Updated: Sep 9
While I have such genuine excitement in the global interest observed in understanding the Japanese concept of "ikigai", in this article, I will be shedding light on why the Venn Diagram is not an accurate representation of this beautiful concept.
I will approach this from two angles - based on my research and a personal standpoint.
Let's look at the facts.
Dan is an American National Geographic writer and explorer who studies the world's longest-lived peoples. He mentioned in his TED talk that a key to longevity for the Japanese was a concept called "ikigai", which roughly translates to "your reason for being" or "what gets you up in the morning".
Marc's blog post repurposed Andres Zuzunaga, a Spanish astrologer's purpose model, by changing "purpose" to ikigai to represent his understanding of what ikigai could mean.
As a Japanese native born and raised in Japan
My initial reaction to seeing the Venn Diagram used heavily in the professional development and coaching space confused me - I shed tears from an overwhelming sense of sadness.
Trying to make sense of my reaction, I thought back to my memories of Ikigai, which took me to my summer months visiting my grandma up north in Aomori, Japan.
We would have our ritual of sitting down for a cup of tea, and in her gentle, soft voice, my grandma would say that "getting to spend time with you and your sister and to see how much you both have grown" was her Ikigai.
If we take a look at the concept itself, we can see that Ikigai is made up of two parts: "iki", which means "life", and "gai", which translates to "worth living".
Ikigai is a concept that every Japanese person appreciates, but the interpretations of this concept will vary immensely. The reason behind this is because Ikigai is not necessarily something understood by the mind". In Japan, we often reference this as our "soul". Still, it refers to that deeper "something" that words cannot quite clearly define.
Ikigai & Your career
In Western culture, Ikigai is a term that has become synonymous with career fulfilment. People apply it like a formula meant to churn out the perfect professional path filled with meaning and purpose. Though it's essential to one's wellbeing, the true beauty is that it does not have a fixed equation and can change over time.
Is Ikigai no longer helpful in exploring your career?
You may now be wondering whether Ikigai serves a purpose if it doesn't have a "set formula".
I would argue that the authentic ikigai concept provides an even more expansive and helpful approach to crafting a fulfilling life.
Why? Ikigai lets you evaluate your life from the inside out.
At its core, Ikigai is an empowering concept as it allows you to evaluate your life from the inside out. Ikigai is not based on external factors that are part of the Venn Diagram but is a mindset that will enable you to take control of what drives you.
A few ways Ikigai can guide you include:
Ikigai lets you see that your life is more than your 'job'.
Ikigai is not a framework for your "job" but a way of life for your whole self, including your professional and personal life. I can not stress this point enough. The real ikigai reminds us that we are the ultimate framework, and we have to look at our lives holistically, from both a personal and professional point of view, to find fulfilment.
Ikigai alleviates work pressure.
Adding on to the first point, I fear that the Venn Diagram sets unrealistic expectations that our jobs have to give us our purpose in life. In many ways, I find it a privilege to have this consideration for a job. Many of us are at our jobs as a necessity of making income to make ends meet, and I worry that the Ikigai Venn Diagram misguides people to think this is unacceptable. While I think it is something to strive for, I find it to be perhaps a debilitating pressure for companies and individuals. Instead, we should refocus our intention on understanding each individual's holistic wellbeing and prioritizing alignment in corporate and personal values.
Ikigai lets you accept uncertainty.
As American mathematician and Temple University professor John Allen Paulos once said,
Uncertainty is the only certainty there is.
I find it unrealistic to know with absolute certainty what makes our lives worth living. The "Gai" part of Ikigai means that "you anticipate and hope that your results will be worth it." This nuance gives us the grace to not have all the answers and lets us take action.
Ikigai makes it actionable by breaking it down into manageable pieces.
"Iki" is a word used to express "daily living" and gives us the framework to break out our lives into manageable daily pieces vs a grand goal. While goals and ambitions are helpful, the real Ikigai reminds us of the importance of taking "daily actions" to support our reason for being.
Ikigai is part of an overall approach to wellbeing.
Japan, as a country known for its longevity, offer concepts that can empower your wellbeing today. Ikigai is very much part of it. To fully use Ikigai as a tool to find fulfilment, we have to look at the overall approach to wellbeing. I use a puzzle to help outline the five core Japanese wellness concepts that help us understand this approach. If we focus on the other four pieces of the Japanese wellness puzzle, we will be able to have a better sense of how Ikigai plays into our lives.
If you are curious to learn more about Ikigai & Japanese wellness:
Subscribe to Mogami's Newsletter that includes our "Ikigai Spotlight Series", where we interview Japanese individuals on their Ikigai. For a LIMITED time only, you can also gain access to our FREE Ikigai Guide
My Ikigai deep-dive Skillshare Course (one more FREE access with link)
The reflection and journey of the other pieces guide us to a life of ikigai. Ikigai is a journey, not a destination. It is the outcome of being able to live as your authentic self in your everyday life.
When I talk to individuals about these nuances, it sounds like most people have an inkling of what this Venn Diagram fails to acknowledge, but let me know as I am curious to hear your thoughts.
Saori Okada is the Founder of Mogami (最上), a Japanese wellness brand headquartered in London (U.K.). Saori's work focuses on "Mogami's wellness puzzle", which includes five core Japanese wellness centred around longevity, authenticity, and mindfulness. Mogami works with individuals and companies to strengthen their company wellbeing from the inside out.
Saori received her B.S in Commerce from the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia and her coaching training as a Certified Transformational Nutrition Coach from the Institue of Transformational Nutrition. Saori also holds her Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from PMI and is a 20-year student of Japanese calligraphy, given the calligraphy name Seisen (星洗). She is also the author of a narrative memoir titled "Until the Death of Me", where she bravely shares her eating disorder recovery journey. After a successful 7-year corporate career in media analytics in New York City and Toronto, Saori moved to London to start Mogami in August 2021.