Finding Purpose — How to uncover your Ikigai.

“Purpose crosses disciplines.

Purpose is an essential element of you.

It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history.”

— Chadwick Boseman

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 purpose of purpose.

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.

Find your Ikigai.

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:

How to find your Ikigai.

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.

The life crafting MURAL.

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.

Making life crafting work for you.

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:

Direct non-judgmental, questioning and challenging.

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.