(source: Toronto Star)
Ikigai, the model tells us, is our “reason for being” – and if we find what is at the intersection of these four circles, we will know our Ikigai.
This is very helpful and motivational for people going through career reinvention, or who want to find their niche in business.
But to use it effectively, it helps to understand some more about it.
- Where did the Ikigai diagram come from?
- What is the Japanese concept of Ikigai anyway?
- Is Ikigai the best model to use to find my purpose or vocation?
Let’s find out.
Where Did The Ikigai Diagram Come From?
The short answer …
The short answer to where the Ikigai diagram came from is that it was created by Marc Winn on May 14th 2014, in an article titled What Is Your Ikigai?
Then it went viral.
Marc described the genesis of the Ikigai diagram in a 2017 blog post, while reflecting on this experience of going viral:
“In 2014, I wrote a blog post on the subject of Ikigai. In that blog post, I merged two concepts to create something new. Essentially, I merged a venn diagram on ‘purpose’ with Dan Buettner’s Ikigai concept, in relation to living to be more than 100. The sum total of my effort was that I changed one word on a diagram and shared a ‘new’ meme with the world.” – Marc Winn, 2017
The purpose diagram that preceded the Ikigai diagram was available in many forms, but a common form was this one:
The Ikigai concept from Dan Buettner, that Marc drew on for the Ikigai diagram, was from Dan Buettner’s 2009 TED talk on How To Live To Be 100+.
The version of the Ikigai diagram published in Marc Winn’s 2014 article is shown below:
(Source: Marc Winn’s 2014 blog post)
Marc commented that he produced the Ikigai diagram and blog post in under an hour:
“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Less than an hour of my time has made more of a difference in the world than all my time put together.”
The slightly longer answer to where the Ikigai diagram came from …
The slightly longer answer to where the Ikigai diagram came from is that it evolved from Jim Collins’ idea of a Hedgehog Concept from his 2001 best-seller Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t.
Collins argued that great companies develop a “Hedgehog Concept” that underlies everything they do. A hedgehog concept is found at the intersection of three key factors:
While Collins’ model was developed for corporations, an adapted version of it – the “Sweet Spot” model – quickly became popular for entrepreneurs and career changers:
(This version of the Sweet Spot model is sourced from Melissa Dinwiddie at https://melissadinwiddie.com/articles/creative-businessentrepreneurialism/)
To find your ideal business niche or career, simply find your Sweet Spot.
The Sweet Spot diagram was then adapted by someone – I don’t know by whom, or when – to add in a fourth circle: “That which the world needs.”
The “Sweet Spot” at the centre was relabelled as “Purpose.”
The revised diagram also labels the intersections of the circles as Passion, Mission, Vocation and Profession respectively.
This now gives us essentially the fully formed 2014 Ikigai diagram – all Winn had to do to create his Ikigai diagram was replace the word “Purpose” with “Ikigai.”
What Is The Japanese Concept Of Ikigai, Anyway?
We have seen that the only difference between the “Ikigai” diagram and the “Purpose” diagram is that Marc Winn added in the word “Ikigai” instead of “Purpose.”
Since the main difference between the two diagrams is adding the word Ikigai, it raises the question: what exactly is Ikigai anyway – and how does this help us with vocational planning?
The version of Ikigai that Marc Winn used was sourced from Dan Buettner
Marc Winn picked up the Japanese concept of Ikigai from Dan Buettner, an American guy who grew up in Minnesota.
Buettner wrote and travelled extensively for National Geographic, during the course of which he got interested in geographical areas he called Blue Zones – specific places where people naturally live longer.
Five of these areas included:
- Barbagia region of Sardinia, Italy
- Ikaria, Greece
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
- Seventh Day Adventists, Loma Linda, California.
- Okinawa, Japan
Buettner and his team found that al people in the Blue Zones shared nine traits, that he called the “Power-9.”
One of these key traits is a sense of “purpose,” which he describes on his site:
The Okinawans call it “Ikigai” and the Nicoyans call it “plan de vida;” for both it translates to “why I wake up in the morning.” Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy.
Since Ikigai is a Japanese concept, and Buettner is an American, it makes sense to turn to the Japanese to further explore the concept of Ikigai.
What does Ikigai mean for the Japanese?
Japanese journalist and author Yukari Mitsuhashi examined the concept of Ikigai, and compared Ikigai in Japan to Ikigai in the West. She wrote in a BBC article that:
“To those in the West who are more familiar with the concept of ikigai, it’s often associated with a Venn diagram with four overlapping qualities: what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.
For Japanese however, the idea is slightly different. One’s ikigai may have nothing to do with income. In fact, in a survey of 2,000 Japanese men and women conducted by Central Research Services in 2010, just 31% of recipients considered work as their ikigai. Someone’s value in life can be work – but is certainly not limited to that.”
In her book Ikigai: Giving Every Day Meaning and Joy Mitsuhashi explained what Ikigai means for the Japanese. The core definition is close to how we usually understand Ikigai:
“The Japanese word ikigai is formed of two Japanese characters, or kanji: ‘iki’ [生き], meaning life, and ‘gai’ [甲斐], meaning value or worth. Ikigai, then, is the value of life, or happiness in life. Put simply, it’s the reason you get up in the morning.”
But in the Japanese culture, Ikigai is related more to everyday life than to work:
“Some recent Western interpretations of ikigai may seem to explore the idea of finding a meaning to your life as a whole, but that is not quite what the word means. The English word ‘life’ carries the sense of both lifetime and daily life, but in Japanese, we have a separate word for each: the former is expressed by ‘jinsei’ [人生], while ‘seikatsu’ [生活] denotes everyday life. When I spoke to Akihiro Hasegawa, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Toyo Eiwa University who has studied the concept of ikigai for years, he made an interesting point. Ikigai translated into English as ‘life’s purpose’ sounds quite formidable, but ikigai need not be the one overriding purpose of a person’s life. In fact, the word ‘life’ used here aligns more with seikatsu – daily life. In other words, ikigai can be about the joy a person finds in living day-to-day, without which their life as a whole would not be a happy one.”
Correspondingly, Ikigai tends to be related to finding joy in everyday things:
“A person’s ikigai might be their family, work or hobby, a photography trip they have planned for the weekend, or even something as simple as a cup of morning coffee enjoyed with their spouse, or taking their dog out for a walk.”
In Japan, there are other related “-gai” (“values”) words, and one of them – Hatarakigai – is explicitly concerned with values at work:
“There are other Japanese concepts that represent different values, all ending with gai. For example, hatarakigai refers to value in work (hataraki or hataraku means ‘work’ or ‘to work’), while yarigai refers to value in what you are doing.”
Yarigai seems to be the Japanese word that plays the closest role to purpose at work in the west. Like Western surveys on purpose at work, the Japanese conduct surveys of Yarigai in work environments:
“In relation to work and career, the word yarigai (value of doing) is often used to describe people’s motivations at work. Surveys about yarigai are very common in Japan, and provide us with an opportunity to reflect on why we work and what aspects of work motivate us more than others.”
Another interesting Japanese perspective on Ikigai comes from Ken Mogi, in his book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.
Mogi exlores Ikigai in Japan, and, like Mitsuhashi, ties Ikigai to everyday pleasures, such as the first rays of sunshine on one’s face, the first coffee in the morning, or seeing one’s children smile.
Ikigai … is about discovering, defining and appreciating those of life’s pleasures that have meaning for you.
Mogi emphasises that Ikigai is a “a concept heavily immersed in Japanese culture and heritage.”
Mogi ties Ikigai to other Japanese values such as
- Kodawari (high personal standards),
- Wa (harmony with other people and the environment), and
- Ichigo ichie (appreciating the specialness of an event as being a once-off event, in this moment).
What have we learned about the Japanese concept of Ikigai?
After looking at what Ikigai means for the Japanese, what have we learned? How should we understand Ikigai?
Firstly we have to acknowledge that Ikigai is a concept that is deeply embedded in Japanese culture. It’s a nuanced concept that’s not simple to just transplant into a career planning or entrepreneurial niching model.
Second, in western terms, if we were to translate it, I think it’s probably closest if we look at Ikigai as kind of a cross between the French concepts of raison d’etre and joi de vivre.
Like Ikigai in Japan, raison d’etre and joi de vivre are widely understood in western countries.
Mitsuhashi observed that Ikigai is not something people are taught, it is something that is just part of the culture:
“Growing up and living in Japan for most of my life, I don’t recall ever being taught about ikigai in a classroom … there are no ikigai teachers.”
Similarly, as for Ikigai, there is no schools or classes for finding our raison d’etre or joi de vivre. But we still know what these phrases mean.
Third, clearly Ikigai does not translate clearly to western terms such as purpose or vocation – the Japanese have difference and separate words to match up to these terms.
What is the “Ikigai” model really about?
Recall that the Ikigai diagram was created by Marc Winn modifying the former “Purpose” diagram (reproduced below) to replace the word “Purpose” with “Ikigai.”
But what is the original model really about – what was it intended to accomplish?
And is the Ikigai model meant to accomplish the same thing – or something different?
What is the objective of the Purpose model?
The “Purpose model” was created for the same reason as the “Sweet Spot” model we talked about earlier:
- To help people through the process of choosing a new career, or
- To help new solopreneurs or small business owners choose a niche (market to focus on).
The Purpose diagram was designed specifically to help with vocational planning – to find a career or a business focus aligned with your passions or skills, your “purpose” expressed through work.
What is the objective of finding our Ikigai?
We now know that Ikigai means – to the Japanese – what brings you joy in life (not just at work).
Ikigai is not about vocational planning.
Finding your Ikigai might or might not help you find your vocation – your Ikigai might have nothing to do with work. Getting clear about your vocation is not the only, or necessarily the major, goal of finding your Ikigai.
These are two quite different goals
These are two completely different goals: finding what gives you meaning in life in general, and finding meaningful paid work.
Either one of these would be a worthwhile outcome.
But they aren’t the same, they are different.
So, which outcome is the model designed to deliver?
In a Venn diagram, the central intersection is an outcome, not an input
In a Venn diagram, the thing at the centre (whether it’s called Purpose, Ikigai, or the Sweet Spot) is an outcome, not an input.
A 3-circle Venn diagram literally means that if three circles A, B, and C intersect, then we have the intersection I.
I is defined by the intersection of the three circles, not by a separate and different definition.
We can call I (the intersection of all the circles in the Venn diagram) a Purpose, an Ikigai, or a Unicorn – and the logic of the diagram still literally means that if you have A, B, and C then we have I – whatever we happen to call I.
What we name I doesn’t make any difference from the point of view of the logic.
If there is any conflict between what you call I and what you find at the intersection of the three circles, then the intersection of the three circles trumps your new and creative definition of what we say I is.
So, changing what we name the intersection of the four circles at the centre of the Purpose diagram has no impact at all on the logic of the model.
The thing at the central intersection of the Purpose or Ikigai diagram could be called Bliss, or Raison D’Etre, or Joi De Vivre, or Calling, or Vocation, or Purpose, or “X,” and the logic of the diagram would still work just the same way.
The Ikigai model is exactly the same as the Purpose model – and therefore produces exactly the same outcome.
The Ikigai model is exactly the same as the Purpose model – only with a name change for the outcome.
So, regardless of whether the outcome has now been renamed as Ikigai, the model itself is still trying to align:
- What you love doing
- What you are great at doing
- What people will pay you to do
in a way that makes a difference.
The intersection of the four circles in the Venn diagram – i.e. the outcome from the model – is still exactly the same.
The model is still about vocational planning – career planning, or entrepreneurial positioning and focus.
Because it’s exactly the same model, whether the centre of the model is labelled as Purpose, or Ikigai, or something else.
But as we have seen, Ikigai is not a vocation.
So it’s not a particularly appropriate to rename the outcome from the model as Ikigai. The word Ikigai is simply not a good fit for describing a vocation.
There’s now a conflict between what’s at the intersection of the four circles of the Venn diagram, and what Ikigai really means.
And the only – and the correct – way to resolve the conflict is to go back to looking at what the intersection of the four circles defines, and see what matches with that.
And it’s not Ikigai.
It’s really a “Vocation” diagram
The real and appropriate outcome from the vocational planning process – what is at the centre of the four circles in the Purpose or Ikigai diagram – is and always has been finding a vocation that’s a fit for the person.
In other words, properly labelled, the “Ikigai” diagram is actually a Vocation diagram. It’s a vocational guidance model.
Ikigai is not the outcome, it’s an input
If the outcome of the vocational planning process (and the word at the centre of the intersection of the four circles) is vocation – not Ikigai – then that raises the question of should the concept of Ikigai fit in the diagram at all? And if so, where should Ikigai best fit in in to the diagram?
It turns out that Ikigai does fit very neatly into the diagram. Just not at the centre.
What gives life meaning, what gets you out of bed in the morning, what makes life worthwhile are all naturally part of “that which you love.”
Accordingly, Ikigai belongs in the “That which you love” circle in the diagram.
Ikigai fits right in there. Naturally. Authentically.
Even when properly understood in its Japanese cultural context.
Ikigai is an input to a vocational planning process – not its output.
Does it help at all, in any way, to still put “Ikigai” at the centre of the diagram?
In the model, “Ikigai” properly belongs inside the “That which you love” circle in the diagram – as in input to the vocational planning process.
But could it it still helpful for people to think about vocational planning in terms of a vaguely articulated – but exotic sounding – word like Ikigai, rather than using a more relevant and appropriate English word like “vocation” that is more explicitly aligned with vocational planning?
Maybe there is some value in this. There’s certainly something to be said for firing up the imagination.
But if that’s the case, why not use an exotic Japanese word that is more closely aligned to a vocational planning activity – perhaps like Yarigai or Hatarakigai? It would still be exotic and evocative – but more relevant and more accurate.
What do you think?
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Ikigai has really not been well placed in the Ikigai diagram.
It’s been placed at the centre of the diagram – as an outcome – when it is really an input to a vocational planning process.
Ikigai properly belongs in the “That which I love” circle.
From a technical point of view, putting Ikigai (an input) at the centre of the Venn diagram (the output) is simply bad model design.
I can’t see a valid reason to still call it an “Ikigai” diagram. But there might be one.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments! 🙂
But what about the model itself?
There is one more question to address in rethinking the Ikigai model … the Ikigai model was created by simply changing the word “Purpose” to “Ikigai” in a vocational planning model.
But is the vocational planning model itself, underpinning the Ikigai model, as useful and as well-designed as it could be?
Critically examining the Purpose model
The original Purpose model – that the Ikigai diagram is based on – is not perfect.
Indeed, it’s a little problematic in some areas.
Let’s look at the original Purpose model again:
To take three examples of aspects of the model that could be improved:
- It’s not really “passion”
I believe the intersection between “That which you love” and “That which you are good at” is not passion. For the purposes of this kind of model, passion is really just another aspect of “That which you love.”
The intersection of “That which you love” and “That which you are good at” is, however, related to being fully expressed and making a meaningful contribution – doing your best work, work you love, and being self-actualised.
2. “That which the world needs” is vague, unclear, and confusing
I feel that “That which the world needs” is a vague category. I believe it could potentially mean quite different things, like:
- What makes the world a better place
- What the market needs and wants to buy
- What aligns with the spirit and opportunities (the zeitgeist) of the times.
I don’t think it is meant to mean what the market needs and wants to buy, because that’s already covered in “That which you can be paid for.”
I don’t think it’s the zeitgeist either, because that’s a little too high-level for vocational planning.
Which, I think, really leaves it as meaning “That which makes the world a better place” – what contributes to society and the planet, that makes a difference and an impact.
3. “Vocation” is in the wrong place
The intersection of “That which you can be paid for” and what I am interpreting as “That which makes the world a better place” is marked in the diagram as “vocation.”
But vocation is really the central point of the whole diagram – the outcome from the model. That’s what we want to find, and that is why we are doing this exercise at all.
So, it should be at the centre of the diagram.
The Ikigai model puts “vocation” in the wrong place.
But then – what actually should be at the intersection of “That which you can be paid for” and “That which makes the world a better place”?
I say: Alignment. Alignment is aligning what you can get paid to do with what makes a difference.
Without alignment, you may have to choose between meaning or money, purpose or profit.
And having to choose one over the other can be hard.
What exactly is a vocation anyway?
If the point of the Ikigai model – and the Purpose model – is to help people find a vocation, what exactly is a vocation?
The word vocation is derived from the latin vocare (or vocatio – to be honest, I’m not exactly sure which one is correct, there are different accounts available and perhaps it needs a Latin scholar to resolve this). Either way, it means a “call.”
Wikipedia suggests that
“Use of the word “vocation” before the sixteenth century referred firstly to the “call” by God to an individual, or calling of all humankind to salvation … and more specifically to the “vocation” of the priesthood, or to the religious life, which is still the usual sense in Roman Catholicism”
Max Weber summarised this ethos in his 1930 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as:
“For everyone without exception God’s Providence has prepared a calling, which he should profess and in which he should labour. And this calling is . . . God’s commandment to the individual to work for the divine glory”
This notion of vocation changed and evolved in the 16th century during the Reformation. Stuart Bunderson and Jeffrey Thomson review this evolution in their 2009 article “The Call of the Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Double-Edged Sword of Deeply Meaningful Work.”
They find that:
“Martin Luther broadened the definition of calling to refer to any station that one might occupy in the world of productive work and suggested that through faithful execution of one’s duties in that station, one both pleased God and contributed to the general welfare of humankind. So by working diligently to make shoes that will cover and warm human feet, the cobbler serves God in his or her station with just as much divine approbation as the person whose station it is to preach the word of God. With the specific exceptions of the prostitute, the usurer, and the totally cloistered monk, all work can be a divine calling by which a person ‘participates in God’s ongoing providence for the human race'”
The concept of vocation was further expanded by John Calvin and others:
“Calvin taught that one’s calling did not derive simply from one’s given station in life, as suggested by Luther, but also from one’s particular, God-given gifts and talents. One’s calling is found where one can use these gifts and talents for the good of humankind. Each person therefore has a solemn duty to discover and embrace his or her particular calling.”
The concept of a vocation was further extended in western thinking in 1909 by Frank Parsons, who pioneered the concept of “vocational guidance” – matching talents and interests to roles.
Parson’s key work was his book Choosing a Vocation. In the introductory note, Ralph Albertson pulled out Parson’s four key principles for choosing a vocation:
- It is better to choose a vocation than merely to “hunt a job.”
- No one should choose a vocation without careful self-analysis, thorough, honest, and under guidance.
- The youth should have a large survey of the field of vocations, and not simply drop into the convenient or accidental position.
- Expert advice, or the advice of men who have made a careful study of men and of vocation and of the conditions of success, must be better and safer for a young man than the absence of it.
While written in 1909, Parson’s work is presciently modern – and is essentially the approach that underpins now-classic vocational planning works such as What Color Is Your Parachute by Richard Bolles.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “vocation,” in part, as
- A summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action – especially: a divine call to the religious life (a CALLING)
- The work in which a person is employed: (an OCCUPATION)
The word “vocation” therefore points to both a calling, and what you get paid for.
In its historical context, a vocation refers to both a calling and an occupation – with a matching of skills and interests to what we can be paid for.
A vocation is, therefore, literally where your calling meets your livelihood:
Can we make a better model?
I think the Purpose model – the vocational planning model underlying the Ikigai model – could be improved. So, I had a go doing so – and this is what I came up with:
Vocation is the outcome we want from the model, so I put it at the centre instead of “Ikigai.”
The intersection between any two adjacent circles in the diagram defines something that is worth knowing and developing, namely (respectively):
- Your Expression – the contributions you can make, your zone of genius and your self-actualised potential.
- How you can be of Service to make a difference in the world
- The Value you can create and deliver
- How to Align making a difference with getting paid.
Note that “What you can be paid for” is not intended to apply only to the commercial sector – for careers and businesses. It can also apply to the non-profit sector as effectively “what you can be funded to do,” and to the philanthropic sector as “what you are happy to pay to do.”
There are still some blank sections in the diagram, so let’s fill these in as well:
This adds four new zones to the diagram:
These are higher level than the previous intersections. For example, your Expression is at the intersection of What you love and What you are good at, while your Potential is at the intersection of your Expression and your Service.
Conversely, your Potential is at the intersection of What you are good at, What you love, and What makes a difference in the world.
Notice that this model now “ripples upwards.”
- If we combine What you love + What you are good at we get your Expression.
- If we combine What you love and What makes a difference in the world, we get your Service.
- If we combine your Expression and your Service – or, equivalently, combine What you love, What you are good at, and What makes a difference in the world – we get your Potential to make a difference.
- And if we combine your Potential with What you can get paid for, we can see a Vocation.
And it works the same way if we start from any other two adjacent circles.
Benefits of the Vocation model
I think the vocation model is more practical – and more helpful for finding a vocation.
I believe it is also easier to break down into more specific and actionable steps and processes to follow.
I think it is also more accurate, as the Ikigai diagram was never intended to or designed to help people find their Ikigai anyway – it was a vocational planning diagram that was just repurposed to be an Ikigai diagram by virtue of Marc Winn changing a word.
But I’m not the judge of how useful the new diagram is. You are.
Try both, and let me know what you think. 🙂
And if you don’t like it – improve it. Make something better. I’m releasing it under Creative Commons, so that anyone can adapt it.
Where to from here?
The Japanese concept of Ikigai is a rich and nuanced concept.
I think it’s worth exploring in more depth, and I particularly recommend:
- Ken Mogi’s book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life
- Yukari Mitsuhashi’s book Ikigai: Giving Every Day Meaning and Joy
- Yukari Mitsuhashi’s article Ikigai: A Japanese Concept To Improve Work and Life
For vocational planning, I think we can do better than the Ikigai diagram.
The Ikigai diagram wasn’t designed for vocational planning – and Ikigai isn’t a vocational planning concept.
I put forward an alternative vocational design model (above), that I think is better – the Vocation model. If you like that, you can use that instead. It’s provided under Creative Commons licensing, so if you want to use it, or make changes, or include it in your training program or talk, you can – just acknowledge where you got it from when doing so.
If you want my original Powerpoint file with editable versions of the diagrams so that you can make your own changes and edits, you can download it here. 🙂 You can then just take a screenshot to create your own vocational planning diagram.
If you see people promoting the Ikigai diagram on social media or in forums or in training courses, and you don’t think it’s quite right … now you know where the diagram came from, and how exactly the Japanese concept of Ikigai relates to the vocational planning diagram. You can comment appropriately if needed – or you can link to this article. Or you can make your own version of the diagram.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Did this resonate? Do you have any suggestions around improving the vocation model? Would you like to defend the original Ikigai model? Let me know your thoughts! Please post them below.
This stuff matters.
The world is going through changes. More and more people are stepping into doing meaningful work, work that matters.
Having the right tools to help them step into doing their life’s work is more important than ever.
Let’s help provide people with the best tools we can – not just an influential meme!
Now, about the diagram …
I don’t fault Marc Winn for creating the Ikigai diagram. He never expected or planned for it to go viral, and he spent an hour of his time creating something that inspired him at the time, and that inspired and helped tens of millions of people.
I do think though that as an industry we can do a better job of raising our standards. The Ikigai model wasn’t a particularly well constructed model – even in its original form as the Purpose model, before it became the Ikigai diagram.
Ikigai is a rich Japanese cultural concept that deserves a deeper consideration and discussion rather than just making it into a meme.
As Ken Mogi points to while describing Ikigai, the Japanese concept of kodawari – high personal standards – is also relevant.
Let’s lift our standards around the ideas we share and the tools we produce.
Let’s produce the best tools we can, formulate the most powerful and useful ideas we can, so that the hundreds of millions of people who get inspired by tools like the Ikigai diagram actually do find their vocation, do their life’s work, and make their difference.
The world needs them.
And the world needs us.
It needs us as change agents and thought leaders and transformation leaders to raise our standards too.
Let’s lift the game – and change the world.
We can do this.
I am passionate about activating human potential – helping make the world a better place.
I consult and coach with smart creative leaders and business owners to help them make a bigger difference through their work.
I like to do what I can to tackle the big problems, and to improve the ideas and tools we have available.
I send out periodic updates about new ideas and thinking. You can register for these at newideasandinsights.com.