Finding Your Life’s Meaning: A Quest to Discover Ikigai – PEN August 2017

August 28, 2017

What’s the meaning of life?  No really: what’s the meaning of your life?  It’s an age-old question, but you could argue that it’s the foundation of true life-long happiness, fulfillment, and even self-actualization.  Getting there, however, may take a lifetime of work!


To speed that along a bit, I offer “ikigai,” a Japanese concept I recently came across in an article published by the World Economic Forum.  Literally translated, ikigai means “reason for being”: “ikiru” means “to live,” and “kai” means “the realization of what one hopes for.”  Paraphrased, it’s the reason you get up every morning!  Once I read a little more about ikigai, I see how the concept can integrate – indeed maximize – a person’s professional, personal, spiritual, and emotional life.


As leaders, as professionals, as human beings: we’re all striving for balance – we’re all striving for purpose, happiness, and fulfilment.  So as we wind down summer and gear up for what I’m sure will be a busy fall for most of us, I offer these insights to help you find your ikigai – your true meaning in life…

Ikigai is a concept – a framework, a model – that has four key questions that overlap into a Venn diagram:


  1. What do you love?
  2. At what are you good?
  3. What does the world need from you? and
  4. For what can you get paid?


Let’s explore each.


What do you love?  The first question is perhaps the easiest to answer.  Think of your hobbies; think of what relaxes or rejuvenates you, of what gives you energy.  Maybe it’s gardening; or fitness and exercising; or cooking; or photography, travelling, reading, sports, crafts, animals, or any number of things.  It could be related to your work, your family, your volunteer activities, and/or your personal interests.


I’m sure most of us know the answer(s) to this question right off the top of your head, but if you need help, there are a few great articles and resources out there to stimulate your thinking.  Here is a sample:


PEN is also hosting a half-day workshop on Sept 21 that helps you find your “core energy” (see “Why Do We Conflict? Leveraging Your Core Values & Core Energy to Maximize Your Success”).  The workshop uses a validated assessment (Core Values Index) to explore the core of who you are at your deepest motivating level.


At what are you good?  The second question relates to your skills and competencies – they can certainly be professional (related to what you do at work), but they could also be personal (maybe you’re good at landscaping, or drawing, or singing, or telling stories, or any number of things).  There are also some excellent resources – like StrengthsFinder – that can help you identify things at which you excel.  And obviously, this is something you can develop over time – with additional formal education, on-the-job or classroom training, certifications, stretch assignments, and so forth.


If what you love intersects with your strengths (questions 1 and 2), then ikigai says that you have found your passion(s).  For example, if you love gardening and you’re good at gardening, your passion is gardening!


What does the world need from you?  Question three is all about finding what the world needs.  If the world needs gardeners and you love to garden, you found your life’s mission.  (On the contrary, if there are too many gardeners already – or if the world just doesn’t need gardeners – you may have to explore other world needs that you love doing to find that mission.)


There are numerous resources to help us all answer this question.  I would suggest starting with research on jobs that are in demand or that are enjoying projected high growth; emerging fields or emerging technology; and new products and solutions that address human needs (none of us knew that we needed a new transportation method until Uber was born, and now there are tens of thousands of Uber drivers needed by the world, and presumably many of them love to drive!).


For what can you get paid?  And the last question relates to what the world is willing to pay you for doing – a market, if you will.  If people need a gardener and they are willing to pay you to garden for them, you found a vocation.  If they’re willing to pay you for gardening and you’re really good at it (question 2), you found your profession.


Pretty straightforward so far, I’m sure.  But there are five more intersections in the ikigai model that are pretty revealing:


  • If what you love is what you’re good at and the world is willing to pay you for it but it’s really not what the world needs, you have satisfaction, but a feeling of uselessness.  It’s hard to find examples for this, but maybe it’s a juggler or a clown.  You love doing it, may be good at it, and people are willing to pay for it, but it really doesn’t serve much of a purpose (hope I didn’t offend any clowns out there).
  • If what you love doing is what the world needs and is willing to pay for but you’re not very good at it, you’ll feel excitement and complacency, but a sense of uncertainty.  Ok – this is me playing golf!  I love doing it (most of the time), the world needs it (I guess) and is willing to pay for it (tickets to tournaments, TV advertisements, etc.) – but I’m just not good enough to make a go at it professionally.  I’d sure be excited to try to be a professional golfer, but I’d have a huge sense of uncertainty, knowing that my lack of skills would eventually end this quest.
  • If what you love doing is something you’re good at and something the world needs but is not willing to pay for, then you’ll have delight and fullness, but no wealth.  To be honest, this intersection might be a good candidate for volunteer work – fulfilling in every way, but doesn’t get you a paycheck.
  • If what you’re good at is something the world needs and is willing to pay for, but you really don’t love doing it, you’ll be comfortable, but have a feeling of emptiness.  I’m guessing there are many professions that fit this description – you do good work, you get your paycheck, but you’re really not all that fulfilled.  Punch the clock; get paid; go home and do whatever it is you really enjoy.

Those four intersections in the model leave you partially unfulfilled, and probably represent reality for many (most?) of us in the Western world.


But the fifth intersection – where everything overlaps in the model – represents an ideal state.  If what you love doing is something you’re good at doing and something the world needs and what you can be paid for, you’ve found ikigai – your true life’s purpose and meaning, and a balance between what you can (and want to) do that’s of value to the world.

To begin to discover your ikigai, I would suggest you reflect on those four key questions – perhaps using some of the tools and resources I mentioned above, and perhaps iterating on them over a period of time.  My sense is there isn’t one perfect answer for each of the four questions, but rather a shifting continuum of options that, when combined, produce a complementary balance – something that approaches the middle of the Venn diagram.


But just knowing your ikigai isn’t enough: you must actually put your life’s purpose into action.  If you discover you’re out of balance (in other words, you’re experiencing one of those four scenarios above in bullets, where two or three of the questions overlap but the imbalance leads to feelings of uselessness, emptiness, lack of wealth, or uncertainty), then you should explore changes – either in your career, in your education and professional development, or both.  What you love to do and what the world needs may shift over time; what you’re good at and what you can be paid for (your vocation/profession) are the variables over which you have the most control.  So your action should relate to bettering your skills and/or changing your career so that your passion, mission, profession, and vocation are in alignment.


Bill George, the retired chairman and CEO of Medtronic and now faculty member at the Harvard Business School (and opening keynote for our PENworks 2017 conference a few months ago) calls this state of balance your True North.  George:


“True North is your orienting point – your fixed point in a spinning world – that helps you stay on track as a leader.  It is derived from your most deeply held beliefs, your values, and the principles you lead by.  It is your internal compass, unique to you, that represents who you are at your deepest level.”


George contends that discovering your True North – like discovering your ikigai – will make you authentic, the genuine you.  It’s the sweet spot that integrates your personal life, professional life, family life, and community and friends.  It’s the intersection of your values, your purpose, and your community.  Sounds kind of like ikigai, if you ask me.


George has developed a process for leaders to find their True North.  If you’re interested in learning more, consider purchasing and downloading the 50-minute keynote video from our conference here ($20 for members).  We also have a limited number of Discover Your True North: Becoming an Authentic Leader books that we gave away at PENworks ($30); email me and I’ll get you a copy.


Discovering your True North – your ikigai – takes time, takes effort, and takes patience.  I should also mention that researchers in the World Economic Forum indicate ikigai can change with age over time, so we all should be in constant reflection, constant searching, constant shifting to find that new balance and fulfillment over the long-term.  Your ikigai as a 28 year old is probably quite different than it is as a 68 year old – what you love and are good at doing have changed, and so has the world’s needs.


As leaders, as professionals, as human beings you owe it to your organization, your team, your family, and yourself to find your life’s true meaning and purpose.  We all should be on a constant quest to find our personal ikigai!


What other insights do you have regarding your life’s purpose?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.


Never stop improving!


Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

Catalyst for Success Since 1987!


Photo credit Toronto Star, Japanology