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Dan Buettner,* a three-time Guinness World Record holder and best-selling author, conducted a long experiment to find out how people who live to be more than 100 years old, called centenarians, manage to do it. His team spoke to the centenarians from four Blue Zones, areas where they found the most number of people who lived the longest.* One of the zones included the northern part of Okinawa, a prefecture in Japan made up of 161 islands. Aside from a plant-based diet and a tight-knit community, he found out that what set them apart was their practice of ikigai.*
Ikigai* (pronounced ee-key-guy) is a Japanese word that loosely means the reason you get up in the morning. It encompasses the idea that happiness is more than money and titles. According to a book written on this concept by Hector Garcia and Albert Liebermann,* “The origin of the word ikigai goes back to the Heian period (794 to 1185). Clinical psychologist and avid expert of the ikigai evolution, Akihiro Hasegawa released a research paper in 2001 where he wrote that the word ‘gai’ comes from the word ‘kai’ which translates to ‘shell’ in Japanese. During the Heian period, shells were extremely valuable, so the association of value is still inherently seen in this word.”
This intangible ideology is what gives you the sense of purpose and meaning that most people search for their entire life. It makes your life worthwhile, happy, and satisfactory.
But how do you find it?
The most actionable way to understand this idea is through a Venn diagram that comprises four categories as shown above: what you are good at, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and what you love. At their intersection, you supposedly find your ikigai.
Let’s look at each in some detail.
What You Are Good At
This quadrant is about trying to bring out both your natural and hard-earned talents.
thinkWhat part of your current job can you do effortlessly, without even thinking about it?
When was the last time someone gave you a compliment? What was it about?
More often than not, we have blind spots when it comes to our strengths and weaknesses. Melody Wilding, an executive coach and author who found her purpose by practicing ikigai,* writes, “Ironically, qualities about myself that I took for granted were precisely what others saw as unique and valuable. Instead of downplaying my knack for empathy, their comments nudged me to look deeper at how I could leverage my sensitivity as a strength and pivot my career to focus on coaching, teaching, and writing.”
So, as you are filling this quadrant, ask some of your closest friends and those who work with you about your strengths. Their answer might just surprise you.
What the World Needs
This quadrant is about trying to unearth what you care about and what you can contribute to the world, society, and your family.
thinkWhat was the last social cause you cared about deeply?
What would you contribute to immediately in your society if you had more time?
What do you think we can do now as a community to make 2030 better than 2020?
Whenever I think about this quadrant, I get reminded of something that Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, said in an interview with Marc Benioff.* Below is a paraphrased version of his talk.
It became clear to me in my upper 30s that we are searching for a lifetime for our purpose. Early in life, you think your purpose is deciding your major in school. You choose your major and you graduate. But guess what? You still don’t know what your purpose is. So you keep looking, and you think maybe it’s about getting a job. But, no, it wasn’t that. And then maybe it becomes a promotion, maybe it becomes a marriage, maybe it becomes a child. And at some point, you recognize that the reason we are all here is to help somebody else.
That is the sole reason we are here.
What You Can Be Paid For
Whether you like it or not, you need to do something that brings the bread home. This quadrant is about trying to figure out what that something is.
thinkWhat exactly are you being paid for today?
If you’re not paid for something you do today, are other people being paid for the same activity?
Can you eventually be paid for it?
We live in an age where jobs that never existed a decade ago are heavily sought after today. Being a YouTuber went from a side-hobby to a serious job for many millennials.* Being an influencer on TikTok can earn you more than an entry-level Software Engineer role at Google.* Ten years from now, don’t be alarmed when you see jobs with titles like Drone Traffic Controller and AR Journey Builder.
The world is moving fast.
So think outside the box when you answer this question.
What You Love
Ah, we come to the most important quadrant of all. This quadrant is about helping you figure out what makes it all worth it.
thinkIf money didn’t matter, what would you spend your time doing?
When was the last time you were in a state of flow? (Remember Flow from the first chapter?)
What can you not shut up about?
Your passion may not always be the cause of things. I did not grow up dreaming of being an author one day. I grew up wanting to be a surgeon. I became an author after spending years learning to write and actually writing. The thousands of hours spent made me feel passionate about this craft, and now I cannot imagine not being an author. So don’t just look at things you feel passionate about without actually having spent time dipping your toes in them.
The Yearning Octopus
Have you ever realized how our incredibly complex brain makes it hard to follow a singular line of thought? We Homo sapiens underwent a mutation in the wiring of our brain about 70,000 years ago that gave us the ability to think. We didn’t just care about hunting for the next meal anymore. We didn’t restrict ourselves to the land we occupied. Nor did we stick to primitive tools to hunt down animals. Below is a passage taken from the best-seller Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.*
Beginning about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens began doing very special things. They drove the Neanderthals and all other human species not only from the Middle East, but from the face of the earth. Within a remarkably short period, Sapiens reached Europe and East Asia. About 45,000 years ago, they somehow crossed the open sea and landed in Australia—a continent hitherto untouched by humans. The period from about 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, and bows and arrows and needles. The first objects that can reliably be called art date from this era, as does the first clear evidence for religion, commerce and social stratification. This constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it?
We’re not sure.
We have many theories, but no conclusive proof yet. The point, however, is that we slowly developed the neocortex in our brain, which gave us the ability to reason, make complex decisions, develop language, believe in fiction, and sacrifice short-term gratification for long-term gains.* It also gave us the ability to hold competing thoughts in our head and make hundreds of decisions every single day. This is why finding your ikigai is not a simple exercise.
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