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  • Writer's pictureChristoph Spiessens

Explore Your Ikigai – Purpose Beyond the Venn Diagram

Copyright © 2022 Christoph Spiessens

When the organisers of the International Festival of Yoga in Manchester asked me to give a talk called, “Find Your Ikigai,” I promptly declined.

“We saw on your website that you have a coaching programme for men, called ‘Ikigai.’ We like what we read and believe it would make for a great talk at our event.”

This particular festival is always a highlight on my speaking calendar, so the invitation to speak wasn’t the issue. The title was.

Ikigai, or life purpose (at least that’s roughly the Western interpretation), is a huge concept. I was happy to give a talk about ikigai, but I would never promise anyone they will find theirs within the space of one lecture.

I suggested a small but significant change to the title and “Explore Your Ikigai” was on the programme instead.

Ikigai, like kintsugi, wabi-sabi, omotenashi, shinrin-yoku or ichi-go ichi-e, is a Japanese concept that’s making waves. Rich in value and potentially life-changing as these concepts may be, their meaning is fairly simple. Simple, however, doesn’t equate easy. We are talking about essence here. And to arrive at the essence of something, dedication is required.

In the West, it has become fashionable to dress up mindfulness, customer service and personal development principles with fancy Japanese words. Bookstores are full of beautifully produced coffee table books, adorned with kanji writing and images of Japan. And they are selling like hotcakes. It’s easy to see why: The intrigue of a beautiful, foreign word, the calm the book exudes, and the feeling of holding the magic formula to a better life in your hands. What’s not to like?

In preparation for my talk at the Yoga Festival, I posted a question across my social media channels. “Please answer with only Yes or No: Do you believe you have a life purpose; this ‘one thing’ you should be doing with your life?”

As expected, this question got quite the engagement. The answers can be put into three categories: YES!, NO!, and Yes, but more than one thing!

A conversation starter for sure…

How could it not be? The tagline of my coaching business is, “Practical spirituality is the big missing piece of the mental wellbeing puzzle.” And I can assure you, few topics come up more during coaching sessions and workshops than life purpose, the purpose of life, and “Why on Earth am I here on Earth?”

Indeed, in today’s tumultuous world, purpose – and the lack thereof – is forever on the mind of many people. The quest for purpose and meaning has been a constant theme in my own life, too. Why did I have to endure childhood sexual abuse? Why did I have to grow up in the shadow of my older and more academic brother? Why did Sabena, the Belgian national airline I loved working for (after months of searching for meaningful employment) have to go under? What was I meant to be doing with my life? And how could I find out?

As it turned out, I had spent the best part of my earlier life looking for my life purpose, only to realise one day I had been living it all along…

Back in 2002, when I moved from Belgium to the UK, I worked for Japan Airlines as cabin crew (based at Heathrow airport) for two years – a wonderful experience. Japan truly is a beautiful country and has the most interesting culture to boot. My flying days may be long behind me, my love of the country remains strong. I am delighted to see so many intriguing Japanese concepts find their way into our Western world of personal development. From mindfulness to accepting our flaws, from treasuring fleeting encounters with strangers to forest bathing, from living life on purpose to embracing transience and imperfection… Japan offers a compelling approach to many conventional self-improvement and stress management topics.

But therein lies the danger…

Just because these concepts are (commercially) packaged nicely (by us, not the Japanese), doesn’t mean they are some kind of magic formula. They need to be treated with the respect they deserve. This requires lifelong study, patience and careful application. After all, the true meaning of many Japanese concepts – their essence – goes far beyond the translation of the actual word(s). It’s no different when it comes to ikigai.

In the West, ikigai is most commonly represented as the intersection of four circles, each referring to one of the following components: What you are good at, what you love, what the world needs, and what you can get paid/rewarded for.

I believe this 4-circle Venn diagram can be a useful personal development tool. It’s good to reflect on the level of presence and influence of those four components in your life and career.

I am pretty sure this model doesn’t claim to be the ultimate silver bullet for finding your ikigai though, and it’s sensible to keep an open mind. Here are two reasons why:

1) Just because you meet these four criteria doesn’t mean you have found your ikigai and 2) you can live your ikigai without one or more of the criteria being present.

I know plenty of successful executives who tick all four boxes and yet their real ikigai has nothing to do with business. Some love to assemble soapbox race cars in the garden shed with friends on the weekend. Others come fully alive when they do charitable work whilst on annual leave.

The world has recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. Was Neil Armstrong’s ikigai to be an astronaut? What if it was something entirely different, such as being a father to his kids? You get the idea.

Ikigai is a combination of two Japanese words: iki and gai. Generally speaking, iki means life and gai means worth. Or value. Or purpose. Or result. And that’s the problem, right there. Our desire to translate literally, to deconstruct, to put beautiful and spiritual concepts into boxes, or indeed, Venn diagrams.

And spiritual it is, for ikigai is not so much a career or occupational concept, it’s the flame within us. The flame that burns brighter than the lure of any pay check, accolade or position. I am not saying that your ikigai can’t be your career. It certainly can. My mother was a primary school teacher for decades and teaching was most certainly her ikigai. For her, however, the challenge was to replace that deep sense of purpose after she retired. Not an easy task. When I say that your ikigai is your inner flame, I want to set you free from the suffocating and (often) self-imposed pressure of having to find your career sweet spot in the Venn diagram.

For me, the real game-changer is the difference between the Western definition of ikigai and the traditional Japanese approach. In the West, “iki” (life) is often translated as overall lifetime, whereas in Japan it refers to everyday life. This subtle difference is significant because -on a very practical level- it’s more appealing to explore what we can do to give more meaning to every new day than it is to find our elusive grand life purpose. Therefore, that “one thing” we’re supposed to be doing is not a “thing” but a way of life. To stick with the analogy of the flame, that takes the raging bonfire down to a glowing fireplace. I know which one I find easier to fan.

When I wrote to my Japanese friends to tell them about my upcoming talk, I told them how I felt about the way ikigai is often sold as a quick-fix tool for discovering one’s raison d’être; why we jump out of bed each morning. As I wanted to make my talk as authentic as possible, I also asked them to share how they interpret the concept of ikigai.

The first message in their reply email was: “This is not easy – this is not Western.”

With their signature Japanese commitment to offering as much value and quality as possible, my friends went on to explain what ikigai means to them. And, not surprisingly, it has very little to do with career goals. Here’s the essence of what they said:

To the people of Japan, ikigai is about enthusiasm for life. To enjoy our daily life feeling gratitude for everything regardless of material richness. But it’s also a connection to nature, a willingness to look for beauty in everything, and the total appreciation for life itself. Ikigai is very much a Japanese spirituality.

This resonated strongly with my understanding of the concept and also my belief that practical (non-denominational), everyday spirituality can greatly enhance our mental wellbeing. My late grandad always told me, “One day at a time.” And he was right. If we learn how to make it through each day in a meaningful way, we create a meaningful life.

When I mentioned earlier that, all of my life I had been looking for my “purpose,” only to realise one day I had been living it all along, here’s what I mean: I discovered that my ikigai is curiosity. My curiosity fires me up. It is my flame.

It was curiosity that put me on the spiritual path of self-inquiry, trying to make sense of the sexual abuse I suffered when I was a child. It was my curiosity for having more fun again at school that helped me transcend the bullying I endured. Curiosity for an honest life gave me the courage to come out to my childhood girlfriend as gay (six months before we were due to get married). It was curiosity for exploring uncharted territory that helped me say goodbye to my old life in Belgium and start a new chapter abroad. Not only has my curiosity saved my life, it has transformed my life beyond recognition. And it continues to do so. One day at a time.

This brings me to my final observation. As you transform, your ikigai can evolve also, and you can certainly have more than one ikigai. My curiosity may be the driving force of my life, sharing with people how they too can make more sense of adversity and live everyday life with more meaning certainly became an additional ikigai during the current chapter of my life. (Long may it continue, but I don’t want to put that pressure on myself. After all, what if ikigai 3 is around the corner? Who knows? I’m sure my curiosity will help me find out.)

I would like to round up with the same message I shared at the end of my talk at the Yoga Festival. To start exploring your ikigai (or ikigais!), ask yourself this question:

“What’s my message?”

Reflect on this question carefully.

Not “What should I be doing with my life?” but

“What’s my message?”

“What do I want the world to know?”

I want people to know that everything in their life serves a purpose and that they are worthy. If I can overcome adversity and improve the quality of my life, so can they. That’s my message, that’s what I want the world to know. Every day I explore my ikigai by looking into how I can leverage that message and reach even more people. It’s my flame.

So, my question to you is: What’s your message? What do you want the world to know? The answer may well be your ikigai.

I have met bereaved parents, for example, who healed their grief by setting up a charity that supports other families going through difficult times. Their message of hope is their ikigai. There are people who have been in an accident and don’t want others to experience the same trauma, so they invent a new piece of personal protection equipment. Safety is their message. The motivation to protect others became their ikigai. I know people who love the city they live in so much they give free guided city tours. They want visitors to experience the same excitement for the architecture and culture as they do. That’s their message, that’s their ikigai.

What could your ikigai be?

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