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What is ikigai and how can it change my life?

May 7, 2021 - 19 min read

an image showing career women happy at work What is ikigai and how can it change my life?

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What does ikigai mean?

3 steps to discovering your ikigai

4 steps to embracing your ikigai

3 challenges you might face while discovering your ikigai

What is ikigai? It might be a question you’ve never asked yourself. I, like yourself, never imagined that experimenting and dabbling in all sorts of hobbies, crafts, and careers would lead me to find meaning, and even joy, in my work … or, my ikigai (ee-key-guy).

Ikigai is an ancient Japanese philosophy that has enveloped the way Japanese people live. Some believe it’s even the reason for their happiness and longevity. It’s no wonder western culture has chosen to adopt it as their way of discovering a meaningful career.

In this article, we’ll explain the origins. importance, and meaning of ikigai. We’ll also discuss how to find and implement your ikigai, and what to look out for when doing the inner work to find it.

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What does ikigai mean?

Ikigai is a Japanese concept that means your ‘reason for being.’ ‘Iki’ in Japanese means ‘life,’ and ‘gai’ describes value or worth. Your ikigai is your life purpose or your bliss. It’s what brings you joy and inspires you to get out of bed every day.

It’s important to mention that while traditional Japanese philosophy focuses on finding your bliss, western interpretation has used ikigai as a method of finding your dream career.

The Westernised version of ikigai says you’ve found your dream career when your career includes these four qualities:

  • What you love
  • What you’re good at
  • What you can be paid for
  • What the world needs

This ikigai diagram helps to visualize this concept by showing these four main overlapping qualities:

sample ikigai diagram

Image source

The center point on the Venn diagram where all four circles overlap is your ikigai.

Why is ikigai important? 

Japan is ranked second in the world for life expectancy, with women expected to live 88.09 years and men expected to live 81.91 years. While it’s true that diet plays a role, many Japanese people believe ikigai has a lot to do with their longevity and living a happy life.

Apart from living a longer and happier life, knowing your ikigai can help you:

  • Design your ideal work lifestyle
  • Create strong social connections at work
  • Create a healthy work-life balance 
  • Pursue your career dreams 
  • Enjoy your work 

When you know your ikigai and understand its meaning, you’re aligned with the work you’ve longed to do and the work the world needs you to do.

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Where does ikigai come from, and why is it becoming popular?

The Japanese philosophy of ikigai dates back to the Heian period, between 794 to 1185.

Okinawa is a Japanese island south of the mainland. The island has the highest proportion of people over 100 years old in the world and Ikigai plays a major role in Okinawan culture. 

But this Japanese secret isn’t just linked to the elderly. It’s becoming popular with younger generations both in and out of Japan who are interested in having meaningful work lives.

3 steps to discovering your ikigai

Here are our top three steps to help you discover your ikigai:

3 steps to discovering your ikigai

Step 1. Answer some questions to find your ikigai

1. What do you love?

If you’re currently working:

  • Are you absorbed in your work? 
  • Are you more excited about going to work than you are about leaving work?
  • Do you have an emotional connection to your work results?

If you have a hobby or craft:

  • Do you have a hobby or craft you can’t seem to get enough of?
  • Are you more excited about your hobby or craft than anything else?
  • Are you emotionally connected to your hobby or craft?

2. What are you good at?

If you’re currently working:

  • Do people ask you for advice on topics related to your work?
  • Are there parts of your job that come easily to you?
  • Are you one of the best at what you do?
  • Are you/Do you want to be an expert at what you do?

If you have a hobby or craft:

  • Do people compliment you on your hobby or craft?
  • Does your hobby or craft feel intuitive?
  • Are you one of the best at your hobby or craft?
  • Are you/Do you want to be an expert at your hobby or craft?

3. What does the world need?

If you’re currently working:

  • Is your work considered a high demand in the marketplace?
  • Picture the next year, 10 years, and 100 years — will your work still be valuable?
  • Are you solving a social, economic, or environmental problem?

If you have a hobby or craft:

  • Is your hobby or craft in high demand or desirable in the marketplace?
  • Will your hobby or craft still be valuable in the future? 
  • Is your hobby or craft solving a social, economic, or environmental problem?

4. What can you be paid for?

If you’re currently working:

  • Are there other people getting paid for the same work you’re doing?
  • Do you make a good living/Will you eventually make a good living doing your work?
  • Is there a healthy level of competition for your work?

If you have a hobby or craft:

  • Have other people made a career out of the same hobby or craft?
  • Have people around you requested to buy what you do or make?
  • Is there a healthy level of competition for what you do or make?

If you answered ‘yes’ to each question in the ‘If you’re currently working’ section, keep doing what you’re doing! 

If you answered ‘yes’ to each question in the ‘If you have a hobby or craft’ section — congrats! You can take steps to turn your hobby into your dream career. Head to step 2 to start.

What if your answers were no? 

Don’t worry; keep reading for more tips on finding your ikigai. 

Step 2. Brainstorm to find your ikigai

Spend some time visualizing your ideal day from start to finish. Believe it or not, this is going to help you determine your ikigai and your true meaning. What are you wearing? Who are you talking to? What are you doing? Pay attention to how you feel. What makes you feel good at work? 

When you’re finished visualizing, make sure to write it down (or write it down as you’re visualizing). 

Next, look at the questions you answered ‘no’ to. Spend some time brainstorming and writing down small changes you can make to align your mission. Align this with what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. 

For example, did you answer ‘no’ to ‘Do you have an emotional connection to your work results?’ Maybe it’s because you’d rather work with clients face-to-face rather than on the phone, or maybe you’d like to apply for a leadership promotion at work

Or, if you answered ‘no’ to ‘Does your hobby or craft feel intuitive?’ Maybe you need to take some classes to strengthen your skills so that your work feels more natural. 

During this process, make your supreme focus all about finding your center, your ikigai. 

Note: It’s normal for doubt, fear, or negative thoughts to come up during this time. Facing your future can feel like a heavy challenge. The trick is not to attribute meaning to your doubts and fears. You’re stronger and more adaptable than you might think.

Step 3. Study to find your ikigai

You now have a picture in your head about what your ideal workday looks like. Now, consider studying, researching, taking classes, or hiring a coach or mentor. This step can help you discover if your vision meets your real-life expectations. 

For instance, maybe you want to be a wedding photographer. But, after mentoring under a professional wedding photographer, you realize it's not for you. 

Or, maybe you wanted to sell vintage fashion, but after looking into the process, you realized you didn’t want to keep up with so much inventory.

If you go through this process and find that your vision meets your real-life expectations — congrats, it looks like you’ve found your ikigai. Move on to the next section to see how to put it in place. . 

If the opposite is true, don’t worry, it can take time to find your ikigai. 

Repeat steps one through three with a different job, hobby, or craft until you find your ikigai. If you still can’t find it, consider dabbling and experimenting with a variety of roles and/or crafts

Bake cakes, learn how to code, volunteer, start a book club, design a logo — it doesn’t matter. Keep experimenting until you find what speaks to you. 

Note: Finding your ikigai doesn’t mean you’ll love every aspect of your career. It means that you’re willing to accept even the not-so-perfect parts. This is because your career is aligned with what you love, what you’re paid for, and what the world needs.

 4 steps to embracing your ikigai

Once you’ve found your ikigai, here’s how to bring it to life:

4 steps to embracing your ikigai

Step 1. Create small goals

Now that you’ve brainstormed some possible solutions, use them to create concrete annual goals. For example: get promoted to manager, change business locations, or start a web design business. 

Once you’ve written down your annual goals, create small monthly goals to help you reach them. The key is to take one baby step at a time until you reach your long-term goal. 

For example, if your annual goal is to get a manager promotion, you can set monthly goals. These might look like: meet with your district manager to create a plan, go to leadership development training, and increase daily responsibilities.

Step 2. Plan it out

Next, use your monthly goals to create weekly (or even daily) goals.

For example, if your monthly goal is to go to leadership development training, your first weekly goal could be to research reputable training programs. Your second weekly goal could be to set Zoom meetings with potential mentors.

Now that you’ve got a list of long-term goals and short-term goals, organize them using a chart, calendar, or notebook. 

It doesn’t matter what you use — as long as you have a dedicated spot for your plans that you can refer to often, you’ll be set. 

Make a digital and a paper copy of your plans in case you lose one. Make sure to keep the paper copy somewhere visible, like on a bulletin board in your office or taped to your bathroom mirror. 

Step 3. Create a support system 

When it comes to finding your purpose, a support system is invaluable. 

To create a support system, reach out to mentors, coaches, teachers, and other professionals who have reached similar goals. You can also lock arms with people who are heading toward the same goal. 

Cultivate relationships, network, and learn as much as you can from your support system. 

Step 4. Test it out

Now that you’ve got your formal plan ready to go, it’s time to test it out. Are you achieving your short and long-term goals? Is there anything bothering you? What’s going on?

Can you answer ‘yes’ to all the questions in step 1 now? If not, it may be time to reassess your goals and plans. A good question to ask at this point is, “Am I focusing on what I should do or what I want to do?”

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3 challenges you might face while discovering your ikigai

It’s not always easy discovering your ikigai, but with a little persistence, you’ll get there. Here are some challenges you may need to conquer in the process:

3 challenges you might face while discovering your ikigai

1. Feeling overwhelmed 

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed when you’re trying to discover your purpose. The trick is to keep moving forward and ask for support when you need it. 

Keep taking action steps towards your goals, no matter how small. Keep moving! 

2. Feeling like you don’t have time

The good news about time is that it’s malleable. With some creativity, you can stretch and organize it to fit your needs.

For instance, that means waking up an hour early to work on your passion. Or, listening to a career development podcast when you’re in the car. Get creative, look for time gaps, and rearrange your schedule where it makes sense for you.

3. Fear-based thinking 

Our brains are hardwired to protect us from danger — but our brains can sense danger even when there isn’t any. It doesn't feel intuitive to put fear in the back seat when you’re working towards a goal. But with a little practice, it’ll get easier.

Ready to embrace your ikigai?

If you’re on the road to discovering a purpose-driven career, we hope this article is what you needed to discover ikigai and its meaning.

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Published May 7, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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