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.