How many times have you questioned the meaning of life or what your place is in this world? It’s an honest, human question, being the intelligent, curious creatures we are. At the same time, there’s also beauty in the fact that we don’t have that one answer or reason for living. Because if we did, life would be boring. We’d all be living only for that one thing and paradoxically, there’d be no point. To look at it differently, what if we don’t actually find our life purpose? What if we have to create it instead? The philosophy of Ikigai is a great tool to help us create that alignment in how we want to live our lives.
Ikigai – your reason for being
The Japanese philosophy of Ikigai depicts the idea that everyone has their own reason for being and it’s revealed at the intersection between 4 pillars: your passion, your mission, your vocation, and your profession. When you are doing something that you’re good at, you love doing, the world needs, and is paying you for, you can say you have found your purpose. You may even have different purposes, some aligning only 3 of these circles, but there is at least one that hits all four.
Your Ikigai is fluid
You might look at this and instead of it filling you with life, it confirms the fact that you haven’t found that true purpose yet and it’s a little disappointing. I get it. But that might just require a slight shift in perspective here, so stick with me. First, adopting this philosophy doesn’t mean that your only reason for being is by filling all 4 circles at full capacity. Instead, I like to think of our Ikigai as a fluid container based on your stage of life. In some stages, it will be completely full, while very empty in others. Whatever the case, there will always be some liquid in there, leaning towards one corner or another, changing as you grow with the world. Life is an exploration of curiosity and expression and that’s going to look different as you move through life.
A large part of society has drilled us into black-and-white thinking, contained us into believing that we have to pick that one thing, find that one passion, and specialize. But what happens when we find out that that’s not it? And what happens to all of our other interests? What happens to the Renaissance men and women, the creative, multi-talented “weird ones?” You don’t just have one purpose. There’s no perfect one that will ascend you into eternal happiness. Instead, your happiness comes from how you angle your perspectives in each of the 4 pillars. Let’s break it down.
Passion – what if I don’t have a passion?
We hear it all the time, “Follow your passion,” “Do what you love and it won’t feel like work.” I was beating myself up because I felt like I wasn’t passionate about anything. It made me feel like I was losing in life because I was so lost in this aspect. This is where I had to think deeper about what passion really meant to me. I asked myself questions like:
- Why don’t I love what I currently do?
- What would happen if suddenly, I didn’t have to do what I do?
- If I had all the time and money in the world, what would I do?
- Am I being too “picky” or want too much?
- Am I comparing myself to other people and being afraid of missing out?
- What is something I should give myself more credit for? What kinds of things am I already good at?
- When do I feel most “in my element” and what exactly am I doing in that moment?
- What excites me or piques my curiosity that intrinsically motivates me to want to learn more and get better at?
I found out that I love being around people and taking care of them emotionally. If anyone is ever in a sad, angry, lonely, stressed, or bored state, I love diving deeper into the root of it. I satisfy my curiosity itch by dissecting the emotions behind the words, and I use writing as my own outlet to organize my thoughts. I’ve become passionate about solving our inner conflicts to establish harmony within ourselves and I want to help those who want that as well. And I’m excited about how technology (if done right) will enable us to connect each of us to the right people and to free up our time and energy for the things that will actually enrich our lives.
Your answers will be different than mine. But once you’ve answered them for yourself, use it as kindling to start the fire!
Passion is a great starting point in creating your Ikigai. It’s what will keep you going against all odds. Starting with a passion will guide you in developing the right skill set, aligning with a greater cause, and to figure out how to make money doing it. We’ll get it into maintaining your passion even after monetizing it later. If after all that you still can’t find that passion, you might be able to pull it out of the other three circles. Can you learn to love what you’re already good at? Can you align what the world needs with a mission of yours? And lastly, is there some element within how you’re currently making money that you can lose hours either doing or talking about? Let’s explore more.
Profession – what if I’m not good at anything?
Let me ask you, are you actually decently skilled in something and you’re just not giving yourself more credit for it? Is your definition of being “good enough” skewed based on the small few who you’re comparing against? Are you just being too humble and modest and it’s getting in the way of your confidence to claim your expertise? Or maybe you don’t know what you don’t know because it’s too early in your life and career to have practiced enough!
There’s a psychological pattern called the Impostor Syndrome. I won’t go into here, but the basic idea is thinking that you don’t deserve your job role, the relationship you’re in, whatever task or identity you’ve been assigned as if someone is going to notice how little you actually know or how terrible you are at the job.
I was (and still am) guilty of overthinking my qualifications for the job. I would excuse it as modesty, but it also subconsciously pushed me down. In trying to compete with everyone, gawking at the top professionals in their fields and what they’re capable of, I lost sight of what I was good at. I lost sight of how much I’ve learned throughout the years. It might not put me on the same playing field as the pros, but at least I’m more practiced than those after me. Of course, there are real skills you do need to practice, both the technical and social ones. But many times, it’s our own mindset on our strengths and weaknesses that need the most improvement. The question isn’t, what if I’m not good at anything. It’s what can I do to be the best at something?
Mission – what if I don’t know what the world needs?
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” -Howard Thurman
I understand if you have the desire to impact society as a whole, I’m the same way. But what if we’re jumping too far ahead here? What if we instead focus on what makes us feel human instead? What if that’s all that the world needs? Would you be OK with that? Most of the time, the world doesn’t know what they need, they are a reactive bunch. So it’s up to YOU, your passion, and your skills to convince the world you have what they need.
This pillar is also about finding alignment between your own mission and that of the world’s. A lot of us just want to do what we like, create what we want, say what we want to say, but out of stubbornness, we ignore what the world actually needs and cares about. This is about finding that intersection. As Stephen Covey puts it, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Vocation – what if I still can’t find the money?
Whether you’re looking to fulfill your passion and mission within an established company or starting your own business, the reason you can’t find work is most likely a marketing problem. Either you’re not putting yourself out there enough, or you’re not putting yourself up high enough. Of course, it’s easier said than done to have that confidence. But it’s also not that complicated. Putting yourself out there is just a numbers game, it’s a grind. It’s a lot of learning lessons from failures and rejections.
Putting yourself up there is an ego thing. It’s building self-respect, to just not just feed the ego merely with what it wants, but to support it in what it needs. It’s also a sales process. It’s understanding how you can give the companies and the clients what they didn’t know they need in order to get them what they want. The money pillar of the iIkigai is an interesting one because there are varying perspectives on money. Some want a lot of it, some only need enough to survive. Some will use it to help the world, some will use it for themselves and their family. Based on your needs and wants, this can have a meaningful impact on your overall happiness.
Money is a difficult subject to talk about, even with ourselves. You’ll have to ask yourself the hard questions:
- Is this part of the diagram empty for you because you want more money than you need?
- Is it really empty because you have negative habits with spending vs saving?
- Do you have misconceptions and limiting beliefs around money?
- Do you think money is scarce rather than abundant, limiting your options?
- Do you have an unhealthy attachment (or detachment) with money?
- Did you adopt other people’s risk-aversiveness and insecurities about money?
- Are you focusing too much on what you don’t have rather than being grateful for all the things you do have?
If you need to make more money, you either have to get even better at what you’re doing, find a different way to align your message with the rest of the world or find a new audience/customer/company/investor who has the funds to support you.
There’s no ‘X’ that marks the spot
There’s so much more that goes into all 4 pillars of the Ikigai, which I’ll break down in separate posts. For now, I hope this gets you thinking more about how you can create your purpose by bridging each of these areas. You can use this to combine your strengths with what you already have and love and share it with the world. I say you will never find meaning in your life because it’s not something you can ever find externally. The more you look for it, the more it evades you. There’s no secret treasure chest that is holding your life’s purpose for you. It is created by stretching yourself past your limiting beliefs. And more importantly, it is manifested by acting in spite of the negative feelings and emotions that come with creating this path.
The beautiful thing is, your Ikigai was probably something completely different than what you thought it was when you were a kid, and it might be completely different sometime in the future as well. There’s nothing wrong with that. Because it’s not meant to define your whole life. It’s meant to be a lifelong companion that points you in the direction you know you want to go. I think of Ikigai as a compass. Yes, it does technically point us to a specific location (like how a compass points to the north pole), but that doesn’t mean that’s where we all have to travel to. Rather, it’s just a tool that keeps track of where we’re pointed, to keep us oriented.
With it, we can choose which direction to explore for ourselves!