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  • Writer's pictureRohan Bhatia

Ikigai: How to Get the Most Out of Your Career

As a late-teen or twenty-something - you’ll likely face a dilemma. What career do you pursue? Do you go to college? If so, what do you study? Does your career make a difference in the world? These are all questions that swarm our minds as we look to leave high school and enter our twenties. In Japanese culture, the way we can come to a decision here is using a philosophy called Ikigai - which translates to “reason for being”. It recognises a brutal reality. Working as an investment banker for 100 hours a week is not true happiness. Working 20 hours a week at a local environmental charity is also not true happiness. In the former - whilst you’ll likely generate a large amount of wealth - this is compromised by a lifestyle that will burn you out and leave no time to enjoy your wealth. And in the latter - whilst making a difference in the world - you’ll struggle to make ends meet with a negligible salary. Ikigai argues our choice for career should fall somewhere in between. Specifically, it argues that our career choice should strike a fine balance between 4 criteria; what we love, what the world needs, what we are good at and what we can be paid for.


Let’s start with easily the most attractive quadrant of Ikigai - what we love. The philosophy necessitates that whatever we do with our lives - should be something that brings us joy and makes us feel alive and fulfilled. Of course, doing something we love is the easiest to ensure we can give it our full attention and work to a high level. What’s important here however is that we start by answering this question beyond the simple scope of career. Trying to convince yourself that you absolutely adore investment banking or 1000-page legal documents won’t cut it. You can’t lie to yourself here. Instead, draw on what you enjoy doing in your spare time. What are your hobbies? What we love in this sense might entail sailing, writing short stories, dancing or hiking. It’s an innate drive, an innate passion toward something. Seeking a career in this way ensures longevity and a long term sense of fulfillment.


Secondly, is the need to find a life purpose which adds to - or at least bolsters - what the world needs. We want to make sure that what we are doing is making a measurable impact on the world around us. This of course could come in the form of deeply impacting the people in our communities or it could be the natural environment around us. One way of considering this part of Ikigai is to ask yourself of intergenerational effects. Is there something you could do, as part of your career, that would improve the world that your children and grandchildren inhabit? This part of the Ikigai quadrant will satisfy our innate desire to make an impact and to help those in less fortunate positions. Having a mission about our place in the world, in this way, therefore makes our career a lot more meaningful and rewarding.


Now of course, you could find a career which you absolutely adore and make a measurable impact on your community. But if it doesn’t allow you to build wealth, pay the bills and live comfortably - what is it all worth? That’s where the 3rd element of Ikigai comes in - to consider what we can be paid for. The old adage, “Money can’t buy happiness” - in truth - has a lot more nuance than it is often afforded. Truthfully, the answer to that question lies somewhere in the middle. Ikigai embodies that idea. Should you have all the money but be unable to satisfy the need for a career that you love and provide something for the world and community - then money won’t be able to satisfy you entirely. But on the other hand, you can do something you absolutely adore and be making an impact on the world - but it’s very hard to be happy without the ability to not only afford the essentials - but also to have the capacity to treat yourself occasionally and secure your family’s wealth. Importantly, Ikigai does not say that you need to forget about money or wealth and simply focus on a spiritual, meaningful drive. It’s not a religious movement. It’s a lot more realistic than that. Ikigai is about balance. A balance between the aforementioned intrinsic desires to do what we love and make an impact. But also the realistic extrinsic desires we have to build wealth, afford nice things and live comfortably.


Finally, the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is Ikigai is of course to do something we are good at. Indeed, without the ability to succeed at what we do - fulfilment, joy and happiness will all be out of reach. How can you truly be happy doing something that you are bad at. Think back to school. I bet your favourite subject was also one that you performed relatively well at. It’s extremely unlikely you're going to love a subject that you repeatedly are failing at. Instead, you’ll be more engaged and likely to study/practise for subjects that you found genuinely intriguing. In a similar way, being able to love what we do is a necessary by-product of this final quadrant of Ikigai, which is to do what we are good at. Financially speaking, we know that the best way to generate income and wealth is to bring to the market what we are good at. What can you bring to the marketplace that others will value? That’s a question you need to ask yourself.


Together, these four components create a career which maximises passion, satisfaction, comfort and status. If you’re unsure how to approach your career - embracing the Ikigai approach will help you absolutely make the right choice.

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