A Practical Guide to Ikigai, Your Reason for Being
By now, most of you have seen or heard of this beautiful word ikigai (EE-kee-guy). In brief, ikigai is a Japanese concept for someone’s direction and purpose in life. It’s their reason for being.
The ikigai concept and framework have gotten a lot of attention for their association with happiness and longevity. Indeed, the idea comes from Okinawa, where residents have some of the highest life expectancies in the world.
But I’m more interested in its value right here, right now. I love ikigai as a tool for my clients when they’re thinking through what’s next. I love ikigai for me and how I think about purpose in life. Here is what the ikigai model looks like:
In the ikigai model, there are four main areas of inquiry:
What you’re good at
What you love
What the world needs
What you can be paid for
Which lead to four intersections and outcomes of:
I find this approach to be just an amazing entry point to a lot of self-discovery and awareness. I think about it often. It defines in clear, compelling imagery that there is no single factor that defines our reason for being.
So how can we start practically asking the questions that lead to this understanding? Here are 12 ideas on digging deeper, 3 for each area of inquiry.
What you’re good at
“Accept yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses, your truths, and know what tools you have to fulfill your purpose.” — Steve Maraboli
This is the starting point, beginning with self-awareness. For some of us, this is the easiest part of ikigai to figure out. For others, we are either blind to our strengths or choose to push them out of sight and out of mind. But this is a critical area of our lives.
Awareness of our strengths not only helps us to focus on the areas where we can make the biggest impact, but it also helps us find more joy in what we do. When we leverage our strengths, we’re more successful and productive. We are more likely to enjoy what we’re doing.
Below are three ways to mine for your own strengths.
Search inside. Journal and reflect on your core strengths. What are you good at? Where do you shine the most? Write down as many ideas as you can, then look for themes. Approach it from different angles, too. What has helped you succeed? When do you feel strong? What have you heard from others?
Solicit feedback. This is one of the most powerful things I ask my clients to do. Feedback is a gold mine of awareness, and I’ve never met anyone who has reached their limit on feedback. We could always benefit from more. Set up a half-dozen 30-minute conversations to share feedback on strengths. Don’t just ask co-workers, get supervisors and direct reports. And don’t just ask work people, ask loved ones and friends.
Take an assessment. It can be a nice entry point into self-awareness to take an online assessment. There are a hundred options here, but I’d steer clear of personality tests. Focus on more practical tests, like the CliftonStrengths 34 (formerly StrengthsFinder). Or a free option like the HIGH5. Don’t take the results as gospel, but do take time to reflect on what they mean to you personally.
What you love
“Do what you love; you’ll be better at it. It sounds pretty simple, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t get this one right away.” — LL Cool J
These days, finding your passion is the focus of many a self-help book. It’s deeper than that, though. What are your values? What lights you up and brings you joy? These seem like abstract questions, and at some level they are. But they’re also fundamental questions.
I wrestle sometimes with the idea that our grandparents didn’t seem to have this same idea of passion and joy. They didn’t seem to wring their hands worrying about finding their bliss. But really, they did, in a lot of ways. It’s just that today we have so much more complexity in almost every way, that there are a million more choices (and mistakes) to make.
We live in a more complicated, complex world than ever before. With more chances than ever to be reactive, it’s important to take stock of what really, truly matters.
Look to the past. Our values are built over time, from myriad experiences. I believe that an important first step in clarifying what we love is reflection. Try the Life Map exercise. Take 20 minutes to draw out your life’s ups and downs from birth to present. And don’t stop there, reflect and ask “What did this bad experience give me?” “What did this great part of my life give me?”
Imagine the future. Visualizing the future can be a powerful way of shaking us out of our comfort zone. Give the 80th Birthday Party exercise a shot. It’s pretty quick, but a powerful visualization exercise where you imagine what your 80th birthday would be like. Who would be there, what would they say about you? What mark would you want to leave on them?
Mine for your values now. One final exercise, the Who Am I exercise. It’s my favorite because it’s focused on the right here, right now. And it’s one of the best ways of mining for value and purpose. It takes a bit more effort, but it’s worth it. All you need is 30 minutes and 10 blank sheets of paper.
What the world needs
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” — Mahatma Gandhi
“What the world needs” is usually the part of passion-finding exercises that are left out. And you can argue that it’s not completely necessary to think through this when asking what career you want or what your next job should be. But I would offer that we are more than that.
I believe that we all have a responsibility to each other and to our planet. In fact, I think that responsibility is one of the most missed qualities of individualistic cultures. What can you do to make the world a better place? What could be your mark on society, either directly or indirectly?
Ponder and reflect. Get back to the journaling. Once you have a bit of quiet in the day, drop this question into your reflection: “What is it that the world really needs right now?” Think about the pain and suffering that people and sentient creatures go through. What could relieve that? Think about the joy and happiness, too. What could amplify that? What do you believe the world needs?
Expand your perspective. Our worldview is limited by our world. What can you do to expand your world? Read books, watch quality programs and documentaries, have debates. I challenge you to find a topic that you know nothing about and dig into it a bit. The number-one best thing to expand perspective, where time and money allows? Travel. Best ROI investments I’ve ever made.
Do your research. There’s a great site I’ll recommend called 80,000 hours. It’s essentially a site dedicated to how you and your career choices can make the world a better place. There’s some pretty good research, blog material, and even a job board. Sign up for their newsletter to get a regular dose of curated info.
What you can be paid for
This is where things get really practical. There are no real exercises that you can do to visualize your way into a job. No amount of journaling can make job postings appear. All the information here exists outside of you, and you have to go find it.
I left this step last for precisely this reason. You should try to really dig deep and look inside as much as you can before turning the lens to the market.
Note that I write this from the perspective of a job-seeker, but if “pay” isn’t what you want to maximize right now, find the question that works for you. E.g. “What you can earn value from.”
When it comes to a job, though, here are three ideas for exploration.
Look at what’s already here. Maybe you don’t need to leave your current role to find your ikigai. Maybe what you need is just a different perspective. Or maybe what you need isn’t too far away. It could be a different position in the same team or a different role in the same company. Transformational change doesn’t always mean big change.
Extend your reach. That said, we are so affected by our environment that it can sometimes be impossible to have big change inside without big change outside. For a lot of us who feel “stuck,” we need that push out of our comfort zone that comes from making a big move. Start compiling a list of the companies you’d like to work for and roles you would be good in. Build a big ol’ spreadsheet and then start reaching out to people at those companies. Be bold.
Break the mold. A third and final option is to go all out and just play with the ideas of what could be a completely different path. I usually recommend this as an exploration in the extreme, then dialing it back into something realistic. If becoming a professional musician is the big, crazy dream, what could be the middle path between that and what’s available to you? Sometimes people do realize they’re nowhere near where they need to be, and that’s scary. It can be scary to go back to school or start off a new career from scratch. Realistically, what are the options?
“I quit my job so I could focus on my work.” — Tim Tamashiro
Use the ikigai framework to help you get closer to your “reason for being.” The four questions above can help you better understand your possible passion, mission, vocation, and profession.
There are other definitions for the smaller intersections of the outcomes — those overlaps just outside the ikigai core — but I’d offer my own ideas:
Passion + Mission = Purpose
Mission + Vocation = Meaning
Vocation + Profession = Stability
Profession + Passion = Fulfillment
The importance here is more than just words. These are the qualities that come with unlocking each of the outcomes of the ikigai, which themselves come from inquiry and asking the four key questions. They are priceless.
Try the model on for size, and try the questions above as an experiment. And show yourself some compassion and patience. You might not be perfectly in the center of the ikigai, but try to move closer to it.
Good luck, and be well.
PS, take a few minutes to watch a video of this TEDx speaker (who provided the quote above) talk about ikigai. It’s a great intro to the topic.
How to Ikigai by Tim Tamashiro
Originally published in The Ascent