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Finding Your Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life

From the curator and host of the Arete Coach Podcast, Severin Sorensen.

Recently I was speaking with a life coach and I asked them one of my favorite get-to-know-you questions: 'please share with me a book you have read that moved you?' Swift came to their reply, "Icky Guy." I thought... Hmm, that's an odd name for a book title. I became more curious: who or what is Icky Guy? To my delight, I found that Ikigai was not a person but a high state of being or life purpose. Being a lifetime learner, I wanted to know more about this Ikigai.

I went online to Amazon and looked up books and their reviews about Ikigai. I purchased three highly-rated books to explore more on the topic, and what fun I have had to explore this powerful and life-extending word: Ikigai.

The books I purchased were:

1. Héctor García and Francesc Miralles, Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life (2016).

2. Amanda Kudo, My Little Ikigai Journal (2018)


So what is Ikigai?

From Wiki, "Ikigai (生き甲斐) (pronounced [ikiɡai]) is a Japanese concept that means "a reason for being." The word refers to having a meaningful direction or purpose in life, constituting the sense of one's life being made worthwhile, with actions (spontaneous and willing) taken toward achieving one's ikigai resulting in satisfaction and a sense of meaning to life."

Digging a little deeper in my quest to learn more about Ikiagi, I learned that in 1966, Mieko Kamiya was one of the first researchers to write and publish about ikigai. Her important research was published in a book titled, Ikigai-ni-Tsuite (What Makes Our Life Worth Living). Unfortunately, her book was never translated into English, and perhaps someone reading this will pick that challenge up and bring Mieko Kamiya's important work to English readers.

From IkigaiTribe we learn that Kamiya had two forms or definitions for ikigai:

  • something that is a source of ikigai – ​ikigai (source); i.e., my child is my joy

  • and the state of mind of when one is feeling ikigai associated to a source – ​ikigai-kan; i.e., what I do is an expression of my joy

Kamiya wrote that for an individual to experience ikigai-kan that seven types of personal needs are simultaneously satisfied; namely:

  1. the need for life satisfaction

  2. the need for change and growth

  3. the need for a bright future

  4. the need for resonance

  5. the need for freedom

  6. the need for self-actualization

  7. and the need for meaning and value

Kamiya's work is often compared to Viktor Frankl's concept of finding meaning in life, and the importance of finding one's purpose as the vector leading to life's happiness. You can read more about this with Frankl's seminal work: Man's Search for Meaning (1959).

There is nuance to the various operations of Ikagi that have been summarized in the illustrations below. It's difficult to determine who used this illustration below first, and I have posted below the version published by the "Institute of You," [If a future reader has knowledge of the correct citation I will happily update here.]

The center of the concentric circles is where Ikigai lives, and it is the point at which all factors come together in unity and purpose.

In 2009 Dan Buettner gave a Tedx Talk on "How to live to be 100+" where he explored the planet's blue zones where there are communities of centenarians living well beyond their 100th year of life. One of these elderly communities is in Japan. He shared how diet, sleep, exercise (not vigorous or strenuous exercise but rather a range of motion focused and routine like walking), and restfulness helped one live many years longer. He also spoke of the Japanese ethic of Ikigai. Inspired by Buettner's talk, Marc Winn prepared the following diagram to illustrate the concept and overlaps of the several drivers of Ikigaim and I reference here the version published by

What one notices is that four attributes of being and doing are involved in achieving one's Ikigai. And they are typically expressed by most authors in this order:

  • Are you doing something you love?

  • Something the world needs?

  • That you are good at?

  • That you can get paid for?

If you can answer yes to all four, then truly you are most happy and prosperous. And for some this is true; think, e.g., think Mozart, Van Gogh, and Tiger Woods; they all did or are doing what they loved and were paid for it.

But what if what you love to do, or what you are good at, there is no market for your expression of fulfillment? Or what if what you love to do you are not physically, intellectually, or emotionally able to compete successfully in that world. Well, you could still lean into your passions and do what you love to do and ignore the economic necessity of earning a living, and live a humble lifestyle doing what you love. However, for many, this is unacceptable or would be deemed highly irresponsible behavior particularly if one has a family or business to support. Surely this quandary of loving to do, what economically you cannot get paid enough to do, comes up in executive coaching, life coaching, and career coaching conversations many times.

So what to do? Years ago as a young man in my twenties, I was given the following sage advice by a mentor, Allen Hill, 'you can have everything in this world if you put the things you want in the right order.' I was intrigued by this statement and began to explore how one could re-order or repattern one's life so that you get more of what you want aiming like a compass to the end goal or peak. For example, if your goal was to have a Ferrari sports car in your youth you could probably do so, but at great expense and peril to all other goals; you would likely have to forgo college and need to work several jobs just to pay for the vehicle along with for a security guard to watch the car. Putting this goal too early in your life's earning cycle would likely strip all other goals from your horizon. However, what if you re-ordered this goal and bought an affordable automobile in your youth. Next, you went to college, started in a marketable career of your choosing, worked hard, progressed, and along the way you invested in more education and certifications, and built your career gaining some expertise, your life earnings and earning power would increase. Eventually, if you still had the goal of owning a Ferrari you might be able to do so with a much lesser percentage of your income expended on the vehicle in your later life. And hence the concept, if you put more of your dreams and aspirations in the right order, you will find you can reach more of them.

Bringing Ikigai into your coaching practice

Using prioritization methods and marketability signals as governors and guideposts for entrepreneurial journeys, I have reordered the question stems below so that what you end up with, is something that is needed, that you can get paid for, that you are good at, and is already or becomes something that you love to do. And when you find these things, you can reach your own state of Ikigai sooner. From an economist's viewpoint, there are too many widgets made for which there are no viable markets. An idea does not become a product until somebody pays for it. Therefore, if we want to more productively help our coaching clients reach their own Ikigai, we might suggest a reorder of the selection process for approaching Ikigai this way:

  1. What does the world need? Be curious about what's selling now; what hard problems can be solved; what can't we do now that we might like to do in the future to create a better life?

  2. What can you get paid for? Lean into the concept of micro experiments; failing fast, failing cheap, and failing forward with minimally viable products (MVP) ideas and test them early on. Few people are smart enough to know what the market is willing to pay for, so test, put up your MVP and see what people will buy? The evidence of a paying customer is evidence of a market.

  3. What you are good at? After you have determined where the market is, and what people will pay for, determine your own skill sets of what you are good at, what others (beyond your mother) tells you that you are good at, and explore with great curiosity all your passions, capabilities, and skills to see what things you are good at could earn you either a hobby income or full-time income or business in the future.

  4. What do you love to do? When our avocation equals our vocation we are most happy. However, what if you find that what you are good at, or what the market will pay for, you don't love to do? Then perhaps ponder a way to lever what you like to do and are good at, and this can be joyful as well. For example, consider organizing others to work in the areas that you are good at, and this will give you more time and maximize your contribution to the world in what you are best. Importantly, we learn to love what we invest in; i.e., we care and nurture our children and we find we love them more; we spend more quality time actively listening to our spouse and we find more meaning and a better relationship; we invest in reading and we learn that we like to read, and it becomes a gateway to our future learning and growth.

I am certainly open to challenge on the order of battle of these four questions, however as we coach our clients, getting them to think earlier like an entrepreneur, thinking about what the world needs and what people will pay for, will frequently lead to a higher opportunity for individuals seeking to find their own Ikigai. Starting with a basket of demanded needs that people will pay to have fulfilled, one can sort through the several opportunities and match their own skill sets and interests to have the highest potential to reach their Ikiagi sooner, with fewer crashes and burns on new product and service launches.


Additional Ikigai concepts

There were some salient thoughts that jumped out at me from my reading of the books and materials that I sourced to explore Ikigai.

From Héctor García and Francesc Miralles, the happiest people that live the longest lives find three things...

  • Something to do

  • Something to love

  • Something to hope for

Another concept from Héctor García and Francesc Miralles' book I found intriguing was the concept of 'being anti-fragile.' Part of becoming anti-fragile is being resilient and not letting things that get you down, keep you down, and removing influences or activities that might deflect you from your highest pursuits. This has a familiarity with the writings of Positive Psychology and the work of Shirzad Chamine in Positive Intelligence (2012).

Another concept from Héctor García and Francesc Miralles' book is the concept of flow... workflow, life flow, you at your best self, and preventing stoppage or resistance to your flow that might divert you from your highest path. This is a concept for further exploration in another thread of insight.

Lastly, for me, a powerful takeaway line from the Héctor García and Francesc Miralles' book on Ikigai was this notion... of 'being fully present' in whatever you are doing. In coaching consider this powerful state of presence: "In the here and now, the only thing in my life is your life." That is beautiful, present, inspiring, and engaging in the active listening state of being fully present for our coaching clients.

So all of this insight for me came from asking one question that I'll ask you now: 'please share with me a book you have read that moved you?' What was the first book that came to mind? Let me know here.

Copyright © 2021 by Arete Coach LLC. All rights reserved.


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