(This is the second part of a two-part series article on the true meaning of Ikigai.)
Before we dive deep into the sources of Ikigai, our three Life Tasks, and the guiding principles of Ikigai, let’s first make an etymological survey of the word Ikigai. This would make the literal English translation of the word Ikigai more understandable to people not familiar with the Japanese language.
The Kanji Behind Ikigai
The word Ikigai is written as 生き甲斐 in Japanese. This word has two parts “iki” or life (生き) and “kai” or worth (甲斐). Combined, these two words mean “worth living” or “value in living”. There is a similar word in Japanese, 遣り甲斐 pronounced as “yarigai” which means ”worth doing.” It is often used to describe a job or work that is worth doing as in (やり甲斐のある仕事 | “yarigai no aru shigoto”）.
The literal meaning of these words is quite clear, they mean “(something) worth living” and “(something) worth doing” respectively. If something is worth doing, it must be useful to the world, something that produces value, and makes people’s lives better. On the other hand, if the definition of Ikigai is “ (something) worth living”, what might this something be? Think about it for a moment, what could be worth living for you?
Three Sources of Ikigai
Three things serve as our powerful anchors to this world: ① to self-actualize; ② to preserve existing relations; ③ to contribute to the world. These three are the universal sources of Ikigai, and they’re important enough to be worth living for most if not all people. The following explains these three sources of Ikigai in detail.
1. To self-actualize – We all want to become something. We want to achieve something for ourselves. Whether to do that thing that we’ve always wanted to when we were young or to stretch ourselves to overcome our fears or a challenge —eg. become a published writer, climb the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, become a judo master, or skydive from an airplane. Whatever the target is, people who aim to self-actualize a dream usually have an intense feeling of Ikigai.
2. To preserve existing relations – There is also the powerful pull of existing and “imagined” relations. We are all social beings. Even the most introverted person longs for a meaningful relationship with someone (maybe even more so). When we begin to have families our life begins to revolve around our partner, our children, our grandchildren, and so on. They become our anchors to life, and we’ll do everything to live longer just to be with them and take care of them.
Even if most of our loved ones have passed away, as long as we have social connections such as circle friends that make living in this world worthwhile, our will to live will go on. Dan Buettner, the social scientist who introduced Ikigai to the world in his Ted Talk in 2009, showed how having strong social circles prolonged the lives of Okinawans. For sure, it’s easier to give up on life if we don’t have someone to connect to.
3. To contribute – There is a benevolent intent in all of us. We want to contribute to the betterment of mankind and all things living or not. Steve Jobs said he wanted to “make a dent on the universe.” Elon Musk wants to make our species inter-planetary beings. A botanist living in the forest wants to save the trees. A grandmother musters what’s left of her strength to care for her grandchildren.
Whatever we set up to do to improve the lives of people around us, or to improve the condition of living and non-living things in the universe at large, they’re all worth living for. And it doesn’t matter whether you’ve got grand visions, the botanist or the grandmother’s sense of Ikigai for their work is just as great as any visionaries out there.
The determining factor here is not how grand is our vision, rather, how much we think our contribution is needed and the feeling that we contribute to fulfill that need.
Three Universal Life Tasks
What do these all mean? What the sources of Ikigai suggest is that if we are to find our own Ikigai, then we must proactively engage these three tasks:
1. The task to improve our Self and to self-actualize
This life task deals with the improvement of the individual self. Everything starts with the Self. It’s difficult to successfully engage in the other two life tasks without improving the Self first. Pursuits based on improving the Self produce a sense of personal achievement and self-actualization. It’s the first source of Ikigai.
2. The task to build and maintain meaningful Relations
Relations life task involves activities and behavior that build, improve, and strengthen our relations with others. The target is not others, but our connection with others. Having good relations with others and the world as a whole is one of the keys to the feeling of well-being. Successfully engaging in this life task induces a deep sense of belonging.
3. The task to engage in meaningful Work (to contribute)
Engaging in this life task means engaging in work that benefits others. It often involves getting some form of remuneration but not always. It induces a sense of mission and the feeling that we contribute to others and that therefore our life matters.
These three are universal in that we can only find meaning and purpose in our life when we engage in any or all of these three life tasks. We can engage in any one of our life tasks and be relatively contented with our lives. However, the feeling of Ikigai becomes more pronounced, powerful, and persistent if we engage in all three, particularly when each task relates to and overlaps each other.
The Guiding Principles of Ikigai
Now that you know the basic concepts of Ikigai —what it is and what it is not—let’s now deepen our understanding and survey some of the cultural principles surrounding Ikigai. Although Ikigai is a universal concept in that anyone can incorporate Ikigai into their life, it’s an idea that originated in Japan so it has a cultural context that anyone interested in the subject should know.
To people who are unfamiliar with the Japanese culture, these cultural contexts are often lost in translation but they’re the keys to discovering your Ikigai. You can view this cultural context as principles or a way of dealing with the challenges that get in your way when you start to engage in your life tasks. It is akin to Ray Dalio’s work and life Principles, but the goal of these principles is more on how to cultivate your Ikigai more than anything else.
Principle #1: Living in the moment
This principle can be used for all your three life tasks in that when you engage with any of the tasks at hand, you are to focus on the moment and not on anything else. There’s no need to worry about the past or anticipate the future. Don’t multitask or think about other things. Just focus on what you’re doing right now, here, at this moment, and everything else will be Ok.
Ichi-go Ichi-e. Foreigners who have attended the Japanese Tea ceremonies may have heard this Japanese proverb before. It means that we should value each moment as they pass, since it may never come again.
Many people often assume they can take back lost time. This is a wrong assumption. Once time has passed, you cannot recover it again. It’s like water flowing through the river, once the water flowed passthrough, it’s gone forever. You may think that water is still flowing and it looks and feels the same. But no, they’re not the same. The water of yesterday has moved on and you may not encounter it again.
“When I get successful I will spend more time with my children.” Does this sound familiar? What usually happens is that when we do get successful our children have already grown. Even if we find the time to spend with our children, after all, we cannot bring back the time when our children were still young and growing up. That time is lost forever.
So if your ultimate goal is to spend more time with your family, don’t wait until you get successful before you spend time with them. Spend time with them now as much as possible. That’s your ultimate goal, isn’t it? Why postpone your life now? Do what you want to do now, this moment is your life.
Principle # 2: Sustainable Living
Sustainability points to how the Japanese adhere to the values of conservation, whether in terms of the environment, the food we eat, or the energy we spend. In Japan, children are taught to conserve resources and be humble at a young age. These early disciplines serve as checks against the consumerist trends that are engulfing the world right now.
Consumerism, if you haven’t realized it yet, is often an act to get external validation, which is a great source of unhappiness for many people. Sustainable living, on the other hand, is to be happy and contented with what is “enough.” Instead of trying to buy all those shiny gadgets out there, ask yourself, do you really need those stuff?
I once talked with an old Japanese couple who were our neighbors at that time. We’re talking about not getting enough exercise, I told them I was thinking of buying a running machine. The elderly lady cut me off immediately, “You don’t need such a thing. Just climb up and down the stairs instead of using the elevator, that’d be enough.” When I think about it, what she said was completely true. I don’t need a damn running machine, I just need to move my ass around.
We’re complicating matters too much and trying to find reasons to buy anything that’s marketed to us even though we really don’t need them. Sustainable living is a path that leads to contentment and internal happiness. Finding beauty in small mundane things is a matter of perspective. But if you could train your eyes to see it, you could tap into a source of happiness so vast and abundant that you may not need anything else anymore.
Principle #3: Starting Small
This guiding principle can be put into practice usually when engaging in your Self and Work-life tasks. When you start small, you start fresh and light. You don’t have a big burden or the pressure to succeed. You’re free to improvise as you move along.
Why is starting small important? Because starting from scratch gives you a blank page to work on. This gives you the chance to start anew without any baggage. This makes major changes in your life possible and tenable.
Contrast that with how many of us try to do “everything” when we start a new project. We want to be big and successful at the outset —anything less than big is not worth pursuing. “We want big results now! The boss demands it. Can you deliver or not?” The truth of the matter is that we can’t start big, we can only start small. Projects that start big usually fail, and when they do they fail big time.
This is also true when we try to make major changes in our life. Many of us can’t take the plunge because we have so many preconditions and baggage that it’s impossible to even make the first step. In a new relationship, it’s often a good idea not to rush things. Take it one step at a time. Don’t push too fast, rather, let the relationship grow naturally.
If we want a fresh start, then we must take off all our baggage and lose all our preconditions. That means we may need to let our old self die, and let our new self be born and start with a blank slate. We can then start again and grow from there.
Principle #4: Living in harmony with the world
The Japanese people have a great affinity with nature. They do not only love or respect nature, they even worship them. OK, maybe not so much so at this time and age, but the significance of nature has always been internalized by the Japanese through its culture and the country’s geographical condition. Shinto, the belief in the sacred power of both animate and inanimate things, is the indigenous religion of Japan. Many of its rituals in some form or another are still being practiced by most Japanese even now.
Geographically, Japan is an archipelagic country, and its four main islands consist mainly of inarable mountainous regions. It’s located north of the equator gives it a range of weather conditions, some of which can be extreme. Japan has many active volcanoes (just yesterday, a volcano in Kumamoto Prefecture just erupted). Japan sits on several tectonic plates so the archipelago is constantly bombarded with earthquakes. As if that wasn’t enough, its location as an island country in the Pacific makes it one of the pathways of devastating typhoons every year.
These cultural and geographical conditions have made the Japanese people not only resilient to natural disasters, but they also have come to appreciate nature for what it means in their lives —sustenance, difficulty, beauty, tragedy, and great power (compared to our insignificance). So in a way the Japanese people have made peace with nature. They understand that although nature can be very unpredictable, it can also be a great source of health, longevity, gratefulness, and happiness.
How to synthesize Life Tasks into your day to day life
It’s simple really. First, you must proactively engage with your three life tasks. Do all three. Try to improve yourself. There are many things you can do to improve yourself. What do you fear the most? Maybe you can find some hints there. While you’re doing all this improvement, make time for renewal and never sacrifice your health. Push yourself to your limit, but don’t forget to be kind to yourself as well, treat yourself from time to time.
Build meaningful relationships and strengthen old ones. Learn to have confidence in others. Believe in them. Believe that they are capable. View them as your friend and your equal, and not as a subordinate or a superior. Be present and contribute more than what you receive in a relationship. Give and you shall receive.
Find work that’s meaningful to you –work that completes your soul. Work that would impact people’s lives for the better. If the end recipient of your work is too far and abstract for you to feel your contribution, just tell yourself “someone somewhere out there is depending on me to do this job well, so I will give it my best and help that someone.” Thinking like this makes the recipient of your work more immediate and real in your mind.
Surely, while engaging in your life tasks, you will inevitably encounter obstacles and problems along the way. When you do, please try to remember the four guiding principles and go back to them for guidance. For other questions and about finding your own Ikigai, especially if you are feeling lost and confused on how to move forward with your life, please email me anytime and I will get back to you as soon as I can.
Finally, if you need a structure or a medium where you can write your thoughts and ideas, you can try our Ikigai Notes Life Planner. The planner is built from the ground up using the Ikigai concepts and principles we’ve discussed so far. It will bring clarity to your life vision, help you set your goals, and it will encourage you to deal with your life tasks each day.
(This is the second part of a two-part series on the true meaning of Ikigai. If you haven’t read the first part yet please check it out as it enumerates the misconceptions surrounding Ikigai.)