Ikigai: Fire in the Belly

Do you instantly know why you wake up in the morning?

Kind of an odd question isn’t it? Now what if I asked, “Do you know what burns at the pit of your stomach, throwing you into action when you wake?”

Now that’s interesting…

Purpose, fire in the pit of your belly, internal motivation and drive — where/when do we stop to define that for ourselves? And how many of us keep to it long after we work to discover that notion for ourselves??

I bring this up, because of a word that I use in my talks around personal pursuits and beating on your passion projects when mentoring students/professionals. I’ve found myself using a lot lately. So of course that means it’s time to write about it. (duh)

The word is “IKIGAI” (EEK-Y-GUY)— it comes to us from Japan — land of the samurai, intense death-defying effort, masterful artistry, harmony with nature, and devoting yourself obsessively to a path.

Ikigai’s closest meaning is *raison d’être* in French — what one lives for, what makes your life worth living, why you inhale and exhale each breath.

But ikigai goes further than that, to the point where your passions and obsessions can consume you… think of the artist or inventor all-consumed by his work, the boxer who lays his body and mind on the line in every fight, or the gardener whose mind is perfectly still among his creation.

There is great power in purpose. For example, we know that people with a strong sense of purpose have boosted immune systems. They also enjoy lower stress hormones, and are better able to deal with the difficulties that life throws their way.

We all have heard or said the expression, ‘life is too short.’ As professionals we intellectually understand the concept that life is too short, but we have a tendency to get wrapped up in work, deadlines, challenges, outcomes, and results. We have a tendency to forget about the real meaning and value of life. In fact, I would be willing to say many of us have not taken the time to truly define our personal ikigai because we are too busy navigating the proverbial rat race.

Often times life throws us curve balls like the illness or death of a family member. As organized professionals we are good at managing through the situation. When the situation is appropriately managed or ends, we leap right back into work, deadlines, challenges, outcomes, and results.

Knowing your ikigai, your purpose, provides a foundation for balance. In the book “The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work,” Michael Gerber asks his readers to do a visualization exercise. In the book he instructs readers to vividly picture the day of their funeral. Then he asks some specific questions: What do you want your eulogy to consist of? What would your lifetime achievements be? What would matter the most at the end of your life? Is it what you are doing right NOW?

Ikigai, the reason you get up in the morning, is very similar to your purpose. I am by no means suggesting you stop going after your professional and financial goals. I am suggesting you take the time necessary to clearly define why you are charging so hard. I know I need to revisit this exercise myself. Reflection is good for the soul, so take the time to define your ikigai (生き甲斐). Yes, Our reason for getting up in the morning evolves throughout our life. What got us out of bed in our pre-21 years is different from what gets us out of bed now. If we don’t consciously keep track of our reasons for doing what we do, we can end up with a feeling of emptiness, even lonliness. Quiet reflection time is valuable every day for reinforcing and adjusting our reason for getting up — our ikigai.

So, what sets your soul on fire?


Alex is a marketer, leader, and strategist. He’s worked with small & global marketing agencies, entrepreneurs, start-ups, and large companies to help them figure out their process, story, and overall branding strategy. He’s currently working with the advertising and sales team over at Twitter.

He’s usually on some new adventure, helping people in the community, or pursuing creative mischief. You can follow him on twitter here.

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