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Finding Your Ikigai, Your Reason for Being

The following is adapted from The Standout Experience.

If you wanted to go on vacation, you would never just show up at the airport without a bag packed and buy a ticket to some random destination in some random place. 

No, you would think carefully about what kind of vacation you wanted, pick the location, buy a ticket and plan the details, and then pack a bag with the right kind of clothing for your destination.

Yet when it comes to the ultimate trip—our own life—we often fail to plan and prepare. We let life take us wherever it wills, relinquishing all control over our destination.

If you don’t want to metaphorically end up in the middle of Siberia in winter or in Kenya during locust season, you must choose your own destination.

The Japanese concept of ikigai can help you in this regard. In Japanese, iki means life or alive, and gai means reflect, worth, or result. Together, it means “reason for being.” This reason for being represents your ideal destination, guiding your decisions throughout life.

To find your ikigai, you must look for the intersection of four different aspects of your life. 

#1: What You’re Great At

Everyone has certain talents and skills. We are most successful when we leverage these strengths, so your ikigai should include what you’re great at.

You likely have preconceived notions of what you’re good at—and what you’re not. These preconceptions may or may not be true.

Like most things in the game of life, the skills you’re great at can change and develop over time. There may have been things in the past that you were amazing at, but as time passed, you might have forgotten, outgrown, or stopped enjoying them.

The reverse can happen as well. You may have struggled with some skills in the past but have become exceedingly talented at them today due to practice. 

For instance, in the past, I wouldn’t have considered public speaking a particular skill of mine. Over the years, as I’ve practiced giving speeches and speaking at colleges and universities, I’ve transformed this to one of my strengths.

Take an objective look at yourself today. Determine what your current strengths are, as well as the areas with potential to become strengths in the future.

#2: What You Love to Do

The next aspect of your ikigai is what you love to do.

Coming to a full realization of what you love to do is a fairly intuitive process. You likely have a good idea of what these activities are already. Still, you might not be entirely sure.

To help you discover your love, ask yourself this question: “If I had a free day with no places to be, people to see, or to-do list to accomplish, what would I do with my time?” Or ask yourself what you would do for a living even if you didn’t get paid for it?

You might love hiking, reading, playing sports, going to church, playing video games, helping people, cooking, mountain climbing, etc. To come up with a complete answer to this exercise, you may also want to jot down some things you’ve never done before but want to try.

Think outside the box when exploring the many options available in this incredible existence. 

#3: What the World Needs

Doing what you’re good at and what you love can be enjoyable, but without a deeper purpose, it will not be a sufficiently motivating reason for being. You must also consider what the world needs. 

There are so many unmet needs in the world today. Your challenge is to find a way to meet these needs, while leveraging your strengths and passions.

For now, assume you have no shortage of resources, like time, money, or anything else. Think about other people’s (or your) pain points and write them down. 

Then ask yourself these questions:

  • What could be done better or differently?
  • What do people need to make their lives easier or better?
  • What could you offer that people don’t realize they need until they see or do it?
  • What can bring immense joy, happiness, and excitement to people?
  • What problem can you solve?

Being involved in meeting a need in the world gives depth to your ikigai.

#4: What You Can Get Paid to Do

The final aspect you must consider is what you can get paid to do.

Be careful not to confuse the meaning of this aspect from the ikigai model. Discovering how to get paid to do something isn’t for the sole purpose of making money. Rather, this is about getting paid to sustain life or to reinvest so you can grow whatever you’re doing.

Many students and young professionals make the mistake of thinking exclusively about how to get paid for something. They might try to fill that need with something they’re good at, which at least addresses two aspects of the ikigai formula for finding meaning. 

Meanwhile, they disregard what they love doing, as if what they love and what they can get paid for are two opposing forces. They don’t need to be. In fact, they shouldn’t be.

We need money to survive, which makes this aspect important, but be wary of prioritizing it about the other aspects.

The 4-Way Intersection of Your Ikigai

When you discover a career, passion, or activity that brings these four things together, you have found your ikigai—your reason for being. If you only have a few of these four aspects in your job, you’ll feel something missing.

Doing something you love and are good at will give you a sense of satisfaction and delight, but you might also feel the stress, concern, and uncertainty of not building enough wealth to live the way you want to.

Similarly, if you take a job that you’re good at and can get paid for, but don’t love it or find it has any meaning, you could experience emptiness and uselessness, which also won’t make you happy.

The secret to a long, happy, and meaningful life is to find the intersection of all four aspects. With this ikigai, you will have a destination to guide your path forward.

For more advice on finding your ikigai or purpose in life, you can find The Standout Experience on Amazon.

John Walsh is an inspirational and successful executive, entrepreneur, author, husband and dad with a passion for impacting the lives of others. John faced many challenges, uncertainty and failures early in his life but he created a purposeful and happy life with a lot of hard work and help from others. Over time, he created a playbook that allowed him to make the journey from homeless in high school to a senior executive with Disney and Madison Square Garden. He is also the founder and CEO of a company whose mission is to inspire and help millions of young adults stand out in their own lives and careers.