Ikigai Misunderstood and the Origin of the Ikigai Venn Diagram

Often referred to as the ikigai diagram, the ikigai chart or the ikigai symbol, the Venn diagram below is not the ikigai concept. What you are looking at is the Purpose Venn Diagram. The framework does not accurately represent the concept of ikigai. Japanese don’t follow this framework, nor contemplate the four questions when they think about their Ikigai.

The Ikigai Diagram - A Western Interpretation

Not Ikigai

Ikigai Westernised

The Westernised version of Ikigai is based on the idea there are four components one needs to complete in order to achieve ikigai.

These four components are represented by the four questions:

  • Are you doing something that you love?
  • That the world needs?
  • That you are good at?
  • And that you can be paid for?

The misconception being perpetuated is that one can only achieve ikigai and true happiness by meeting all four conditions, so if you are doing something you love, but it isn't generating you money, then you haven't achieved ikigai - this is false.

The four questions in the framework are not questions Japanese ask themselves when they are contemplating their ikigai(s). If you were to show this Venn diagram to a native Japanese, they would not recognise it as ikigai.

Ikigai is a multifaceted concept that Japanese come to understand as they live life and grow older. It is not something they learn about from a framework.

Your Ikigai:

  • isn't something you need to make money from
  • doesn't have to be something that the world needs
  • isn't something that you have to be highly skilled or proficient at
  • isn't something you have to necessarily love

Japanese use the word casually in conversation and understand its meaning and nuances, but don’t make it up to be a grandeur concept of any sort.

Japanese do not need a grandiose motivational frameworks to keep going, but rely more on the little rituals in their daily routines.  - Ken Mogi

You could call the Venn diagram a Westernised version of ikigai, but the truth is, it is a misrepresentation of ikigai. Your ikigai does not lie at the center of those interconnecting circles.

The Zuzunaga Venn Diagram of Purpose

Andres Zuzunaga

You can listen to my interview with Andres Zuzunaga on episode 7 of my podcast - How The Andres Zuzunaga Venn Diagram Became Ikigai.

Full credit for the Venn diagram of Purpose should go to Spanish author and psychological astrologer, Andres Zuzunaga, who created it 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.

Andrés Zuzunaga

Zuzunaga, Andres. Proposito. 2011, https://www.cosmograma.com/proposito.php

Eventually, the diagram was translated into English and then started being used by HR managers and life coaches as a simplistic overview to finding purpose in your career. It is now used to help people create a more balanced work situation. Personally, I actually think it makes a very accurate visual representation of entrepreneurship.

If this framework inspires you, motivates you, gives you a sense of purpose and makes you want to get out of the bed in the morning, then keep using it. Just remember, that it's not an honest representation of ikigai.  Your ikigai can be anything from simply taking the time to enjoy your morning coffee to catching up with old friends to working towards a life-defining goal.

How the Purpose Venn Diagram Become Misunderstood 

Marc Winn

You can listen to my interview with Marc Winn a on episode 5 of my podcast - 005 – Marc Winn On Merging Ikigai With The Venn Diagram of Purpose.

This misinterpretation came about when a blogger, Mar Winn wrote an inspiring post titled "What's your ikigai?" after watching Dan Buettner’s Ted Talk on How to Live 100+. In his blog post, Marc used a translated version of the Zuzunaga Venn Diagram of Purpose with ‘ikigai’ replacing the word ‘purpose’.

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

marc winn ikigai

Winn, Marc. Ikigai Venn Diagram. What's Your Ikigai?, The View Inside Me, May 14, 2014, http://theviewinside.me/what-is-your-ikigai/.

His blog post went viral and the graphic he designed has been seen by tens of millions of people worldwide and copied and reproduced by hundreds if not thousands of others.

In his blog post, Mark got it right when stating "An ikigai is essentially ‘a reason to get up in the morning’ and 'A reason to enjoy life.' ", but his visualization was his interpretation of the ikigai concept - a concept his only knowledge of was from a Ted Talk he had watched.

In a follow-up blog post title Marc wrote:

“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’s visual misinterpretation of ikigai has positively impacted thousands of people. It has been seen by millions, reproduced by hundreds of bloggers and life coaches, and inspired books and documentaries. I see it as a great serendipitous blunder, and one could argue that its positive impact far outweighs its misinterpretation, but ikigai means so much more than the pursuit of financial success. The concept is closer to self-actualization with an understanding that the sum of small joys in everyday life results in a more fulfilling life as a whole.

From reading Marc’s blog, you can see he is living a life of purpose with his Dandelion Project - to make Guernsey the best place to live on earth by 2020.

I have read several of Marc’s blog posts and also watched his Ted Talk. It is clear to me that his life mission appears to be the Dandelion Project, and his ikigai would be driving him to achieve it.

So while Marc’s visualization of ikigai was off the mark, his life itself is a real example of someone living with ikigai.

Can’t My Ikigai Be This Venn Diagram

The problem with interpreting ikigai as the Purpose Venn Diagram is that it creates the illusion that ikigai is a lofty and formidable goal to achieve. In many ways, Ikigai is the opposite of this - embracing the joy of little things, being in the here and now, reflecting on past happy memories and having a frame of mind that one can build a happy and active life. It's not about professional success or entrepreneurship.

The beauty of ikigai is you can have more than one, it changes as you grow, and most importantly is considered to be essentially the processes of cultivating one’s inner potential. You discover your ikigai after self-reflection, so really you already have your ikigai, you just have to give yourself the time and space to find it. 

Ikigai Is Not About….

It’s not about making money.
Ikigai is not the pursuit of professional success or financial freedom. Most Japanese would not associate making money with ikigai. Success and the accumulation of wealth could be a by-product of your ikigai, but it would not be the focus.

It’s not what the world needs from you.
Ikigai is not about what the world needs from you. Ikigai lies in the realm of community, family, friendships and in the roles you fulfill. When you pursue your ikigai, you are not out to save the world. It is more about connecting with and helping the people who give meaning to your life - your family, friends, co-workers and community.

It’s not about what you're good at.
You don’t have to be good at something to find your ikigai. Ikigai can be a very simple daily ritual or the practice of a new hobby. Ikigai is more about growth rather than mastery.

It’s often not about what you love.
Ikigai can be something you love or are passionate about, but you can find ikigai in areas of your life you would least expect. Ikigai is more about living your values and finding meaning and purpose in daily living regardless of what constraints you may have.

If you seek a framework to follow to help you find your own ikigai then you could use Ken Mogi’s 5 Pillars of Ikigai that he outlines in his book, The Little Book of Ikigai: The Essential Japanese Way to Finding Purpose in Life. 

What Does Ikigai Mean To The Japanese?

Most of the content you'll find online related to ikigai has been written or shared by non-Japanese, with the 'Ikigai Framework/Venn Diagram' taking up the bulk of what's out there. Life coaches and wellness bloggers, please stop sharing it!

Even the most popular book written on ikigai, IKIGAI - The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, authored by two non-Japanese writers, Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles, makes the mistake of including the Marc Winn Ikigai Venn Daigram in their book.

While their book is a fascinating and worthwhile read, it is more of a case study on the longevity of Okinawan centenarians. This is the book that has perpetuated the ideas that ikigai is an Okinawan word and a secret Japanese concept on longevity, both of which are false.

Apart from Ken Mogi's The Little Book of IKIGAI and Yukari Mitsuhashi's IKIGAI - Giving Every Day Meaning and Joy, you are unlikely to find any English content written or published by Japanese authors on the subject of ikigai, other than university studies and research papers.

To understand what Ikigai means to the Japanese, I think it would make sense to look at the work of Japanese psychologists, professors and authors who have studied it extensively. On my ikigai podcast, I have interviewed several English speaking Japanese experts, who share with my audience what ikigai means to the Japanese.

I have also published the book IKIGAI-KAN; Feel a Life Worth Living that explores the ikigai concept in depth.



Mieko Kamiya

If Sigmund Freud is the father of modern Psychology, and Wuhelm Wundt the father of experimental psychology, then Mieko Kamiya could be considered the mother of Ikigai psychology.  A psychiatrist, author and translator among other things, Mieko Kamimya wrote what is considered to be the definitive work on ikigai  - Ikigai ni Tsuite (On the Meaning of Life). Unfortunately, her book has never been translated into English. And tragically, she is not well known in Japan, has no profile outside of Japan, and died at the ripe young age of 65 in 1979.

It seems that the word ikigai exists only in the Japanese language. The fact that this word exists should indicate that the goal to live, its meaning and value within the daily life of the Japanese soul has been problematized. (...)

According to the dictionary, ikigai means "power necessary for one to live in this world, happiness to be alive, benefit, effectiveness." When we try to translate it into English, German, French etc. It seems that there is no other way than "worth living" or "value or meaning to live". Thus, compared to philosophicaltheoretical concepts, the word ikigai shows us how much the Japanese language is ambiguous, but because of this it has an effect of reverberation and amplitude. (...)

There are two ways of using the word ikigai. When someone says "this child is my ikigai," it refers to the source  or target of the ikigai, and when one feels ikigai as a state of mind.

- Mieko Kamiya, Ikiagi ni tsuite (On the Meaning of Life)

 Akihiro Hasegawa

You can listen to my interview with Akihiro Hasegawa on episode 1 of my podcast - Ikigai According To Professor Akihiro Hasegawa.

Akihiro Hasegawa is an Associate Professor at Toyo Eiwa University, a professional psychologist and has published several studies and research papers on the ikigai.

Ikigai as a sense of being alive now, an individual's consciousness as a motive to live.'Ikigai' is work of the mind integrating an "object of IKIGAI" and "feeling of IKIGAI"

- Akihiro Hasegawa, Associate Professor at Toyo Eiwa University

Constituent Elements of 'Ikigai'

the constituent elements of ikigai

 Noriyuki Nakanishi

I was fortunate to stumble upon a 1999 British Geriatrics Society article written by Noriyuki Nakanishi of Osaka University Medical School.  He succinctly defines ikigai in several paragraphs which I have shared below:

The word ‘ikigai’ is usually used to indicate the source of value in one’s life or the things 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. There is a difference between ikigai and the sense of well-being. Ikigai is a 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.

Ikigai gives individuals a sense of a life worth living. It is not necessarily related to economic status.

Ikigai is personal; it reflects the inner self of an individual and expresses that faithfully.

It establishes a unique mental world in which the individual can feel at ease.

- Noriyuki Nakanishi, Department of Public Health, Osaka University Medical School, '"Ikigai" in older Japanese people". 


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