How many people, on their deathbed say, “I wish I’d spent more time establishing best-in-class HR policies,” or “If only I had more time to strategically manage pricing, sales, revenue, and profits.” The answer is no one. No one. But chances are you may be spending a significant part of your life focused on those very things.
During these times of uncertainty and disruption, people are starting to question this. They understand the need to work, but other things are under consideration. They’re reconsidering not just how and where they work, but why they work. It’s a question that has taken root, adding to a general malaise. More and more of my clients are coming to me looking for a way to work it through.
The value of some work is obvious. Teachers impart knowledge and skills. Doctors, nurses, and EMTs save lives and heal the sick. The military defends the country and its citizens. But others stand on murkier ground. Launching a marketing campaign or a sales kick-off can be invigorating. Crafting an impactful brand message can induce pride while adding to the bottom line. But does it meet a deeper purpose? If so, what is it? These are heavy questions. But these are heavy times.
“Do what you love, and you will never work another day in your life.”
Expressed or not, that’s the ideal. But if you haven’t figured out what you love, what then? Does it matter? Simple answer. It can. Studies¹ have found that having a purpose in life leads to several life-enhancing outcomes — improved sleep, better physical health, improved memory, longevity, and beneficial changes in gene expression. These are benefits that transfer to the work we do. They contribute to a sense of fulfillment and improve performance². Simply put, having something outside of yourself that drives you is good.
The Japanese concept of ikigai captures this concept in a word. It has no direct translation in English. But it roughly means “happiness in living.³” In Japan, it’s considered essential to well being and key⁴ to living a long and fruitful life. It presents a contrast to the western concept of purpose where life’s purpose means “going big.” A grand or noble cause. “I want to save lives!” “I want to improve education!” “I want to end racism!” “I want to save the planet!” Take your pick. This is what’s lost in translation. Linking purpose to big may be the concept’s greatest weakness. These pie-in-the-sky ambitions are often a set up for disappointment.
Ikigai is more realistic and achievable. Rather than going big, it embodies the ordinary, personal, and small. They're the things that allow us to look forward to the future, even if our days aren’t currently so bright. The sweet spot is the intersection of what you love, what you are good at (not always the same thing), what you believe the world needs, and what you can get paid for.
One’s reason for being, which in principle is the convergence of one’s passions, beliefs, values, and vocation: those who follow the concept of ikigai undertake the activities of their life with willingness, and a satisfying sense of meaning:
In my work as an Executive Advisor and Coach, I’m seeing a similar scenario play out. My client, let’s call her “Ann,” has buckled down to meet the new demands and responsibilities of her job. She’s meeting the many new challenges of our time. She's doing what she was always capable of, but perhaps not received the recognition for. This is the peak of what she'd always strived for. But instead of feeling triumphant, she's burned out. Instead of excited, she’s unfulfilled and disillusioned. “Do I really want to do this anymore?” “Is it worth it?”
As ikigai suggests, there's always a small seed of purpose in anything we do. The daily grind overshadows it a lot of the time. It gets lost in the stream of what needs to get done, but it’s there. It's the thing that energizes us, the request we say yes to without blinking or thinking. It's the thing we're known for and would spend all our time doing if unencumbered by money or time. I've been helping clients, like Ann, to take a step back, reflect, reset, and uncover it.
There are many suggestions on how to find your ikigai. Most focus on an individual thinking about the ikigai categories. But simply asking yourself - what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can get paid for, can leave you no more informed than when you started. This approach also discounts the many ways Japanese society supports their version of life's purpose. It’s a culture⁶ geared towards thinking beyond one's personal needs, perhaps fostering a sense of purpose more easily.
At fassforward, we have created a tool that is more geared towards the western concept of purpose while arriving at the same point. It's called the Life Crafting MURAL. It is a guided, one-on-one, in-depth interview to uncover my client's ikigai. Using the digital “whiteboard and post-it tool,” MURAL, my clients record their answers to questions in four categories. We explore their hidden values, reputation, dreams, and typical steps they take to achieve them. By the end of the exercise, patterns emerge highlighting what really matters to them. Most importantly, they have clear, actionable steps they can take.
If it’s just reflection, you may ask, why can’t I do it myself? For a Life Crafting MURAL to be effective, three elements are essential:
On the face of it, you can fill out a Life Crafting MURAL alone. In the name of time-saving, many of my clients ask to do just that. But doing so would be a waste. Honest, detailed answers are required for the exercise to be useful. Most people don’t realize that their answers don’t make the cut. Post-it notes don’t talk back after all!
Writing is a good example of this. Many of my clients say that they are good at it, and they enjoy it. If left to fill in their MURAL alone that might be all that would go on their post-it. They would move on. But they would be missing an opportunity. Even if you write the world’s best pre-reads or white papers. Even if you do this often, it may not be what you are referring to when you say that you like to write. There may be something else that taps into your passion.
What kind of writing is important to you? Think-pieces, essays, short stories, blog posts, proposals, screenplays? Are there opportunities to do this type of writing where you currently work? Can the kind of writing that you have to do, help develop the kind that you want to do? The list could go on but the distinction is important. The questioning gets to it. Only targeted reflection and thorough answers serve the process. Guided questioning, and crucially, challenges by a trained interviewer, avoid this common pitfall.
Respondents write their answers on virtual post-it notes. They share a screen with the interviewer. The extra step of searching for the right word (and sometimes how to spell it!) highlights and reinforces repeated themes. The limitations of the small post-it like squares also force respondents to be precise. Precision and detail provide the clues to what is important. They ensure that the final MURAL is meaningful. Short-hand and broad terms may make sense to the respondent in the moment but be forgotten later. This potentially life-changing document would be useless if you didn’t remember what you meant in a few weeks’ time!
The Life Crafting MURAL exercise ends when all four sections are completed. Patterns emerge across the categories. They are often things that people understood about themselves intuitively. They are often things that they have never voiced. But when we are done, their most tightly held values are revealed. Their strengths and passions (personally and professionally) are identified. New next steps are outlined. They are left with an actionable guidepost for making decisions going forward. Together they encompass their ikigai.
We spend a significant part of our lives working. If we’re fortunate, we get opportunities to learn and get better at what we do. But if your work does not tap into your sense of purpose or ikigai, the returns on investment may never catch up to all you’ve put in. We are at a moment in time in which many are finding this to be the case. Aligning what you do with your values and passions, what you know how to do, and can get paid for could be the way forward. In other words, uncovering your ikigai may be the answer. The Life Crafting MURAL exercise helps many uncover this elusive concept.
Not everyone has a coach to guide them through this process. This doesn’t mean that aspects of this process aren’t accessible to everyone. The next time you get lost in something, the next time you volunteer or say “yes” to something before the request gets out of someone’s mouth, take note. Ask yourself, am I excited about this? Am I looking forward to it? Will I be disappointed if I don’t get to do it again? Chances are you are tapping into elements of your ikigai. It’s a starting point worth uncovering. Shouldn't we all be among the lucky ones whose life’s work reflects their purpose? Shouldn't we all enjoy the benefits of a satisfying, purpose-driven life?
¹ Wasmer Andrews, Linda. “How a Sense of Purpose in Life Improves Your Health.” Psychology Today, 14 July 2017.
² Schippers, Michaéla C., and Niklas Ziegler. "Life crafting as a way to find purpose and meaning in life." Frontiers in Psychology 10 (2019).
³ The origin of the word ikigai is said to go back to the Heian period Japan (794-1185) from the word kai for shells which were highly valued and iki meaning value in living.
⁴ Mitsuhashi, Yukari. Ikigai: A Japanese Concept to Improve Work and Life. 7 Aug. 2017.
⁵ “Definition of ikigai | Dictionary.Com.” Www.Dictionary.Com.
⁶ Santos, Marc. “Beyond Ikigai: How the Japanese Find Their Life Purpose.” Medium, 25 June 2019.