The Lesser Known Story of Ikigai

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February 9, 2022

The genesis of the investigation

About a month ago I posted my favourite career framework “Ikigai – the Japanese Concept of Finding Purpose in Life”, and shared it over LinkedIn encouraging career pivoters to consider their ikigai when determining what career fits them best.

In one of the comments to my post, a man named Nicholas Kemp, an Ikigai Coach, shared this:

“A helpful and inspiring framework, but a Western misinterpretation of the ikigai concept I'm afraid.

The Venn diagram framework is the creative work of Spanish author and astrologer, Andres Zuzunaga, who created it as Proposito (The Venn diagram of purpose) in 2011. It first publicly appeared in the book Qué Harías Si No Tuvieras Miedo (What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?) by Borja Vilaseca in 2012.

Its association with ikigai came about when a blogger playfully merged the two concepts in a blogpost that went viral. Unfortunately, Andres Zuzunaga receives no recognition for his creative interpretation of purpose and the beautiful Japanese concept of ikigai is misunderstood as a work related or entrepreneurial framework.”

I was certainly surprised by this, and decided to investigate further. This article shares what I found through my research.

Ikigai’s Japanese Origins

The earliest article I could find on the internet about ikigai was from May 1999. The article “Ikigai in older Japanese people” described ikigai as follows:

‘The word “ikigai” is usually used to indicate the source of value in one’s life or the thing that make one’s life worthwhile (for example, one might say: “This child is my ikigai”)

Secondly, the word is used to refer to mental and spiritual circumstances under which individuals feel that their lives are valuable.”

The author of the article goes on to say that:

“There is a difference between ikigai and the sense of well-being. Ikigai is more concerned with the future: for example, even when one feels that one’s present life is dark, possessing a desire or goal for the future allows one to feel ikigai.”

This reminds me of my favourite book “Mans Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. In the book Viktor (the author of the book), recollects his experience of living as a detainee in the Auschwitz concentration camp. A clinical psychologist, he shares his observations on the impact that being in a concentration camp has on humans. Most profound for me in the book, is him pointing out who has the will to live on and who perishes.

His findings are that it is those that have a why, be a loved one or a piece of important work, are the ones that survive. Which aligns with “even when one feels that one’s present life is dark, possessing a desire or a goal for the future allows one to feel ikigai.”

This is also similar to one of my favourite quotes from the German Philosopher Freidrich Nietzche  – “He who has a why, can bear anyhow?”

More recently “Ikigai” has been popularized as a four way circle diagram based on these four questions:

· What do you love?

· What are you good at?

· What does the world need from you?

· What can you get paid for?

Image Source: Marc Winn

But wait, how could the inmates that had a will to survive have “ikigai”, who weren’t doing what they loved, what they were good at, what the world needed or what they could be paid for.

The four circles seem to be more about a set of conditions that could maybe lead to “ikigai”, but is not “ikigai”.

Ikigai is also often related to living long and fulfilled lives. Many know that Japanese people particularly those that live in Okinawa, Japan live the longest. But why is that?

Based on a simple Google search you can find that that Okinawan’s live long, happy and purposeful lives. But what does it mean to be purposeful? In short, purpose gives us a reason to live (back to Frankl and Nietzche).

Why is that so important? Okinawans can focus on their “ikigai”. Or in other words “their reason for waking up in the morning”. They are less busy than others and can focus on important things around health, family and friendship.

Another concept I come back to often is the concept of the compass versus the map. In western civilization, we tend to focus on our map, the journey ahead that will lead to success. We ensure we do well in school, get that great corporate job and climb the corporate ladder. Then 30 years later we are left wondering how we got to where we are and why we are not fulfilled.

Instead I encourage myself and those around me to focus on the compass. Grounded in purpose (I usually also refer to values, interest and strengths), the compass you can come back to see if you’re heading north. You may not have a perfect map, and will need to wander, but you can look down at your compass to make sure you’re facing the right direction.

“Ikigai” in other words can be the feeling of facing north. That you’re living out your life’s purpose, with a destination that is worth living for.

Similarly, it appears the Japanese “do not think of ikigai’s impact on functional, social, or psychological well-being. Instead, it’s a feeling that can impact many areas of one’s life including, experiencing the pleasure of living through work, family or communication with neighbours.” (Quote from 1999 article “Ikigai in Older Japanese People”)

This can be demonstrated by a 2010 survey of 2,000 Japanese men and women, in which just 31% of participants cited work as their ikigai. Reaffirming that ikigai isn’t solely focused on career or work.

The Ikigai Derivative

So how did the original ikigai get altered to the ikigai we know today?

How did it move from a “feeling” of living one’s purpose to a set of conditions that might indicate that you will be “fulfilled” in your career.

The current four-circle framework that we know and love today was first originated by Marc Winn in 2014 in his blog post “What is your ikigai?”.

In the article Marc states “According to the Japanese, everyone has an ikigai. An ikigai is essentially ‘a reason to get up in the morning’. A reason to enjoy life.”

He then states based on his experience helping many entrepreneurs find their ikigai, that “Your ikigai lies at the centre of those interconnecting circles. If you are lacking in one area, you are missing out on your life’s potential. Not only that, but you are missing out on your chance to live a long and happy life.”

One thing that is important about this is that Mark is helping a group of entrepreneurs. I would argue that entrepreneurs are more work and career focused than many others in our society. So he is taking “ikigai” as a feeling, and setting the conditions for “entrepreneurs” to likely feel ikigai.

Sure the ikigai framework we know and appreciate today can be helpful and if all conditions are met  you may have “ikigai”, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you do. You can experience ikigai without meeting all four criteria, and you may meet all four criteria and not have “ikigai”.

Personally, at the moment I feel “ikigai”, I have a reason to wake up every morning to help others find fulfilling careers, help companies become great places to work, and build amazing communities. Yes, I love this, I am good at it, and the world needs it, but I am not getting paid very much for my work (most of its free currently). But I certainly experience ikigai, as I am waking up with purpose and a reason to be.

Another striking example would be of a stay at home parent, or a parent on parental leave. They likely experience ikigai when they wake up with a reason to care for their child, but they may not meet the four circle criteria for “ikigai”.

On the other hand, a person could have all four. Let’s say they love coding, are very good at it and clearly the world needs and pays for software engineers. But the difference their organization is making isn’t aligned with their internal purpose. Or simply they may be working in an environment or structure that they don’t enjoy. They are waking up dreading going to work, but yet they have all four criteria satisfied in Marc Winn’s framework of ikigai.

It is very unlikely for entrepreneurs to have this problem since they choose what the company does and are responsible for culture and environment.

Years later, Marc shared that he “borrowed” the four circle diagram concept from Andres Zuznaga’s proposito. Originally shared in Spanish, and focused on “purpose” versus ikigai. Essentially Marc, just changed the diagram to say “ikigai” in the middle.

Image Source: Andre Zuznaga

Similar, to the four circle framework, these are again a set of conditions that may lead to your purpose. But I would argue instead of focusing on each quadrant to find purpose, focus on purpose, and then look to each quadrant for career satisfaction.

Another interesting find was that in an article by Kyle Kowalski, he cleverly points out that this diagram looks very similar to Jim Collins “Hedgehog concept”.

Image Source: Jim Collins

So perhaps Jim Collins had an impact on the creation of the 4 circle diagram we see today. Again, Jim tends to focus things around business, and hence is more career focused.


The four circle “ikigai” diagram that we know today isn’t actually “ikigai”. Instead, it could be the set of conditions that could lead to “ikigai” in a working environment.

This does not necessarily mean you will have reached “ikigai” if you have it, or you don’t have “ikigai” if you don’t meet this conditions.

You can have many “reasons to be” that are centered around purpose. And probably the most important piece to ikigai has to do with living your purpose.

It is living a life of “purpose”, that can lead to the feeling of “ikigai”. Purpose is the compass - it shows us the way.

With a strong understanding of purpose, all decisions in life become much easier and stress levels lower. We can more easily understand and identify what we should focus on, which is typically making an impact, connecting with friends and family and doing healthy things versus what we often chase: money and success.

Purpose is usually never focused on “success” or “money” but more “meaning” and “fulfillment”. And purpose can be much larger than career, which ikigai correctly incorporates and the four circle framework does not.

The impact this research has had on me has reinforced that I must double down on purpose, and take time to self-reflect and ask “am I feeling ikigai?”.

Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe to my newsletter. I write about fulfilling lives and careers, building community, as well as startups and innovation.


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