I recently had the pleasure to read a great article by Thomas Oppong entitled Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life Might Just Help You Live a More Fulfilling Life. The article outlined the concept of ikigai, a Japanese word meaning “a reason for being,” and made some interesting connections between it and modern life.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been turning the ideas in the article over in my head and I’ve come to realize that they actually line up incredibly well with healthy financial, professional, and personal decisions.
Today, I want to dig deeply into this idea, but to do so, I think it’s best to start with some key foundations.
Four Elements of Time
At the core of ikigai (as presented by Oppong) is the idea that there are four fundamental ways in which people choose to spend their time (outside of things like basic personal care).
People spend some time doing what they love. People choose to do things because they really enjoy the process. Many personal hobbies fall into this category.
People spend time doing what they’re good at. If you’re really skilled at something, it’s often enjoyable to do that, and your skill is often appreciated by others.
People spend time doing what they can be paid for. In other words, people spend time doing their jobs, where they perform tasks and receive pay for completing those tasks.
People also spend time doing what the world needs. Charitable work often falls into this category, as does public service, as well as simply helping friends.
Most of us spend most of our waking hours doing things that fall into at least one of those four categories, but, as I’m sure you noticed, there are a lot of things that we do that fall into multiple categories.
We fulfill our passion when we do something that we love and that we’re good at.
We fulfill our mission when we do what we love that is also what the world needs.
We fulfill our profession when we do what we’re good at that also happens to be what we’re paid for.
We fulfill our vocation when we do what we’re paid for that also happens to be what the world needs.
When we manage to combine three elements, things get even better!
When we combine our passion and our mission, we often find utter delight and fulfillment at work, but it’s hard to accumulate wealth. Think of a really committed teacher or charitable worker or a “starving artist.”
When we combine our mission and our vocation, we find excitement in our work and a nice sense of security, but we’re uncertain because we don’t feel particularly skilled in what we’re doing. Think of someone who has been over promoted at work and is trying really hard to do a good job but might not be quite up to the task.
When we combine our vocation and our profession, we find a lot of financial security and we’re good at our job, but it just doesn’t feel fulfilling or meaningful. Think of someone who has a good high paying job but is mostly completely bored and unhappy at work.
When we combine our passion and our profession, we find a lot of personal satisfaction, but it just doesn’t feel like it really matters in the big scheme of things. Think of a lab technician working on an obscure research area that they’re having difficulty connecting to real world problems.
Ikigai is an overlap of all four areas – what you love, what you’re good at, what you can be paid for, and what the world needs. If you can find that, then you’ve found something fulfilling and sustainable.
The problem is, it’s not easy to find, and finding it requires not only exploring your options, but exploring yourself, too.
My Path to Ikigai
When I was in school, I felt like I was really solid in three of the four areas. I was good at learning and mastering the subjects before me. I was really excited about what I was learning. I felt like I was preparing to change the world. The big part that was missing was financial security – no one was paying me to do this. I was paying for it, in fact.
My first job after college solved that money issue quite directly. For the first few years, it was pretty much the embodiment of ikigai, and I was usually happiest when I was at work. I was using my skills to solve interesting problems that I could connect to the real world, and I was being paid to do it! It was great!
Over time, however, my connection to what the world needs began to fade as my work slowly changed. I began to spend more time in bureaucratic matters and I began to see less and less impact in the actual work I was doing. My connection to what the world needed faded away, and then, on its tails, my sense of doing what I love faded, too.
A job and career path that was once loaded with ikigai faded to merely being a profession, and I was largely unhappy with it.
So, I changed careers. I started trying lots of side gigs until I found that writing about financial challenges was attracting an audience and I eventually started doing it full time. This job lands squarely in the “ikigai” area for me. I love learning about personal finance and self-improvement (what I love). I have the ability to write a lot of fairly good content quickly (what you’re good at). It helps a lot of people (what the world needs). Someone’s willing to pay me for it (what you can be paid for). I’ve been writing The Simple Dollar (and other similar things) for more than a decade now and I’m still excited to learn new things and try to rearrange and reposition what I know in a way that will reach and help someone new.
Finding Your Own Path
Most of the advice that people give in terms of personal finance, careers, and personal happiness boils down to starting with one or two elements of ikigai and trying to find the other ones. Many people know their profession or their passion, but they struggle to put together all four elements, so they find themselves struggling to put food on the table or they have a great paying job that feels pointless and unhelpful.
Most people have at least two of those four elements already in their life, manifested as passion, profession, vocation, or mission, but the difficulty comes from finding the other elements from that starting position.
Here are eight different ways you can move from that starting point to something closer to ikigai in your life.
Finding what you love to do within your profession Sit down and look at what you do on a weekly basis at your job. Which tasks are the ones that you enjoy the most? Now, how can you shape your job so that you do those tasks – or tasks similar to it – more often? Can you talk to your boss? Can you volunteer for those tasks? This might involve sticking your neck out there a little bit, but if it gets you closer to tasks that you love, then it’s a net positive.
Another approach is to view your profession solely as something you do to fund your passion or mission in life. You work and do a good job solely so that you can spend your time outside of work doing things that you love to do. In that context, you can begin to see your job, no matter what it is, as a fundamental component of your passion or mission.
Figuring out how your profession helps the world Who is it that your company or organization is serving, in the end? Don’t think about who you are directly helping, but what the overall mission of your organization is. Keep that in mind at all times, and remember that every organization needs a janitor. Often, our jobs aren’t glamorous, but if we understand that we take care of a fundamental need that enables others to really bring about profound change, then you’re part of a team that’s really making a difference.
Sometimes, though, it’s hard to truly pierce the veil of bureaucracy. If you’re struggling to figure out what you’re doing that isn’t just shuffling papers, I highly recommend talking to other people in your workplace that are perhaps a bit closer to the direct purpose of your organization. Talk to them, and try to understand how the things you’re doing actually help the big picture. The truth is, if you’re not helping the big picture, you probably don’t have a job. You’re helping in some way, even if it’s just a matter of taking out the trash so other people can focus all of their energies on tasks that they’re more skilled and prepared to handle.
Applying what you’re good at to your vocation Sometimes, we wind up in situations where we’re paid well to do something that’s clearly useful to the world, but we’re not sure if we’re actually doing it well at all. Often, this is a result of not being entirely sure of what your key skills really are. What are you good at?
In situations like this, it’s a good idea to do some self-assessment and identify what natural skills and talents you have. Try something like a Jung typology test and see what traits you naturally have, then filter what you do at work through those results. Make an effort to include more of the types of tasks you’re naturally good at and fewer of the tasks that you’re not so good at.
Finding things you love to do within your vocation The advice here is similar to finding what you love to do within your profession. Sit down and look at what you do on a weekly basis at your job. Which tasks are the ones that you enjoy the most? Now, how can you shape your job so that you do those tasks – or tasks similar to it – more often? Can you talk to your boss? Can you volunteer for those tasks? This might involve sticking your neck out there a little bit, but if it gets you closer to tasks that you love, then it’s a net positive.
In positions that are vocationally oriented, meaning ones where you see a strong connection to how it benefits the world but a lesser connection to what your skills are like, you can often use the things you love as a supplement, a way to connect with people. Let people know about the things you love to do. Don’t be shy about your hobbies. You might find that they sync up in more ways than you expect if the people around you are aware of them.
Finding a way to make money with your passion If you know what you’re passionate about but you can’t seem to find a good job with it, get creative with it. It might be that simply finding a direct employer is not the way to turn your passion into money. Often, the path for that is through entrepreneurship – simply putting out the results of your passion and making it easy for others to find it and support it financially. Start an instructional or informational or entertaining Youtube channel on the area of your passion. Start making whatever it is you love to make in your spare time and selling it or trading it. Don’t look at it solely within the confines of a traditional job.
Figuring out how your passion helps the world The best way to do this is to teach. Take your passion out there in the world and show others how to do it, too. Another approach: if your passion involves making things, make those things for charitable use so that the item itself or the proceeds from that item go to directly helping people. This is why you see musicians really enjoying charity concerts and the like – it’s a way to turn what they love and what they’re good at into something that also helps the world.
Figuring out how to make a living with your mission A person with a mission is usually someone who simultaneously loves what they’re doing and understands how it helps the world, so they’re often afire with that mission. The problem is… how does that translate to making money? Usually, the route to making money while still achieving your mission involves finding a supportive or ancillary route. What can you do to facilitate people who share your mission? What can you do to promote that mission? What needs do organizations have that cater to the fulfillment of your mission? Often, making a living with your mission is like being the person pushing the merry-go-round, not the person riding it (necessarily).
Figuring out how to apply what you’re good at to your mission As noted above when discussing vocation, one of the best things a person with a mission can do when figuring out how they can best support that mission is to do some serious self-assessment and identify what natural skills and talents you have. Again, try something like a Jung typology test and see what traits you naturally have, then filter through those results with an eye toward your mission. What does your mission need that you can provide?
Ikigai and Financial Independence
One very interesting area to consider – and one that actually led me to writing this post – is the overlap of ikigai and financial independence. There’s a nice balance between the two concepts that’s well worth exploring.
First of all, financial independence completely erases the “what you can be paid for” factor in this equation. At that point, you’re effectively being “paid” by your investments no matter what you do, so you’re left only with fulfilling your passion and your mission to achieve ikigai. It doesn’t matter whether or not you get paid for those things.
This is why many people, when they’re freed from the need to work for money, tend to choose a completely different path in life, one lined up with their passion and their mission. They choose to paint or to write a novel or to work for a charity or to try some crazy small business idea that probably would be far too risky without that financial security in the bank. For me, at the point where I’m financially independent, I would probably start a more general personal improvement site with no advertisements at all, supported solely by Patreon, with articles coming out at a slower pace.
Of course, the reverse is true: the worse your financial state, the more you must prioritize what you can be paid for, so you have to put profession and vocation first. This likely means any job you can get at first, but eventually leads to a job that pays well that you simply don’t love. You’re doing your job because it pays well, but you don’t enjoy it and you don’t really see the point of it. That’s incredibly draining and unfulfilling, which is why many people often hit a career crisis point.
One of the main benefits of working toward financial stability and financial independence in your life is that in terms of your life’s work you move away from having to emphasize what you can be paid for and toward what fulfills you and is meaningful for you.
When my first career after college slowly became a “profession” above all else – something I just did because it paid reasonably well and I was good at it – I became really unhappy with my life for a while, but I was somewhat shackled to that job. I couldn’t afford to make any changes because of my financial choices.
It was only when I started making better financial choices that new opportunities opened up for me that enabled me to do things that I love and things that change the lives of others – in other words, much more fulfilling work.
I’m still not quite where I ideally want to be on that spectrum, but achieving financial stability and moving a long way down the road to financial independence helped me greatly in terms of finding ikigai.
So, there are a few main takeaways that you should take home from this post.
Ikigai is a pretty attractive concept for life fulfillment as it touches on financial, personal, and professional fulfillment. It’s simply the area where the things you love to do, the things you’re good at, the things that help the world, and the things you’re paid for overlap.
Financial instability forces you to prioritize “the things you’re paid for” and that often causes you to leave other factors behind. Many people wind up where I was, in the “profession” area (where the things you’re good at overlap the things you’re paid for) and missing out on things that you love and things that are changing the world, and that’s often a recipe for unhappiness.
Financial stability de-emphasizes “the things you’re paid for” and financial independence removes that factor entirely. This lets you focus more and more on the things you love, the things you’re good at, and the things that change the world, which all provide a meaning and value in your life that’s far beyond what money can provide.
In other words, if you view ikigai as a great place to be, then it’s a call to get your finances in order. The better your finances are, the easier it is to find a life situation where you can achieve that kind of deep fulfillment in whatever it is you choose to do.