“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
You probably remember being asked that question a lot as a kid. I do.
It’s a question designed for children, but it’s implying something pretty serious and above their years: “What is your purpose? Why are you here?”
Eventually, you grow up and choose something to do, something to be. People quit asking you what your purpose is—but you probably haven’t stopped asking yourself.
Thousands of people are deep into careers they’re not passionate about. They’re doing work that doesn’t feel aligned with their true purpose. They’re watching life slip by as that discontent eats away at them.
But how can you find your purpose? Especially when you’re already busy with demands and deadlines within your current line of work?
The Japanese concept of ikigai, like many wonderful words in other languages, doesn’t have an exact translation to English. It’s a combination of two Japanese words: iki, meaning life, and gai, meaning value.
It refers to your reason for being, your reason for getting up in the morning. In the best of worlds, this is:
Maybe you’re thinking, “Oh, I’ll do that later. Right now I have to make money and build a resume, so I can later get the job I’m good at/I like/people need/people pay for.”
Scott Dinsmore disagrees. In his TED Talk, he shares advice he read from Warren Buffett: “Taking jobs to build up your resume is the same as saving up sex for old age.”
With that in mind, Dinsmore left a job he didn’t enjoy and started his own search for something more inspiring, the “…work that I couldn’t not do.”
In his TED Talk “How to live to be 100+”, writer and explorer Dan Buettner talks about Blue Zones. These are communities throughout the world where people tend to live the longest.
What leads to that kind of longevity?
As you might imagine, lots of things. Diet and close relationships play a role.
So does ikigai.
Longevity is worthless if we’re unhappy for those 100 years. Ikigai helps us live longer, and we live better while we’re at it.
But here’s the thing: your ikigai doesn’t have to be curing cancer or solving the climate crisis or anything so lofty. Buettner talks about these people who know their ikigai:
You see a common thread there, right?
Ikigai can be simple. It simply matters to you.
In his book The Great Work of Your Life, author Stephen Cope talks about one of the mistakes people make when searching for their life’s purpose: they believe it has to be something worthy of mention in the future’s history books.
They may already be living their ikigai, but they don’t believe it’s enough.
They think they’re not helping enough people or not making enough money. It leads to the same sort of frustration and sadness you might feel if you weren’t living your purpose at all.
Modern society does not—cannot—guide you toward your ikigai. That’s because society likes standards and norms that may or may not have anything to do with you.
Many people associate their career with their life’s purpose, and we’re going to look at it from that standpoint, but remember: even that isn’t necessarily true.
You may find joy in your job because it gives you the space and freedom to pursue your true reason for waking up in the morning. Maybe your ikigai is your family, a special hobby or topic of study, or your volunteer work.
Pastor Rick Warren wrote The Purpose-Driven Life, and in his TED Talk about the book and his experience of its success, he says:
“I believe that you’re not an accident. I think you matter to God, I think you matter to history, I think you matter to this universe. And I think that the difference between what I call the survival level of living, the success level of living, and the significance level of living, is do you figure out what on earth am I here for?”
Dissatisfaction in life comes from not understanding your ikigai, and Warren says it’s not a religious issue. It’s a human issue.
It’s something we’re all trying to figure out.
If you’re feeling dissatisfied with your life, you can’t wait for your ikigai to show itself. You need to search for it actively and meaningfully.
Here’s how to start.
What have people been telling you your whole life?
Other people’s observations about where our talents lie can help us pinpoint what we do well. After all, we’re often most critical of ourselves, especially when we care about something and want to do a good job.
Sometimes those compliments and observations are about clear skills: you’re a good artist, a good mechanic, a good cook.
Sometimes they’re more subtle and have wide-reaching implications and opportunities: you’re a good listener, you’re generous, you’re good at diffusing arguments.
Think about what people have complimented you on in the past, and pay attention in the coming days and weeks to what people say to you. Write it all down and look for common themes.
Some people say, “It would take me a year to write that blog post!” Some can’t type. Some struggle with spelling. Writing isn’t easy for them. They probably won’t find their ikigai in journalism or novel writing.
For me, writing is pretty easy. That’s not to say I don’t sometimes struggle with ideas and typos. But in general, it flows.
What flows for you?
Let’s say you’re a teacher, but you know it’s not right for you. You don’t feel like it’s your ikigai. You don’t really like teaching, but you can say for sure you love working with kids.
That’s valuable insight. What would allow you to work with kids while integrating your other skills or areas of interest?
There are many questions to help you identify these precious moments:
What and who was present in these moments? What do they all have in common?
Maybe you haven’t even been introduced to your purpose yet. Maybe there’s a passion lying dormant inside you, waiting to be ignited.
Reading is one of the quickest ways to introduce yourself to new concepts and ideas that may lead you to your ikigai. Notice when something you read inspires you or makes you angry. Maybe there’s change waiting to happen—a change that could be led by you.
How do you want to be remembered? As a rich person? Hopefully you have greater aspirations than that.
Making money is good, and hopefully it will be a byproduct of your ikigai. But money alone isn’t a reason for getting out of bed.
And being remembered doesn’t have to mean being remembered by history. How will your children remember you? How will your friends talk about you when you’re gone?
If you want to be known as happy, generous, creative, or anything else, what can you do today to contribute to that?
As mentioned early, in the best of worlds, four things overlap to create your ikigai. There may be plenty of purpose in having even two or three of those things overlap.
So where’s the overlap for you?
And so on.
Look for those intersections. Read to explore what’s available and needed at those intersections. See where your own core values—how you want to show up in the world—align with those intersections.
Now we’re on to something.
Don’t file this information away for later.
Your life is happening now. If you don’t feel like you’re living with your ikigai, start searching today.
This is a journey, and there’s no deadline. You’re simply opening yourself up to possibility and the excitement of living life on purpose.
If you’re ready to get off autopilot and find your life’s purpose, check out this template for how to find your ikigai. Fill it out. Sit with it. Work with it.
And get closer to figuring out what you want to do when you grow up.