Ikigai and the Path to Purpose

March 10, 2018

Have you ever been so absorbed in a task that you forget to drink and eat? What type of task was it? Notice those moments when you enter flow, and your ikigai might be embedded in those moments. If you increase the daily time at flow you will increase your connection with your ikigai.

As an in-house recruiter interviewing prospective senior leaders for our firm, I meet many people who have reached the top of their fields and have lost their sense of purpose. They make good money and have status and influence, but they are no longer doing the things that they love; which ironically got them to the top of their game in the first place.

I’ve been thinking about what  Julia Lalla – Maharajh OBE said last week at the Accenture First Among Equals evening: She had been very senior in transport, been instrumental in London winning the 2012 Olympic bid. The day after the celebrations in Trafalgar Square she said that she felt exhausted, burned out and flat..dreading the work ahead. The day after the party, the London bombings happened. Disillusioned, she resigned the next day.

I was physically ill. I lacked purpose – 15 years of the corporate world just evaporated and what I lacked was meaning. What I lacked was finding out what I loved doing

In his book How to find fulfilling work Roman Krznaric says that whilst evidence shows that money contributes to your well-being up to a certain point - the  meeting of your basic needs - it gives little satisfaction once you earn beyond this point. This is due to a psychological mechanism called the hedonic treadmill…we buy a new product like a wide-screen TV and quickly get accustomed to, then over it. Cue higher expectations to bigger and better.

According to the hedonic treadmill, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. 

When we think about going back to work, it’s vital to align the role we take on as much as possible with our purpose. It is too easy to find ourselves on the hedonic treadmill, constantly chasing our tails to keep up with a perceived level of happiness that we will achieve if we earn X, buy Y, go on holiday in Z, all whilst wearing Christian Dior!

The humble, powerful Japanese concept of Ikigai is a helpful framework for discovering purpose. Put simply, Ikigai describes the intersection of what you love doing, what you can do to serve, and what you can do that makes money. It’s aligning your own passion and inspiration with the needs of those around you. 

Ikigai is one of the Japanese words for happiness, but more accurately describes a state of living life well and fully. It's about aligning your basic human needs with the needs of the world. 




As you can easily see in venn diagram form, it distinguishes between profession, vocation, passion and mission - all of which can be achieved through uniting different areas of life, but which only become Ikigai - and fulfillment - when brought together equally.


Now I am in my mid-40s, I think that I have a good sense of what I love to do (flow), what I can do to make money and who and how I serve. That took a long time and finding your purpose is iterative and organic in process, you just can’t arrive at itovernight. I have personally journalled and mind-mapped the possibilities for a long time. I know how to cave out creative or quiet times (walking by the river, swimming, sewing) when the flow of ideas are encouraged. 

The benefit of working  out purpose for me has been the following:

  • I waste less energy on tasks that don’t fulfil me; I constantly question whether I need to do what I am doing
  • The “I shoulds” then lessen because I am focused
  • The worry about what everyone else thinks of me and my exploits fades
  • I am more contented. I am working for something bigger so day-to-day disruptions don’t debase me quite as much.

A final benefit: in Okinawa where Ikigai first evolved as a concept, there is a stunningly high proportion of 100 year olds. They don’t even have an equivalent word for retirement; so integrated are their whole lives between purpose, doing and flowing in what they find value in and earning money from it.


If you‘re about to embark on a new job or career please do read my article on flow. Use my mind mapping resource to help you think out some of your own purpose. Don’t worry if it’s not all clear tomorrow, it takes intuition and curiosity. Just enjoy the evolution.

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