Like many people, I often wonder “What is my life’s purpose?” While contemplating and exploring the meaning of life and my higher calling, I was introduced to ikigai. This upward-trending term has definitely helped me put things in perspective and push me in (hopefully) the right direction. But what is ikigai?
I do not claim to have yet found my highest purpose. Nor am I a life coach or a certified ikigai expert. But I am a curious soul who is happy to share what I’ve found. So let’s explore.
Ikigai (pronounced ee-kee-guy) is a life philosophy originating from Japan. In Western culture it is often translated to “reason for being” or “the reason for which you wake up in the morning.” Surprisingly, as ambiguous as those definitions may be, the literal Japanese translation may be even more vague. The definition of ikigai from a Japanese dictionary says it is the “power necessary for one to live in this world; happiness to be alive; benefit; effectiveness.” That sounds a bit eclectic. However, to me it confirms the term as a dynamic, living concept rather than one specific thing to aim for.
A “reason for being” certainly sounds like “one’s purpose”. But we should be careful not to confuse (or replace) one’s life purpose directly with ikigai. Although they are closely related, they are not necessarily the same thing.
It is often stated that a picture is worth a thousand words. Importantly, however, we must be sure we are using or intending the correct words.
There is an extremely popular “ikigai venn diagram” that started going viral in 2012. It looks very similar to the one below; however, it has the word “ikigai” in the center. The image below shows the original “purpose venn diagram” on which it was based.
The idea is that one’s true purpose can be found at the convergence of:
- Doing what you love
- Doing what the world needs
- Doing what you can be paid for
- Doing what you are good at
When one finds that sweet spot, they bring fulfillment to the world (by filling a need) and themselves (via personal pleasure) while being paid for it. We should all aim for for this target.
Ikigai is similar to purpose; however, it does not necessarily need to be in the center. Further, it is much more a feeling rather than something you do. It encourages you to be honest with yourself about your values, and living them.
It should inspire you to admit what it is you like to do. And then dedicate yourself to becoming better at it. If you master your skill, the world will recognize and appreciate your talents. But note: that is not the point of ikigai, which is not about the money nor fame. Instead, it is about your sustained personal growth.
Find Further Fulfillment By Practicing Wabi-Sabi
Additionally, you can apply ikigai to things about which you are not passionate. Even if you do not love a task, you can do it honorably, according to your values. Thus you can be happy that you’ve done your best job possible.
Most importantly, ikigai is about being present in the moment. Bring joy to the “now” regardless of the task you are doing.
The Japanese realize mono no aware (“nothing lasts forever”), so make the most of the present. Another way to understand this is: the embracing of small pleasures in life on a regular basis leads to more sustained satisfaction. Certainly, fantastically great moments occur only a few times in life. (Think graduation, wedding, childbirth…) If we only celebrated those moments, then we would “be happy” on maybe twelve occasions in a lifetime. When we celebrate birthdays and holidays, this number increases; however, the amount of “happy days” would still be less than 20% of all your days.
Being joyous for less than a quarter of existence does not sound like a happy life to me. On the other hand, if we recognize the beauty and opportunity of each day, we get to build an entire lifetime of happiness. This is not to say that we’ll all be happy 100% of the time. Tragedy occurs and sadness is a natural emotion. But in finding your ikigai, “your reason for waking up each morning”, you find increased fulfillment and sustained joy.
An Example of Ikigai
Each year in Japan, natives throw massive cherry blossom festivals (“hanami”) to celebrate the blooming of the sakura cherry blossoms. To me, this is a fantastic example of ikigai. People recognize the fleeting beauty of the flowers, which typically last only two weeks. Consequently, they cherish the moment and make the most of it. Food, drink and merriment are shared with family and friends. Meanwhile the delicate blooms inspire song, dance, poetry and other artistry. This translates perfectly to the ikigai ideals of connecting with friends, connecting with nature, and living in the moment. Notice that picnicking under the trees does not necessarily earn one money. However, the time spent is fulfilling since it brings balance, connectedness and wholeness to life
Find Your Ikigai
At this point you may be saying:
“All this is great, but how do I find my ikigai?”
Firstly, you are aware of the concept. Congratulations! Many people struggle their whole life trying to simply define this existential split between doing what they need (to get paid) and doing what they love. They feel torn or out of balance. But since we now know what we’re seeking, we can take steps toward it.
From all I have read and seen, the key is to start small. Nobody can be expected to understand their inner self, their greatest desires, and their life plan immediately. But you can dedicate time and take small steps.
For example, you can start with an honest look at yourself. What is it that you want and like? Not what society (parents, friends, commercials, social media) expect of you… What do you really desire and enjoy? This may seem like a tricky thing to answer, but if you are honest with yourself, the truth will surface. And once you know what your true motivations are, find ways to start doing what you love. Read more, write more, sing and dance more. Whatever it is, let go of outside expectations and let your passions move you.
Want To Be Happier Despite Hardship? Embrace Kintsukuroi
Money does not bring happiness. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt to get paid to do what delights you. So once you know what you love, you can start looking into the steps necessary to turn it into a job. If you are not concerned about money and just want to pursue a hobby or serve others, that is great, too! Either way, if you are passionate about it, don’t let anything stop you. Enjoy the steps, as difficult as they may be, because it is the sustained effort and improvement that pays off in ultimate fulfillment.
Remember that ikigai is a continuous process and feeling. So you can re-apply these steps over and over again, taking on one life aspect at a time. All the while, find joy in the “now”. As we know, life is not a destination but a journey. So enjoy the present, as well as each step of your never-ending development.
A quick internet search will return a vast amount of articles and videos on ikigai. If you find the above information interesting, I encourage you to dive down this rabbit hole someday. To start, here are some resources that I found to be particularly informative and motivating. I hope they assist in your journey to finding your ikigai and unlocking your greatest potential and happiness.
- A very entertaining and inspiring TED Talk that playfully introduces the ikigai concept:
- A humble approach to finding the things in life that bring true fulfillment and happiness:
- An ikigai questionnaire designed to help you determine the areas in life where you can increase focus.
- Another great ikigai quiz which will help you understand yourself, and also provide suggestions on professions that may suit you.
Have you found your ikigai? If so, we’d love to hear about it. Please share your story and purpose in comments.