Have you heard of the Japanese term Ikigai?
Ikigai is basically a Japanese word for your purpose in life or a happy life. “Iki” means to live and “gai” means reason, so the word literally means the reason to live. It’s a combination of what you’re passionate about, what you’re good at, how you can help the world, and what kind of job you can have. As I was reading the book The Little Book of Ikigai by Ken Mogi to understand more about about this concept, I learned a bit about how to do what makes you feel fulfilled.
Here are the aspects of the book that resonated the most with me:
- Five pillars of Ikigai.
- Doing what you love without expecting recognition.
- The interaction of language and culture.
Five pillars of Ikigai
Ken Mogi starts off by introducing the five pillars of ikigai, and constantly refers to them throughout the book. The five pillars are a good way to get an initial idea of ikigai.
The Five Pillars:
- Starting small: This pillar focuses on just finding a way to start, that any small step is progress and it doesn’t need to be monumental. It can be doing something small towards your goal or finding ways to incorporate it into your life. This also included focusing on all the small details to improve performance or quality, such as perfecting every step of a process.
- Releasing yourself: The goal is to release yourself from judgement or from the goal of being successful. With this release, you give yourself permission to focus on your interest simply because you enjoy it, you’re not doing it to prove your worth or your success to others. When you change your motivation to be entirely internal rather than external, then you gain more joy from it and it becomes more sustainable (see other pillars).
- Harmony & sustainability: A key part of ikigai is to ensure that what you’re doing is both sustainable and long-lasting. Most of the other pillars support and enable sustainability, such as having internal motivation (releasing yourself), and enjoying the process (joy of little things). But make sure to consider how you can incorporate your ikigai into your life for the long-run and make it sustainable.
- An incredible example of sustainability discussed in the book is the Ise Shrine. The shrine is dismantled and rebuilt every twenty years. This rebuilding process has been going on for the past 1,200 years! To ensure this is possible, there are many details that need to be planned ahead and considered, such as planting a specific tree far enough in advance that there will be enough of the exact size needed, and having access to individuals with special carpentry techniques that are past on from one generation to another. The sustainability is embedded directly into the processes and culture of the shrine.
- The joy of little things: The goal is to find joy in the process and all the details. If you’re able to enjoy what you do and all the stages of it, it will help keep you consistent and make the process more sustainable. The more sources of joy you have, the more likely you’ll continue to pursue an interest. It’s similar to the cliche of make sure you’re enjoying the journey, not just the destination.
- Being in the here and now: For this pillar, you need to focus on what’s happening in the present. Don’t get all caught up in the past or the future. This goes hand in hand with releasing yourself, so you’re not too preoccupied with becoming “successful” in the future, and the joy of the little things, so that you find joy in all the steps of improving your craft or career.
Example of the Pillars
As an easy way to show how all of these five pillars can interact, let me share with you an example that Ken Mogi shared for how they manifest in a sumo wrestler’s career. A sumo wrestler must start small by focusing on every little detail of each technique in their training to perfect the skill, such as where to place your feet. More amateur sumo wrestlers often have to attend to the needs of a more senior wrestler, which requires them to release themselves by focusing on another’s needs and desires. The overall harmony and sustainability of the sumo wrestling practice is upheld through the many rituals and traditions that maintain a consistent culture. There are many ways that wrestlers find joy in the little things, such as the taste of chanko (a dish unique to sumo wrestlers that helps them gain weight) or hearing the cheers of fans, and these enjoying each of these helps make their career more sustainable. During a match, a wrestler needs to be completely submersed in the present moment, aka being in the here and now, for their optimum performance.
Doing what you love without expecting recognition
This aspect is kind of a combination of pillars two and four, the releasing yourself and finding joy in little things. When you release yourself from judgement of others and are simply doing it because you love it, you also usually find joy in the little things. These two pillars together help you do what you love without expecting recognition. Most people who have become successful, have been consistently practicing the same skill simply because they enjoy doing it, and eventually they get so good other people start to take notice. Look at famous authors, artists, performers, and others, a lot of them became successful because they just kept practicing their skill at any opportunity they had.
Usually, when you do something because you genuinely love it, you want to continue doing it no matter what. You find pleasure in the details and you continually try to improve. The focus on improving yourself instead of who is taking notice, helps make the process more sustainable (pillar three) and enables you to continue perfecting your skill while finding joy in the process.
The key is to stop thinking about the judgement of others, don’t get caught up in what others think about you or how you compare to others. When you are only focused on what you’re doing, then you can truly embrace who you were meant to be, and do all the things that you want to do.
An incredible example of this is the world-famous sushi chef, Jiro Ono, who developed his sushi skills simply because he loved it. He did it without worrying about the expectations of others or what was the typical way of starting a sushi stand/restaurant. In this way, he developed multiple tools and processes unique to himself, which are now used across the world and are attributed to his ingenuity. Despite this incredible success and impact, he didn’t design any of those tools for others, but simply to make his craft better and help himself while continuing to learn.
The interaction of language and culture
A fascinating part of this book, was highlighting the strong connection between language and culture. One often reinforces and reflects the other, and you see it manifested and embodied in both.
Ikigai is a common word in Japanese, considered a part of everyday life, but it’s not always given that much thought. But its concept is seen throughout the country, in the way that people find joy and purpose in their work, and the efforts people go to perfect what they focus on without aiming for recognition. This language and practice have become so intricately intertwined, that it’s become a part of the Japanese culture. Interestingly, individualists (like Steve Jobs) are not usually fostered in this kind of system, but rather the type of people more commonly found are those with passion and mastery of their craft.
Another interesting example is the link between onomatopoeia and sound symbolism in the Japanese language and culture. In Japan, there’s a dictionary of onomatopoeia sounds that includes 4,500 examples of onomatopoeia expressions, as each sound has a distinct meaning. For example, ton ton vs don don, a simple change in one letter changes from a light tapping (ton ton) to a heavy, thudding one (don don). Japanese manga authors use these types of expressions extensively, with each one adding more nuance to the story. This type of sound symbolism is so embedded in the Japanese culture that they are also commonly used in professional contexts to highlight nuances.
This book was quite interesting, and I learned a lot about Japanese culture and life through the exploring the concept of ikigai. The book isn’t really an instructional guide on how to find or develop your ikigai, but it does act as a great introduction the concept. I feel like this book gives you the ground work to understand the concept and helps you start contemplating what your purpose in life is. You can use the pillars to assess your current or future interest, helping to shape them into something more sustainable.
There are many more examples of how ikigai can manifest in people lives in the book. If you’re interested in this topic, I would recommend reading the book to find out more.
I would love to know your thoughts on this concept, do you think you have an ikigai in your life and what is it?