Ikigai Misconceptions and the “Not-ikigai” Venn Diagram
Before we discuss the misconceptions about Ikigai, let me ask you a series of questions: What do you want to accomplish in life? What do you think is the purpose of your life? What gives meaning to it? Why do you get up in the morning and continue to fight? What is your north star when everything turns black? When everything else fails, what is that thing that makes you hold on to your dear life? In other words, what is your Ikigai?
If you could answer any of these questions, then you may already know what your Ikigai is, or at least you might be close to discovering yours. Ikigai is not what most people think it is — at least not the version that’s circulating around the web right now. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I mean the Ikigai Venn diagram below that’s all over the internet right now, even at Medium.com.
In Japan, ikigai literally means “value in living” or “something worth living for.” Outside Japan, most people just simply translate the word as our “purpose” in life. Yes, you could think of it that way but let’s be clear on one thing: Ikigai doesn’t have the connotation that the Venn diagram on the left implies. Ikigai is a straightforward concept, but it’s loaded with cultural meaning that often gets lost when translated and introduced to us simply as “our purpose” in life.
When I showed this diagram to my Japanese friends they just couldn’t understand it and shake their heads in incomprehension. How did such a simple word morph into such a zombie concept?
Well, it began when Marc Winn wrote a blog post “What is your Ikigai” on his site with the now-famous “Ikigai” Venn diagram above. As it turned out that the Venn diagram was taken from the Spanish author Andres Zuzunaga’s “Purpose Venn diagram”, and Marc just replaced the word “purpose” with “Ikigai”. The rest is a history of misconception. That blog post became viral and we have Marc to thank for introducing Ikigai to the world. But we still need to correct the misconceptions that arose because of the post.
The Four Misconceptions about Ikigai
1. Ikigai is what the world needs
Nope. If “what the world needs” means we’ll have to figure out what other people want to know what’s our purpose in life is, then that’s just appalling. It is completely the opposite of what Ikigai signifies as this would mean you need to constantly survey the world around you and look for some form of external validation.
Ikigai is internal, it is within each one of us. There’s no need to look outside for external validation, just look inside yourself instead. Your Ikigai is just there waiting for you to uncover. You see, you decide what it is for yourself and other people cannot decide for you. Eventually, you’ll have to decide for yourself.
I understand that marketers may have started this idea — “know what the market needs before you go all-in”. That may have been good advice if you’re creating business, but it’s just bad advice for people who are looking to find their place in this world.
2. Ikigai is what you could be paid for
Incorrect. Payment, income, or reward is unrelated to Ikigai. Although it may seem so. It’s true, Ikigai relates to “work”
which is one of the few key sources of the feeling of Ikigai. But “work” does not only mean working to get paid. If your primary motivation for your work is to get paid then you’re unlikely to get the feeling of Ikigai out of it.
Moreover, many forms of work don’t involve getting paid (e.g. volunteer work, household work, philanthropy, etc.). And they tend to be better sources of Ikigai than just working to get paid. With regards to our life purpose or our Ikigai, it doesn’t matter whether we get paid or not, we simply don’t have a choice (but to do it).
During his lifetime, Van Gogh was desperate and living in destitution. Although he devoted all his life to his art, he just couldn’t sell his paintings. He has these words to say about the subject:
“I can’t change the fact that my paintings don’t sell. But the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.”
In the end, it didn’t matter if he got paid or not for his work. His sense of purpose was so strong that even destitution couldn’t stop him from doing what he was born to do.
3. Ikigai is what you’re good at
Misleading. You’re not required to be good at a certain thing before you can call it your Ikigai. That’s completely irrelevant and counterproductive to the concept of Ikigai. You see, you discover your Ikigai by starting from scratch, and working your way up.
For example, when you decide to start a hobby, it’s highly advisable that you start small and you do the basics first. Being good at something is not a prerequisite. Although, after doing something consistently for some time, you may get better and eventually become good at it.
Of course, it may help when what you’re good at is also your Ikigai. But we must always be aware of the existence of a “shadow career.” A shadow career is a career that people settle to do because they feel they don’t have what it takes to pursue their dreams.
Usually, when we pursue our dreams, we will have to start somewhere. It would be gruesome work, and compared to our “shadow career” that we’re used to doing, we may suck at it at the start. But that should not stop you from pursuing your dreams however bad you are at the beginning.
4. Ikigai is what you love
As for Ikigai being “what you love”, I’d say not necessarily in the beginning. You may find something you love as your Ikigai, but it is not a prerequisite. In the beginning, you might even hate doing it. But after some time you may start to appreciate it for what it is, start to like it, and eventually come to love it.
People usually don’t like what they don’t know. We have biases against what we don’t know. We fear the unknown and our primitive mind hates to get entangled with what it doesn’t know. But when we get to know something, our minds ease up and we say, “Hey, that’s not so bad after all.” That could be the beginning of something you might call Ikigai someday.
Mark Manson, the author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, said that it’s not a question of what you love or what you want in life. It’s more about “what’s the pain that you want to sustain.” Make no mistake about it, your Ikigai will also be the source of your pain and suffering.
What’s the lesson here? First, don’t be afraid to try out new things when an opportunity presents itself. Especially when you’re still at the discovery phase. Second, be aware that what you truly love will also be the cause of your pain. If it’s just a superficial “want” that people often mistake for “love” it’s not going to pull through. If you can handle the pain that goes with it then it might be truly your Ikigai.
What Ikigai Is and What it is Not
The concept of Ikigai is not as restrictive as the Venn diagram above implies. Nor is it prescriptive in any way. The Japanese concept of Ikigai is a very loose concept. Your Ikigai is whatever that makes your life have meaning — something that is worth living for.
Does it need to be something that the world needs? No, you decide what it is for yourself. Does it imply something that you can be paid for? No, your Ikigai is priceless and you cannot give it a price tag.
Does it mean something that you’re good at? No, you can be a complete novice at something but still regard it as your Ikigai. For example writing or any craft that you need to develop from the ground up. Do you need to love it first before it can be you Ikigai? No, loving it is not a necessary condition for something to be your Ikigai although you might think of it that way eventually.
Your Ikigai is something that gives your life meaning. But it has a cost, and you’ll have to pay for it with sweat and blood. You may get frustrated with it. At times you may find it difficult and painful, and you might think of quitting. But if you can stick with it long enough, you will appreciate it for what it is. You’ll grow wise with it, and you’ll appreciate your life more knowing that you’ve given your best just to engage with it.
(This is the first part of a two-part series on the true meaning of Ikigai. In the second part of this two-part series on the true meaning of Ikigai, we will discuss in-depth the sources of Ikigai, its cultural background, and its principles and application. If you want to help us produce contents that inspire people to live a purposeful life, please use and patronize our Ikigai Notes Life Planner/Idea Journal and spread the word.)