Many leaders, academics or just any person that is interested in the success of organisations have seen at least one model that illustrates how to improve a company by defining and focussing on its purpose. And with the apparent success of applying such models, new ones keep rising from the ground every year. However, there is one model called ‘ikigai’ that is distinctive and it could have a huge impact on organisations on the long term perspective. After reading about it, it becomes clear why one should look further than most pioneering models.

One of these classic pioneering models, for example is the Golden Circle of Simon Sinek. After researching the success factors of many companies, Sinek concluded that only a few reach the top. The reason for this lies in 3 circles; the inner circle of an organisation represents the purpose or meaning of all their activities, in other words their ‘why’. This is then in the more outer circles translated into the ‘how’, meaning how these activities are conducted and the ‘what’, representing what the activities specifically are. The importance of finding a why is explained by Sinek in his saying that people don’t buy what organisations do, but why they do it. Only very few people know why they do what they do. Sinek refers to Martin Luther King and Steve Jobs (amongst others), who were able to reach the last circle and find their ‘why’: their purpose.

How to find the ‘why’?

But how should one find the answer to this ‘why’? And where does a person have to look for it? And why should this purpose model only be applied to one’s work life? Why could one not apply the purpose to one’s personal life as well? Well, the answer to all of the above is: Ikigai. This model offers a method for individuals to really find their ‘why’. Besides that, it creates a bridge between the working life and personal life, because it is about finding one purpose that serves as a compass leading a person through all of it.

Ikigai already exists for many decades but has only recently reached the curious minds of the west. It is from Japan and there, it is a common word in the vocabulary yet we don’t have a correct translation for it. The French would call it ‘la raison d’être’, meaning ‘the reason for being’ however it is a little more complex than that. It starts by finding Sinek’s circle of ‘why’, but it goes beyond that. With ikigai, not only the quality of work improves but also that of life in general. According to the statistics, it even prolongates the duration of it. Namely, in Japan, people are overall very satisfied with their life and the country has more centenarians than any other country in the world. Researchers found out that especially on the island of Okinawa, an extraordinary amount of people reach the 100+ age. When asking about their secret, they said it was ikigai.

So what is ikigai?

Ikigai is the reason to get up in the morning. It is the key to living and working in a more valuable way. The difference with most ‘finding your passion/purpose’- clichés is that ikigai is challenging; it should lead to growth. Next to that, ikigai is a free choice; one won’t find a purpose because it was destiny to find it, but because one chooses to follow it. Then, it asks for commitment of time to pursue one’s ikigai. And very importantly, it improves the well-being; ikigai is linked to the way a person lives inside and outside work, maintaining good relationships and health.

In order to find Ikigai one should ask himself the following key questions:

  • What do you love?
  • What does the world need?
  • What can you get paid for?
  • What are you good at?

Let’s take the example of Tony’s Chocolonely, a Dutch popular chocolate brand. Teun van de Keuken, the founder, was triggered by a TV-program that documented the (child) slavery behind the chocolate industry. He was shocked by that revelation and realised that the world needs to stop this. He loves chocolate, but suddenly he found everyone who ever ate a chocolate bar guilty of participating in slavery, including him and therefore he turned himself in as a chocolate criminal. Then, by knowing that the world needs to eliminate slavery and that he loves chocolate and fighting slavery, Teun found his mission: to make 100% slavery-free chocolate. Next, because people are willing to pay for slavery-free chocolate and they are supporting the cause, he found a vocation. After launching the brand and starting the production, it seemed that Teun and his team were pretty good at making chocolate as Tony’s Chocolonely became very popular in The Netherlands. This means that, because they know how to make delicious chocolate and the world is willing to pay for it, Teun has his profession. Finally, by knowing what he is good at and what he loves doing, he found his passion in making slavery-free chocolate.

The combination of those four elements (mission, vocation, profession and passion) make slavery-free chocolate the ikigai of Teun and Tony’s Chocolonely. However, it does not work if one of the elements is missing. Namely, imagine if the people are willing to pay for slavery-free chocolate, if Teun loves doing it and is even really good at making it, but the world would not really want to end the chocolate slavery (surely unimaginable). In that case, he will have satisfaction but feeling of uselessness. Or, if the world actually needs it, is willing to pay for it, he loves doing it but unfortunately he is not good at it. Then he feels excitement and complacency, but a sense of uncertainty, because he can only make an impact if he is successful. However, if he actually is good at making slavery-free chocolate, loves doing it and the world needs it but is not willing to pay for it, he probably feels delight and fullness, but no wealth. In that case, there is a risk of Teun needing to stop making slavery-free chocolate, because he cannot afford it. Consequently, if he is good, the world needs it and wants to pay for it but he does not love doing it, he feels comfortable but has a feeling of emptiness.

Finally, in the heart of the diagram, all elements overlap. So here, if Teun loves it, is good at it, the world needs it AND is willing to pay for it; here he has found his ikigai.

Finding ikigai can help people make decisions, as they know what they want to do, what they can do, what other people need and what they want to pay for. So, the direction of where to go is clear and all decisions should contribute to getting there. Also, knowing one’s ikigai serves as a guideline for good leadership. By believing in the purpose, one can inspire and engage other people to do so as well. One also has a clear overview of the tasks that have to be done in order to fulfil the purpose. And like the above model shows, this purpose goes beyond the professional purpose of an organisation, but it comes together with the personal one of the people working for it. Therefore, ikigai is not only the reason to get up during working days but also on weekends. As Teun van de Keuken personally blamed himself for eating regular chocolate, he is now committed to putting all of his efforts into stopping chocolate slavery. And as a leader of this brand, which is also a movement, he transmits his ikigai to others. By introducing the ikigai model through his company, he can stimulate his co-workers and employees to identify or not identify with it. Anyhow he makes sure that people who work there have the same purpose and naturally feel committed to contributing to the organisation to make it successful.

It’s not just a model, it’s a lifestyle

Like mentioned before, ikigai is the reason to get up every day. It stimulates energy, motivation and serves as a guideline to spend the day more productively. The people of Okinawa learn to find their ikigai at a young age, but accept the fact that over the years it might change. A young adolescent has a different purpose than a retired person, but whatever the age, they are all conscious about their ikigai and remind themselves of it daily. For them, ikigai is not just a mental guideline but it is a lifestyle. The essence is to make the most out of life and be valuable to the world.

It is because of this, that the ikigai philosophy not only has an impact on one’s career but also on social relationships and health. In Okinawa, people put great effort into participating in social events and staying healthy. The combination of these factors makes this place a blue zone, as Dan Buettner explains in his Ted talk; an area where an unusual amount of people reach the age beyond 100 years and are extremely happy and successful. To incorporate ikigai in one’s organisation and to stimulate it amongst co-workers, time and collaboration are of the essence. In different sessions, one could find the 4 elements by discussing the questions of the model. In addition, one could highlight the importance of good relationships and staying healthy inside and outside of work by facilitating different kinds of workshops.

So, by finding ikigai, one has the feeling of moving forward step by step with everything that one does towards a higher goal. By getting closer to it, one feels satisfied, useful, certain and wealthy. If one is dedicated to actively follow this purpose, there is no difference anymore between work and personal life. And the best part of ikigai is that, if one follows the fundaments of it, it is a promising attempt to become a happy and successful centenarian.