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Find your Ikigai

The Significance of ‘Ikigai’ in Finding your Dream Job

You’ve got to hand it to them. The Japanese have come up with some groundbreaking concepts that enrich the world we live in: sushi and ramen, the art of tea, calligraphy, vending machines, or ninjas, to name a few. The Japanese are also known for their healthy and spiritual way of living which puts them firmly at the top of the world’s life-expectancy list. According to worldometers.com, the life expectancy of the Japanese is the highest in the world right after Hong Kong, at 85.3 (compared to Canada 82.9, the UK 81.7, and the USA 79.1).

So How Do They Do It and What Does This Have To Do With Your Career?

The Japanese have an age-old ideology called ‘ikigai’. This concept is associated with their longevity, their sense of discipline and purpose as a way of living. Ikigai means your reason for being, your purpose in life, and the thing that makes you jump out of bed in the morning. Essentially, ikigai is the belief that happiness can be achieved through a sense of purpose.

“He who has a WHY to live for, can deal with any HOW.”

From: Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Francesc Miralles and Hector Garcia

In times of uncertainty and high stress, people will reevaluate their lives and their level of happiness and fulfillment. Life events that can trigger this moment of radical reflection are, for example, going through a divorce, health issues, having a child, a burnout, or even larger scale events such as an economic crash or the COVID-19 pandemic. Malcolm Gladwell called this ‘the tipping point’, which is “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”[1]. It marks the moment that an event triggers a big change in our lives. Often enough, this moment happens in relation to our work situation. After years of working an unfulfilling, dead-end job that drains your energy or leaves you chronically stressed and exhausted, there comes a point of necessary change in order to regain a sense of purpose in your life.

Finding Your Reason for Being

Ikigai is not only an ideology, it is also used as a tool to help you find your reason for being, your sense of purpose. To this end, the ikigai model is remarkably practical. The ikigai model has 4 areas of purpose: doing what you love, doing what the world needs, doing what you are good at, and doing what you will get paid for.

Ikigai diagram
Source: Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Francesc Miralles and Hector Garcia

As these quadrants overlap, you can find your passion (doing what you love and what you are good at), your mission (doing what you love and what the world needs, your vocation (doing what the world needs and what you can be paid for, and your profession (doing what you can be paid for and what you’re good at. Your ikigai, your purpose and reason for being, and the point where you feel completely happy and fulfilled in your career, is where these four areas overlap. The sweet spot.

How to Change Your Career and Find Your Ikigai

Once you have reached your tipping point, the moment of critical mass where you are no longer satisfied with your professional status quo that leaves you unfulfilled and unhappy, you may want to take action and change careers. But how can you pinpoint exactly what the problem is and what you need and want?

Below are 4 situations in which you would feel stuck and the way to move forward, based on what is missing in your professional life from the ikigai model:

  1. Your passion is not in it. You are likely in a job where you feel like you are doing something useful (that the world needs) and you get paid for it. However it is not something you particularly love doing, and you have to work very hard to live up to expectations. This situation will bring constant stress and a feeling of inadequacy, and will likely end in a burnout. You are working long days and you notice that the work is giving you no pleasure.
    What to do? This would be a good time to take a moment to find out what activities really energize you and where your talents lie. Your career choice should include these aspects, otherwise the chances are that you will end up in the same frustrating situation.
  2. You ask yourself why you are even doing this. You are likely stuck in a job where you are paid relatively well and you are good at what you do, which means that most of the time you are enjoying the work. However, you ask yourself, ‘is this it’? Or, ‘there should be more to life than this?’. This means that you do not feel like your work has a greater purpose or makes an impact. Our true ikigai comes only from work where you feel like what you do makes a difference in the world, however small.
    What to do? Consider the impact of your job in your next career choice. Perhaps you are in an administrative position now, but you would like to work with people more to achieve this goal. Find work that provides you with this sense of meaning.
  3. You feel you were meant to do something better. You are likely working a paid job where you are making a difference in the world, but it is not your passion. Your job does not make you jump out of bed in the morning because you love what you do. If you are feeling like you are lacking a certain motivation or excitement, you have not found your ikigai.
    What to do? Take some time to find out what activities excite you, what activities you love to do. What type of work or activity gets you in a state of ‘flow’[2] – the moment of concentration where you forget all sense of time and are completely immersed in something that you love doing? Your career choice should, ideally, bring you this type of passion and elation.
  4. You are struggling financially, but you have everything else that makes you happy. In this case you have likely chosen to follow your passion and vocation, and you are proud of and happy with the work you do. You may be a volunteer, or a struggling artist, or started your dream business, however, it is not providing a reliable income. This will cause you to worry about your bills, how to support yourself and your family, and it may cause stress and anxiety about the future.
    What to do? As much as the three areas of doing what you love, what you are good at, and what the world needs are important in finding your ikigai, the practical necessity of money cannot be ignored. Your course of action should be to research ways to increase your income and turn your work into a more financially sustainable activity.

Ikigai is not only an inspirational ideology, it can also serve as a practical assessment tool to determine what you need to find your dream career and your reason for being. The right career can bring many benefits such as better mental health, lower stress levels, a sense of motivation and purpose, and higher work satisfaction. Spanish authors Héctor García and Francesc Miralles have researched and explained the ideology and concept of ikigai in their bestseller Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. It is worth a read in your journey to find your reason for being and your dream career.

[1] Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference. Little Back Bay, 2000.
[2] Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. 1st ed., Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.

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