Years ago I came across the concept of “Ikigai” (or “life’s reason”) in a blog post, along with an explanatory four-axis venn diagram1. It introduced the idea of honing in on a life’s purpose by way of doing what you’re good at, what you enjoy, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. This really resonated with me.
I find this model a helpful tool in thinking about my own career, but it’s important to remember that it’s just that: a model. While I like the framework, as I’ve read more about Ikigai I also have some real concerns with it:
It’s mired in the pseudo-science of “self help” that I’m really suspicious of. Most books frame Ikigai as an elusive thing to start searching for today, that you need to find happiness, and need coaching to achieve.
It feels like yet another foreign cultural fetishization. Ikigai is a Japanese concept but nearly all material written on it is English.
The origins of Ikigai’s introduction to English readers is via a TED talk on the unusual lives of centenarians in Okinawa, Japan which don’t seem to relate to the venn diagram; where did that come from?
These concerns turn out to be valid. In fact the origin of this venn diagram is not Japanese at all, but instead comes from a book by Spanish Astrologist, Andrés Zuzunaga. Marc Winn’s blog post combined Andrés Zuzunaga’s original graphic with the idea of Ikigai presented in Dan Buettner’s TED talk and voilà, a meme!
Despite it’s shortcomings and misappropriation I still really like this mental model for considering career progression and debugging gaps in a sense of fulfillment. Here’s my translation of Andrés Zuzunaga’s original graphic in English:
Ikigai is still a very real concept, just not the same one as presented by most of these blog posts and books. Japanese neuroscientist Ken Mogi (who has also written a book on Ikigai, mostly about food) has a video addressing this venn diagram with an attempt to bring the term back to an original intent. In the video he proposes a new (crude, hand-drawn) diagram to take its place with two distinct changes:
The four circles of the venn diagram are replaced with two axis: small to big and private to public.
Rather than Ikigai being found at the center of this diagram, he emphatically repeats that all of it is Ikigai.
The goal being not to find the one perfect thing which checks all boxes but instead to cultivate a broad diversity of things big and small, public and private, to bring a rich multifaceted purpose to life.
I also appreciate this very different model, and took the liberty to capture Ken’s “true Ikigai diagram” with a few additions in a similar spirit:
Years later, Marc wrote a follow up post on the origins of his article on Ikigai and addressed how it took on a life of its own.↩