Ep. 82 The Japanese concept of ikigai

japanese concept ikigai

In today’s episode, Anna looks at the Japanese concept of ikigai and how you can use the ikigai framework to look back over your professional life so far and craft a compelling story.

We’re not talking about becoming a different person here – in fact what you’ll find when you do this exercise is that you already have these skills and interests and facets to your personality and to your experience. It’s just a matter of uncovering those and connecting them together.

*Resources mentioned during the episode*

Get private career coaching – Individual coaching is fully tailored to your specific goals and desires so we can create the programme that works best for you, with the support that you need to move forwards. www.onestepoutside.com/claritycall



The Japanese concept of ikigai


Hello there. And welcome back as we look this week at connecting the dots and specifically using your ikigai, the ikigai framework, to do so. Now we were talking about taking control of your career even in uncertain times a couple weeks ago. And then we looked at the identity crisis that comes with such a big career move, whether you’d been made redundant or the nature of your profession means that you’re having to end your career at some point and go into something else, or you’re choosing to redirect your energy in a new direction, into a new sector to start a business, whatever that looks like. And as part of that managing that identity crisis, of course, part of that, and we talked about this last week, is to craft a new identity. And it’s partly for your own confidence as well as to be able to navigate this next phase, to work out maybe what it is you’d like to do instead and also to build that new brand around that, to maybe start creating content, to start reaching out to people, to start positioning yourself in a new way.


And it sounds dramatic to craft a new identity. We’re not talking about becoming a different person. But what you’ll find when you do this exercise is that actually you already have these skills and interests and facets to your personality, to your experience. It’s just a matter of uncovering those and connecting them together. So first I dug into the actual quote from Steve Jobs because I tend to misquote him, I think. I tend to talk a lot about connecting the dots of my clients. And so let me just give you a brief excerpt of his Stanford address and it is the following. So he said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

Now, the bit that I tend to focus on is connecting the dots, looking backwards in the sense that, “Oh, I look at my different experiences and I weave that together into a story.” So whenever I’m interviewed on podcasts and I’ve done many guest interviews, it always makes perfect sense. I weave this story of, “Oh, well I studied this and I went into that and then I discovered this. And now look, I’ve woven it altogether and it all makes perfect sense.” However, of course, as the second part of Steve Jobs’ quote says, “You can’t actually do that when you’re looking forward.” So when I was going through the experience, I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, well, I’ll do this job, even though it’s not really what I want to do, because it’s going to open these doors and then allow me to do this other thing.” And I’m going to discover coaching and then I’m going to piece that together with that. And I’m going to take this opportunity, even though it’s not what I want to do longterm, because that’s going to lead to, and so on and so on.

So there are those two really interesting aspects to connecting the dots. One is looking backwards and weaving that story together, crafting that new identity. And again, it’s not necessarily a new identity, it’s just a new way of looking at your existing identity, crafting that identity, building your personal brand and navigating the next phase of your career. But there’s also this future navigation of jumping and opportunities, following your curiosity, trying things out saying, “Yes,” and then seeing where that takes you, trusting, having the faith, that it will in some way lead to something wonderful. And it might not be exactly what you had imagined. It might not be the perfect vision on your vision board. But it’s definitely taking you closer to something that is incredible.

So that’s connecting the dots and the framework I want to use to help you do that is the ikigai.

And I’ve talked about the ikigai a lot. It’s something I did a workshop on in my Facebook group, a five day workshop, I think a couple of years ago. It’s something I use with my clients all the time, but I realised I don’t actually have a resource available to you. And so I thought let’s talk about it on the podcast. So I came across this concept of ikigai in a Ted Talk by Dan Buettner. He was talking about his Blue Zone research all around living longer. And I think the talk is called How to live to be 100+, back in 2009. And so that was an interesting project that he was working on.

And Okinawa, so the Okinawan islands of Japan were one of those blue zones where people were living longer. And he posited that one of the reasons was this idea of ikigai. there’s a book as well by Hector Garcia, in fact I’m sure there’s plenty of books. And most likely you will have seen this graphic, the Venn diagram of ikigai floating around in some form on social media. You may even have seen the graphic that I’ve developed myself. So what is your ikigai. Well your ikigai is again, a Japanese concept. It comes from the Island of Okinawa. It’s the reason for getting out of bed in the morning, your purpose, your why. And all these concepts of course, are very much interrelated and very powerful. So if you imagine, if you remember that Venn diagram from school, you have on the one hand, a circle, which is what you’re good at. Those are your skills and your strengths. You have a second circle, which is what you love, your passions, your interests. The third circle is what the world needs and the fourth is what you can get paid to do. So again, what you’re good at, what you love, what the world needs and what you’re paid to do or can be paid to do.

Now, I think this is a really powerful framework to use, and I’m sure there exists various versions of this. But it’s a powerful framework to look at where you are today in that diagram and where you want to get to and what it would look like if you were to get to that magical space in the middle, where you’re ticking all those boxes. So first, where are you today? And if you imagine, if you can pull up and I’ll put it in the show notes, you can pull up the framework that I’ve created, or you can just do a quick Google search and have a look. So you can just visualise it in front of you.

But let’s say in my corporate days at Procter & Gamble, I would have been probably in the space between what you’re good at, so I had skills and experiences from my time in marketing, on the one hand. And then I was getting paid pretty decently living in Switzerland and I didn’t have a lot of outgoings and so on. So I was in what you might call the profession space. I’m good at it and I can be paid for it. If you are pulling a random idea out and if you’re working on something you love, and it’s a really powerful cause that you believe so strongly in, but you’re not actually getting paid for it. And maybe it was just volunteering and coming straight out of school and you’re not good at it yet. That would be a really powerful mission, but you’re not actually being able to earn money from it.

And that’s certainly something. When I came out of university, I wanted to work at the UN, in an NGO I studied politics, economics development, and I thought I could make a massive contribution. But as it turned out, I had no skills or experience, of course, in relation to all these other people who are applying for jobs who had 10 plus years of working in the field, working in Kosovo and so on. So, that’s a bit of a naive space to be in. It’s all very well as sort of a voluntary capacity, but it’s not going to be a business. It’s not going to be a career that can be financially viable, which is what we’re talking about here.

So again, what you’re good at, what you love, what the world needs, what you can be paid for. And starting out with mapping out where you are today on that diagram and then you can see what it would look like if you were to get to that space where you actually ticked all of those four boxes or circles.

So let’s just go through each of those one by one. And what I’d encourage you to do is either grab a pen and paper and sort of jot this down as I’m talking to you, or probably most powerfully, you can listen a second time and then pause me and work on this. And certainly if you’re driving or running or whatever it is you’re doing right now, you can come back later when you have time and really sit down and do the exercise, because that’s the purpose here. So you may have come across this framework before, but the power comes in actually sitting down and doing this exercise.

So first, in terms of your skills, I want you to really think about your hard skills on the one hand and soft skills on the other. Now, let’s not get caught up in the semantics of the exact definitions of these words. It’s just to guide you on slightly different ways of thinking of things. So your hard skills will be most likely things that you’ve been taught. They’re probably job specific, role specific. You’ve maybe learned it from a training or from school on the job and it’s something that’s sort of unquestionable, that you can quite easily prove, take a test and boom, look, I’ve got this skill. Your soft skills are the things you might expect to be sort of on a job description, in the sense of collaboration skills and teamwork and communication, all those things, right? So those are incredibly important, but they go beyond the specific job. So it could be pitching, negotiating, presenting, whatever else that might be.

So the softer skills that aren’t necessarily tied to a specific job. And in fact, those are really powerful because they can be very transferable to other jobs. When you’re doing this, think beyond the job title, think beyond the obvious job tasks and try to elevate it, try to raise it up to that kind of higher level of what is it actually you’re doing. So not just, “Okay, I was doing social media posting,” but “No, I was coordinating the team, I was leading the project, I was making sure everyone hit the deadlines. I was creatively doing this, that and the other.” Right? So really think about what it was you were doing in your current role, in your previous roles, and also in your hobbies.

And finally, your personality strengths. So what are people always saying, “Oh my gosh, you’re so good at this.” What do you find comes really easily to you?

And you see that maybe it doesn’t come so easy to other people. What are your unique strengths that really you shine in? And I know it can feel like if something’s really easy, that it’s something that we probably couldn’t be paid for, but that’s not the case. In fact, if anything, that’s exactly where you want it to be. You want to be in that flow space, where you’re really hitting the ground running, you’re doing incredible work, people will value that and will pay you for that. Just because it’s easy for you, doesn’t mean it’s easy for other people. So again, hard skills, soft skills and personality strengths. That’s the first bubble.

The second one is what you love, so your passions, your interests. And we’re not looking for that one true passion that you’re going to build your entire career in business around. We’re talking about different interests, things that you enjoy, experiences. What would your ideal day would look like in practical terms? Again, thinking of your current role, your past roles, your hobbies and so on. One thing you can do is, and this is another exercise I take clients through, is to draw a lifeline where you mark all the notable experiences of your life, the moments, the events. And you can, if you want to do, the positive above the line and then the negative below the line. And so it might be that you had this incredible experience in office. But you want to think about why was it so memorable. Well, it was because I got this award in front of everybody, I was externally recognised, that really felt like it built my reputation. I had been seen for doing this incredible thing or, wow, my team were rewarded and they were so happy from this experience. They got on so well, they pulled through this challenging circumstance. And for me, that was the most rewarding. So seeing how well they did or how someone who reported did and so on.

So really trying to explore and dig deeper. What was it about that particular event? What was it about that project that you really loved? And it could be practical things too. I love being out and about, outdoors. I love sitting at home by myself working on my computer. I love working by myself, I would love working in a team and so on. Passions and interests. What do you love doing? Now the third one is interesting, so what the world needs. Now you can go big picture. There are more causes than ever that matter, more problems to solve than ever, whether it’s human rights, animal rights, women, children, the environment, ocean plastic, there are so many things you could get your teeth into and that you maybe believe passionately. And that is very powerful.

However, we’re not all Bill Gates. We don’t have to have some massive passion for that huge cause, we don’t have to change the world to that extent. Although, by all means, please try. But it doesn’t have to be so incredibly impressive. It can be something that you’re helping people with on a much smaller level. And probably it’s more likely to be something a bit smaller scale. So in particular, you might think of a personal experience you’ve gone through, or a struggle that you’ve come out at the other end and you can now share your experiences and add value to other people. So maybe you’ve lost a load of weight or you’ve found love, or you’ve gone through a difficult divorce, you’ve reinvented yourself in your career, you’ve started a business, whatever it is you’ve gone through yourself is something then that you can potentially help other people. I’ve gone from A to B and I can help you do the same. And that’s something that other people will need as well, I’m sure.

So thinking creatively and again, quite sort of small scale really, as to what are the things that people really need and what can you help them with.

And then finally, because again it’s a business, a career, it’s not just a charity. It’s not a hobby. Who needs this thing? Can they pay? Will they pay? How could you monetize this? And it might be random ideas, “You know what? Hey, I could drive an Uber. I could do translating or editing,” or whatever it is, right? Or it could be, and more powerfully probably, it could be linked to other things. So, okay, directly related to what I was doing before, I can definitely be a digital marketing consultant. There’s a market for that, I have the experience and so on. Or it could be, “You know what? I have the passion for this. There’s definitely a need for this. However, I don’t yet have the skills,” and so on.

So you can see there’s a gap there. But thinking broadly, brainstorming, exploring what you can be paid for. And so those are the four circles. And what I want to really emphasise here is that we’re mind mapping this, right? So grab a big piece of paper, do it by pen. You can also find a free mind mapping tool online. I’ve done that sometimes. But probably pen and paper is the most sort of visceral experience of really getting things down. I’ve done a lot of creative writing courses and they always say you have to write first and then edit as a second step. Never edit while you’re writing. And that’s what I want to tell you here. What I don’t want you to do is cross things out or worse, not put it down at all because you think to yourself, “I hope that would never work,” or “That’s ridiculous, that’s so embarrassing. What would people think?” and so on.

You don’t have to show this to anyone. So be honest with yourself. You can be honest about the things you love, the things you care about, the ideas you’ve had, the things you’re great at, and just put it down. Don’t worry, you have plenty of time later to cross things out and to rule them out. And if you feel they’re not practical, if they’re not things you actually want to do, they don’t fit with your family circumstances, whatever that may be, but you don’t want to rule them out before. The idea here is just to map everything out. And if nothing else, if the only thing you get out of this exercise is that you realise what rich and incredibly broad and varied and inspiring experiences and skills you have, then that’s already a really useful exercise.

We’re talking about building, crafting. Remember that painful process of the butterfly metamorphosing and that’s the process we’re talking about here. So finding the elements in the protein soup, and you’ll have to listen to last week’s episode if you want to understand what I’m talking about, if you’ve missed that. But building together that new identity based on the different elements. And so, just mapping that out as a first step is really powerful. Secondly, you can then start to find the patterns. I’m sure you’ll see certain key words and themes and ideas that crop up in each of the three or four circles. And that’s where it gets really interesting because that’s what probably you’ll be able to find something that really potentially could live in your ikigai, where you really could be in your element. You’re great at this, you love doing it, the world needs it, and amazing, people will actually pay you to do it.

So seeing patterns is the next step. But again, just coming back to Steve Jobs to finish on that, remember what he said. So you can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards, and you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. So this moment we’re connecting the dots looking backward. We’re looking at your skills and experiences and expertise and interests and ideas that you’ve had to date. Next step will be to take a bit of a leap of faith because we simply cannot know exactly where this is going to lead us. So there’s always a bit of a balance between the big picture vision, having that clarity and purpose and certainty and conviction that this is where you’re going, on the one hand, alongside the flexibility and adaptability and readiness to take opportunities that might come along, even if you don’t know exactly where they’re going to lead.

So I hope that was an interesting introduction perhaps, of ikigai, or maybe you’ve come across it before, you just haven’t done the exercise before. So again, I’d really encourage you to go back, listen to it again, grab a piece of paper, map out. And again, don’t sensor yourself, don’t edit. First, just get everything down, leave it for a bit and then see what you come up with, what patterns you might find. So I hope you find that useful. Again, that’s finding your ikigai and remember that idea of connecting the dots in a creative way. So going beyond just the job descriptions and so on, to really find the rich experiences and nuances beyond the label of what happened to be on your business card or on your LinkedIn profile, or CV, your job title. Thanks so much for listening. I’ll see you back here next week. Bye for now.

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Get private mentoring for your business – Partnering with a business coach can help you see those blind spots and get both external accountability and expert guidance to take your business to where you want it to be. www.onestepoutside.com/freeconsultation

Get private career coaching – Individual coaching is fully tailored to your specific goals and desires so we can create the programme that works best for you, with the support that you need to move forwards. www.onestepoutside.com/claritycall

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Join the One Step Outside the 9 to 5 Business Incubator – This is your roadmap to transitioning from a corporate job into setting up a meaningful business that will bring you more freedom, flexibility and fulfilment outside of the corporate 9 to 5. www.onestepoutside.com/9to5

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