IKIGAI : The Real Question That Needs an Answer

If you search the word “IKIGAI” on Google, chances are this diagram (or variations of it) will pop up.

While it is not wrong, it doesn’t reflect the true meaning of the Japanese word.

If we look at the word IKIGAI (生き甲斐), it literally means “the results of being alive”. If you do some cosmetic touch up on the translation, the best representation that fits the context would be “sense of purpose”.

For a typical Japanese on the street, IKIGAI means “a reason to wake up every morning”. So, it is more of a motivation concept than anything else.

Your IKIGAI can be anything – scale is not a factor. It can be as big as your mission in life or as small as being excited to try out your new pair of shoes. What matters is, this IKIGAI of yours should give you something to look forward to on a daily basis – a reason to feel alive.

It should be that simple.

But how, or why did IKIGAI get blown out of proportion?

The way I see it, based on my years of living in Japan and interacting with Japanese on a regular basis, IKIGAI is a simple mindset that the Japanese community lives by, somewhat the result of an unwritten rule that “puts the society at the center of the individual’s function”.

You see, the Japanese were molded by a very unique set of influences both historically and geographically. This has shaped the society to be appreciative of what little resources they have and in exchange for peace and harmony, they understand the responsibility that one has in carrying their own weight. A child is taught to be independent from a young age and once they enter a “community” (school, work, etc.) they must play their role to their best ability.

This is quite different from the Western culture that puts more emphasis on the “self”. Their individualistic mind couldn’t quite comprehend the Japanese meaning of “happiness” for having an IKIGAI (being useful and contributing to others) and in turn, tried to formulate this simple mindset into a framework which consist of key elements to ensure that all human-related aspects were taken care of with this “sense of purpose in life”.

As I had mentioned before, although the four (4) key elements of doing something that:

  • you LOVE
  • you are GOOD AT
  • you can EARN

is not wrong to be taken as your personal IKIGAI, rather than restricting yourself to find a single goal as a “purpose in life”, you may want to look at if from wider lens.

Consider your IKIGAI (days that makes up your total lifespan) to be something that is supported by these pillars from the four (4) key elements with “balance” in the long run as your ultimate goal.

So if you can wake up every morning with a smile, excited to start working on your project or anything that gives you a surge of energy, that is already an IKIGAI in my books.

Now if that something benefits you emotionally, physically, financially and spiritually (by feeling a sense of contributing to the world), it should be considered as a bonus.

So the question is, do you have an IKIGAI?

What is “Kaizen Mindset”

Ask any Japanese on the streets of Tokyo, “What is Kaizen?” And most likely the answer you’ll get is “to improvise”.

Like many other Japanese concepts, it is the western world that tries to formulate a typical Japanese habit into something philosophical that sounds bombastic enough to sell to the rest of the world.

Hence, “Kaizen” is often translated as “Continuous Improvement” with some framework to make sense of this common Japanese behaviour of improvising a handy solution to a simple problem.

The real question is, why do Japanese minds think of such things?

It seems like their eyes can see things that we non-Japanese are oblivious to. Is it their culture? Is it because of their upbringing? Is the secret in their education system?

Having some experience living in Japan and going to school with 98% of my classmates being Japanese, somewhat made me realise that the answer to the above questions is quite simple – Japanese embrace scarcity. What it means is, they understand that resources are limited and willing to put the community’s interest ahead of any individual’s interest. It is a society’s survival instinct that they cultivated based on the impact of geographical and historical influence to their livelihood. So, their culture was developed around this understanding and their upbringing and education system was developed to support this culture.

But that does not mean that we non-Japanese are incapable of learning this mindset. In fact, to adapt it is relatively simple, especially at an individual level on a daily basis.

The core belief is, “eliminate waste, increase productivity” – a two-tiered approach that must happen simultaneously. It is not enough to “just eliminate waste”, the act of “eliminating the waste” must at the same time, “increase productivity”.

For example, it is not enough to just arrive early. Because arriving early will result in idle time (time is wasted on waiting) if the person does nothing. So, a better option is to arrive “just in time” (JIT) so there is no waiting or lag. To achieve this balance is where they constantly look for simple and easy ways to make things more productive.

In fact, one of the most credited figure of Kaizen, Taiichi Ohno, once famously said, “Progress cannot be generated when we are satisfied with existing situations.” This probably prompted another Toyota engineer, Shigeo Shingo to introduce the improvement priority: (1) Easier, (2) Better, (3) Faster, (4) Cheaper – specifically in that order.

So, in short, the “Kaizen” mindset is all about fulfilling the responsibility one has in society to look for improvements continuously for the benefit of everyone. No matter big or small, all those contributing effort will eventually accumulate to bring a larger impact to everyone in the long run. Because at the end of the day, when humanity wins, everyone wins.