Ikigai: The Perfect Career Diagnostic

An Iterative Approach To Discovering Your True Purpose

Hamza Khan
Jun 17, 2018 · 6 min read

Take a wild guess: what percentage of full-time workers around the world are either not engaged at their jobs, or downright hate them? Wait for it…85%. Let that sink in—only 15% of the world’s one billion full-time workers are enthusiastic about their work. Gallup, the research-based, global performance-management consulting company that revealed this insight, has determined that we are in the middle of a full-blown Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis.

I’ve been gainfully employed for nearly a decade, primarily applying myself as a marketing professional within the education industry. How I became the Managing Director of Student Life Network wasn’t the result of induced epiphanies. I didn’t have the luxury of a gap year after high-school/during post-secondary, or a backpacking adventure upon graduation, to discover my true calling. Like most young adults, I had to treat my career as an iterative process—with every subsequent job, I sought a little more of what I liked in my previous role, and little less of what I didn’t like. From the Canadian Armed Forces to Sony Music Entertainment, from the University of Toronto to Ryerson University—my career moves were governed by this rule. It was a helpful heuristic approach, but its outlook was too near-sighted for my liking.

Then one day, I stumbled upon the Ikigai framework, a simple and elegant solution for assessing where you are in your career (in relation to your true calling) and determining what pivots to make based on a more long-term outlook.

Ikigai is a Japanese concept meaning “a reason for being.” A reason to jump out of bed each morning. A reason to be excited for Monday mornings instead of dreading them. At the time of writing, I’ve been interviewing some of the top business leaders in Canada, people with deep career satisfaction. I’ve asked each of them: “What makes you jump up out of bed each morning?” And they’ve all described to me a strong emotional connection to their work. This connection makes them happy. It also gives them the motivation to persist, which leads to higher levels of success and satisfaction. They are driven by purpose, a reason for being.

Over the latter half of my career, I’ve systematically answered questions associated with each of the Ikigai framework’s four sections (let’s call them “circles”)—1) What You Love, 2) What The World Needs, 3) What You Can Be Paid For, and 4) What You Are Good At—in order to discover my own reason for being.

Below are the questions for you to answer. They will help to you calibrate the alignment of your career path in relation to your true calling. Answer these with your current job in mind:

What You Love

  • Is what you’re doing something you’re truly passionate about? Could you enthusiastically talk about your industry and/or profession for hours on end?
  • Are you emotionally connected to the result of your work? Do you think that you could out-care other people in your field?
  • If you weren’t concerned about money, would you still do what you’re doing?

What The World Needs

  • Are you helping to solve an actual problem? BONUS: Is your work directly/indirectly supporting The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals?
  • Is the marketplace demanding what you have to offer? Are people willing to part with their resources (money, time, attention, trust, loyalty, love, etc.) to buy what you’re selling?
  • Will this work still be needed 10 years from now? How about 100 years from now? If not, will the value of your work today increase over time?

What You Can Be Paid For

  • Lately, have you been paid for what you do? Have you ever been paid for what you do? If not, are other people being paid for this work?
  • Are you already making a good living doing what it is that you’re doing? Can you eventually make a good living doing this work?
  • Is there a healthy amount of competition in your industry? Are there other people who can do what you do, but better?

What Are You Good At

  • Are you useful? Is what you do something that your friends/family/community have sought your advice/opinion on before?
  • Are you among the best in your workplace/community at this? How about in your city? In your country? In the world?
  • With some more education and experience, could you master what you do?

The list above isn’t meant to be sequential by any means. You can approach this framework from any angle, and even from multiple angles at once. In fact, I approached it in the total reverse order when it came to my career: I was good at marketing, I started getting paid for it, I discovered that the education space needed my skills, and over time I fell in love with the intersection of marketing & education.

Simple. Elegant. Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.

These are the 4 steps that you need to follow to figure out your Ikigai, your reason for being:

1. Answer all of the 12 questions definitively. The answer to each one should be either YES or NO.

2. If you’ve answered affirmatively to all 3 questions within a circle (ie. What You Love, etc.), lock it in and keep doing what you’re doing.

3. Spend your days focusing on locking in all of the other circles. Do the work that will make all answers in all circles YES. Make your next career choices by pivoting on the locked circles.

4. Once you answer YES to all 12 questions, congratulations! You’ve discovered your reason for being— your Ikigai.

If you don’t like the job you’re currently in, first ask yourself: is this aligned with my true calling? If it’s not, that’s okay. You can pivot. You have countless opportunities to iterate and iterate. As long as you’re intentional about finding it, you will discover your true purpose. And look — one job might not give you everything you need. Your career is comprised of many things: hobbies, side-hustles, volunteering, etc. However, you do spend a lot of time at work. Over a 50-year career, you’ll spend 92,100 hours at work — roughly 35% of your total waking hours, to be exact. And if you hate your job, it could be getting in the way of your optimal health, wealth, and happiness. I’ve written extensively about China and Japan, where a mind-blowing 94% of workers are “not engaged.” Stress, burnout, and subsequent suicide rates are so extreme that government intervention has become necessary.

Regain control of your destiny. It might take years, even decades, to discover your reason for being. But you owe it to yourself. Focus on finding your intrinsic motivation for work—work that makes you feel engaged and happy. The right job creates a state of mind that can transform your life. Pursue it with everything you have, as soon as possible. I promise that once you find your Ikigai, you’ll realize just how little 92,100 hours actually is.


Ideas Into Action

"Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen." - Michael Jordan

Hamza Khan

Written by

Managing Director @StudentLifeNet. Author of #TheBurnoutGamble. TED & Keynote Speaker. Multi-Award Winning Marketer & Entrepreneur. hamzakhan.ca

Ideas Into Action

"Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen." - Michael Jordan