In this article I introduce the concept of Ikigai as a visual tool to bring purpose to our lives. I explain how I accidentally found my “first Ikigai” and why that was the wrong way around. I then present a roadmap to identify and pursue your Ikigai more intentionally, by identifying important problems to be solved, developing valuable skills and finding satisfaction and fulfillment at work. I plan on using this approach to increase my positive impact on the world going forward.
The Original IKIGAI
I’ve always loved the Japanese concept of Ikigai. It comes from the southernmost province of Japan, Okinawa, where it is part of the culture.
Okinawa is an area that has also been identified as a Blue Zone by Dan Buettner during his research on longevity. This longevity seems to be due a combination of the diet, low-stress lifestyle, caring community, activity, and spirituality of the Okinawans.
Ikigai is part of their way of life. In simple terms Ikigai means “a reason for being”.
Following Dan Buettner’s TED talk, Marc Winn adapted a purpose venn diagram and added the word Ikigai in the middle, giving birth to the now very famous original Ikigai diagram (which I in turn adapted to my taste in this article).
Whether the Okinawans actually visualize it like this or not is debatable. To me it is a very powerful visual tool that can help us think about our lives and what we decide to do with it.
The Ikigai concept invites us to ask and answer the following questions:
- What does the world need?
- What are you good at?
- What do you love doing?
- What can you be paid for?
If your main activity answers all these questions positively, you’ve found your ikigai! And this clarity of purpose, combined with a healthy and social life is the foundation for a long and happy life.
Just like personal finance, health, relationships, and how to raise kids, I feel like this is a topic that should be mandatory at school!
Luckily, when I look back at my professional journey, I find that I somewhat followed the Ikigai approach without knowing about it. It’s probably due to the fact that having a positive impact was something I took (somewhat) into consideration from the beginning.
When I was a kid and a teenager, I was doing well at school and found that I was pretty good at math, and so naturally I developed a liking for it and enjoyed all topics related to math and science. It’s difficult to know whether I was enjoying it because I was good at it or vice-versa. Later I found out that I could get paid and make a living out of a career in a STEM field. I was attracted to bio-engineering because of its connection to the life sciences and because I felt that was the way to work on problems related to nature and its conservation, something that the world needed.
But I was advised to pursue an education in civil engineering because it provided more opportunities and job security. In civil engineering, I struggled to find topics that were meaningful to me and after exploring geotechnics and structural engineering, I took additional courses outside of my faculty and diverted my path towards climate sciences, because I felt that I could help work on the challenges related to climate change. In order to further improve my chances of getting a job where I would make an impact, I took on an additional masters in sustainable energy. And that led me to my career in sustainable energy and climate change. For a while, that was my Ikigai.
The wrong way around
If I were to pick a career today, I would approach it in a very different way. In hindsight, I think that although it worked out really well for me, I got to my Ikigai the wrong way around. I got lucky because finding something that is useful to the world was important for me from the start and it just happened that what I was good at, what I enjoyed doing and what I could be paid for were going in that direction.
If I were to start over today… Wait, no, I am actually starting over, so let me write this instead:
As I have the chance to start over today, I am doing it with more intention and a better understanding of how things work.
Here is how I plan on finding my next Ikigai and how I recommend people who care about impact do it as well.
IKIGAI for High Impact
Step 1: Start with the most difficult part and make sure you don’t simply leave it to chance: find out what the world needs.
For this first step I highly recommend learning about what the biggest challenges of our times are. Don’t just list the problems you think are important. If you do, you simply risk confirming your existing biais and miss the opportunity to work on something much more important.
Read the research done by the organizations that focus on identifying the highest priority problems. I recommend the following resources, in order of personal preference:
- 80,000 Hours list of most urgent global issues, and a similar list from 2014
- The Open Philanthropy Project research and focus areas
- The Future of Humanity Institute research
- Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation programs
- The Copenhagen Consensus Center research
- Givewell research
- The Founders Pledge research
- Global Priorities Project research, including a great decision making tool from 2015
- The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and a prioritised list by the Copenhagen Consensus Center
As you will notice, most of the problems that are identified as highly important are rather unusual and probably unpopular. That is in part due to the fact that high priority problems normally receive very little attention from the main media. The fact that they are neglected problems make them unusual, almost by definition.
For example, you will note how climate change is not the highest priority problem. That is partly due to the fact that it is a problem that receives a lot of attention and is therefore less neglected than other high priority problems. Extreme risks of climate change ranks ninth in the 80,000 Hours list of most urgent global issues.
Before I go any further, note how I did not start by telling you to simply do what you love or follow your passion.
I believe that “follow your passion” is incomplete and simply bad advice.
- it suggests that passion is all you need
- many people don’t feel like they have a career-relevant passion
- it makes it sound like you can work out the right career for you in a flash of insight
- it can make people needlessly limit their options
Present interests are not a solid basis for career decision, for the reasons above but also because interests tend to change a lot over time.
Step 2: Figure out what you’re good at (or what you can be good at) and that can solve a problem, and in particular find a personal fit with what the world needs
Having a good skill or skillset that helps solve an important problem is highly valuable.
Not surprisingly, the key to developing a valuable skillset is practice. Many of us end up practicing on a daily basis the skills that our jobs require of us. But we can be more intentional about how to build valuable skills.
In general, we can distinguish 2 types of really good skills or skillsets:
- Specialist: these are skills that are unique to a specific field, skills that will lead you to become an expert in a specific niche.
- General or transferable: these are skills that can be used in many fields and situations. These include communication skills, learning skills, management skills, etc.
Both these types of skills are very important and should be developed. In particular, don’t neglect general skills as they will be useful in almost any situation.
For the specialist skills, the key is to select the right skills and then practice. If you’re uncertain what that could be, it is worth taking the time to explore and test your options. This approach is very well described in the 80,000 Hours ABZ plan for career planning. Don’t just rely on what you think of a specific type of work. Go out and test it out.
The next step is to become as good as possible, aiming to “Be so good, they can’t ignore you”. This is a piece of advice that the successful comedian Steve Martin gives to aspiring performers. It is also the title of a book by Cal Newport in which he explains how to find a job you love.
In his book, Cal provides the following advice:
- Move from passion mindset to craftsman mindset. Instead of looking for what the world has to offer you, focus on what you can offer the world. Focus on continuously improving to become uniquely valuable to colleagues, employers, customers and society in general. The key question is: “will I love the process of getting better at this?” despite how boring and tedious it might become
- Take on challenging and niche projects that differentiate you from your peers and force you to develop rare and valuable skills. If you take on tough projects, you will be forced to improve. If the projects are in a specific niche, you will be forced to specialize. This improvement and specialization will lead to your skillset being recognized and valued. As you get better, you will gain more trust and gain control over your work.
- Integrate deliberate practice in your daily life. Carve out periods of undistracted focus where you stretch your abilities beyond where you’re comfortable. Seek honest feedback and guidance from people who are more experienced than you: clients, experts, coaches or mentors.
As you grow and improve your skills, you develop your own value. The skills will help you solve the problems you’re working on and your value will put you in a position to better control or design your working conditions, making your work much more enjoyable.
Step 3. If you’re great at what you do and it makes the world a better place, how can you not love doing it?
Cal Newport defines great work and compelling careers as work that has the following three traits:
- Creativity – you can improvise some of your work and implement your ideas
- Control – you have some say over how, when and where your work gets done
- Impact – your work has a positive influence on people around you (customers, co-workers, society, etc.)
His advice to achieve this is what we summarized in step 2 above. He adds that finding a unifying mission to your working life can be a source of great satisfaction. And that is what we did in step 1. The main difference is that I suggest we start by identifying what are the opportunities for us to contribute to a better world, rather than looking to contribute after we’ve developed specific skills.
The traits proposed by Cal Newport are also very similar to the three innate psychological needs of the self-determination theory. These needs must be satisfied to foster well-being, health, motivation, performance and creativity. Because it makes them easy to remember (ABC), I like to refer those needs as follow:
- Autonomy: To be causal agents of one’s own life and act in harmony with one’s integrated self. However, this does not mean to be independent of others
- Belonging (Relatedness): To interact, be connected to, and experience caring for others
- Competence: To control the outcome and experience, mastery
80,000 Hours guide on what makes a dream job also lists similar conditions. To find a dream job, look for:
- Work you’re good at,
- Work that helps others,
- Supportive conditions: engaging work that lets you enter a state of flow; supportive colleagues; lack of major negatives like unfair pay; and work that fits your personal life.
Step 4. If you’re good at solving important problems, chances are you will not need to worry about money.
Becoming the best at your craft is a solid way to getting well paid. Cal Newport teaches us that mastering a skill is our best weapon to build wealth. And combined with simple common sense personal finance knowledge, it is undoubtedly the best way to reach financial independence.
If, in addition, you use your skills to solve an important problem, you will not only be compensated with wealth but also deep satisfaction.
Interestingly, Cal Newport has appeared on a few podcasts recently.
On the Bigger Pockets podcast, Brandon and David interviewed him and discussed how his books and advice can help the investor community build wealth more effectively, using real estate investing as the master skillset.
On the MadFIentist Financial Independence podcast, Brandon interviewed Cal Newport and they discussed how, even after FIRE, mastering a skill is an important way to find meaning in life.
If you’re working on building your career and growing your wealth, I invite you to consider working on something that the world needs. I invite you to ask the question: what important challenge can I contribute to? How can I use my skills to make the world a better place?
Consider getting a high impact job! 80,000 Hours has a great high impact job board.
FI-KIGAI: Finding Purpose beyond Financial Independence
If you’re pursuing financial independence or have already reached it, I invite you to think about what you could do post-FI. With your FI Superpower, you can use Thinking Freedom to analyse more carefully and explore some of the global challenges. You can then select the area in which you can have the most impact using your Abilities Freedom, almost independently of the usual financial concerns even if that means starting to build a new skillset from scratch. If you’ve already achieved FI, Ikigai takes a new form, which I call FI-KIGAI. You have Money Freedom and therefore money does not need to be a key criteria for fulfillment anymore!
We only live once. We have one life, and therefore only one chance to live it fully, with meaning and purpose. Let’s take the time to reflect on our Ikigai, think about the impact we can have and then go make the world a better place.