A woman in a coma was dying. She suddenly had a feeling that she was taken up to heaven and stood before the Judgment Seat.
“Who are you?” a voice said to her.
“I’m the wife of the mayor,” she replied.
“I did not ask whose wife you are but who you are.”
“I’m the mother of four children.”
“I did not ask whose mother you are, but who you are.”
“I’m a schoolteacher.”
“I did not ask what your profession is but who you are.”
And so it went. No matter what she replied, she did not seem to give a satisfactory answer to the question, “Who are you?”
“I’m a Christian.”
“I did not ask what your religion is but who you are.”
“I’m the one who went to church every day and always helped the poor and needy.”
“I did not ask you what you did but who you are.”
She evidently failed the examination, for she was sent back to earth. When she recovered from her illness, she was determined to find out who she was.
And that made all the difference.
This is an excerpt from Anthony de Mello’s book Taking Flight.
At the same time it is the story of Ikigai, a reason for being. It comes from Japanese, where Iki refers to “life” and Kai to “the realisation of what one expects and hopes for”. It is no coincidence that in the Okinawa culture, which belongs to the cultures where people live the longest, everyone knows their Ikigai.
The first time I came across this concept I realised how powerful it is. It leads us to the deepest and most spiritual questions about the ultimate meaning of life. Ikigai defines what makes your life worth living. It leads to happiness and fulfilment on a deeply personal level, as we all have a different Ikigai.
As you can imagine, there are people whose Ikigai is taking care of their grandchildren, feeding their goats or enjoying classical music.
On a more pragmatical level, the concept of Ikigai can help you find your vocation. What makes most people get out of bed every morning is their job. While some of them do it because they have to, others do it because they love what they’re doing. The second group of people can be a huge source of inspiration for all of us. I believe that everyone is able to find or create a job they love and that gives them a reason for living.
If you’re keen on finding your vocational Ikigai, have a look at the four questions below. Where all four answers overlap, there it is: your Ikigai.
What do you love doing?
What are you good at?
What can you be paid for?
What does the world need?
As you can see from the picture, it is a combination of passion, mission, vocation and profession.
You may ask yourself if you can leave one of those four circles out. Let’s have a look at it.
You don’t love what you’re doing.
If you have a job you’re good at, get paid for and it’s something that the world really needs, but you do not like it, it won’t bring you much fulfilment. You’d hardly do it without getting paid for it and you’re probably glad when your working day comes to an end. You won’t be able to get into high spirits and the job won’t lead you to Ikigai.
Example: I am good at languages and explaining things to others. I could earn money as a teacher and my job would help kids and adults to communicate in a foreign language. But as I don’t particularly like teaching languages, it’s off the list.
You are not good at what you’re doing.
If you love what you do, you usually practice it a lot and start getting good at it. You’re on the right track!
Example: You just started taking some cooking courses, love cooking but still don’t really know how to cook.
You cannot be paid for what you’re doing.
The typical example is a hobby. I love taking care of my garden, but I could never get paid for it! Who says you can’t get paid for taking care of other gardens? It has never been easier to turn a hobby into a living. It might be a long way to get there, but you shouldn’t underestimate what people are willing to pay for. Unbelievable jobs include a waterslide tester, a chocolate taster or a fortune cookie writer.
Example: This is a difficult one, as in extreme situations you can get paid for anything. Ok, let’s imagine you love petting rabbits. Those sweet fluffy animals, how cute are they! And imagine that you know how to pet them and cuddle them better than anyone else. Let’s even imagine that this job would “serve” another being, as the rabbit would find it deeply relaxing, haha. Unless I’m wrong (I wish I am! :D) you won’t get a single cent for this “job”.
The world doesn’t need what you’re doing.
What can you do for other humans, animals, the planet? This point is often forgotten, especially in Western cultures. Many people just want to make some money, regardless if the world really needs what they do. The noble Japanese idea behind the fourth circle is that you won’t reach your Ikigai unless what you do serves a higher purpose and a mission. Does your job make a difference in the world? It’s worth giving it a thought.
Example: You’re selling dog costumes. It’s your passion! You manage your business well and you have a good taste for chihuahua princess and french bulldog Spiderman costumes. Suppose there are dog owners that buy these things. Does it serve a higher purpose? Would you regard it as your life mission? If yes, cool! At the end, it’s your Ikigai.
Note: If you’re interested in Ikigai, the blue zones where people love the longest or the Okinawa culture, watch Dan Buettner’s TEDx Talk on How to live to be 100+.