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How to Discover Your Ikigai

If your appetite for meaning and purpose is feeling heartier than ever right now, then a hunt for your Ikigai—your life's purpose—may be just what you need. Modern Mentor shares an action plan and a story of her own self-discovery.

By
Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #684
The Quick And Dirty

Finding your Ikigai comes down to asking and answering four essential questions:

  1. What do you enjoy?
  2. What are you good at?
  3. What does the world need?
  4. What can you get paid for?
Ikigai is a Japanese concept that combines the terms iki, meaning “alive” or “life,” and gai, meaning “benefit” or “worth.” In combination, it refers to your life’s worth or its purpose. It’s a new-to-me term I recently picked up in a piece from Positive Psychology. And in this moment it resonated with me big time.
 
Who isn’t on a hunt for purpose these days? We’ve talked and talked about the Great Resignation as people have continued to leave their jobs, noting a feeling of “meh” at work. They want something more.
 
And now that resignation may be evolving into the Great Sabbatical, as Danica Lo notes in her recent Fast Company piece on the subject.
 
Lo shares this quote from DJ DiDonna of The Sabbatical Project: “The pandemic is forcing people to make a change and to think about life and about themselves in a way they probably wouldn’t have ever done normally—about how precious and short life and our time is.”
 
If you’re one of the many who is searching or longing, then let’s talk about how you might tap into your personal Ikigai.

The components of Ikigai

A person’s Ikigai is made up of four key elements:
 
What you love: your personal preferences
What you’re good at: your skills and talents
What the world needs: a space for your skills and talents 
What you can get paid for: the commercial viability of that “stuff”
 
By exploring these four areas with a sense of curiosity and wonder, you may pick up some important insights about yourself. It’s more art than science—there’s no precise formula. And your answers will likely evolve over time. But just start where you are.
 
I realize I’ve done much of this work myself over the years. And I’d love to share some of my own insights to see if they might help trigger a set of your own.

What you love

My first post-grad school job was with a company offering a management rotation program. I accepted because frankly, I had no idea what I wanted to do. And this felt like a professional tasting menu.
 
I stayed with that company for five years, having full responsibility for an entire department soup-to-nuts. I was accountable for operations, execution, inventory, people, budgets, and more.
 
I was successful in the role but didn’t love everything about it. I tolerated budgets and operations and inventory, but I reveled in people-things. Engaging with people gave me energy.
 
I loved meeting, making connections, hearing fresh ideas. I’m a talker, a listener, a coffee-drinker, an observer—and doing these things makes me truly happy.

What you’re good at

Recognizing my love for engaging with people was useful data. But did I actually have a talent here? You’d only ever need to taste one of my brownies to know my enjoyment of baking certainly does not translate to talent.
 
When I sat with that question, I realized I did have viable skills and capabilities with people. I was pretty good at hiring the right ones, training and coaching them, and listening to their ideas on how to improve our ways of working.
 
This intersection of what you love and what you’re good at is, in the language of Ikigai, your passion. And it turns out inspiring and empowering people—giving them confidence and capability to succeed at work—is my passion.
 
Now your turn. Take a look around you. What do you love spending time doing it? When you do those things, do the results taste better than my brownies? Look for points of intersection between pleasure and skill. Find your passion.

What the world needs

Understanding my passion helped me transition from a job in general management to a career in Human Resources. And that was an important leap for me. I took a step closer to fulfillment.
 
I was good at corporate Human Resources. But I hit a point where I felt like I had something more uniquely “me” that I wanted to put out there. I had a point of view on what the workplace could look like, on how we could lead teams through change more effectively, how we could build more meaningful employee experiences, and how we could infuse more joy and meaning into our work while achieving stronger business results.
 
And this represented the intersection of what I love and what I believe the world needs. This was my mission. And this insight changed the game for me.
 
My mission became the foundation for Lead Above Noise, the business I run today, which allows me to do the work I think the world needs from me.
 
Could the world survive without this business? Absolutely. You can live your mission and be humble at the same time. Your mission doesn’t need to solve world hunger. But giving the world something you believe adds value is an amazing way to live your purpose, your Ikigai.

What you can get paid for

And finally, where the thing you’re good at meets commercial viability is your profession.
 
This is a big one. There are a lot of meaningful things one could do, but if there’s not a viable market for it, you may not want to invest yourself in it.
 
Type “famous product failures” into Google and you’ll get countless results detailing the biggest ideas that don’t exist. Google Glass, a wearable smartphone, the Segway, a two-wheeled people mover—these inventions were supposed to take over the world. They were cool, and their creators had a passion for them. The world just wasn’t interested in buying.
 
I did my homework before I hung my shingle. I talked to leaders in a wide range of organizations and industries to ensure they saw value in what I was preparing to offer. Knowing there was a ready-to-buy market for my service gave me all the confidence I needed to just start.
 
Now that I’ve discovered my Ikigai, my life is blissful, perfect really. OK, I’m joking. But this focus on self-discovery and purpose has absolutely enhanced my experience of every day. I continue to check in and make tweaks as I go. 
 
Now it’s your turn. You may go through a similar exercise and realize a big change is in store for you. Or you may find you’re doing exactly what makes you happy. Or maybe you’ll discover that there are small ways for you to infuse more joy or purpose into your days.
 
There are no right answers. Just be sure you go on the hunt.
 

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.