Ikigai FAQ and Facts

What are the 4 rules of ikigai?

There are really no rules that Japanese follow to 'find their ikigai.' However, if you go on Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram or any social media and search the term ikigai, you will inevitably come across a four-circle Venn diagram with the following questions: 

  • Are you doing something that you love? 
  • Are you doing something that you're good at?
  • Are you doing something that the world needs?
  • Are you doing something that you can be paid for? 

In the centre where all four circles overlap is the word ikigai.

It is believed and perpetuated by many life and business coaches, bloggers, and entrepreneurs that as ikigai lies at the centre of these interconnecting circles, if you are lacking in one or more of these areas (e.g.,you are doing something that you love and are good at, but not helping the world or making money from it), then you haven’t found your ikigai, and are therefore missing out on the chance to live a long and happy life.

While inspiring the Venn diagram has nothing at all to do with the Japanese conception of ikigai. And there are no rules that Japanese following to find there ikigai.

Why is ikigai so famous?

As you now understand, to the Japanese, positioning ikigai in the centre of the Venn diagram is a blatant misuse of a word that has important cultural significance. Like it or not, the fact that this misuse has been caused by, and is perpetuated by, Westerners is textbook cultural appropriation. This is not to suggest that I am pointing fingers, but to highlight a Western behaviour that often goes unchecked. 

With all that said, this is not to say that the Venn diagram isn’t thought-provoking and inspiring in its own way; there’s a reason why it has been shared online many thousands of times. First published in Borja Vilaseca’s 2012 book Qué Harías Si No Tuvieras Miedo (What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?), the visualisation is the work of Spanish astrologer Andrés Zuzunaga, who posted it on his Facebook page on June 4th 2012 as ‘propósito (‘purpose’) – a name derived from the word used to indicate the convergence of the four main themes: 

When I interviewed Andrés Zuzunaga on my podcast, he described how his Venn diagram came to him, but not from him. He explained how it was inspired by natal charts and the questions his clients would ask him during astrology consultations. At the time the diagram was created, Andrés was meditating regularly and contemplating purpose. He found himself waking up in the mornings with insights and creative ideas; one of these was the seed of the Venn diagram.

Andrés could easily be bitter that he is not recognised for his creative perspective on purpose, yet he remains humble, seeing a silver lining in its association with ikigai:

‘I didn't frankly know that it would have so much impact. It's what you have said now, it's because somebody merged it with ikigai, so in a way, I am thankful with this confusion because maybe without that, it wouldn't be what it is today.’

I find Andrés’ acceptance of the misinterpretation of his Venn diagram inspiring, but recognition and gratitude are overdue. I feel those who use his Venn diagram as a coaching tool or as inspiration for a blog post should take the time to credit him, by perhaps renaming it as the Zuzunaga Venn Diagram.

The Merging of Two Concepts

Although this story explains the origin of the Venn diagram, it doesn’t address how ‘purpose’ became replaced with ‘ikigai’. For this revision, we can both thank and blame self-proclaimed mischief-maker and lover of changing the world, Marc Winn.

In 2014, nearly two years after Zuzunaga shared his diagram with the world, Marc incorporated a modified English-language translation of it in an inspiring blog post titled ‘What's your ikigai?’. He wrote the post after watching Dan Buettner’s TED Talk, which inspired him to replace ‘purpose’ with ‘ikigai’ in the accompanying graphic. He wrote: 

‘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.

Having spent most of the last few years helping dozens and dozens of social change makers and  entrepreneurs find their ikigai, whilst also searching for my own, I can now visualise where it belongs. 

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.’

Ikigai Went Viral

The post went viral, and the ikigai graphic has been copied, reproduced, shared and seen worldwide by tens of millions of people – including educators, HR facilitators, life coaches, and others who have been inspired to write associated books and articles. I see this as a serendipitous blunder. 

The visualisation was his own interpretation of the ikigai concept – and does not originate in Japan or capture the Japanese ethos. However, Marc did get it right when stating that ikigai is a ‘reason to get up in the morning’ and a ‘reason to enjoy life’ – and this message has undoubtedly had positive impacts on the many people who have enjoyed his blog post and reflected on his diagram. 

On my podcast, Marc kindly explained his creation process

‘…obviously, I didn’t know too much about [ikigai] other than from that one TED Talk. A lot of people say, “why don’t you do a book or why don’t you do this, why do you make something of it?”, and things like that. I said, “Its artistry for me is in that I didn’t really think much about it. It was only 45 minutes of my life and it still grows exponentially and people write books on it.”

How do I find my ikigai?

Live Your Values

Ikigai starts with your values. You will feel ikigai if you live in harmony with your values – not those that you have inherited from or been pressured to accept by family, friends, institutions, or society, but those that you have identified for yourself.

If you live in conflict or are forced to compromise your values, then ikigai will remain elusive for you. This means it is important for you to engage in actions that express your values as often as you can. The more you do this, the more ikigai you will feel. 

There is a consensus on this amongst all the Japanese authors and researchers I've spoken to or read on the subject of ikigai. As described in the previous chapter, for example, Mieko Kamiya states that ikigai-kan is strongly linked to one's personal values.

In his book The Little Book of Ikigai, neuroscientist Ken Mogi asks the reader, ‘What are your most sentimental values? Ikigai experts like these emphasise the importance of values because it's only when you express your values that you can truly be your authentic self. 

Identify Your Ikigai Sources To Feel Ikigai-kan

The word ikigai indicates the sources of meaning in your life: experiences, people, relationships, dreams, hobbies, and even memories that make your life worth living.

Ikigai-kan, on the other hand, represents the emotions and feelings that these sources provide you that make you feel that life is worth living. As a father, I can identify that my son is a source of ikigai, giving me ikigai-kan feelings of love, joy, pride, hope and connection, as well as a sense of purpose in my role as a father.

The power of ikigai lies in the positive and satisfying emotions that result from being able to identify your sources of ikigai and, subsequently, experience a deep and genuine sense of meaning associated with your existence.

To find or uncover your ikigai,  you simply need to to ask yourself what people, relationships, activities and goals that your currently pursing make you feel alive.

What are the 5 pillars of ikigai?

According to Japanese neuroscientist and author Ken Mogi, the 5 pillars of Ikigai are the foundations that allows one's ikigai to flourish. In his book, The Little Book of Ikigai, Ken explains how each pillar acts as part a supportive framework to help the reader digest the content of his book.

The fiver pillars are a very helpful framework to refer to when thinking about ikigai.

  • Pillar 1: Starting small
  • Pillar 2: Releasing yourself
  • Pillar 3: Harmony and sustainability
  • Pillar 4: The joy of little things
  • Pillar 5: Being in the here and now

To learn more about the 5 Pillars of Ikigai listen to my podcast interview with Ken Mogi