We’ve established that the purpose of life is to be the best version of yourself. We’ve also established that prioritizing that purpose in the long term is an essential part of our success. But what exactly is that purpose? And how do we find it? After all, most of us don’t roll out of bed every day knowing exactly what we’re meant to do.
It is my intent to change that paradigm.
I’d like to introduce you to a Japanese concept known as ikigai. The ikigai is essentially what were trying to talk about here: our reason for getting up in the morning.
In this article, you will learn:
- What an ikigai is
- Why it is important
- A complete breakdown of its four component parts
- How to find your own ikigai
- Examples of ikigai
- How to live in fulfillment with your ikigai
What is Ikigai?
Ikigai is a Japanese word that roughly translates to “a reason for being”.
It is a concept of purpose, the thing that gives us a reason for living.
The Literal Meaning
This concept is a compound of two Japanese words: “iki”, meaning life, and “kai”, meaning something to the effect of fruit or result.
Most have taken this to mean a reason for living or a meaning for life.
The phrase ikigai has come to have its own unique associations in modern times, and the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a motivating force; something or someone that gives a person a sense of purpose or a reason for living”.
How It Is Used
Ikigai can mean several things. It can mean having a sense of purpose in life, as well as a motivational force.
Michiko Kumano made a study of ikigai, and found that it usually means a feeling of accomplishment or fulfillment that followed when the people of Japan pursued their passions. These weren’t activities that were forced on people, but were entered into willingly.
Another psychologist, Katsuya Inoue, has identified ikigai as a concept related to two branches: first, the “sources or objects that bring value or meaning to life” and second, “a feeling that one’s life has value or meaning because of the existence of its source or object”.
So ikigai can be a person, place, thing, or feeling. It can take many forms, but in any of its forms the results are positive. Your ikigai is what gets you up in the morning.
Why Is Ikigai Important?
Reporter Dan Buettner popularized the idea of the “Blue Zones”, which were specific areas that had an unusually high percentage of centenarians, and where longevity seemed more common. One of these areas was the island of Okinawa off the coast of Japan.
Among other contributing factors, Buettner concluded that ikigai, their sense of purpose, was one of the main reasons why this longevity existed.
Okinawans were less likely to retire, they would continue in their favorite job as long as they were healthy enough to do so.
Conversely, multiple studies have shown that people who do not feel that they have a sense of ikigai are far more likely to experience cardiovascular disease, though other contributors to death have yet to show such correlations.
But you get the idea, right?
An ikigai is essential to our mental health, and when we have mental health, we have physical health.
I talk about this more in the article on the benefits of purpose.
The point is, this is something we want to find.
Ikigai Venn Diagram: All Four Parts Explained
In contemporary models, and ikigai usually is divided into four sections. They are:
- The things you love
- The things you are good at
- How you can serve the world
- What you can be paid to do
These four areas overlap in multiple ways, but if you can get all four to overlap, then you have found a truly remarkable ikigai.
Let’s dive into each of these one by one.
In this sphere, we list out everything that we are passionate about. What brings us joy in life?
This can be anything from reading fantasy books (that’s one of mine), to taking long walks on the beach, to travel, to woodworking, even to intricate cosplay. You get the idea.
It’s worth pausing for each of these and doing some serious reflection about what we feel when we think of these categories. With passion, think deeply about what you love, even if you aren’t good at it, even if it’s relatively useless to the world at large, even if you can’t get paid for it.
Because even if these passions aren’t your ikigai, they can still be useful. For instance, I don’t make a career out of watching Star Wars, but I still love it, and I watch every episode of every TV show as it comes out, and read every book and comic. That brings me joy, and that’s okay.
In this sphere, we contemplate all of the things that we are good at. This can be hard skills such as computer coding, playing the piano, open-heart surgery, you name it, or it can be soft skills like leadership and communication. These can be things that we are good at, and they are often areas where we have trained hard.
And that’s worth pointing out here. Because none of us started out being skilled in any of these things. There’s a good chance that many of your skills are connected to your interests or passions, because our interest led to time spent learning that skill.
So don’t necessarily worry if you aren’t really good at something. If you’d like to be good at it, enough to put in hours and hours of practice, you can still get good at it.
For instance, there was once a time when I thought I was really bad at writing. In fact, it was very hard for me to get myself to write, because I would cringe every time.
But you know what? I wanted to be good at writing.
I still don’t know if I’m a good writer. Most of the time, the imposter syndrome in my brain tells me otherwise. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t become a good writer, and I can definitely tell you one thing: I am a lot better than I used to be.
What the World Needs from You
The third circle relates to ways in which you can serve the world at large. It can be as small as your own family and small community, or can be on a larger scale.
The world has no shortage of needs, and there are a million and one different ways to contribute to society. That’s actually a good thing. It means that you have many choices, many different ways in which you can contribute to society.
What this means is that it isn’t always hard to find a way to use your passions and skills to make the world a better place in at least one area.
That could be improving literacy, feeding the homeless, being a good mother or father, or helping other people that are going through problems similar to ones that you have had in the past.
This area is one of the most important, because it can lead to the most fulfillment in life. While passions and hobbies are great, if we obsess over them to the detriment of others, they become a vice.
On the flipside, very few things bring us more happiness than bringing joy, peace, and security to other people.
You Are Paid for It
The fourth and final circle of the ikigai Venn diagram is what you can get paid to do. Now, I would argue that this one is perhaps a little less important than the previous three circles. The reason for this is that if you can find a way to contribute to society, chances are someone will want to pay you to do it.
That being said, some passions, skills, and forms of service pay better than others. It is entirely possible to find a way to contribute to society and live your passion, while still being able to make a livelihood.
Because let’s face it, in today’s society it is hard to dedicate your entire life to a single thing if you cannot find a way to get paid to do it. That doesn’t mean you can’t pursue your ikigai on the side, but in that scenario you’re spending much less time with it.
If you can spend more time with your ikigai, all the better. The best way to do that is to get paid to do it.
Is This the Best Model?
Some have argued, and I think rightfully so, that the above model is more of a westernized version of the ikigai concept, and not truly what ikigai represents.
I want to talk about this, not because I think the Venn diagram is wrong (because I think it is still a helpful model), but to call attention to the fact that your ikigai might not be as clear-cut.
Instead, the ikigai could be more accurately explained, in the words of Ikigai Tribe, “…embracing the joy of little things, being in the here and now, reflecting on past happy memories, and having a frame of mind that one can build a happy and active life.”
And I think that is quite profound. In Western culture we tend to try and turn everything into a formula, something we can follow in order to find purpose, productivity, happiness, whatever it is.
The truth is, it’s not always that simple, and I think it’s worth taking a more Eastern mentality when it comes to considering these ideas, because there is a lot that can be learned there as well.
We will discover a lot more by finding satisfaction in the little things, and your ikigai doesn’t have to be some big thing that will contribute to the world at large. If it makes you happy, if it gives you a reason to wake up in the morning, then that is enough.
I do not claim that we should reject the Western line of thought either, because I believe there is value in trying a more structured approch to finding these answers. I believe there is wisdom in both Eastern and Western philosophies.
Just know that there is more than one way of looking at this.
Examples of ikigai
So what exactly does ikigai look like when you have it? Here are some examples taken from across the Internet and from the book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles.
Note that I’ve eliminated all names here, instead these are anonymous quotes from various people concerning their ikigai.
- “Improving my skills as a translator and software developer.”
- “Participating in my amateur orchestra.”
- “Spending time with my wife and kids, watching kids grow everyday, rejoicing the smallest things together.”
- “Acquisition of a complete mastery of English language.”
- “My ikigai is English education and I want to teach people to speak English.”
- “My reason to get up in the morning is to watch my students improve at my dance school.”
- “My ikigai is taking on the responsibility I have for the horses I look after and the people I have contact with.”
- “When I see that my customers are happy, I am happy.”
- “I do not have any siblings but I have many grandchildren. Seeing them and having them visit is what ikigai is for me.”
- “To be the World Champion [Boxer], not just for me, but for my team – that is my ikigai.”
- “Having your family and friends supporting you, and wanting to support them back – having that means there is no struggle, and then study and working hard for your future is never tiring.”
How to Find Your Ikigai: a 3-Step Process
If you’ve had a look at the Venn diagram above, you may have already started brainstorming what your ikigai is. But we’re going to unpack it systematically.
Step 1: Interview Your Self
There are a lot of different questions that you could ask yourself regarding the Venn diagram, but you can start with some of these.
- What is your hobby?
- What kind of work excites you?
- Are you excited about work?
- What puts you into a flow state?
- What are you good at?
- Are you really good at one of your hobbies?
- Do people come to you for advice about a particular topic?
- Do you want to be an expert at a particular skill?
- What do you want people to say at your funeral?
- What do you value?
- Can you help solve a social, economic, or environmental problem?
- Have you ever felt unusually good helping someone?
For what you can get paid to do:
- Is there a high marketplace demand?
- Are others getting paid to do what you want to do?
- How competitive is your field?
- Has anyone ever offered to buy something you have made, or service that you offer?
These are just a few ideas to get your juices flowing. But what you should do is write down everything that comes to mind, and don’t censor yourself. Think through all of the different passions and skills that you have, as well as the different ways that you can use those passions and skills in contribution to the world in a way that you can be paid.
Step 2: Start Brainstorming
Try mixing and matching all of the different passions, skills, and vocation ideas you have had for your ikigai.
Does anything jump out at you? Believe it or not, this is the most important thing. You want to find something that means something to you, and you will have an instinctual idea of what this is.
Another good exercise is to visualize an ideal day in these different roles. What do you do? How are you dressed? How do you spend your downtime? Do you have downtime?
Write down a lot of what comes to mind, and once again don’t censor yourself. Does anything just “make sense” as you are thinking about it?
Step 3: Take the First Steps
Perhaps you found something that resonates with you, but you’re scared that you don’t have enough skills or that it might not be right for you.
The great thing about finding your purpose is that you will eventually understand if you are on the right path and be able to course correct as needed.
But before you can do that, you have to take the first steps. This can be studying or practicing the skills that you need to fulfill your ikigai, or could be hiring a coach or finding a mentor to guide you through the process.
Ultimately, finding your purpose in life is not going to happen until you take action. You simply can’t formulate an ikigai out of theory alone. You have to do it to know that it is yours.
That is why this is the final step, and also the most important.
Don’t spend too much time worrying about finding your ikigai, or obsessively studying to get it right the first time. You won’t. Finding your ikigai only comes through trial and error, never through theory.
Ikigai Exercise: How do You Practice ikigai?
So let’s assume you have found your ikigai, or at least an ikigai, and you are ready to put it into practice in your life. How do you do that?
Here are a few steps to get you started.
Step 1: Start Small
The point of following your ikigai is not to overturn your life in its pursuit. We want to start small.
A good way to do this is to form concrete goals that you can achieve, and the smaller you can make these goals the better. Small habits are a great way to start making consistent progress towards your purpose, but not overwhelm you in the process.
Step 2: Make a Plan
Once you have your goals, it’s time to outline how you will make it to those goals. This can be by breaking it your larger goals down into even smaller, daily or weekly goals, or it could be establishing specific dates and times for actions that you will take.
Whatever the case, write it down, put it in your calendar, etc.
Step 3: Find Mentors
You want to surround yourself with other people who can help you achieve your goals. These can be simply other peers who are seeking after the same goals, or they can be coaches and mentors to guide you along.
These relationships will be important for you in order to stay on the course to living a life of purpose.
Step 4: Go!
Take action. Do it today, not tomorrow, not next week. Today.
It really is that simple. You will not find fulfillment in life unless you take action on your ikigai immediately, rather than wait until all of your ducks are in a row.
Challenges of Your Ikigai
It’s entirely normal to encounter certain obstacles along your path toward your ikigai. Here are a few possibilities:
You don’t have the time: this is one of the most common, but it’s also one of the most frustrating. You make time for what is important to you, and sometimes that means filling your day with things to help you get by, such as your current job. But ultimately, your ikigai is something you have to make room for, or you will continue to spiral downward. There are two ways to do this. Either sacrifice time in some other area of life to make room for your ikigai, or find a way to incorporate ikigai into the work you are already doing.
You feel overwhelmed: if this is the case, don’t worry. It is entirely normal to feel overwhelmed. The best way to get over this is to take small actions. All you need to do is make progress toward your goals. You don’t have to get there yet. Even a small action in the right direction will be enough to help us feel more at ease.
You feel afraid: fear is also a normal part of our lives. It is a warning system to keep us from doing things that might be dangerous for us. The problem is, our minds often get it wrong. The good news is that as we make progress toward our ikigai and gain experience, that fear will eventually ease off. So keep going, you can do it.
Whatever your obstacles, don’t despair. You can get through them and make progress toward your ikigai. And remember the Eastern methodology of thought. Ikigai doesn’t have to replace what you’re doing. Instead, it can be a way of enhancing your life as it already is.
You can do this by appreciating the little things in life, finding joy in your work, forging meaningful relationships with those around you, etc.
What is the pronunciation of ikigai?
To those of us speaking English, ikigai sounds a lot like the two words “icky guy”. While perhaps not the most appealing comparison, it does help me understand and remember the phrase better. Just know that an icky guy is not actually what you’re looking for.
What are the 4 components of ikigai?
The four components of ikigai are 1) What you love, 2) What you’re good at, 3) What the world needs of you, and 4) What you can get paid to do. These four components overlap to uncover the perfect purpose for your life, your reason to get up in the morning.
How do I make an ikigai statement?
You can create an ikigai statement by brainstorming every possible love, skill, and form of contribution, then creating a statement that says: “My ikigai is to follow my passion to [PASSION HERE] by doing [SKILL HERE] in order to [FORM OF CONTRIBUTION HERE]. Feel free to tweak the language as needed.
Can a person by my ikigai?
Yes, a person can be your ikigai. The most obvious form that this takes is with our family. Often serving our family and helping them to grow is a major component of ikigai for many people. But understand that you must find personal satisfaction in this as well.
Why do we need ikigai?
We need ikigai because without it we have no purpose. Those that have a defined ikigai are less likely to die of heart disease, and are more likely to experience longevity. An ikigai is a way to build a lasting legacy before we die.
Is ikigai a myth?
No, ikigai is not a myth. An ikigai is a foundational part of Japanese culture, and is proven to be a contributor to the longevity. However, much of the concept has been appropriated and westernized in contemporary culture, which is something to be aware of.
How do you know your ikigai?
You know your ikigai by experiencing it firsthand. The best way to find your ikigai is to try it out. If it is the wrong ikigai, you will soon figure this out and be able to course correct from there. But you will never know until you try.
Can your ikigai change?
Absolutely. In fact, you may have more than one ikigai at a time, or several throughout your lifetime. At first, your ikigai might be to find an ikigai. There are really no limits on what it can be. What is more important is that you live it.
Who came up with ikigai?
Ikigai is a word and a concept that has existed for a long time in Japanese culture, but it was first popularized by Mieko Kamiya in her 1966 book “On the Meaning of Life” which has yet to be translated into English. It was further given light by Dan Buettner in the “Blue Zones”.