Eric Brown • • 7 min read
Ikigai: The Shortcut to Your Reason For Being
If you want to find your own ikigai, your own reason for being, you can download an exercise at the bottom of this article that will guide you through discovering your life’s purpose.
What is your reason for being?
This is one of the most common questions we run up against. Often, it’s the most difficult to answer. Many of us go our entire lives searching for this illusive over-arching purpose. It causes great deals of anxiety and stress when we find ourselves scrambling or fumbling around for something that feels like the ‘right thing.’
And yet, others seem to stumble into it without any real effort. It just finds them. Somehow.
Objective discussions about the metaphysical nature of reality aside, humans are fortunate because we are meaning-making creatures. That’s what we do. We create and give meaning to things.
Money. Ideas. Personalities. Words. Activities. Life.
We give all of these things meaning. This sets the precedent that we can give, or create, the meaning in our lives as well. Through self-exploration, effort, and inquiry, you can create the meaning of your life.
That sounds great.
How do we do it?
If only there was a framework, a system that we could work through, where the end result would be this illusive purpose for our lives. If only we had a path to follow, one that would lead us to meaning and fulfillment.
Fortunately, there is.
It’s just not very well known, and it’s certainly not very well established in Western culture.
This framework is ikigai.
An Introduction to Ikigai
Ikigai is a Japanese word, and has a rich history in Japan, but most notably in the Okinawa region — arguably the most famous ‘Blue Zone’ on the planet.
Blue Zones are regions and populations that have a disproportionately large number of centarians, people who live to 100+ years of healthy, functional age.
Particularly the female population, the Okinawa region has long been favoured by scientific and sociological minds as a fertile ground for longevity studies. There are many factors that potentially contribute to these elongated lifespans, including diet and activity.
But when the inhabitants of Okinawa are asked what contributes to their length and quality of life, having an ikigai, and having this idea pervade their culture, is an answer that often arises.
Roughly translated, ikigai means ‘a reason for being’, or ‘that which gets you out of bed in the morning’. It is that which makes their lives meaningful.
The over-arching purpose of their lives that makes them happy and vital. It gives them direction and existential security, and helps them shape their decisions and actions.
You’re ikigai can be anything — being a good father, attending to your plot of farmland and growing food for your neighbours, assisting the elderly, operating a business that employs other people. The content isn’t as important as the structure — they believe and derive value from pursuing and cultivating their individual ikigai.
The concept of ikigai is often represented as the central point of 4 overlapping concepts: something you can be paid for, something the world needs, something you are good at, and something that you love.
It’s important that each one of these ideas must be represented and fulfilled in your ikigai, for a lack in any one of these categories creates an existential imbalance, and that imbalance leaves you longing for that thing that just ‘feels right.’
For if any fundamental area of your life is lacking, you feel it. You intuitively know that this isn’t it.
Look again at the diagram and notice what happens when one area isn’t fully represented.
- If you can’t be paid for it: ‘delight and fullness, but no wealth’.
- If you’re not good at it: ‘excitement and complacency, but sense of uncertainty’.
- If you don’t love it: ‘comfortable, but feeling of emptiness’.
- If the world doesn’t need it: ‘satisfaction, but feeling of uselessness.’
Look back at your life, the activities you undertake, the projects you work on. Have you ever felt one of these sensations?
It’s because you were unbalanced.
You’re ikigai wasn’t completely expressed.
Now that’s not to say that if you find the imbalance you can’t correct it. You most certainly can, and you should. The first step is noticing where the imbalance is, so that we can take corrective action and move towards our full expression, our full ikigai.
A Meaningful Life
Ikigai is a potent concept because it contributes to all the things that we pursue in life.
A sense of mastery, a feeling of service to something beyond ourselves, enjoyment and pleasure in the way we spend our time, and feeling valued and secure in our place in the world.
When all of these things come together, particularly in a single activity or way of being — we feel complete. We feel whole and vital.
This is the path to a meaningful path.
Ikigai is the roadmap that guides you on your way to wholeness and existential fulfillment.
This concept is useful because it serves as a compass to direct our actions. Instead of fumbling around, wondering what is missing from our lives, ikigai provides an answer in a neat and clear concept.
Maybe we’re not paid enough for our passion, and this creates anxiety and a feeling of lack. Perhaps our work doesn’t contribute to the betterment of others or the planet, and we feel small and self-serving. Or maybe we don’t feel like we’re that good at anything, which affects our confidence and self-image.
An analysis of our life through the lens of ikigai immediately highlights the area that is lacking, and we begin to take corrective action and move towards wholeness.
No longer do we need to guess at creating and living a meaningful life.
We have a framework that lets us consciously build one.
This is extremely empowering.
To know that we control our lives. We create the meaningful and fulfilling lives that we want. It takes effort, nothing says this process is simple, but the reward is worth the effort.
Is this not the end goal that all of our idols talk about? Creating the life of our dreams. Living a life we don’t want to escape from. Finding something that fulfills our needs, gives us purpose, and contributes to the world?
There is no amount of coffee you can drink that will make you feel as vital and energized as living your authentic truth will.
So how do we actually do this? How do we figure out what our ikigai is? How do we find that activity that will take us towards our wholeness?
Many of us have been sold an illusion about meaning and purpose. That there is a meaningful life just hidden somewhere inside of you. That it will spontaneously appear one day and everything else will fall into place.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
A meaningful life is cultivated.
Purpose arises through activity, not before it. Much like you tend to a garden first and reap the rewards after, the meaning of your life is the same. You take continuous action, and over time, meaning and purpose and fulfillment come to fruition and manifest in your life.
How then, do we cultivate this? What actions do we take?
We’ve attached a direct, step-by-step guide to this article with an exercise that will systematically walk you through the process of deconstructing the 4 aspects of ikigai and finding the answers that work for you.
At the end of the exercise (it might take a few attempts and refinements) you are left with 1 or 2 sentences. These sentences become your ikigai. They are that which you can pursue to cultivate meaning and deep fulfillment in your life.
All we need to do, is systematically look at our lives through these 4 lenses (what we are good at, what we love, what we can be paid for, and what the world needs), and find the activity that merges and unites these ideas.
We can consciously create the meaning of our lives.
If you’re ready for this, if you’re ready to put in the effort to creating a meaning life — download the exercise and get started. It will only take 10-20 minutes to complete, and has the potential to change the rest of your life.
Even if you have a sense of direction already, this exercise is useful in highlighting areas that are presently lacking, and giving us a game plan to deliberately address them.
Change is Constant
Once you have your ikigai statement, the meaningful theme and focus of your life, pursue it diligently. Pour your heart and soul into it.
The person you become on this process will be exceptional. After all, it is the journey here, not the destination.
As you walk this path and build a meaningful life, you will change. You will grow, mature, learn, act, and increase your capacity. As a result, some of your answers to the original questions might change.
You might recognize new ways you can be paid for the work you do. You could fall in love with completely new activities. The world might present to you something new that it needs.
Instead of feeling bad that your focus has changed, simply allow this to happen and flow with it. That’s why it is worthwhile to come back to this exercise, to come back to this idea as you progress. For you are not a stagnant being, nor is the world you live in unchanging.
Change is constant, and as we grow, what gives us meaning will change.
We need not resist this, all we must do is ensure that at all times, to the best of our abilities, we are moving in the direction of our ikigai.
Embrace Your Ikigai
This is your life.
No one can live it for you. No one is going to come and save you. No one is going to present your meaningful and authentic purpose to you on a silver platter.
This life is yours to create.
You have just been given a framework to create a profoundly meaningful and vital life. What you do with this is up to you. It might take a few passes to find something that really clicks, and it will take even more work to bring this into your reality.
But really, do you have something better to do?
What could possibly be a better or more noble pursuit that cultivating your authentic expression that serves both you and the world you live in?
What could be more vital, more energizing, more reassuring, more empowering, than finding your ikigai?
The power is now is your hands. You are the creator of your destiny.
Cultivate this meaning. Create your purpose.
Embrace your ikigai.
If you’re ready for the adventure of a lifetime, download the Ikigai Exercise here.