Guide to Ikigai: Improving Your Career, Life and Happiness

According to the Japanese, everyone has an ikigai. To find it often requires deep enquiry and lengthy ‘search of self’ – a search which is highly regarded. It might take time and effort to find it, or it may come easily, but we all have one and finding it is very vital.

The question of purpose is one that has haunted humanity since the dawn of our existence. Many ancient indigenous cultures took the time and effort to honour and contemplate the question of purpose through ceremonies and rituals that were all designed to help reveal the essential role that each individual member was born to play in the larger society and life as a whole.

Unfortunately today this question no longer receives anywhere near the attention, contemplation and reverence it deserves and requires.

For many, our decisions around purpose unfold in a more knee-jerk reactionary way, propelling us into educational, professional and life-directional paths based less on deep inner calling and more on societal expectations, so-called ‘practical reality’ and what is required to survive and thrive in the rigid societal systems we have created for ourselves to live in.

The truth is, if there was ever a time on our planet where a sense of true purpose was needed, required, or desperately called for, now would be that time.

But amidst the multi-layered and multi-pronged pressures presented by our modern world, how do we peel back the layers and discover why we are here and what we are really supposed to be doing?

Well, the Japanese offer a unique approach to this.

What is ikigai?

Translated, the word ikigai means “a reason to live,” or more specifically, “the reason to get up in the morning.”

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It comes from a combination of two Japanese words: iki referring to life, and kai, which roughly means “the realisation of what one expects and hopes for”.

Basically, ikigai is seen as the convergence of the following four core elements:

  1. what you love (your passion)
  2. what the world needs (your mission)
  3. what you are good at (your vocation)
  4. what you can get paid for (your profession)

The word ikigai, that space in the middle of these four primary elements, is seen by the Japanese as the source of value or what make one’s life truly worthwhile.

Unlike Western ideas of success, which are fairly narrow, everyone has ikigai, no matter their job or class or education level. It’s not about achieving what other people have for yourself, but finding your own happy combination of life satisfactions.

Ikigai diagram

Ikigai diagram

What is your ikigai?

There is a particular method to figuring out what your ikigai is, based on the traditional Japanese culture that the concept was born from. It is built around four questions that you need to answer in a specific order.

You can draw your own venn diagram of the intersecting circles of the ikigai symbol, and place your answers to the questions below in the large, outer circles. This allows you to quickly notice which words appear in adjacent or opposite parts of the diagram.

What you love

This question is about figuring out what you find fun, interesting and motivating

  • What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about making money?
  • How would you spend your time on a long vacation or a free weekend?
  • What’s exciting to you and gets your juices flowing when you do it?
  • What could you enthusiastically talk about for hours on end?

What the world needs

This question is meant to figure out what you can give to the world, your culture or your family.

  • What problems in your society would you like to help solve immediately?
  • What issues in your community/ the whole world touch you emotionally?
  • Are people willing to part with their resources to buy what you’re selling?
  • Will your work still be relevant a decade (or even a century) from now?

What you are good at

This question is meant to figure out your natural gifts: your talents and skills.

  • What parts of your current job are you effortless good at?
  • What are you among the best in your workplace/community (or even the whole world) at?
  • With some more education and experience, could you be among the best at what you do?

What you can be paid for

This question is about the things that can put bread on your table, whether you enjoy them or not.

  • Lately, have you been paid for what you do? Have you ever been paid for what you do? If not, are other people being paid for this work?
  • Are you already making a good living doing what it is that you’re doing? Can you eventually make a good living doing this work?

Take a few minutes to write whatever key words, phrases and ideas come up for you in each circle, then look for areas of natural overlap. Once you have some answers to these questions, you can start looking at the various places where they intersect.

Think about all these elements and the connections they have to each other. The idea is to have all the intersecting parts in balance: right at the centre of your chart is the answer to your personal ikigai — that will be your key to a prosperous, joyful and long life.

In Summary

The secret to a long and happy life is to live with purpose everyday. The first step to living with purpose is to regain control of your destiny and the Japanese concept of ikigai is such a wonderful tool to doing this. It might take years, even decades, to discover your reason for being. But be patient, you owe it to yourself.

Pursue it with everything you have, as soon as possible. Finding your ikigai is a very enlightening process and is totally worth the time and effort it takes.

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald is a freelance writer with a pen that is keen for entrepreneurship, business and technology. When he isn't writing insightful articles on employee engagement and corporate culture, Gerald can be found writing for a number of media outlets.