a high-powered corporate role to retrain as a high school teacher.

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 giving presentations and chairing interviews?
  • Are you more interested in directly managing stakeholders or do you prefer 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. Or, if possible, requesting a day off per month to volunteer for the health service, 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. Especially when you’re struggling to find motivation.

Here at Mind Tools, UN sustainable development goals are tied to our “three-pillar” approach to responsibility. They are a core aspect of the company’s business purpose – a part of our “raison detre.”

By grounding our work in a mission to better the world (and engaging with the third pillar of ikigai, “harmony and sustainability”), the team has a greater sense of purpose that slowly manifests and 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, or to do to get something else, such as 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”).

In his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” Csikszentmihalyi argues that complete absorption in a task is optimal when our perceived skill level matches the challenge of the task.

However, as with mindfulness, we can learn to keep our mind on the present and focus on exactly what we’re doing now, whether that’s washing the dishes or working through a spreadsheet.

Once in flow, you’ll gain more 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 ingenious kanban system), 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, and also a 100-year old fisherman. On asking what his ikigai is, the man replies 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).

But…

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

Kaizen


2 thoughts on “What’s Your Ikigai? Finding Meaning in Work and Life

  1. Catherine wrote:

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

    1. Sarah Harvey wrote:

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

      Sarah
      Mind Tools Coach

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