Behind the Scenes of Ikigai

Will the real IKIGAI please stand up? What is IKIGAI really about?

There are some Japanese words that immediately grab the attention of our western minds such as Kintsugi (here is a video by us), Wabi-Sabi and many others. Besides the beauty associated with them, they also come along with a magical philosophical touch. One of the most famous examples is “IKIGAI”, a Japanese social concept of how to approach a meaningful life. Over the last years, the topic of Ikigai gained more and more attention as people are amazed by the mental happiness of aging Japanese citizens and their will to work their whole lifetime. A wonderful example is probably the most famous Sushi Chef Jiro Ono.

„Even with 95 years of age, I do not feel like retiring.“ – Jiro Ono

In our western perception, Ikigai is used in sense making, purpose finding and other activities that guarantee a sense of fulfillment. This concept became so widespread that it began to get incorporated in all the purpose-finding seminars and coaching sessions.

This widely spread westernised model of Ikigai often asks in a canvas questions centred around one’s talents, passion, mission and the like. The idea behind this is that discovering your passion invokes an intrinsic motivation when aligned with your values and mission.

Reference: © Canvas by

We are people are constantly searching for direction and purpose in our personal and work lives, and that’s how many of us stumble on the IKIGAI as a concept for career advice as you would find on Skillshare. Another great example is the workshop by Chris Do. “How To Find And Do Work That You Love” went kind of viral on Youtube. This is imo a great example how this interpretation of the Ikigai can help you to achieve your goals and aspirations. Albeit a pretty nice tool for reflection; in fact a constructive tool that helps one figure out questions like “what am I good at”, “what motivates me?” and “how can I align meaningful {and paid} tasks?”

However, with a view from the original eastern tradition, this is somehow missing some essential points of the Japanese Ikigai philosophy. This is always a big challenge trying to “transfer” philosophies into foreign culture.

So if you ask the Portuguese about “Saudade”, they will tell you it is way more than mere “desire”. The same applies to terms like Heidegger’s “da-sein” which is not the same as “being present”. So it always difficult to translate words, but even harder to contextualise philosophies.

What Ikigai Meant

In Japanese culture, the “question of meaning” is clarified along the way — often in life’s everyday situations. And this picture can help us to find the right answer to this big question of meaning, since we often stop to ask this rather important and life-defining question. However, if we don’t start doing something, how can we tell if it makes sense to us? In Japanese philosophy, one’s “calling” can also be found in — but not restricted to — one’s job, but mostly in the supposedly simple things of everyday life.

Kyoto Bamboo Gardens by Motoki

The grand destination that we hope to arrive at, that we hope gives meaning to our lives and rid us of all forms of existential crises is unfortunately not the major proposition of Ikigai. Ikigai (Japanese, 生き甲斐) whose use first appeared as early as in the 14th century in Japanese literature originates from the words iki meaning “life” and kai meaning “reason; worth; use”. Ikigai as an ideology proposes finding joy and fulfillment in little, day to day activities rather than concerning itself with a grand ultimate goal.

“There are no little things. Little things are the hinges of the universe.”

— Fanny Fern

The Question is “How” not “What”

Ikigai has more to do with habits, mindsets and attitudes; more about the “how” and “why” rather than the “what”. How do I react to this issue? Why do I relate so much with this topic or this person? These are the questions addressed when finding one’s Ikigai. Therefore, a distasteful disposition to little things does not have a place in Ikigai, because your sense of purpose could very well be found in things that are neither glamorous nor profitable. Ikigai entails actions of devoting oneself to pursuits one enjoys irrespective of social status or one’s career. And there is another interesting trait: if you are studying more about Ikigai and wellbeing in Japan you may also stumble upon the concept of Shiawase (しあわせ、幸せ, feeling happy) – we will follow up on this, soon.

Michiko Kumano, On the Concept of Well-Being in Japan: Feeling Shiawase as Hedonic Well-Being and Feeling Ikigai as Eudaimonic Well-Being

Is the an ROI in IKIGAI?

One of the biggest misconceptions today is that your Ikigai has to be profitable and be found in your job. This is at best a materialistic-cum-capitalist mindset which plagues many who go into these purpose coaching sessions. Many immediately associate material wealth with phrases such as “achieve your dreams” or “she made it”. Inasmuch as attaining material success is a deservingly impressive feat, it could not be farther away from what the original Ikigai really is. Ikigai is not a result of societal pressure, but instead a wilful undertaking. This could explain why the inhabitants of the Japanese islands of Okinawa are well known for their longevity. And according to National Geographic, Ikigai may be one of the reasons.

Many of the inhabitants of these islands and Japan as a whole have special skills and talents that yield little to no remuneration, but the fulfillment achieved in their craft is unparalleled. A typical example of this would be the Takumi masters who spend almost 100,000 hours learning to master a craft that gives them an immeasurable sense of purpose in life. The Takumi story is told here.

Photo by Maggie Markel on Unsplash

This level of mastery is not achieved through mediocrity and lacklustre. It requires focus, process discipline, mindfulness and attention to detail. However, this is not an unscalable barricade for those who place the utmost significance on their Ikigai. On the contrary, the inner being is at peace and the intrinsic motivation to achieve this plateau of craftsmanship spikes, which in turn releases feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment. This is why many Japanese do not retire from work. They simply continue to do the work they love as long as they are in good health.

Ikigai calls for you to step out of your comfort zone, your zone of bias and out of any preconceived notions of what purpose is supposed to look like. Purpose does not look a certain way, it is felt within the individual. Deferring to an earlier stated point, it is not about what it looks like, it is about how it makes you feel.

What if you can´t find your Ikigai right now? Relax,
it will find you some day — on the way

In an intense effort to find one’s Ikigai, there is often an unimaginable exasperation or disappointment that follows when all effort proves to be of no avail. The feeling that is conveyed out of this misunderstanding of Ikigai is that you have failed if you could not discover your own purpose. This westernised adulteration of this concept lays down a new imperative that suggests that it is your responsibility to discover your own purpose and when you fail at it, then you must be doing something wrong.

On the contrary, what we have found to be true in some cases is that a handful of people don’t find purpose but vice versa. Many times, we set out on a journey; a journey we hope leads us to this great and majestic destination where our purpose or calling is safely tucked away only to discover something entirely different evokes in us that feeling of satisfaction and worth that we seek. Yet for others, they grow to enjoy and find passion in mundane everyday tasks that they do out of obligation. This is the instance where you say, “their calling found them” rather than “they found their calling”. And the Takumi masters are the epitome of this. They put in hundreds of thousands of hours to learn a craft that eventually defines their life purpose. You can watch a brilliant Lexus-produced film that tells the story and philosophy of “Takumi” here.

When looking for purpose for our lives, we often look to the big things that promise us meaning, but these goals can seem out of reach and overwhelming. But the good news is, it could very well be the other way around. This is what the original Ikigai proposes. The basis of the Ikigai philosophy is this: If we can find meaning in the little things, then we can experience constant tangible moments in our everyday life that enable us to master present and future challenges. These can carry us, make us more resilient when we are facing difficulties.

A Joint Project: Ikigai and Resilience

Many western and eastern studies on stress management and resilience clearly show, that finding meaning is an essential pillar for developing and strengthening one’s own resilience. Scientific studies on the topic of Ikigai and well-being have been conducted in Japan since 1966 — they were able to show essentially three elements that demonstrate the link to stronger resilience:

  1. Future orientation is more important than present happiness. Even if people are struggling with their present life, they can still pursue their Ikigai as long as they have hope and a goal in mind.
  2. A present and actively lived Ikigai is associated with self-efficacy and a sense of self than with the feeling of happiness.
    People feel a greater degree of their Ikigai, when they achieve something with their own capabilites. Self-efficacy is thus a key to Ikigai and resilience.
  3. Ikigai is much more strongly linked to one’s values than to feelings of happiness.

Now that we have a relatively better understanding of Ikigai, a different set of questions need to be asked, the most important of which is, “are you finding joy in your everyday life?”.

Take your time, download our alternative visual IKIGAI-model and reflect on your daily actions and habits:

An alternative to the popular Ikigai canvas. © Lumen Design. Our German version is available on:

Since 2010 Lumen is a collective of creative minds and strategists, pushing organisations towards a new vision of economy, #newwork and #socialresponsibility

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