Of late, there has been a surge of interest in the Japanese concept ‘ikigai’. Personally, I have been asked to share my perspective on ikigai more frequently in the past couple of months compared to my 13 years of being a professional trainer and alumni of the Look East Policy.
Due to the pandemic, organisations have found it to be a cause of concern when the typical employee engagement activities have been forced to a halt with the requirement of working from home and physical distancing. Some also mention the loss of motivation and a sense of direction since observing companies taking measures to sustain business operations to survive. At this point, I guess they stumbled upon ikigai and decided to get some clarifications in hopes of reviving the spirit of their employees, if not themselves by means of this newfound concept.
The Word IKIGAI
“Ikigai” (生き甲斐), roughly translated means, “the reason for living”. “Iki” (生き) means “alive” and “Gai” (甲斐 , original pronunciation “Kai”) is “affect”. Hence, a refined translation would be “sense of purpose” – something that makes our life worth living.
Since “what makes life worth living” is different from one person to another, there is no one size fits all formula for ikigai. In fact, if you ask any Japanese on the street, most likely you will not get a clear cut answer to what really is ikigai.
Giving Meaning to IKIGAI
Ikigai was unearthed by researchers when they tried to pursue the secret to longevity. It was one of the common answers when they studied the people of Okinawa, which was known to have amongst the highest life expectancy rate in the world. The Okinawans attribute their longevity to their own ikigai – something that they look forward to every day. To some, it was work. To some, it was their family. From as big as a leadership role in a company of thousands of employees, to as small as volunteering to help children safely cross the road, every ikigai matters – there is none better or more important than another. What you make as your ikigai, does not matter as long as it makes you want to jump out of bed every morning when you wake up.
Having said that, the more internet-searchable Western formularisation of ikigai usually consist of a Venn diagram with four (4) elements of doing “something you love”, “something you are good at”, “something you can earn from”, and “something that the world needs”. Again, no right or wrong here, just interpretations to make ikigai more comprehensible and it seems to work for most people.
My Personal Take on IKIGAI
During my three (3) years living in Japan, honestly, I did not see any glimpse of ikigai. Even when I was sent for on-the-job training during my employment with a Japanese research and development company, I did not even notice anything remotely close to the word ikigai. Probably I was not paying attention close enough. However, I do know that there was a sense of social responsibility in everything that the Japanese did. I felt sincere hospitality as a visitor, I felt taken care of as a friend, and I felt a sense of honour in being a good employee. These are the qualities that I would formulate my definition of ikigai around – doing something beyond personal interest, choosing to be the best version of yourself, and excelling in what you choose to do.
By choosing training as my sole career, I had, maybe coincidently or subconsciously, push aside any potential deterrent in my path. I later focused on developing new trainers through the Train-The-Trainer certification course and added on the support systems and structures to enable a community of practice under the flagship of an alumni programme. At every opportunity I get, I share and invite improvements for better delivery and organising of training sessions. Passion, as many people see it, to me is somewhat of an obsession to make good quality training be more accessible and available to the masses. This ikigai of mine is what makes me excited and energised throughout the years.
IKIGAI is Whatever You Make of it
As organisations look to embed ikigai in their people, it might also be a good time to review how ikigai can influence the business and business operations. A well thought through ikigai has the potential to become a clear moral and operational compass, a true north, the big why, and a more relatable vision and mission statement. Rather than worry about the “what” and the “how” to get the perfect ikigai perhaps we can consider the “when” first. Because rather than wait for “someday” to get it right, let’s just start with “today” and improve as we go along – this one is about embracing the “kaizen” mindset, which we shall save the topic for another article.
So, what was the reason you woke up this morning?
What will get you excited to wake up tomorrow, and the day after?
That is your ikigai.