Against Ikigai

And How to Move Toward a Diversified Portfolio of Meaning

Hi! Dan here—I spent a lot of time in my twenties searching for Ikigai: the sweetspot of what I'm good at, what I enjoy, what I can get paid for, and what the world needs. I think it's an incredibly useful concept, but reading this piece from Simone Stolzoff reframed it significantly for me.

In our singleminded pursuit of meaning and purpose at work we tend to forget about, or discount ways that we might find meaning in other places. And learning to create a "diversified meaning portfolio" as he puts it, can have a major positive impact on your well-being...and even your work. I found myself asking: What would it be like to not put so much pressure on work as the only source of meaning in my life? It's a useful question, and this article will show you how to answer it.

You’ve seen the image. It’s perhaps the most popular Venn diagram of all time. Four intersecting circles: what you’re good at, what you love, what you can be paid for, and what the world needs. At their intersection lies the all-holy Ikigai, your “reason for being.”

Simply answer those four questions, and voila! your vocational soulmate enters stage left. It’s a visual accompaniment of LinkedIn broetry, a slide on the TED stage, and a bow in the career coach’s quiver.

But Ikigai was not always a dream job formula. Originally a Japanese portmanteau of iki (life) and kai (worth, or interestingly, fruit!), the concept evolved from a belief in traditional Japanese medicine that physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing are interconnected. As Japanese neuroscientist Ken Mogi writes, Ikigai is simply a reason to “wake up to joy.” It can be as small as taking your dog for a walk or your afternoon cup of tea. 

Although searching for one's life purpose in work can be a noble pursuit, the popularized notion of Ikigai that locates meaning only in work is misguided. It has diluted the term to the point where we've lost the script. 

If we go back to the original meaning of the term, we’ll find a way to live richer and more fulfilling lives—both inside of work and outside of it.

Before I go on, I want to share a brief anecdote that changed how I thought about my own “reason for being.” During my senior year of college, I got the opportunity to interview my favorite writer, a poet named Anis Mojgani. At the time, Mojgani was at the top of his game. He had just won back-to-back titles at the National Individual Poetry Slam. He was the first person I had ever met who was able to make a living from writing and performing. He traveled the world to speak on college campuses and open for musicians. He was a verifiable rockstar of rhymes, my professional idol. 

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