How to Find Your Ikigai (and More Purpose and Joy)


“We all have two lives. The second one starts when we realize that we only have one.” ~Confucius

According to Gettysburg College, the average person will spend 90,000 hours working in their lifetime. For many of us, it seems that the answer to Mary Oliver’s famous question, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” is work. So why do so many of us stay in jobs we don’t enjoy?

For three years, I had a job that made me feel restless and disengaged. On paper, it was the right fit. It aligned with my experience in education administration, an industry I fell into through a mutual friend in college. But in reality, the culture at the company made it difficult for me to feel comfortable there or have any life outside of work.

When I was on the clock, it was constantly go, go, go. I was expected to work several weekends in the fall, summer, and spring, sometimes from home and sometimes traveling for conferences. I often worked early mornings and late evenings for a good, but not great, salary (I worked for a nonprofit), and there was no overtime.

Because of this, I was extremely guarded about my few free weekends, preferring to use them to recharge quietly at home. I felt resentful when a family member or friend would ask me to visit, feeling so burnt out from my day-to-day that I had nothing left to give them.

My coworkers infrequently took paid time off, and sometimes they were denied. I once asked to take a Friday off for a close family friend’s wedding and was told it wouldn’t be feasible. I spent the five-hour car ride to the venue working from the passenger seat.

I frustratedly turned my phone off at the rehearsal dinner, which was at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, after receiving a message from my boss. When I did get to take time off, I was often asked to get online or help my boss out over the phone. I heard from her while on the beach for a friend’s bachelorette trip, in a rental for a family vacation, at my aunt and uncle’s house for Thanksgiving, and even in a remote mountain town in Italy.

I started googling things like “how to combat burnout,” “what to do if you don’t like your job,” “how do I keep working overtime but not feel like ice cream on a ninety-degree day?” and “does my dog still love me just as much if I don’t have time to play with him every morning?” Somehow, in one of my Google spirals, I came across the concept of “Ikigai.”

A Japanese philosophy meaning “reason for being,” Ikigai encompasses finding fulfillment in the intersection of what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.

It asks, “Why do you get up in the morning?” and suggests that your career should be the answer if you’re living your Ikigai. Not only was my job not the reason I woke up in the morning (that honor goes to my two-year-old golden doodle, Nemo), but it was also the reason I hit snooze and rolled back under the covers to hide from the day for a bit longer.

So I quit. It wasn’t as simple as that—it took a lot of work and quite a bit of luck, but I ended up redirecting to a new path that fits my lifestyle much better. When thinking about why I get up in the morning, reading was one of the first things to come to mind—I devour several books a week, and nothing makes me happier than a few quiet hours with a coffee and written words—so editorial work felt like an encouraging place to start.

Now, I work as an editorial manager for a small company only two miles from my house. I’m doing work that I enjoy with people who I like, and I never work weekends. I’m not sure yet if I’ve found my Ikigai, but my current work allows me to explore what I love while allowing me time to cultivate hobbies and give some thought to what I genuinely enjoy.

I’m not alone in my longing for purpose and my need to follow a career path that fits me. A 2021 Gallup report found that 60% of millennials and 57% of Gen Z are open to new job opportunities, with a significant portion saying that their primary driver is the desire for meaningful work.

Unlike many boomers, who value financial security above all else, young people today are more likely to leave jobs that don’t provide a sense of purpose or opportunities for personal growth. A 2019 study by MetLife found that 74% of boomers considered financial security and benefits to be the most critical factors in a job, compared to only 54% of millennials.

In our culture, we’re expected to choose a career in our early twenties, before we know anything about the world or ourselves, and climb the same ladder forever, seeking prestige and financial gain. But that standard is changing.

Young people are choosing to leave their jobs to pursue their dreams, whether that means pivoting to a new career path, going freelance, starting their own business, or traveling. Like me, they are unwilling to put up with poor work-life balance and work that is not meaningful for them. They seek jobs that offer personal fulfillment, align with their values, and provide a sense of purpose.

How Do You Find Your Ikigai?

So, how do you find your Ikigai? It’s not a one-day revelation but a journey of self-discovery. It requires thought, preparation, and reflection. Here are five steps you can take to work towards your Ikigai.

1. Set aside time for self-reflection.

Engage in self-reflection to understand your passions, strengths, and values. Tools like journaling or personality assessments can help clarify what drives you.

Use journaling prompts like these:

What activities make you lose track of time?

What do people often ask for your help with?

What are your strengths and talents?

When were you the happiest, and why?

2. Experiment.

Try different activities, volunteer, or take on side projects to explore your interests and see what resonates with you. Some trial-and-error may be necessary to gather insights into what fulfills you.

Here are some options you can explore:

Take on new hobbies or volunteer roles.

Attend free workshops or community events.

Collaborate on projects that interest you.

Join an interest group in your community.

3. Set goals and make plans.

Consider your passions and strengths and use them to develop actionable goals. Create a roadmap with clear steps to reach these goals. Setting specific goals will enhance your motivation for change and give you something to work toward and look forward to.

Try setting SMART goals. That means they’re:

Specific

Measurable

Achievable

Relevant

Time-Bound

4. Seek feedback.

Ask mentors, peers, or professionals in your areas of interest for feedback. Talking to the people who know you best can give you insights into parts of yourself that you may not have noticed, including what lights you up. Talking to people who know the industry you’re interested in can help you decide if it’s right for you before you pivot entirely in that new direction.

Consider the following suggestions:

Ask your friends and family about their perceptions of your strengths and passions.

Ask your boss at work what they feel you do best and what you seem to enjoy.

Seek informal mentors who can offer advice and guidance.

5. Embrace continuous learning.

Commit to lifelong learning through courses, reading, and other educational activities. Staying curious and open to new knowledge can help you adapt and thrive in your pursuit of purpose.

The following books have been helpful to me as I’ve looked for my purpose:

Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long, Happy Life by Héctor Garcia and Francesc Miralles

Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown

Thing Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant

Additional Philosophies for a Happy Life

Ikigai, at its core, is the search for contentment. As you’re searching for your Ikigai, several other philosophies can help you find fulfillment in your daily life:

Hygge is a Danish concept that, according to Country Living, “encompasses a feeling of cozy contentment and well-being through enjoying the simple things in life.” Hygge emphasizes creating a warm atmosphere. It is about finding happiness in everyday moments and fostering community and togetherness.

Lagom is a Swedish philosophy that translates to “not too little, not too much, just right.” Lagom encourages a balanced, sustainable lifestyle and making conscious choices that lead to contentment without excess. It’s about finding harmony and satisfaction through simplicity.

Friluftsliv translates to “open-air living” and is a Norwegian concept that celebrates outdoor life and nature. Friluftsliv emphasizes the importance of spending time in nature for mental and physical well-being. It encourages outdoor activities and connecting with the natural environment as a source of joy, relaxation, and a sense of purpose.

Final Thoughts

I’ve seen firsthand how many young people, me included, are increasingly leaving traditional jobs in search of more fulfilling and flexible careers, fueled by the grind of poor job quality and the longing for personal and professional growth. Embracing concepts like Ikigai has been transformative for me, and it can also be a good reminder for others.

By actively seeking our purpose and using strategies to find what truly drives us, we can navigate our career paths with greater clarity and joy. This journey isn’t just about finding a job—it’s about creating a life that resonates with us and what we value most. After all, we only have one life.



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