Using the Ikigai Approach to Identifying a Fulfilling Career

Career Discovery, Career Enrichment, Self Awareness
10/16/18 - Niteesha Gupte

I love learning about words from different languages that have no direct translation in English. Although we fit the translation into simple terms, the meanings go much deeper and always offer such rich information about a culture.

For example, the word, fika, in Swedish, translates to “a coffee and cake break” but it refers to a concept about making time during the day to stop working and socialize with friends and colleagues while having a coffee or tea and something to eat. This ritual is a critical part of Swedish culture and demonstrates its value on community.

Cappuccino cup showing a person taking a break during the workday.

A couple of years ago, I learned about the word, ikigai, and it changed the course of my career. Ikigai translates from Japanese, to “reason for being” or “what gets you out of bed in the morning”. Ikigai is not a concept solely tied to career fulfillment. In Japan, it is a life practice or pursuit that makes a life worth living. It encompasses a balanced view of what it takes to achieve a fulfilling work life, which when realized, should provide a purposeful life, happiness, and longevity.

For me, ikigai gave a framework that I could connect with at a time when I felt stuck in my career as a lawyer. It seemed like I was always searching for the right position – one in which I felt engaged and excited, challenged and supported by colleagues and supervisors, and was contributing in a meaningful way. Finally, a sense of dread came over me when I realized that maybe a career in law wouldn’t provide me with what I wanted out of my work life.

As a lawyer, I had been trained to think analytically. I took only calculated risks. The idea of changing my career after more than a decade in it, seemed overwhelming (what would I even do?), unwise (how would I make sufficient money?), and unattainable (how would I even do it?). Ikigai offered me a logical approach in exploring a career change.

During my first attempt at leaving law, I focused on my interests. Everyone says, “Follow your passions and you will be successful.” But I couldn’t figure out how to translate my interests into a meaningful, paid position.

The ikigai framework for a fulfilling life is a balance of four elements:

  • Your interests or what you love
  • Your strengths or what you are good at
  • Your contribution or what the world, society and community needs, and
  • What you can be paid for

Graphic showing Ikigai framework.

The goal is to find a balance of all four elements in your work. If you’re doing work that you’re passionate about and that you are good at, but it’s not meaningful and you aren’t paid at a sufficient level, you will not feel fulfilled in the long run. If you’re doing work that you’re good at, that is meaningful, and you’re paid well, but you don’t really have any interest in it, then you will not ultimately feel fulfilled.

So how do you become clear on how the four elements play out for you? Here are some ways to help get you started.

Your interests

It seems easy enough, right? What do I like? However, if you went from school to work, with your head down and following the path of success that was drawn out for you, it’s not surprising if you don’t know what you like anymore. So here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What websites or social media sites do I visit regularly?
  • What did I like to do when I was around age 10?
  • What do I get excited about doing?
  • What would I do even if I am dead tired or super busy?

Your strengths

Similar to interests, you may not know what your strengths are. You may have started studying for a career early in life, building skills for a particular subject, but never spent the time to understand what you’re good at. You can develop and nurture skills, but what are those strengths that come naturally to you? Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What do your friends and family come to you for when they need help?
  • What were you good at when you were around 10 years old?
  • What do your work colleagues come to you for when they need help?
  • What have your teachers or supervisors indicated as strengths in your work?

Young woman holding paintbrush who found her calling through ikigai.

Your contribution

This one was a big one for me as I was considering my career change. I wanted to make a meaningful contribution and be able to see my impact. This can seem like an overwhelming concept, but here are some questions that may help focus you:

  • What do you want your legacy to be?
  • How would you want to be remembered?
  • What does the world need that you want to contribute to?
  • How would you like to make a difference in society?

Your income

You may find that when you get to the point of wanting to make a career change, the biggest hold up is the financial issue. And at times, it’s because you may be considering a career that doesn’t take into account the fact that you still need to pay the bills. When I learned about this element of ikigai, I was actually relieved. I thought that leaving law would mean leaving my only avenue to make money. Ikigai holds a place for it and made it acceptable for me to include making money as an integral part of my search for a new career. It made my decision much easier to navigate. When you land upon some career options, ask yourself:

  • Would the work serve a need for a specific audience?
  • Would the audience pay for the services or product?
  • Are there others who provide this product or service and do they get paid for it?
  • How much are my expenses and what is my goal income?

I found that when I spent time in exploring the four elements of ikigai and how they played out for me, I gained clarity on my career change and it became much easier to set a plan and implement it. I hope exploring your ikigai gives you a jump start in framing out your career transition.

I currently use this framework with clients who are exploring career transitions, and I was drawn to working with the team at Ama La Vida because our online career transition programming, The ALV Method, uses a very similar methodology. If you’d like to further explore how you can become clear on a career transition, please feel free to book a free consult with me here.


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