What is Your Ikigai?

We talk a lot about Ikigai at Learnlife, as a way of distinguishing something beyond passion or purpose. Ikigai is really your reason for being, and the thing that gives you direction and motivation, but we thought we would take this opportunity to zoom in a little bit more on the concept, and why it is at the heart of what we do.
What is Your Ikigai?

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why”

- Mark Twain


Mark Twain said a lot of things, and there is a lot of wisdom (and humour) in a great deal of it, but on this we have to disagree. The idea that your purpose in life is going to suddenly strike you all of a sudden as you walk along the street, while entirely possible, is exceedingly rare. 

There are a lot of confusing concepts out there, and intersecting ideas, which make finding purpose in life sound like something that only happens to the fortunate. It’s not like that, or at least it should not be. So what is Ikigai, and why is it so important to us at Learnlife? 

Ikigai is not just passion

“Follow your passion” sounds great, but it is terrible advice. Following passions alone may make us feel vibrant and fulfilled, but ultimately they are transitory and one dimensional on their own. 

We also may not be good at them, and the idea that they are just waiting to be discovered by serendipity is also enormously dangerous and frustrating, as passions are often built and grown through exploration and iteration, rather than simply unearthed. 

The pursuit of something simply because we are passionate about it, may also be excluding the larger why around your passion. When passion is defined too narrowly, we can miss so many opportunities around us, such as thinking our raison d'etre is to play bass guitar in a band, whereas what we really love is the creativity of sound. 

Ikigai is often misunderstood

Ikigai is not the latest lifestyle trend to compete with hygge and lagom, and it is understood and used in different ways. The original Japanese concept in its purest form has nothing to do with making money, nor what the world needs from you, but can actually be finding joy in small things in your life, whether or not someone else is willing to pay you for it. 

This is confusing, because the western or capitalist lens assumes that when you create joy, you create value, and value is indistinguishable from its economic form. In other words, if you create something of value, someone will be willing to pay you for it, because value can only exist in something which is desirable to others. 

This venn diagram, or some form of it, is all over the internet. For many, this accurately describes entrepreneurship and not really Ikigai in its original form. You can listen here to the creator of this diagram, Marc Winn, explain how he did this after watching a single Ted Talk and not fully understanding what Ikigai actually was.


Noriyuki Nakanishi of Osaka University explains that Ikigai was originally conceived as something which “gives individuals a sense of a life worth living. It is not necessarily related to economic status. Ikigai is personal...It establishes a unique mental world in which the individual can feel at ease."

It may seem that your ikigai being something which does not bring an income is something only for the privileged, who can afford to play the cello rather badly while the rent is paid by inherited wealth. Not so, explained Sir Ken Robinson in his book The Element, where he gives a number of examples of people who are working jobs they are ok with (but not in love with!) so that they can pursue something else which makes them truly happy in their free time. The overall sense of wellbeing and purpose is ikigai. Personal, and for you to define. 

Finding your true Ikigai

So if Ikigai is personal, then we need to create an environment in which you can find it. If Learnlife can have an Ikigai, that is most certainly it. 

While Ikigai is not one thing, and can change over time, it is not like passion. Passion is emotional and surface, whereas ikigai is more deeply rooted in your sense of self. That means you must have agency, and the space to connect with how you feel about the things you are doing, learning and making. 

Your ikigai is your own, and exploring it, building it, growing it, is a quest that only you can undertake. In mainstream education we were told that what we were good at (based on a limited range of experiences in a restrictive model) was what we should do. You are good at German, so be a translator. 

As generations of learners with degrees they never use will all tell you, finding your Ikigai is unlikely to happen in that environment, but it is more likely to happen when you are in control. How can you explore it by using someone else’s map? 

By playing, creating, reflecting, experimenting, dealing with setbacks, and feeling for the source of your motivations, you are getting closer. By iterating, and learning, sharing and applying, you are closer still. Find the joy, and follow it, but see what else it connects to, and peel away the layers to find out all of the different ways your ikigai  might speak to you. 

And imagine, at 17 years old. Ready to go to university, start a company, learn from others, dive into the world with travel, disappear into nature to put the world on pause a bit longer; whatever that next step is, imagine knowing that you are on a quest of your own design. 

There is no word in Japanese that means “retire” in the western sense, and the Okinawans have never heard of a “mid-life crisis”. A life of purpose is a life well lived, and exists outside the boundaries of what others expect from you. Imagine, were we all to find joy on waking, what each day would bring the world anew. 

Learn more how we use the ikigai process at Learnlife to help learners have a more profound understanding of themselves and support them with opportunities that can lead to self-fulfilment.

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