Outside of Japan, ikigai is a greatly misunderstood concept with millions of people believing it to be a four-question framework and the “Japanese secret” to a long and happy life.
What has been shared by millions of wellness bloggers, life coaches and HR managers as ikigai, in the form of a Venn diagram was created by someone, a non-Japanese, whose only knowledge of the Japanese concept was from a Ted Talk.
Ikigai is NOT;
- a Venn diagram
- a concept with its origins from Okinawa
- the Japanese secret to a long and happy life
While this may be disappointing to read, you should be pleased to discover that ikigai goes beyond what is depicted in the “Ikigai Venn diagram” and can definitely help you to find purpose and meaning in your life, beyond your profession or vocation.
The Value In The World Ikigai
Ikigai is a word comprised of two parts, iki and gai.
Iki comes from the verb ikiru; to live, and relates to daily living.
Gai, meaning worth or value, comes the word kai, which means shell in Japanese.
During the Heian period (794–1185), shells were extremely valuable as they were decorated and used for a game called Kaiawase — shell matching. The game of Kaiawase was played by Japanese nobles, hence the association of value in the word shell.
Gai is a suffix often used with other verbs:
- Yarigai — the value of doing (yaru — to do)
- Hatarakigai — the value of working (hataraku — to work)
- Asobigai — the value of playing (asobu — to play)
- Shinigai — the value of dying (shunu — to die)
As you can see, gai relates to the value of doing, so a concise definition of ikigai could be “the value one finds in day to day living.”
For the Japanese, Ikigai is a common word used in casual conversation without all the hype and hoopla of the West. While the concept is important, the word itself is not something Japanese would pay any special attention to in a conversation.
As you now know, Ikigai is not the convergence of four vocational elements that involve doing:
- what you love
- what the world needs
- what you are good at
- what you can get paid for
Japanese don’t follow this framework, nor contemplate the four questions when they think about their Ikigai. If you were to show a Japanese person the “Ikigai Venn Diagram” they would respond to it with confusion and surprise.
While this a helpful framework, its origin does not lie in Japan, and it really has nothing to do with ikigai. At best, we could say this is a Western interpretation, but the truth is, it was the result of one man’s idea to merge two concepts, one of which, he had no understanding of.
The Origin of The Venn Diagram
The framework of doing something that you love, that you are good at, that the world needs and that you can get paid for is the work of astrologer, Andrés Zuzunaga.
It first publicly appeared in the book Qué Harías Si No Tuvieras Miedo (What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?) by Borja Vilaseca in 2012. Full credit for this Venn diagram should go to Andrés Zuzunaga. I interviewed Andres, and he revealed that his Venn Diagram of Purpose was actually inspired by his work with natal charts. The inspiration of the Venn diagram came for the stars, not Japan.
If you would like to pay credit where credit is due, then “The Zuzunaga Venn Diagram of Purpose” is the name that should be used to refer to this framework. Below you can see the design of the original framework in Spanish. Perhaps the problem with Andres’ Venn diagram was that he failed to name it.
The “Ikigai Venn Diagram” was born when entrepreneur Marc Winn thought it would be a good idea to merge the Purpose Venn diagram with Ikigai and share it in a blog post. At that time his only knowledge of ikigai was from Dan Buettner's Ted Talk on How to Live To Be 100+.
Marc published a blog post along with the graphic below on his website on May 14th, 2014 that would later be shared and copied by millions of people.
Along with his Ikigai graphic, Marc wrote:
Having spent most of the last few years helping dozens and dozens of entrepreneurs find their ikigai, whilst also searching for my own, I can now visualise where it belongs.
Your ikigai lies at the centre of those interconnecting circles. If you are lacking in one area, you are missing out on your life’s potential. Not only that, but you are missing out on your chance to live a long and happy life.
As you now know, this was purely Marc’s visualization of ikigai, and not what the concept means to Japanese.
In fact, you can hear how it came about from the man himself in the video below.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Marc on my Ikigai Podcast, and he revealed that his blog post only took him only 45 minutes to write and was more of “an idea that came through me in one particular moment at one particular time.
In a follow-up blog post, Marc wrote:
In 2014, I wrote a blog post on the subject of Ikigai. In that blog post, I merged two concepts to create something new. Essentially, I merged a Venn diagram on ‘purpose’ with Dan Buettner’s Ikigai concept, in relation to living to be more than 100. The sum total of my effort was that I changed one word on a diagram and shared a ‘new’ meme with the world.
Ironically, the three examples that Dan Buettner's offers of people living their ikigai in his Ted Talk, are all centenarians finding purpose and meaning in family and community, doing the opposite of what Marc’s Westernised ikigai Venn diagram depicts — a framework for entrepreneur's to create a purposeful business.
This highlights a very important fact; for Japanese ikigai has nothing to do with the pursuit of making money. When Japanese think about their ikigai, almost all Japanese would tell you that their ikigai has nothing to do with getting paid.
What Does Ikigai Mean To The Japanese
To the Japanese, the word ‘ikigai’ is usually used to indicate the source of value in one’s life or the things that make one’s life worthwhile. According to Japanese neuroscientist and author, Ken Mogi, ikigai is a spectrum, that includes all the things we value, from the little joys in life to the pursuit of life-defining goals.
Noriyuki Nakashi, who has Doctor of Public Health, from Osaka University, writes;
Ikigai is personal: it reflects the inner self of an individual and expresses that faithfully.
Ikigai, which is the highest level of desire, may be considered to be essentially the process of cultivating one’s inner potential and that which makes one's life significant, a universal human experience we all wish to achieve.¹
While misunderstood as the “Japanese secret” a long and happy life, it is believed that ikigai can contribute to your health because it is closely related to creativity and is indispensable to well-being.
The 5 Pillars of Ikigai
If you are looking for a framework to follow then Ken Mogi’s 5 pillars framework from his book, The Little Book of Ikigai, is something you can use.
The Five Pillars of Ikigai:
- Pillars 1: Starting small
- Pillar 2: Releasing yourself
- Pillar 3: Harmony and sustainability
- Pillar 4: The joy of little things
- Pillars 5: Being in the here and now
In his book, Ken states that the five pillars can be used as a foundation to allow your ikigai to flourish. Ken also states that channeling our inner child, proactiveness and most importantly, accepting ourselves, will help us find our ikigai.
The greatest secret of the ikigai, ultimately, has to be the acceptance of oneself, no matter what kind of unique features one might happen to be born with. There is no single optimum way to ikigai. Each of us has to seek our own, in the forest of our unique individualities. But don’t forget to have a good laugh while seeking yours — today and every day!
Ikigai is Not a Sweet Spot
It’s important to understand that Japanese find ikigai in various areas of their lives — from small everyday rituals to the pursuit of meaningful goals.
Ikigai is not a sweet spot of doing something that you love, that you are good at, that the world needs and that you can be paid for, but a rich spectrum where you can find ikigai in the realm of small things, in the practice of a hobby, in your roles and relationships, and by simply living your values.
Ikigai is something easily achievable, not a single formidable life goal that might take us years to achieve as represented by the Westernised version.
You can find or experience ikigai;
- in the building of harmonious relationships that align with your values (connection & harmony)
- when reaching a flow state in your hobbies, interests or work, and by expressing your creative self (creativity & flow)
- by expressing gratitude, and in the helping of others via your life roles (gratitude & contribution).
- when being present while performing daily rituals, and in appreciating the small joys of life (rituals & small joys).
The Benefits of Ikigai
And when we do find our ikigai, we find purpose in lives, meaning in what we do, freedom our in day to day living, and personal growth as we proactively engage with those around us.
Going Deeper With The Mother of Ikigai Psychology
If we really want to understand ikigai, then we should look at the work of psychiatrist and author, Meiko Kamiya. Kamiya could be considered as the Mother of Ikigai Psychology, being one of the first researchers to extensively study ikigai. Her book, Ikigai Ni Tsuite (On The Meaning of Life) is considered a masterpiece and used as a standard reference by researchers and university professors.
Kamiya spent many years working with people who would have struggled to find meaning and value in their lives — Japanese leprosy patients who were treated as outcasts and forced to live outside of mainstream society on small islands in sanatoriums.
Based on her observations as a psychiatrist while working at one of these sanatoriums, Kamiya theorized her ikigai concept — making the distinction that we have objects of ikigai; people, experiences, roles, memories, the things we believe that make our life worth living, and ikigai-kan, the ikigai feelings we perceive towards these objects.
What we can learn from this is our ikigai speaks to us through our feelings.
The 7 Needs of Ikigai
Kamiya asserted that one can perceive ikigai-kan when he or she satisfies the following seven types of needs.
The need for:
- life satisfaction
- change and growth
- a bright future
- interpersonal relationships and acceptance by others
- and meaning and value.
Kamiya also asserted that ikigai is more concerned with the future, with one needing to feel that his or her life is moving in a better state or direction.
Finding Your Ikigai
Ultimately, you don’t need a Venn diagram or framework to find your ikigai. In fact, anyone telling you to follow one most like knows very little about ikigai as the millions of copies of Marc Winn’s merged concept attests.
To find your ikigai, you just need to listen to your feelings. Your feelings never lie. They will tell you what makes your life worth living.
If your feelings aren’t saying much at the moment, connect with a family member, share a laugh with an old friend, help a stranger or someone in need, pick up that hobby you have always been curious about doing, work on something you believe in, appreciate the freedoms you have, challenge yourself with a new project or pursue your personal mission.
Finally, understand that ikigai comes and goes, will change over the course of your life, and best of all, you can have more than one.
If You Have Read This Far….
If you have read this far and would like to learn more about ikigai, please visit my website IkigaiTribe.com where you listen to podcasts interviews and download Ikigai worksheets.