Finding Your Ikigai (sense of purpose)

Ikigai is a Japanese philosophy for discovering your purpose and building self-awareness. Your ikigai is something that gives you a sense of purpose. It sustains you and matches with your heartfelt desires and personal definition of success. It’s not always about goals or accomplishments.

When you start your day, do you feel alive and engaged?
Do you have a great reason for getting out of bed?
Are you living a life that brings deep meaning?

This is Episode 29: Finding Your Ikigai (sense of purpose)

Hello and welcome to The Incrementalist, a productivity podcast on making big changes in small steps. My name is Dyan Williams, your productivity coach and host for this show.

True productivity is not just about getting more stuff done effectively and efficiently. It’s also involves creating a meaningful and satisfying life. This doesn’t mean you always get what you want or that everything comes easy to you. Hardships can build appreciation for life itself.

Words like purpose and calling are nebulous. They are associated with living authentically, with integrity and in alignment with your core values and commitments.

Ikigai is a Japanese philosophy for discovering your purpose and building self-awareness. Your ikigai is something that gives you a sense of purpose. It sustains you and matches with your heartfelt desires and personal definition of success. It’s not about always about goals or accomplishments.

There is no perfect English translation for ikigai. Roughly speaking, Iki is life and Gai is value or worth. It is your reason for being, your reason for living. You can find your ikigai through natural evolution or active contemplation. It is can include divergent interests and doesn’t have to be one thing.

In their book, Ikigai, authors Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles cover lessons from Japan’s centenarian in Okinawa. They discuss ways to find flow in your work and leisure, and antiaging secrets to staying young while growing old.

While the book provides a solid introduction to Ikigai, it offers a limited, Westernized version of a long-held Japanese philosophy. It includes the Ikigai Venn Diagram that was created by Marc Winn, co-founder of The Dandelion Foundation. The foundation applies lessons from small island nations like Okinawa to solve world problems. After watching a TedtTalk, How to Live to Be 100+, and hearing about Ikigai, Marc merged the purpose Venn diagram with ikigai. Basically, he replaced the word purpose with ikigai. His blog post went viral and left many believing this is the Japanese model of ikigai.

The Venn Diagram has circles representing four elements. What you love (like your long-term interests or activities that trigger flow); what you’re good at (your skills, talents, expertise, knowledge); what the world needs (that is, what you can contribute to your community, your group, and your market in terms of skills, talent, expertise, and knowledge); and finally, what you can be paid for (earning real money to meet your needs and be financially sustainable). It shows ikigai as being at the center, where the four elements intersect.

Many books, blog posts and YouTube videos draw from this Venn Diagram to explain the following:
Passion is what you love and are good at
Mission is what you love and what the world needs
Profession or your job is what at you’re good at and what you can get paid for
Vocation is what the world needs and what you can get paid for

When these four elements – passion, mission, profession and vocation - intersect, you have your ikigai, your purpose. This leads many to believe that it’s only when the four circles intersect that you create a meaningful and satisfying life.

In reality, it is hard to find a role or activity that combines all four elements. It can be rare to have what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for all intersect at once. I find that writing, teaching, communicating, coaching, and solving problems are part of my ikigai. But I don’t always get paid for doing these things. And yet you can find ikigai in things that do not earn income. It is not always connected to work.

Ikigai is a deep, vague and nuanced concept that is hard to define. Traditionally, it’s about finding joy in small things, appreciating the here and now, and having a positive mindset. In her book, Yukari Mitsuhashi writes, “Ikigai is about focusing on individual moments, not just on the big journey of life.”
You can find ikigai in your yoga practice, your daily run, your morning walks, your evening tea, your family, and your hobby. It’s where you experience joy and meaning in life. You don’t have to become skilled at it. Your ikigai doesn’t have to be connected to reaching an external goal, but can exist in everyday occurrences or in simple activities like walking in nature.

The word ikigai can be used in different contexts. For some, it’s in their daily life. For others, it’s in their mission or vocation or personal development. Your age, circumstances and season of life, play a role.
Although Ikigai is not just in the area where the four elements intersect, the Venn Diagram can help you hone in on the essentials. In finding your ikigai, start with what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world needs. You can get to the money part later.

My long-time friend and piano teacher, Sebastian Brian Mehr just released his debut album, Olemus.” His ikigai is in composing and making original music. It’s what he loves, what he’s good at, and what his audience needs. But if he can make a sustainable income through this path, all four elements will intersect. It’s ideal to have them all, but you can usually find purpose with one or all of the first three.
In some cases, saying no to going all in is not the bad or wrong choice. You could keep it as a hobby, a side business, or a creative outlet for the time being. Developing patience for ambiguity is more skillful than getting quick answers with the wrong questions.

You can have ikigai in pure enjoyment of an activity, regardless of whether you’re good at it, you get paid for it, or the world needs it. Your sense of purpose can be in something other than and bigger than your job, your profession or your vocation.

Ikigai also doesn’t have to be what you love. It’s a reason to live, which can come from hard things, like being a parent to a child or a caregiver of a disabled, aging parent. These roles and responsibilities bring meaning, but they are not always fun.

The source of your ikigai may come from difficulties, obstacles, struggles and tragedies. It might even arise from daily chores or mindful rituals. You can get a sense of satisfaction from making your bed, folding laundry, sweeping the floor, or doing the dishes.

That said, if you can happily and skillfully deliver a service or product that the world needs and is willing to pay for, you have less to worry about. More power to you. You feel ikigai when you’re living in alignment and contributing something useful to the world.

In our fast paced, modern society, slowing down and being present are seen as counterproductive. We find it hard to focus on one thing at a time. We might turn on the music when we get in the car to drive somewhere, listen to a podcast while we prepare a meal, or switch to social media when we get bored or frustrated with writing the big report. Multichannel multitasking or background tasking is not always bad. I do this myself. But it can get in the way of quiet reflection and contemplation.

Technology speeds up life. We expect to have immediate responses and immediate gratification. We jump to answers without asking the right questions. We have more access to information from different sources, but we don’t necessarily think more critically. No matter how much news and entertainment we consume, there could still be this void and emptiness.

It’s never too late to create a sense of purpose. Here are 10 ways to keep finding and experiencing your ikigai:
1. Start small. Practice the skills and develop courage to move on to bigger leaps. Focus on improving one area instead of tackling them all.
2. Let go and release what you don't want. Reflect on life events, experiences and beliefs that limit who you are. These could be outside pressures and external obligations. They could also be outdated ideas and self-doubts that keep you stuck.
3. Aim for harmony and sustainability. Make sure your actions, behaviors and habits are good for your long-term health and wellness. It’s better to have a few real friends instead of many online connections, Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Nurture close friendships and genuine connections.
4. Be present with what is. Ichi-go ichie-e is a Japanese concept for valuing the nature of the present and the fleeting moment. Nothing is permanent.
Another useful concept is wabi-sabi – finding perfection in the imperfect and beauty in the flawed and incomplete.
5. Take time to interact with nature. Feel the earth beneath your feet by walking barefoot on a sandy beach or on the grass in your backyard. Or start and maintain a vegetable garden. One of my neighbors has kept one for decades. Last year he shared tomatoes, squash and cucumbers with me. This year it was Swiss chard. The exchange is a fleeting yet memorable moment. The food is fresh, delicious and is a product of utmost care.
6. Keep a healthy diet. Aim for 5 servings of fresh fruit, greens, vegetables. Cut down on the sugar and salt intake. Eat slowly and mindfully. Practice hara hachi bu, where you eat until you are 80% full. Incorporate antioxidants like jasmine tea and green tea.
7. Stay active. Daily movement doesn’t have to include a full workout at the gym. A 30-minute walk, regular tai chi or qi gong, gardening, weeding, or any other light exercise will do. Gentle movement builds fluidity, flexibility, longevity and a stronger immune system.
8. Give thanks for the small victories and gifts you have in life. Sometimes you don’t need to travel out of town, change jobs or careers, or buy new and shiny things to lift the mood. Gratitude and an abundance mindset can shift it
9. Sleep well for rest, recovery and rejuvenation. Get at least 7 to 9 hours of high-quality sleep. Check out Episode 15, Evening Routines and Rituals to End Your Day for more on how to wind down and prepare for sleep.
10. Cultivate a sense of wonder and curiosity. Garcia and Marcelles write, “Our intuition and curiosity are very powerful internal compasses to help us connect with our ikigai". You could also learn to take stressful situations as opportunities for growth instead of challenges to avoid. Listen to Episode 26 for more.

You have ikigai when you live in alignment with your purpose. Even if you don’t have a passion to follow, you can hone skills and develop experiences to move you in the right direction. Keep doing this even in your old age and retirement, as long as your health permits.

Your sense of purpose may come from your roles and responsibilities in your community, in your family, or in your work. Ikigai is a state of mind, a source of joy. When you feel ikigai, you savor life in the moment, in the present activity, action, behavior, or experience.

You might not love what you do or you might not resonate with your current situation. But you can build resilience from it, and even get stronger as a result. You become more adaptive to changes and more resourceful in uncontrollable circumstances.

Even if you don’t love your work, you can find ikigai in how you perform the work when you choose to show up. You could journal or track your habits to increase your self-awareness. What are the recurring thoughts, big assumptions, long-held dreams, and experiences that shape your life?

Your ikigai can evolve and change over time, depending on the context, circumstances, and season of life. You can have fulfilment and joy in your work or outside of it.

Be willing to explore, discover and learn not just from the big creative projects, but also from your small, daily actions.

Before I go, I encourage you to check out Sebastian Brian Mehr’s solo piano album, Olemus. It’s available on Amazon, Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music and iTunes. You can find it now at Sebastianmehr.hearnow.com. The link is in the show notes. https://sebastianmehr.hearnow.com/ The intro and outro music for The Incrementalist podcast is from La Nieve, the 12th song on the album.

If you enjoy this podcast, subscribe and post a 5-star rating and review on Apple podcast or your favorite app. If you have a productivity question or topic you’d like me to cover on the show, contact me at dyanwilliams.com. Thank you for being with me and join me again next time on The Incrementalist podcast.

Join our newsletter

Sign up to get updates on blog posts, online courses, bonus tips and exclusive access to Empower Toolkit

Got it. You're on the list!
© 2021 Dyan Williams