21 Sep

Ikigai – How this Japanese philosophy helped me find a more fulfilling career.

Ikigai – How this Japanese philosophy helped me find a more fulfilling career.

Something missing

For much of my twenties I had been working as a management consultant.  While it had provided me with financial security and stimulating work, I always felt as if something was missing.  Every morning would be a struggle to get out of bed.  I became depressed because I kept thinking that I should be happy and grateful that I had a great job.   The problem was, no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t shake this feeling that something was missing.  One of my close friends, seeing my distress, tried to console me – “everyone hates their jobs, don’t worry about it”.  He felt confident that most people had to choose between financially rewarding jobs and a more fulfilling career.  You could have one or the other, but not both.

Introducing Ikigai

One day I was watching a TED talk (one of my consuming passions) by a man called Dan Buetter.  In his presentation, Dan talked about a number of communities across the globe that had above average life expectancy.  One of these communities, living in southern Japan, practiced a way of life called Ikigai, which roughly translates as “a reason for being”.  You can watch the video here.  At its core is the concept that an individual’s life has purpose and meaning when they are doing four things.  Something they love, something they are good at, something you can be paid for, and something the world needs.  The Venn diagram below summarises the idea:

Ikigai can help you discover a more fulfilling career
Are you Ikigai? Are you doing something that combines passion, mission, profession and vocation?

The philosophy resonated with me deeply.  In addition, I realised that it could provide a useful framework for identifying a more fulfilling career.  I started thinking where I would place myself on the intersection of its 4 themes (above).  While I knew I was relatively good at my job, I struggled to articulate any clear passion or sense of mission.  The closest I got was identifying my department’s focus on helping government deliver better public services.  I quickly realised that my career was, at best, sat at the intersection between Profession and Vocation – I wasn’t Ikigai.

My journey of self-discovery

I had recognised what was missing in my work – a strong sense of mission and purpose.  Identify this I thought, and perhaps I could find a more fulfilling career.  Therefore, unconsciously to begin with, I started trying different things.  At work, I sought out project roles with different objectives.  I joined a consultant team in charge of providing training to other consultants.  I joined a volunteer programme to help school children in London learn about current affairs.  Outside of work, I stood as a parliamentary candidate in the 2015 UK general election.  I did some travel (including a week in Japan) to learn about different cultures and customs.  I also did some volunteering for a range of organisations – a botanical garden, an education charity, and an environmental consultancy.

Slowly but gradually these mini-projects helped me to identify what I really valued.  The first was a passion for inter-disciplinary learning.  I needed a career in which I could continue to learn.  In many ways my job at Deloitte provided this, but learning was geared towards developing skills that I could use on my consulting projects.  While I could deepen my technical consulting expertise, I didn’t feel as if I was growing personally.  The second was a desire to make a meaningful, positive and visible impact on individuals or organisations that I cared about.  Gradually things began to make sense.  I realised that I was most happy when I was helping clients and colleagues learn new skills, or when I myself was learning something new.  Problem was, helping individuals grow or develop wasn’t core to my work.

The impetus to make a career change

Ikigai had helped me clarify what was missing from my career, and this gave me the impetus I needed to start making career changes.   It also helped me clarify my strengths and identify, more clearly, what might be better alternative careers.  In conclusion, Ikigai has helped me to set up Equipped 4 Change and become a career coach.

Now I wake up in the morning with a greater sense of purpose.  Through my Career Orientation Programme, I now introduce others to the concept of Ikigai. and help them make positive changes in their professional lives.  The sense of purpose and fulfillment that I get from helping others gives me the energy I need to work late and learn new skills.  Some of these skills are critical for growing my business – e.g. web-design and digital marketing.  Other’s are more personal, like learning Spanish.  Most importantly, I am growing professionally and personally, and I am more fulfilled in what I do.  While, I have accepted a short term reduction in my financial security whilst I build my business, I am also more confident about my long term career direction.

A great framework for considering what is missing from your career

Ikigai has already helped some of my clients to get more clarity on their future career direction. It has helped some to identify skills and under-utilised strengths that they want to use more regularly in their work.  It has helped others to re-evaluate financial goals, and plan a route to a better work/life balance.  Everyone’s Ikigai is different because we all have different values, strengths and needs.

It is also important to recognise that very few of us have one single passion that can support a more fulfilling career.  I realised through my own journey, that alongside my desire to help others, I was also passionate about protecting the natural environment.  However, when I considered both passions alongside my strengths, skills and career needs, I concluded that a focus on helping others was a better overall fit for the next stage of my career.  Ikigai provides a holistic perspective that helps you make informed, balanced career choices.

The compass guiding you on your career journey

Another thing I have realised since discovering Ikigai is that as our values, strengths and career needs evolve with time, and therefore so to do the careers, occupations and lifestyles that will suit us best.  Nothing is static and our Ikigai is always evolving.  This is one of the reasons that I believe so many of us are seeking career changes.  We recognise that what suited us well in our 20’s may not suit us well in our 30s, 40s or 50s, even if, like me, we initially struggle to identify why.  Our definition of what constitutes a fulfilling career is always evolving.

Ikigai can help you discover a more fulfilling career
Discovering your Ikigai is an ongoing journey, not a destination!

I believe it’s important to consider Ikigai as a tool.  A compass or a framework that can guide you in your long term career journey.  Sure, it can help you get clarity on your next career destination, but as your needs and values evolve over time, you will find yourself coming back to the philosophy again and again and again.

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Simon is CEO and Founder of Equipped 4 Change. Before becoming a career coach and adviser, Simon spent 6 years as a management consultant in London. A self confessed learning addict, he has also tried careers in politics (standing as an MP), and software development (his first job after university). He has a Masters Degree in Physics from the University of Durham and is currently studying Spanish (badly).

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