Ikigai: A Reason For Being

“Ikigai? Sounds…gross?”

No, it isn’t the description of that guy at the grocery store who touches all the produce and then puts it back- that’s just a regular icky guy.

The Japanese concept of ‘Ikigai’ refers to having a direction or purpose in life. The word itself translates to ‘a reason for being’, and can be realized via both willful and spontaneous actions that can ultimately add up to a person being able to make their life fulfilling and meaningful.

“Whoa, dude. That’s a loooot of pressure… Can I just have a job now?”

Yeah, it is, and no, you can’t, but don’t worry, it’s not that bad. Let’s break it down.

In simple terms, achieving ‘ikigai’ requires you to identify four elements of purpose; 1) something you’re good at 2) something you love doing 3) something the world needs 4) and something you can be paid to do. For you visual learners, this Venn Diagram might help:

If you can incorporate all four of those things into one career then boom, you’ve got Ikigai, congratulations! You’re destined for a very fulfilling life.

For the other 99.9% of us, there’s a little more to it. Take Dave, for example…

Dave graduated from college a few years ago with a degree in Exercise Science (go Dave!), but still isn’t quite sure where to go or what to do with his life. He did okay in school and is a perfectly nice guy, but never quite excelled at anything other than baseball, where he was the team captain and cleanup hitter. Since college, Dave has bounced around from job to job in several industries but never found anything he was nearly as passionate about as baseball. Dave feels like he never really took the next step once college ended. Today he works in a brewery and does odd jobs to make a living, but doesn’t feel satisfied. Dave is lost…

…But not hopeless. Dave just needs a push. Let’s take Dave through a little exercise and give his life meaning. Or try, anyway.

The first thing Dave needs to do is make a few lists.

Dave- “Cool. Lists are easy. I’m good at lists.”

Great. Time for list #1:

Things Dave is good at:

  1. Video games
  2. Hitting a baseball
  3. Throwing a baseball
  4. Teamwork
  5. Being calm under pressure
  6. Writing/blogging
  7. Giving instruction
  8. Customer service/communication
  9. Making lists
    Right on, Dave, right on. Here comes list #2:

Things Dave loves doing:

  1. Video games
  2. Watching sports (Go Yankees)
  3. Reading
  4. Anything outdoors
  5. Traveling
  6. Being helpful
  7. Watching cartoons
    Cool cool cool. Keep going. List #3:

Things Dave thinks the world needs:

  1. Sports
  2. Better healthcare
  3. Environmental awareness
  4. Climate change protection
  5. A good sense of humor/reason to laugh
  6. Access to education
  7. Relaxed dress codes
  8. Shorter work weeks
    Dope vision, Dave. Respect. Last one, bring it on home, #4:

Things Dave could be or has been paid for:

  1. Bartending
  2. Writing/Blogging
  3. Coaching sports
  4. Personal training
  5. Teaching English
  6. Customer service
    Tremendous. You’ve done it. You’re Ikigai’d!

Just kidding. But you ARE off to a good start. Now you need to try to connect some of the more… let’s say “applicable” items in each of your lists. As nice as it would be, I’m guessing nobody is going to pay you to watch cartoons…and the world probably doesn’t need you to boot up your Super Nintendo to save Princess Peach AGAIN. She’s fine.

Since we definitely need a job, let’s start there. Do you see any of the items in ‘things Dave could be paid for’ list that relate to items in ‘things Dave is good at’ or ‘things Dave thinks the world needs’?

“Hmmm… What about writing and the environment? Those might work…”

Excellent choices, Dave! You could absolutely use your writing and communication skills to explore jobs in industries that are working to help save the planet. There are plenty of large firms working on climate change who need PR support or someone to write a white paper. Similarly, there are plenty of politicians who might need someone to manage their communications around issues like climate change. As you pursue these paths, you might meet people who open up new and interesting doors for you along the way.

“Okay, but what about the other two? So far I don’t have ‘Ikigai’… I just have… ‘Iki’…. That can’t be right…”

That’s three, Dave. You’ve nailed down something you’re good at, something you can be paid for, and something the world needs in one fell swoop.

“Great, so I don’t get to do what I love ever? Awesome. This exercise rocks. Can I have my money back?”

No, but don’t worry. One of the most important things to remember about the concept of ‘Ikigai’ is that it doesn’t have to be fulfilled entirely by your job- and for most of us it isn’t.

Would it be ideal to find a career that satisfies all four corners of the Venn Diagram? Absolutely. Realistically though, this is a nearly impossible feat.

Something that a lot of people forget is that a job or a career doesn’t necessarily define who you are on its own. Yes, it can make up a significant part of your time on earth and have a big impact on the way you live your life, but Ikigai isn’t inherently about finding the right job.

It’s about finding your reason for being. Ideally, you can check some of the boxes with your career, but supplanting other aspects of the whole concept can be done in other ways.

So maybe your job isn’t necessarily something you love. That’s okay. If it can provide you with the freedom and resources to devote your free time to pursuing something you love, or something you’re passionate about, then you can still fill in that circle on your own time. Probably on your own terms as well, without having to compromise your values or standards that might be laid out by an employer.

“Hey, yeah… after work, I can still snowboard and travel and play Xbox and draw weird comics and watch the Yankees WIN THE WORLD SERIES-”

Okay yeah, you get it. The main takeaway is this- balance. As we move through life, our career paths change. We get new jobs, have different roles, switch industries, locations, whatever. Our friends, interests, and hobbies change. We are constantly shifting, growing, and learning, even when we don’t see it ourselves.

Ikigai is not a contest. It’s a sounding board. Sometimes we may have more of one thing than the other; the world is never perfect. As long as we are aware enough to realize which area we’re lacking in, we can make the conscious decision to adjust, and hopefully land somewhere towards the middle. That is balance. That is…Ikigai.

“That was dope. Mic drop. I think I’m gonna go be a firefighter now.”

Rad. Do it.