Ikigai and the Path from Passion to Purposeful Work

Posted on Feb 18, 2022

downhill skier

The path from passion to purposeful work. 

You only have to watch the Olympics to see where it can take you. If you want to take it all the way you will also see what it costs. But without it, life is not really worth living.

According to the ancient Japanese concept of Ikigai, passion lives in the intersection between what you love doing and what you’re good at.

Ikigai is a flower with four petals:

  1. What you love
  2. What you’re good at
  3. What the world needs
  4. What you can be paid for

The intersections between these petals show you your passion, your mission, your vocation and your profession.

"Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world." - Harriet Tubman

Life is too short.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about The Great Resignation. “The Big Quit,” they called it, as tens of millions of people have decided life is too short to stay in jobs they are not passionate about. It’s funny really that we would be mystified by this movement. But we have been.

So this month, I’d like to take a deeper dive into this thing called passion... and how to decide what you want to do with yours.

Passion and profit.

In my lifetime, I have seen myself driven to professionalize every insight I’ve had and every creative act I’ve loved doing. As soon as I’d have a new insight, I would want to write a book about it. Because I could write good songs, I wanted to become a professional songwriter.

This is all well and good, but it doesn't leave a you lot of space to live your life. So unless life experience is professionalized it we see it as trivial. Now with decades of life experience behind me, I conclude this is a huge waste of our most precious possession, life itself.

We can contaminate passion when we skip the full experience to make money from it. It’s wonderful work if you can get it (and I've been fortunate to have a career doing things I love to do). But passion is worth its weight in gold even if it never pays you a cent.

When you lay  The Wheel of Creativity on top of the Ikigai diagram, you can see a pathway that takes you, step by step, from passion to purposeful work. Sometimes money is involved; sometimes not. Here's a glimpse of the process:

  1. What you love is a gift. It's what interests you, your personal preference. While there are all kinds of interest tests that will help you clarify what you love, I would suggest you just sit in a quiet room with your journal and take stock of your life. In the end, doing what you love is something you must choose. And if there’s anything I’ve learned by working with creative people it's that we can find a million reasons not to.
  2. What you’re good at can also be a gift. Everyone has gifts and abilities – things that come naturally to us. But becoming excellent at what you love doing requires practice. The skills required to do it well are developed over time with focus and attention, choice and sacrifice. And the more you practice, the more fun it is. But have you ever noticed how easy it is to seek a shortcut?
  3. What the world needs is a more challenging question. Your answer needs to come from both your head and your heart. If you want to be of service to the world, there comes a point when you must shape your passion into a solution for an existing need. Then doing what you love (and are good at) will give meaning and purpose to your life. You can volunteer your time and gifts or you can take it to the next level.
  4. What you can be paid for adds another filter to the process. And it's not for everyone. If you want to make money doing what you love, not only do you have to develop your skill and find the need to solve, you have to choose a specific aspect of the work that which people will pay you for. It may not be a direct fit. It may be only a fraction of the work you love. But if you don't do this step, you will be perpetually frustrated (and possibly poor).

To what purpose?

As I witness my clients developing their projects, I can see the entire concept of Ikigai in their creative processes.

  1. Some work for passion. The retired librarian writing her memoirs for her family. The young man deciphering his experiences in a cult for his son. The musician sharing his soul in his music.
  2. Some have a mission. The young entrepreneur creating a space where people feel warm and welcome. The woman trying to shift the conversation on slavery and racism. The woman offering comfort to parents who’ve lost their children.
  3. Some choose a vocation.  The mother writing her novel. The teacher practicing her art.
  4. Some seek more meaningful work. The woman building a new model for how we work together. The man leaving the clergy to serve people in a new way.
"If you feel like there's something out there that you're supposed to be doing, if you have a passion for it, then stop wishing and just do it." - Wanda Sykes

The concept of Ikigai is a powerful tool for getting clear about what you want to be doing with your life… how you want to use your gifts and which direction you want to take them into the world.

Step by step.

The process of creating a life from that clarity is a step-by-step process.

  1. Choose what you love. Just say Yes to it. Stop avoiding that which makes your heart sing. Stop procrastinating the doing, the making, the realization of what you long for. Get support to make that choice every day.
  2. Develop your skills. Devote yourself. Practice. Give it time. Do your own personal work to heal the wound out of which your gift to the world emerges. Your creative work will transform who you are if you surrender to it and allow it to take you into places in yourself you’ve never been.
  3. Honor your calling. What social problem are you called to solve? How does that problem reflect your personal wound? Why are you so motivated to solve it? What do you need to work on in yourself in order not to foist your personal agenda on others?
  4. Build a business (but only if that’s what you really want to do). Choose something you’re willing to sweat for. Do your research so you’re not surprised halfway in. And don’t quit your day job until you have a solid, proven plan in place.
"You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you're not passionate enough from the start, you'll never stick it out." - Steve Jobs

How far do you want to take your creative work?

You can enter this process at any step. One step can morph into the next. But what's most important is that you choose the right form for you. If you are always pushing it your work make money (or make money too soon), you can break the thing you love the most. If put BUSINESS first, you can sap your creativity of its soul.

One thing I've learned – the thing that has called me through my life to transform my own personal wounds to be able to coach other creative people – is that we cannot do this work in a vacuum. It was my own longing for a creative community that drove me to create that community. And every week I am more moved to see its power at work in the lives of my clients. If you are longing for that kind of community, I invite you to join us.

Check out the Big Vision project Incubator here.

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Beyond The Great Resignation… 5 Steps to Reinventing Yourself with Passion