Good1 Consulting

The Philosophy of Ikigai: 3 Examples About Finding Purpose

March 24, 2022


7 minutes read

As people delve into self-discovery and strive at navigating a world of challenges and achievements, one key human desire is to attain a balanced and fulfilled life. People are not just satisfied with barely living, but seek to fill their daily awake hours with something of true worth. This principle of seeking, finding, and exploring a worthy life is what is referred to in Japanese terms as Ikigai.

What Is Ikigai

Ikigai pronounced [ee-key-guy] is a concept with Japanese origins that combines the words iki meaning “life” and gai meaning “worth” or “reason” to translate to “a life of worth,” or “a life worth living.”((Jeffery Gaines. March 7 2022. The Philosophy of Ikigai: 3 Examples About Finding Purpose. Positive Psychology. Retrieved on March 19 2022.

It is popularly described as a life principle that motivates us to want to get up every morning and find fulfillment or happiness in our daily activities. It involves seeking out the things that we attach some sentimental value to and finding real worth for them in our personal lives.  According to Japanese psychologist Michiko Kumano, “ikigai is a state of well-being that arises from devotion to activities one enjoys, which also brings a sense of fulfillment.”((Lesley Ann Greenwood. February 26 2021. Kigai (Ee-Key-Guy). Have You Discovered Yours Yet? Retrieved on March 19 2022.

Ikigai can be applied when in depressing situations where one is unmotivated or generally unfeeling about their job. And it can also be practiced as a life-long principle in making long-term career plans and decisions.

There are different schools of thought for the application of ikigai. As much as ikigai is originally a Japanese concept, many believe that there are other concepts similar to ikigai that are being conflated with the ikigai concept. Therefore, we would be discussing finding your ikigai using the two most popular approaches.

The Four Elements of Ikigai

One of the most popular paraphernalia about the concept is a Venn diagram with four overlapping circles and “ikigai” labelled as its epicenter. This diagram has been mostly used by people in the professional space – offices, board meetings, and motivational videos – to depict the four elements that help one to identify their ikigai.

According to the Venn diagram, there are four elements:

  • What you love
  • What the world needs
  • What you can be paid for
  • What you are good at

These four elements form an analogy to represent four core values that one has to consider when seeking a thing of worth that drives the reason for their existence. 

People that defer to this popular diagram suggest that to find one’s ikigai, a person has to answer all the questions posed. For example, you would have to know the things you love, the things the world needs, the things you can be paid for, and the things you are good at. When you find an objective that conveniently overlaps all four elements, you would have found your ikigai.((Omar Rabbolini. September 7 2019. Ikigai. A Philosophy that can change your life. Medium. Retrieved on March 19 2022.

Sweet Spot vs Spectrum

However, several detractors fault this analogy and what it stands for. They insist that the Japanese concept of ikigai is not a Venn diagram, nor is Ikigai a Japanese secret to a long and healthy life.((Nicholas Kemp. February 5 2020. Ikigai Is Not a Venn Diagram. Medium. Retrieved on March 19 2022. They claim that the origin of the Venn diagram can be traced to the work of Spanish astrologer Andres Zuzunaga, who drew it from inspiration by natal charts – and has absolutely nothing to do with Japanese culture or beliefs. 

According to the champions of its original Japanese concept, ikigai is a spectrum not a sweet spot in the middle of overlapped elements. It is not necessarily found in major concepts like what you love, what you get paid for, or what the world needs, but considers every little thing of value in a person’s life from their little pleasures to their pursuit of meaningful life goals.

There is a more preferable approach for this school of thought in approaching or finding one’s ikigai. They are well known as the pillars of ikigai, as described by Ken Mogi, Tokyo-based neurologist and author in his book “The Little Book of Ikigai.”

The 5 Pillars of Ikigai

  1. Starting small
  2. Releasing yourself 
  3. Harmony and stability
  4. The joys of little things
  5. Being in the here and now

Starting small

Starting small requires finding purpose in the most regular mundane things. It involves beginning to see little things and actions with a motive. You are planting little seeds because you want a big tree to grow. You should always take your actions from this perspective.

Releasing yourself

Getting out of the world of thoughts that hold you back would set you free into a world of fulfillment. Finding one’s ikigai requires one to open themselves to a world of possibilities rather than being caged by it.

Harmony and stability

Finding harmony and stability in an activity is a core tenet of ikigai. So long as indulging in an activity brings you constant happiness, it consists of your ikigai.

The joys of little things

Ikigai counts the joy in the details. It doesn’t have to be a complete project or task before it has meaning. If you find meaning or fulfillment in its little components, that is ikigai.

Being in the here and now

Your ikigai should be able to take you to a state of total concentration, where all that matters is the task at hand. This is often likened to the flow state as popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.((Mulder, P. (2012). Flow Theory (Csikszentmihalyi). Retrieved March 18 2022. It is a state where you can get fully immersed in an activity and forget about everything else.

3 Examples of Finding Purpose

1. Primatologist Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall today is a famous primatologist known across the world. When Goodall was a younger adult, she had written a letter to Louis Leakey, an anthropologist who later mentored her as she delved into the study of apes that live in the wild.

In her career, Goodall has contributed immensely to her field. Part of her work included documenting the intelligent interaction of apes and exploring their social capabilities. She had also advocated against the destruction of their natural habitat and her activism had stretched to put a stop to the use of apes in dangerous scientific experiments.

In this scenario, we find Goodall pursuing a passion and career found from the love of apes and the need to protect them. And it can be said that Goodall’s ikigai is understanding, connecting, with, and protecting living things.

2. CEO Priya Narasimhan

Another example of real-life people finding their ikigai is Priya Narasimhan, a CEO, professor, and parent. Narasimhan claims that while growing up, she had always nurtured an ambition for when she grew older. However, having grown older and achieved these things she found that she no longer gets fulfillment or happiness from the mere being of those things. Rather, she cherishes the conversations that she has with the people that she meets and interacts with daily. She loves the opportunities that each conversation affords her – to make a change in the world or to be a safe place for somebody else.

“I have found my purpose in my people.” reads the title of Narasimhan’s Medium article.((Priya Narasimhan. September 15 2020. I have found my purpose in my people. Medium. Retrived on March 18 2022. Being a believer in the concept of ikigai herself, she says that she has found purpose, not just in merely being a parent but particularly in loving her son and ensuring he knows that he is loved. She also says that she finds fulfillment in helping her students find their purpose and grow into what they can become. And as a CEO, what gets her out of bed is the passion to assist her clients and their companies to succeed. 

Also, this story is quite interesting because it proves that one’s ikigai doesn’t have to be something that is spectacular. It also confirms that one can be successful, yet unfulfilled. There is no timeline for finding one’s purpose for life.

3. Chef Jiro Ono

Chef Jiro Ono is one of the world’s most famous sushi chefs. His restaurant is a very exclusive sushi place that seats only 10 people at a time in Tokyo, Japan. He is rated three stars, the highest rating given by the Michelin restaurant guide.

Already an accomplished chef, Ono still spends time trying to perfect his sushi recipe. After serving his customers, Ono would watch his customers as they eat to see their reaction to the meal he has just served them. This facial reaction he treats as a review of his work and uses this to make changes to his work even better. While sharing about his life and career in a documentary he says, “You have to fall in love with your work, dedicate yourself to mastering your skill. I will keep trying to reach the top but no one knows where the top is.”((Jeffery Gaines. March 7 2022. The Philosophy of Ikigai: 3 Examples About Finding Purpose. Positive Psychology. Retrieved on March 19 2022.

Ono could be said to have found his ikigai in becoming the best sushi chef he could be, and in sharing his work with people that will appreciate it.

In conclusion, although two different approaches to ikigai have been mentioned above, it is important to note that both outlined frameworks can bring positive results to whoever applies any of them. What matters for whatever approach one chooses is finding a way for one to effectively apply it to their life.