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Purpose and the Japanese Secret of Ikigai


A topic that comes up time and time again when it comes to creating a career you love, is the concept of purpose.  Purpose is having a reason for getting out of bed, for being on this planet, a raison d'etre.

In relation to your career, being in tune with your purpose will mean that you are more engaged and happy in your work.  I have talked about how purpose is required to fire up your motivation in a previous blog.  It can guide you in making decisions, can influence your behaviour, can offer a sense of direction and create meaning.  It sounds powerful doesn’t it?  But how do we find it?

Purpose has been around for a long time.  Aristotle and Plato philosophised about it, Marcus Aurelius meditated and wrote on it, Nietschze gave us a famous quote on it and Simon Sinek has applied it to modern-day life and leadership.

In working with clients over the years, I have used various ways to help them uncover their purpose.  Most recently I have found that the Japanese concept of Ikigai is a very helpful way of thinking about purpose, particularly in relation to ones career.

The word is taken from two Japanese words: iki meaning “to live” and gai meaning “reason”.   It is one of the reasons that experts believe the Japanese live so long, particularly on the island of Okinawa where a higher than average number of people live to beyond 100 years of age and they all practise Ikigai.

Ikigai can be discovered by blending four areas:

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

Mark Winn created a great visual that is now the standard depiction of your Ikigai.

In summary, you can find your mission (what you love and what the world needs), your vocation (what the world needs and what you can be paid for), your profession (what you can be paid for and what you’re good at) or your passion (what you are good at and what you love).  However, your Ikigai is only found when all four are aligned.

Some people seem to have naturally found their Ikigai.  Some people are searching for it, working at it or trying to find the place for it.  What is clear is that, when you find your Ikigai, work is no longer a drudge that you have to drag yourself out of bed for.  In fact, the population of Okinawa very rarely retire and carry on working right up until their final days.  Imagine having work that enjoyable!

Finding your Ikigai

In coaching, I get clients to think about their careers using the Ikigai model. 

More often that not, people will identify very much with the profession or vocation elements of the model.  Those that feel they have a vocation will often have always wanted to be in a service of some kind like teaching, medicine, etc.  A lot of us end up in a profession because we naturally look for work that we’re good at and that someone will be willing to pay us for.  It doesn’t cross our minds that we could also do something that we love and that the world needs. 

A mistake that we often make is thinking that our “passion” has to be outside of work and is not something that people will pay us for.  Similarly, we think that we cannot fulfil our mission and get paid for it.  These are mistakes because they stop us from exploring our Ikigai. 

Here are two exercises that you can do to start thinking about your Ikigai.

1. Using the Ikigai model depicted above:

Firstly, list activities in each of the four outer quadrants – What do you love to do?  What does the world need? What can you be paid for? What are you good at?

Next, list jobs that align to the four inner quadrants of mission, vocation, profession and passion.

Where is there alignment?  What is the closest to your Ikigai?

2. Look back over your career to date and list out your different jobs.

Which of these would you align to mission, vocation, profession or passion?

What clues do you have now which lead you towards your Ikigai?

If you’d like to know more about Ikigai and the inhabitants of Okinawa, I can highly recommend Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles’ book “Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life”.  I'd like to end by sharing the closing line with you:

“There is a passion inside you, a unique talent that gives you meaning to your days and drives you to share the best of yourself until the very end.  If you don’t know what you Ikigai is yet, your mission is to discover it.”

Please do get in touch and let me know whether you’ve found your Ikigai.  If you have, what is it?

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