Have you heard of Ikigai?
I had not until several years ago when this graphic started to make its way around LinkedIn. Since then, I see it once every few months as a reflective tool to help people narrow in on their reason for being, their reason to get out of bed every day.
In my initial encounters with the idea, I was very quick to go to the middle. What was the answer, I wondered. What is my one, singular, only, real purpose in life? What did God or Alannis Morisette or Universal Intelligence put me here to accomplish?
I started playing life darts–choosing paths of righteousness and glamor against a well to see what would stick. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, except my own, this was not a good way to find Ikigai.
I went back, and I read more about the concept. I watched Dan Buettner’s Ted Talk about Okinawa and how Ikigai was a central part of their culture. The basic pattern that kept emerging was that this was something that took time. Developing sufficient self-awareness was required to have access to the part of your brain that would unveil this valuable secret.
So, I waited. Also, I journaled. I made more lists of things to throw at the wall. Nothing. Lots of silence greeted me in the dark echoes of my brain space.
Frustrated, I left the concept alone. I decided that I either need to go live in a cave somewhere for an extended period, which I was unwilling to do, or I would just have to wait for my damn turn.
But then I did what I love to do most: I bent the rules.
The four circles contain:
- That which you love
- That which the world needs
- That which you can be paid for
- That which you are good at
On the surface, these all seem quite straightforward, as though you could take them at face value. For some, perhaps they can. For me, though, I needed to reframe them. So I did:
- That which you love = That which makes you happy. Superlatives are the enemies of progress. When we try to figure out what we love, we start to pit our favorite activities against one another in an epic battle to decide if sleeping in or binging on Netflix is more enjoyable. But guess what? You can love both of them–they both make you happy. Rather than thinking about this category as something to narrow down to, think of this group as a limitless cavern of the awesome things that make you smile.
- That which the world needs = that which one person needs. Any time spent trying to figure out how you, as an individual with your daily decisions, can ultimately change the world, is going to be a time that leaves you feeling inadequate and sad. Changing the world requires a lot of time/effort/resources/people/energy. As many motivational memes have told you: One person cannot change the world, but you can change the world for one person. Start there. How can you make life better for one person?
- That which you can be paid for = that which you can be paid anything for. Spoiler alert: You can be paid for anything–we live in the age of the internet. If you develop and market any product or service, you can find a buyer. Again, the goal is not to find what you can be paid most for, or the best balance of time invested relative to money earned. This, much like that which you love, should be looked at as infinite in scope.
- That which you are good at = that at which you excel with little effort. Barring a very, very small subset of people on earth, almost everyone is not as good as someone else at everything that he/she does. But that is not the point! We are talking about finding a lifelong purpose. If you have to do something for the rest of your life, it would probably help if it comes at least a bit naturally to you, right?
This exercise did not get me closer to finding an answer. Instead, it helped me see how many different answers there could be.
If you accept the premise that anything can be a product or service, and that many things make you happy, that means two of the categories provide you a very, very wide range of options. The next standard is helping one person. Again, not asking for much. The last, and perhaps most time-consuming leg remains: What comes easily to you? What gives you flow? This one is hard to cheat, as only you know the answer to that.
However, I have a hunch. If you are not longer trying to answer that question while also trying to determine whether or not it is profitable, world-changing, and the one thing you love to do above all other things, you might have an easier time finding the answer.