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Ikigai: 2 Stunning Perspectives for a Meaningful Life

A book on Ikigai covered with a dark envelope with semicircular disk that reminds the sun over a dark brown wood table

And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Ikigai seems to be a recent word… and that’s true… for Western culture. That doesn’t mean we are missing such a concept. The French call it raison d’etre which means ‘a reason for being or purpose’. It is more about how we approach the concept.

In any case, why would this matter to you? Have you ever felt like there must be more about life? Do you long for something else despite ‘having it all’? Do you see around and think that you have to do something to make a difference? 

Ikigai is about that but goes beyond. Indeed, Western culture adapted the term to its way of thinking and, in the process, it got stripped out of its initial meaning. Why did this happen? What can we do to grasp the sense ikigai has in the East, in Japan particularly?

To answer these questions, let’s dig into the ikigai concept, its relationship with our deeper purpose in life, and its connection with Japanese culture, and explore for a bit some perspectives from the West and the East.

After finishing this reading, you will have some insights on how to apply the ikigai concept to your life and understand its relationship with a way of being present.

Ikigai, deep purpose, and Japanese lifestyle

To get a good sense of what ikigai, or any other word, means, it is crucial to have an understanding of the culture where the word comes from. In this case, ikigai comes from Japan.

One important aspect of Japanese culture is how they approach life. Every activity becomes an invitation to immerse themselves in what they do over the day. The main idea is to enjoy the process, of living now, making things properly and simply. Think about tea ceremonies, ikebana (flower arrangement), martial arts, making sushi, and so on.

Along with this, they are aware of life having a deeper purpose. Even though that’s related to our heart, soul, spirit, and mind, it goes beyond that. It transcends the essence of being and includes emotions and feelings so diverse as will, sensibility, honesty, hope, happiness, and so on.

When your actions are driven by your deeper purpose, you find meaning in them. And that’s how you meet ikigai. Imagine the bliss of expressing who you are, your deeper purpose, throughout your life, being present, and living now while doing daily tasks.

Paying attention to the meaning of the kanjis forming the ikigai word also gives us a hint about its meaning. The kanjis are 生き甲斐, They mean the following:

  • 生: Life, everything alive
  • 甲: Armor, first class, A grade, high voice, carapace
  • 斐: Beautiful, patterned, ordered

Mixing these three meanings will give us an approach to the term. One interpretation could be ‘something alive or life-related, ordered, harmonious, developed to its fullest’.

Two perspectives on approaching ikigai

Given the cultural differences between the West and the East, it is only natural that Westerners interpreted ikigai to fit the way they think.

While Eastern cultures tend to see the world as a whole, that is, everything is connected, a Westerner might think about that statement as odd. More importantly, we conceive a dramatic disconnection between spirituality and matter.

We tend to be more analytical whereas Easterners seem to be more intuitive, and the way they use their languages gives us a clue about this. In the east, pictograms are more common than letters. As a consequence, Easterners sense first what others mean.

This is the main reason there is no exact translation for words like ikigai to English, or any other language using letters instead of pictograms. Because of this, the West analyzed ikigai and, as a result, diagrams emerged. 

Vinn’s ikigai diagram

The most known ikigai diagram comes from Marc Vinn who created it in 2014. According to that diagram, individuals meet their ikigai at the intersection of these aspects:

  • What you love
  • What the world needs
  • What you can be paid for
  • What you are good at
Marc Vinn's ikigai diagram featuring its 4 elements on a dark blue background with dark pink circles.
Image by Freepik

As is expected from Westerners’ inclination to use more reason than intuition, the diagram sees ikigai as a step-by-step process and shifts its focus from the inner reality to the outer reality.

Even though people looking for their purpose in life can find value there, those diagrams merely touch the surface of what ikigai is

For example, one of the aspects considered is whether you are paid for doing what you love. If someone is willing to pay you for something you enjoyed doing is good, and is sufficient, but not necessary for individuals to experience ikigai.  

Think about someone with a natural inclination to protect and nurture someone else. That individual would be joyful doing whatever activity involving protecting and promoting someone else, no matter whether they get paid or not. The motivation is intrinsic, not extrinsic.

Ikigai as seen from within

From this point of view, it seems like we can get the best from Vinn’s ikigai diagram and go back to the original focus: our inner reality.

Indeed, Vinn’s ikigai diagram brings value to Westerners as it can serve as a bridge that eases the process of grasping the meaning of ikigai. Yet, focusing on the inner reality is the essence of it all. 

If we are going to use Vinn’s diagram while focusing on the inner self, the aspects he uses in his diagram can be stated like this:

  • The gift of you: Who you are, your essential qualities
  • Why are you here for: Your large purpose in life
  • What you leave behind: The difference you make in the world
  • What your gifts are: Natural and essential qualities, strengths, skills, abilities

From the intersection between these aspects stems new categories:

  • Vision: Knowing who you are and your large purpose in life are the foundations of a strong vision for life.
  • Voice: The means to share your inner values and what your legacy is.
  • Visibility: The interactions between sharing your gifts through your legacy.
  • Village: Sharing your gifts, and expressing who you are will attract the right people to your life.
  • Victory: Bringing your vision to reality and impacting or contributing to the world. 

This way, we can benefit from the value brought by Vinn’s diagram and focus on the inner reality at the same time.

Conclusion

Whether you decide to know more about the Zen lifestyle to go further and embark on a journey to uncover your ikigai or use Venn’s diagram, you will only experience it once you get to share who you are with the world. We have to express our deeper purpose and find meaning in who we are, and why we do what we do. 

This topic is very interesting and I would enjoy talking a bit more about this. Should you have any questions related to this topic or any thoughts on the ideas discussed, please share them. You can reach me here: Contact Virginia Nava.