Guide your life with the concept of Ikigai

What is Ikigai

In the Japanese language, Ikigai is a compound word where:

  • Iki = alive, life
  • Kai = result, benefit, value

Put the two terms together and you have a word that translates to “reason for living”.

Now, one might question why such a term is actually needed since many languages come with their own particular words for this notion.

But Ikigai doesn’t just describe a simple concept. It encompasses a philosophy that helps one actually achieve this “reason for living”.

Ikigai can be closely compared to the mental state of “flow”. However, flow states are usually associated when doing certain activities, such as playing video games, dancing, working on a passion project and so on.

On the other hand Ikigai is something bigger in scope. It describes a mental state that exists at all times, not just during certain activities.

In a way, it acts sort of like a compass, pointing us to our internal true North, pushing us to work for what it is that defines who we are. You may even think of it as life motto you live by, but one that is backed up by a comprehensive personal philosophy.

Ikigai results from an overlap of 4 elements

For a person to achieve Ikigai, they need to meet the following 4 conditions:

  1. They do something they love
  2. They do something they are good at
  3. They do something the world needs
  4. They do something others are willing to pay for

Each of these elements functions as a sort of pillar that holds together a platform, just as 4 legs hold a table. Combined, they provide a solid sense of stability that can hold burdens and challenges with ease.

Subtract one of these 4 conditions however, and the whole thing starts to wobble.

A sense of contentment and well-being is still possible even if one these is missing, but there will always be something holding you back, that doesn’t allow you to immerse yourself fully into what you are doing.

Without love for what you are doing, the whole experience just feels empty, and mechanistic.

Not being good at your job will generate anxiety about your future within the workplace or even your entire career (although, one should be mindful of impostor syndrome).

Doing something that the world doesn’t actually need will make your work and efforts feel trivial, as if nobody would notice them missing if you suddenly decided to stop.

And no matter how passionate and enjoyable you are about something, not getting paid for it doesn’t make it sustainable in the long run.

Is Ikigai destiny? Or something more?

Now, depending on your general outlook on life, Ikigai can mean you were born to do a singular thing in life. In other words, you were born with a destiny which you then have to find and follow.

The other option is that you create your own Ikigai piece by piece, by going on a journey to find the 4 elements and then assemble them into your very own customized purpose for living.

The difference is that option A only gives you one possible way to achieve Ikigai, while option B is open ended, and offers you the chance to find multiple Ikigai.

Regardless of how you might view Ikigai, the process starts from the same place: introspection and curiosity.

Finding the 4 elements of Ikigai

Finding all 4 elements of Ikigai, and then overlapping them sounds easy in theory, but difficult in practice.

Our early years usually provide us with at least 1 of these elements, 2 if you’re lucky.

For instance, we might find we’re really good at drawing, singing or fixing stuff. Or we might have certain personality traits that make certain types of problems easily accessible for us, such as being rigorous, logical, friendly or charming.

Adding the other 2 or 3 elements of Ikigai is where the real work is and requires a lot of time and effort to get there.

A good visual analogy to this is trying to fold a piece of cardboard 3 milimetres thick.

The first time you fold it is easy. The piece of cardboard barely puts up an effort, and the fold is quick and effortless.

The second fold is a touch harder because the first fold doubled the thickness from 3 to 6 millimeters.

At the third fold, things start to get challenging. Each successive fold increased the thickness of the cardboard from 3 to 6 and finally 12 millimeters. While difficult, it’s not yet impossible.

But doing the fourth and final fold might as well be. In a few quick steps, a flimsy 3 millimeter sheet of cardboard increased its thickness and strength over 8 times to 24 millimeters.

The same principles apply to finding Ikigai. Finding the next element of Ikigai requires a lot more effort than the last. But each new addition increases one’s enjoyment and stability in life exponentially.

The qualities needed to find Ikigai

Finding all 4 elements of Ikigai is a challenging and lengthy process.

Many people will stop the process of discovering their Ikigai after the 2nd or 3rd element.

For a variety of reasons, they don’t want to push themselves any further.

It could be complacency. They found a state of uncertain equilibrium in their lives, where things manage to somehow stick together. But one false move, and it will all come crashing down.

In some cases, the person might lack confidence in their abilities. Thinking they don’t have the skill, they don’t refuse to push themselves forward in their profession. They might actually be right that their abilities aren’t up to the challenge. But without a challenge, growth is impossible.

It’s certainly possible that one can mistake a professional life that is only average to actually be truly satisfying. This happens because of a lack of context, and terms of comparison. It’s impossible to know with certainty if one’s current job is actually a tight fit, unless they’ve tried more as a comparison. In many ways, the person must reach the Socratic conclusion that “I know I don’t know anything”, and they should use that as a starting point for further development to find their Ikigai.

Because of these reasons, and many others, Ikigai requires a relentless curiosity, to go out and explore new things. And also the tenacity to find push through resistance points and find all 4 of the elements of Ikigai.