Ikigai, pronounced “ee-kee-guy” is an ancient Japanese concept that means “a reason for being.” It is similar to the French expression, Raison d’être. According to Japanese culture, everyone has an ikigai. Achieving this state of mind requires a deep inner search of one’s self. The time and effort is worthwhile as discovering one’s ikigai brings satisfaction and meaning to life.
Ikigai is the combination of the Japanese words iki, meaning life and gai, meaning value or worth. Together, Ikigai is the art of finding your purpose in life. It is the reason for being, getting out of bed in the morning, and powering through challenging times.
We have all had people in our life, with the best of intentions, try to offer us unsolicited career advice. Often time they will tell you not to do what they did, and that you should follow your passion at all costs when choosing a career. It’s not that easy. What if your passion does not equate with providing a reasonable living to take care of your spouse and children? What if your passion does not lend itself to a career? Perhaps you passion is really best pursued as a hobby. Passion by itself, will quickly fade when reality hits hard and you can’t pay the mortgage.
Finding you own personal Ikigai could entail writing out a Venn diagram. This will include writing in concentric circles the following; things that you love to do, things that you are good at, working towards a practical goal that the world needs, and pursuing a job and career which ensure that you can make a living. At the intersection where they all overlap is your Ikigai. This diagram will help clearly visualize your goal and direction, and find your meaning and purpose.
In addition to creating this diagram, your Ikigai can be used, similar to a daily career mantra, by pausing yourself throughout the day to ask why are you doing what you are doing, and does it correlate with the pursuit of your inner meaning.
This mantra helps you follow your “flow” or get into the zone. When a person enters a state of ‘flow’ she loses her sense of time passing without noticing. It is when you are in the zone and so completely absorbed in a task that you lose sense of time. Have you ever found yourself so happily and wonderfully engrossed and focused that you forgot to eat lunch, miss an appointment, or realize that everyone else in your office left for the day?
Once you notice what tasks you do in a state of “flow”, try to make changes in your life to focus on the things that have more meaning to you.
This idea seems at odds with the typical life of a Japanese urban city worker called “salaryman”. Salaryman is a term roughly equivalent to the label “white collar” professional used in the US. Japan’s office workers however have major differences than their western counterparts. Japan’s society prepares its people to work primarily for the good of the whole society rather than just the individual. Salarymen are expected to work long hours plus additional overtime, participate in mandatory after-work activities, and to prize work above everything else. The salaryman usually enters the workforce after graduating college and remains with that corporation his whole career life. Becoming a salaryman is the expected career choice for young men, and those who do not take this career path are regarded as living with a stigma and less prestige. Sometimes the word salaryman is sometimes used with derogatory connotation for his total dependence on his employer and lack of individuality.
Typically the work day of the “salaryman” begins with a state called sushi-zume, a term which likens commuters squeezed into a crowded train car. The stress doesn’t stop there. The country’s notorious work culture ensures most people put in long hours at the office, governed by strict hierarchical rules. Overwork is not uncommon and the last trains home on weekdays around midnight are filled with people in suits. How do they mentally cope with this stress and pressure?
The secret may have to do with the salaryman’s Ikigai; his ability to find and channel his inner meaning to get up in the morning and happily make it through the difficult and long days.