Ikigai: Finding Purpose in the Corporate World

At some point in your career, between working long hours in the pursuit of profitable growth, you have likely asked yourself what is the purpose of all of your hard work. As a mentor, I get one question over and over again, “Is the hard-driving corporate life really worth it?” There are many reasons this question may pop up: burn out, mid-life crisis, a particularly bad rough patch at work, etc. However, the important is a critically important one as any fulfilled, successful (successful in a holistic, not just career sense) human being needs more than a good salary and career progression, they need a sense of purpose.

Whenever this I get this question I start to talk about Ikigai. Ikigai is a Japanese word that translates roughly to “a reason for being” and it is brought to life in the diagram at the top of this post. The Ikigai framework breaks activity into four self-explanatory categories:

  1. Things you love to do
  2. Things you are good at
  3. Things you can get paid for
  4. Things the world needs

The insight of Ikigai is understanding how combinations of these four types of action lead to motivation:

  • Passion is the intersection of “things you love” and “things you are good at.” If there is a lack of passion in your job/life, ask yourself if you are spending too much time on things you are not good at or don’t care about.
  • Profession is at the intersection of “things you are good at” and “things you can get paid for doing.” This should sound familiar to anyone in the corporate world as most people fall into this category. However, professions are not always fulfilling, which leads me the next category…
  • Vocation is at the intersection between “what the world needs” and “things you can get paid for.” I think of this as a paycheck for a purpose, a job where you are making a meaningful impact in the world. Working for a charity would be a good example.
  • Mission lies at the intersection “things you love” and “things the world needs.” Volunteering is a great example of a mission when you spend your time on a cause that is close to your heart.

All four of the above intersections have a role to play, and one category is not necessarily better or worse than any of the others. What we should all strive for in our lives is to find opportunities to spend our time at the very center of the diagram where all four categories come together. This rare spot is called “Sense of Purpose” and represents situations where you can get paid to solve critical world needs in an environment you not only love but where your talents are put to good use.

Now that I am more stable (financially and professionally) I am investing time managing my career not to maximize pay or title, but to find opportunities closer to the center of the Ikigai diagram. Obtaining a strong sense of purpose in your career will not only lead to a more fulfilling life, but it can lead to greater financial success. How? Most successful business leaders start with a very strong sense of purpose. Bill Gates has famously said his goal is to “put a dent in the universe.” Does anyone doubt that Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, or Jeff Bezos are driven by a strong sense of purpose with Tesla, Facebook, and Amazon respectively? They leveraged their sense of purpose to revolutionize the industries they were in and money and success followed.

If your career (or life) seem purposeless, or your job doesn’t excite you, I suggest you spend some time with the Ikigai diagram to better understand the things you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and things for which you can get paid. Once you have your personal list for each category, search for jobs and experiences that will move you closer to the middle so you can find a sense of purpose. This is critically important as I cannot begin to tell you the number of people I know who have felt unfulfilled in their career, made a change to a new company/position, and ended up with the same feelings of purposelessness because they didn’t understand the root cause of their feelings. You can easily avoid this trap with a little help from Ikigai.

I sincerely hope that Ikigai will be as powerful of a tool for you as it has been for me. If you invest your time in the diagram you will reap great career and personal rewards.

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