A mysterious word with purpose.

Rewind back to April 2015.

You would of found me racing out of the classroom at 3:05pm with my bag over one shoulder, a protein shake in the other and an apple in my mouth starting my 20min journey to sports coaching that started at 3:45pm, a standard weekday arvo where I would get home 3-4 hours later, with more school work to do.

Stress-induced cortisol and my protein shake was the only thing keeping me going. I had lit the fuse leading towards an explosion called burnout: frazzled, restless, emotionally depleted from pushing myself to pursue a lifestyle that was doing more harm than good.

Up until that point, I had convinced myself that I was doing the “right” thing — graduating university, getting a teaching job, taking on extra curricular roles, being active in the community to build my CV, taking my coaching to the next level . But looking back, two facts were blatantly obvious: (1) Living this way was not sustainable and (2) this was not what I planned to spend my life doing.

I had it all mixed up and what I eventually realised I was doing all this “stuff” that I didn’t particularly enjoy because I had let other people convince me that was what I was supposed to do.

For most teachers, striving to find your purpose in life can resemble a similar turning maze, filled with many twists and wrong turns. They harp on about it at university, but do you ever really understand it? Some will blindly follow passions that aren’t based in reality, then wind up feeling discouraged when your dreams don’t come to fruition. Others resign to careers that bring money and status, but aren’t fulfilling. In both cases, over time, your sense of purpose can begin to fade.

And according to recent studies, lacking a sense of purpose can be detrimental to your health (as I found out the hard way). The stress and burnout dragged me down, took a hold and suffocated me as I battled with mental illness.

One international study by Science Daily, found that that people who have a sense of purpose in life are at lower risk of death and heart disease. Why? Researchers found that those who feel a sense purpose often have healthier lifestyles. They are more motivated and resilient, which protects them from stress and burnout.

Researchers also found that while most individuals defined “purpose” similarly to “usefulness to others”, those from Japan are powered by a deeper, more expansive interpretation of happiness that has been around for centuries. They refer to this as ikigai (pronounce ee-kee-guy).

What is ikigai?

We first mentioned Ikigai in our article "Energy flows where attention goes", it is a powerful part of Japanese culture that we reference extensively in our teacher programs.

There’s no simple, direct translation into English for the Japanese word ikigai. It roughly means the "the happiness of being alive" or “the reason for which you get up in the morning.” In a nutshell, it encompasses the idea that happiness in life is about more than money or a fancy job title.

It’s easiest to think about ikigai as an intersection, the common ground between:

  • What you love

  • What you care about

  • What the world needs

  • What you can get paid for

Ikigai has a few essential qualities that make it different in contrast to the “follow your passion” truism as we conceive in Western culture:

  • It’s challenging. Your ikigai should lead to mastery and growth.

  • It’s your choice. You feel a certain degree of autonomy and freedom pursuing your ikigai.

  • It involves a commitment of time and belief, perhaps to a particular cause, skill, trade, or group of people.

  • It boosts your well-being. Ikigai is associated with positive relationships and good health. It gives you more energy than it takes away.

An ikigai can serve as a compass to navigate both career and life decisions, which we all crave now more than ever. After all, 20% of millennials and 21% of Gen-X’s say that doing work they are passionate about is an important long-term goal.

Before you think this sounds too airy-fairy, consider what researchers from University of San Diego said: ikigai is often not something grand or extraordinary. It is simple and unique. What better way, then, to discover a sustainable passion than by finding your ikigai?

As a young teacher I had the privilege of travelling to Japan as a 24 year old and visiting this incredible culture, I vividly remember enjoying sashimi and sushi at a small restaurant/bar no bigger than your living room, there was no more than 10 seats. The head chef had one 5 Michelin stars and even though he was world famous, he refused to expand, franchise or grow the restaurant. Why? Because, his true purpose was rocking up every day and making his dishes for the lucky 10 people at a time and that is the “thing he lives for”, his ikigai.

Steps to find your ikigai

By now I am hoping that as you become more familiar with the concept of ikigai, you want to dive right in, so tackle defining it like a distinct project, then leap into action based on the results of that project.

But it’s important to understand that figuring out your ikigai doesn’t happen overnight. Rather than being something that you magically discover, your purpose unfolds and will evolve over time.

That’s not an excuse to sit back and expect your ikigai to present itself. Finding it requires a willingness for deep self-exploration and experimentation, and there are ways to work on that. Thoughtful reflection combined with action-taking can help you to uncover how your values, strengths, and skills can be brought to the foreground to help you find more meaning in your life and career—and the balance of ikigai.

Join us at our Mindset Manuoevere Workshop or Bali Teacher’s Retreat to discover your ikigai.

For now...here’s a 5-step process on how to foster the right mindset to let your ikigai develop.

1. Start with questions.

Grab a journal and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do you love? (These speak to your passion.)

  • What are you good at? (These speak to your profession.)

  • What does the world need? (These speak to your mission.)

  • What can you get paid for? (These speak to your vocation.)

You don’t have to force yourself to come up with answers in one sitting. In fact, it’s more productive to take your time.

Over the course of a few days or weeks, take notes as ideas and insights come to you. Most importantly, be radically honest with yourself. Don’t be afraid to jot down whatever comes to mind, no matter how crazy or irrational it might seem right now.

If those questions aren’t sparking as much insight as you would like, try these:

  • What would you like to see change in the world?

  • What, in your life as it is now, makes you happy?

  • Why do you get out of bed in the morning?

  • Have you had any life-changing moments that provided a lightning bolt of clarity?

Be sure to include other life or career experiences that significantly inform your values.

After you’ve answered these questions thoughtfully, start to look for patterns. What kinds of themes are apparent? Are there obvious intersections among categories, or do they seem disparate? If clear links aren’t evident, don’t worry — that’s normal. This process will take time.

It can be hard to see yourself objectively, which is where getting outside feedback comes in. I asked my family, friends and colleagues to tell me what they saw as my three best qualities. Taking assessments like StrengthsFinder 2.0 and the Wealth Dynamics profile test also helped me identify (and create a vocabulary around) my skills and traits. By the way I’m a star :)

Ironically, qualities about myself that I took for granted were precisely what others saw as unique and valuable. Instead of downplaying my knack for empathy, their comments nudged me to look deeper at how I could leverage my stress and pivot my career to focus on coaching, teaching, and writing.

2. Get Visual.

Drawing and sketching your answers to the questions above is helpful, especially if you feel stuck. There are all sorts of ways to create a mind map; experiment with whatever makes visual sense to you.

Some people find it helpful to draw interlocking circles for each category (a Venn diagram, like the one above), while others like to map it on a quadrant, writing ideas that meet multiple criteria near the intersection of the axes. The map doesn’t have to be beautiful. It just has to organize your thoughts. This is a living document, so it will change and evolve over time. As you start to test your ikigai in the real world, you will strike out things and add others.

As you can see in our recent blog So really, who are you? it is a great activity to reflect on what your perfect day looks like. This involves describing what your ideal typical workday looks like in as much detail as possible (remember, an ikigai is pragmatic). In other words, you visualize what an energizing day living your ikigai might entail.

When I completed this exercise, it was eye opening. I realised I love nothing more than to start my day with movement and fresh air, followed by breakfast and working from home. I’d alternate between days of deep work on creative projects and days filled with coaching clients. See below how easy it can be to get visual and find your ikigai.

Back in 2015 when I first discovered this activity, this was a far cry from my reality of frantically teaching full time and living a busy lifestyle, I started making small changes by picking elements of my ideal day to bring to life. For example, I took back control of my calendar, blocking out time each day to cultivate my mind and work on projects or do mindfulness.

Over time, these incremental adjustments add up—and move you closer to living a more personally meaningful life. This has brought me to where I am now driving SMILE Teachers to make a positive change.

3. Does it feel right?

Whether you’re holding a list or a map or something else from the steps above, reflect and do a gut check. Gordon Matthews, an anthropologist and ikigai researcher, says he uses an intuitive approach to examine his own life. On an occasional basis he checks in with himself about his ikigai: “How’s it going? What’s bothering me? What’s really going on now?”

You could use our Approach and Attitude check or join us at the Mindset Manuoevre workshop.

These are worthwhile questions to ask, whether you determined your ikigai forty years ago or you’re just learning about the concept now. If you’re on an initial ikigai fact-finding journey, integrating instinctive nudges with logic-driven thinking can lead to a deeper, more coherent sense of purpose.

One of my favorite tools for challenging left- and right- brain perspectives is a designed thinking tool called the Odyssey Plan, created by Stanford University professors Bill Burnet and Dave Evans.

In an Odyssey Plan exercise for ikigai, you “try on” three different paths, or in this case, three different visions of ikigai, to see what they feel like. It’s like wearing three different hats.

Start by listing three different descriptions of your possible ikigai. The first one should reflect your current path, while the second and third should reflect what you’d choose if money or other people expectations where no object. Most teachers prefer to use the worksheet available on the Design Your Thinking or you can sketch your own. Then, rank how you feel about each ikigai path based on:

  • How much you like it

  • How confident you are in it

  • Whether it fits with your life-, work-, and world-view

Burnett and Evans note that approaching your purpose as an ‘odyssey’ is not only a playful way to evaluate your current path, but it’s also a reminder that your ikigai evolves as you grow as a person.

4. Test it

The payoff to finding your ikigai is in living it out. Like any aspiration, it doesn’t happen through introspection alone. You have to commit to consistent action in order to make strides—and also to make adjustments along the way to continue to grow.

Once you’ve arrived at a working idea about your ikigai, it’s time to take some action in the real world to test if following this life purpose is actually something you will find meaningful and fulfilling.

This may involve shifting priorities or exploring new directions. For example, maybe you opt to travel less and prioritize family time. Perhaps you start a new business that combines multiple interests. You might find yourself changing careers entirely if your current focus does not overlap with your ikigai.

In my case, saying ‘yes’ to my ikigai required saying ‘no’ more often. I had to strip away certain commitments in order to fully focus on my priorities. It meant creating rock solid boundaries to protect my time and allow me to enter a psychological flow state where my ikigai could come to life.

When you begin to take steps towards your goal, your ikigai will be tested, and that’s a very good thing. Author Neil Pasricha suggests running your ikigai through the Saturday Morning Test:

The Saturday Morning Test is your answer to one simple question: What do you do on a Saturday morning when you have nothing to do?

Make sure your ikigai is something you’d find yourself blissfully drawn to on a rare day off.

5. Build your support system

As with most of life’s transitions, it’s critical to have support while consciously developing your sense of ikigai.

If you’ve decided to work towards another career — turning a side project into a full-time endeavor, for instance—it’s crucial to have mentors guiding you, as well as to have caring people in your corner.

Cultivate a relationship with someone who has made a similar career transition. Ask about their experience making the leap. Which aspects of it were the most challenging and the most rewarding?

Build your support system.

Reminders on the road to finding your “Ikigai”

Try to be non-judgmental about your ikigai.

If you find your sense of purpose through devotion to your career, that’s wonderful. It doesn’t mean that your family, friends, or spirituality are not important to you, and that you shouldn’t make time for them. It simply means that a large part of the “thing that you live for” stems from the sense of reward and accomplishment you get from the things you take on through your vocation and profession.

Not every moment of every day will be blissful.

Keep in mind that even as you pursue your sense of purpose, not every moment of every day will be easy or even enjoyable. Regardless of the changes you’ve made in your career or life, you’ll likely still have to make trade offs and compromises from time to time. If you’re connected with your sense of purpose most of the time, though, you’ll be more resilient and keep bad days in perspective.

Let your ikigai be your guide

An ikigai, in some ways, is like a compass. Aligning your actions with the “thing that you live for” helps you navigate life difficult situations. As your teaching evolves and you’re presented with more opportunities, you can rely on your ikigai to steer you in the right direction.

Remember to evaluate your sense of happiness and purpose at every step along the way. By seeking growth that fits your sense of purpose, you pursue health and happiness as well.

To learn more about your Ikigai and many other facets to unlock your full teaching potential, join us at a SMILE Teachers Retreat or Workshop.

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