Ikigai is a Japanese concept meaning “a reason for being,” and exists at the balance of doing what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.
Evaluating your past and present jobs against the Ikigai model can help you gain insights about what’s working and what’s not for you.
Following your gut to create time-limited lists that assess your four Ikigai dimensions can provide additional insights about changes you might like to consider.
Assessment and insights are the beginning of further introspective work. Time and trusted partners can help you with next steps.
A few years ago, I stumbled on the Ikigai (“reason for being”) figure below. I thought it was a great model for identifying professional satisfaction and started thinking about where my past and present jobs would fall on it.
I was thrilled to find that my role at the time fell squarely in the middle, which explained why it was the first job in which I had ever felt I truly loved what I did.
Then I started testing prior jobs. Here’s what I discovered, and a step-by-step guide to get you started on your own evaluation process.
Image source: dreamstime and Toronto Star
What I Discovered When Evaluating Past Jobs Against Ikigai
I have frequently described one of my past jobs as making me feel happy, but not fulfilled. But I never really understood why, until looking at it on the Ikigai framework.
When thinking back on the job, I went into work every day smiling, I liked my coworkers, and I was happy I got the chance to help others in the work I was doing; but every day I felt like the work didn’t really matter (even though it did)—that the personal stakes weren’t high enough. Even though I felt useful, the job felt pleasant, and it was perhaps the lowest-stress time of my career, I could tell that I didn’t want to stay in it for long. There was no passion, no spark—it was just a job. Did I want to spend the majority of my waking hours doing “just a job?”
When I evaluated where it fell on Ikigai, the picture became clear: I was good at it, people needed it, and I was being paid what was at the time my highest salary to date, but I didn’t love it—I felt I was doing it out of service and obligation. It fell under the model’s description of “comfortable, but feeling of emptiness,” which was dead on.
When I redid the exercise for this post, two of my jobs (including my current role as Executive & Leadership Coach) hit all four dimensions and felt very balanced in Ikigai.
Interestingly, all my other jobs fell into the intersection of what I’m good at, can be paid for, and the world needs, but lacked what I love. I remember often feeling in those jobs that I was doing a lot of giving but not getting much fulfillment in return. I felt out of balance—guilty to myself for staying, and equally guilty to others for wanting to leave. I remember saying that some people love their jobs, but I’m just not built that way—I work for the discipline, commitment, and service, but not to love it.
Having now held two jobs that I truly love, I can say that I had this wrong, but I needed to go through the experience of trying things and reflecting to get there.
Discovering Your Ikigai: Getting Started (Total Time: ~10 Minutes)
Step 1: Map Out Your Past and Present Jobs
To get started in finding your Ikigai, assess your current and past jobs to see where they fall on the model.
Do you see any trends? Anything resonate?
Which dimensions come out strongly and which are weaker or missing?
Step 2: Define Your Attributes
To consider what attributes bring you closer to Ikigai:
Take out some paper or a start a blank document on your computer and write these four headers with plenty of space between them: what I love; what I’m good at; what the world needs; and what I can be paid for.
Set a timer for 1 minute and list out as many attributes or qualities (not jobs) that come to mind for what I love.
Repeat the process (1 minute each) for each of the other three Ikigai dimensions.
Step 3: Consolidate Your Results
Set a timer for 1 minute. Go through your list of attributes and select 1-3 that resonate most with you from each of the four dimensions. Write them in their own consolidated list and put it aside.
Don’t worry about what others have told you, what you think you should be good at, or what you’ve been doing in your career to date. Go with your gut on these.
Step 4: Define Your Interests
On a clean page, list the header: jobs, roles, or themes that interest me.
Set a timer for 1 minute and list everything that comes to mind. Put aside any “shoulds,” know that no one’s watching, and follow your gut.
Step 5: Evaluate Your Interests Against Ikigai
Evaluate your list of interests against the Ikigai model.
Where do they fall? How does each result feel? Where do you feel most balanced? Secure? Uncertain? Notice these feelings and know it’s just information and isn’t forcing you into any decisions or changes.
If you get stuck, evaluate your list of interests against your consolidated list of attributes. Does a given interest satisfy those attributes? How many? How important is that to you? What feels right? Balanced?
Take Your Insights as a Springboard to Further Exploration or Change
You’ve completed your “getting started” exercise and gained valuable insights. Use your results as a springboard to further introspection, discussion with others, career exploration, or change.
Be flexible, forgiving, and willing to learn in your process. This is the beginning of a new way of looking at your professional satisfaction. It may take time and support to work out what’s next.
What resonated with you? Worked or didn’t? Feel free to leave feedback in the comments or share on social media.