Ikigai

生き甲斐 |ikigai|
noun • Japanese

a reason for being; the thing that you live for, the reason you get up in the morning.


At the intersection where your gifts, talents, and abilities meet a human need; therein you will discover your purpose.

—Unknown
(Usually attributed to Aristotle)

For some reason, society has made the idea of personal fulfillment out to be something quite stressful. We’re often told, in very positive and inspiring words, that any moment not spent actively pursuing meaning in our lives is a moment wasted. Our raison d’être (pardon my French) isn’t something that we can afford to wait for, something that we can allow to happen organically at its own pace; we have to hunt it down with pitchforks and torches. As a result, life in this day and age has started to feel like a mad dash toward some vaguely defined goal that we’re not sure if we actually want, with no way of knowing when we’ve actually arrived, but we keep running anyway because… well, that’s what we’ve been told that we’re supposed to do.

Somewhere in the rush, we may have lost sight of what’s actually important. We get so caught up in trying to force a passion that we end up losing it, and then we’re no better off than we were when we started. In fact, we may be worse — working to the point of burnout is now running rampant in the modern age, turning many people off of things they thought they loved. The ultimate form of happiness shouldn’t have to be so distressing, nor the highest measure of human satisfaction so impersonal. Our hyper-productivity-oriented culture may need a bit of a mindset shift, something to bring it back to what we should be aiming to achieve — a sense of ikigai.

The English definition is a bit too concise to quite capture all the facets of what constitutes ikigai. The concept is better illustrated visually, as in this diagram: the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for, with various intermediate shades representing the subtleties of what ikigai is and isn’t. As Aristotle (maybe) said, your ikigai is where your talents meet the world’s needs, but it doesn’t stop at just that. It’s your passion, and it’s what’s important — not just to you, but to the world, and the world agrees. It’s your sense of fulfillment, your calling, your purpose, what you were meant to do; in a way, it’s a core part of who you are. It’s all this, rolled up in one. Leave it to Japanese to have such an elegant single word for such an abstract and far-reaching concept.

It may seem like ikigai is somewhat of a difficult thing to achieve. When you examine all the individual things that have to combine in order for it to exist, it’s suddenly understandable how we can get drawn into the obsessive mindset of frantically pursuing ikigai with everything we’ve got, to the point that we can even convince ourselves that basic needs like eating and sleeping are secondary. Going by the diagram, certainly, many people may spend their entire lives trying to find their ikigai, treating it as if reaching its intersection is tantamount to achieving enlightenment.

We fall into believing that ikigai is something reserved for the lucky few, maybe something contingent on being born with some kind of gift. That it only comes to those who know their passions, who are confident in their career paths, who have grabbed life by the horns. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Passion is something you find through trial and error, through learning new things and exploring new avenues; meaning is something you create through deciding what matters to you and the difference you wish to make. And the world’s needs aren’t always explicitly obvious. Ikigai is something you create as much as it is something you achieve; it’s both the destination and the journey. What do you live for? With your ikigai in mind, there’s nowhere to go but forward.

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