Motivation has increasingly become a priority for organizations looking to maintain an engaged and eager workforce. And now into the mix, the COVID-19 pandemic has destabilized normal working patterns and added a large dollop of general anxiety for good measure. It's a time of immense uncertainty, but for many of us it’s also a chance to pause and reflect on our lives and the world in general. There’s never been a better time to consider your personal ikigai.
What is ikigai?
Ikigai can be translated as 'reason (gai) for being (iki)' – essentially, what is the source of your daily motivation? Ikigai can be applied as a practical philosophy for life, a way to find strength in tough times, and as a handy long-term career planner. It can give value to mundane, humdrum activities, while also helping you to identify what it is that you truly value. So, how can you find your ikigai?
The four elements
A Venn diagram of 'the four elements' of ikigai has blazed a trail through office cubicles, boardrooms, and HR presentations in recent years. This way of applying ikigai was popularized by Albert Liebermann and Hector Garcia in their book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life.
The diagram shows ikigai as the convergence of four areas of life: what you love, what you're good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. The very center, where each area overlaps, is your ikigai – your reason for getting up and where you should focus your efforts to find ultimate fulfillment. Whether you’re a janitor, journalist or Jeff Bezos, if you find your ikigai, you’ll find pleasure and value in what you do.
The five pillars
Beyond your career, ikigai can also become a framework for approaching life in general. Tokyo-based neuroscientist and author Ken Mogi  identifies the five central pillars of ikigai as:
- Starting small
- Releasing yourself
- Harmony and sustainability
- The joy of little things
- Being in the here and now
Much like mindfulness, the key is to be present in the moment and not to get caught up in your thoughts. At the same time though, it's unmistakably about looking forward, and savoring special moments when they arrive. Where Buddhism teaches you to shed the things you crave to find freedom and peace, ikigai is more generous, teaching us simply to appreciate and consciously enjoy things once we have them. And those things can be small – the anticipation of a decent cup of coffee, your lunchtime run, or tending to your windowsill pot plants.
Ikigai and your career
Taking the cue from the four elements diagram, seeking your ikigai is akin to finding your perfect, dream job. Imagine combining what you love, what you're good at, what the world needs, and – the kicker – what you can get paid for. Is it even possible?
Finding your calling
This seems especially difficult if, like many people, you haven't got a clue what you want for dinner, let alone what your ultimate calling in life is. We've all heard stories of dramatic career changes in pursuit of dreams: whether it's ditching the nine-to-five to become a ski instructor, or quitting a high-powered corporate role to retrain as a high school teacher. But it doesn't have to be so drastic.
Consider which types of tasks give you the most pleasure in your current job:
- Do you enjoy managing people or working in isolation on technical tasks?
- Do you get satisfaction from solving complex issues or giving presentations and chairing interviews?
- Do you like directly managing stakeholders or prefer to get stuck into a spreadsheet?
By slowly sifting out the aspects of your work you don't enjoy, and increasing what you do, you can start to gain a sense of your ikigai.
Saving the world
But does this cover the trickiest aspect to ascertain: is what you do something the world needs? This selfless, giving aspect of ikigai traditionally manifests as giving yourself over to something other than yourself. This isn't perhaps as difficult as it first appears, even in a time of lockdown.
You don’t need to quit your job to go retrain as a vet or start a charity. The first pillar of ikigai teaches us to 'start small' – giving yourself over to something else can be as simple as offering to buy your elderly neighbors some groceries. Or, if possible, requesting a day off per month to volunteer for the health service, or providing apprenticeships to underprivileged community members.
Small moments and gestures of kindness can have a dramatic impact on how you feel about the other areas of your life, especially when you’re struggling to find motivation. Many organizations already engage with the third pillar of ikigai ('harmony and sustainability') by adopting a “triple bottom line”  – placing profit alongside the impact on the planet and people as a measure of success. This approach to social responsibility can provide a greater sense of purpose that has a subtle, but powerful, effect on how we relate to our work. Especially on a dreary Monday morning.
You might be thinking that finding your ultimate calling is all well and good, but right now you're stuck at home and struggling to feel engaged in your job. Well, ikigai has got your back here too. Stuck at home, you might not be able to engage with the things that provide meaning in life. To combat any resulting apathy, Ken Mogi vouches for pleasure through absorption in an activity. Work, however mundane, can become an end in itself – not just something to endure to get something else. Mogi uses Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of being "in flow"  to illuminate how getting lost in even the dreariest of tasks, can bring a sense of reward and freedom. (This is related to the pillars 'releasing yourself' and 'being in the here and now'). Now, more than ever, people are struggling to find focus and motivation. With the satisfaction that comes from being in the flow, even the most dreaded task can become not just bearable, but rewarding.
Ikigai isn’t just about powering forward in your career, it can have a powerful effect on motivation and focus right now, especially at a time of crisis. By combining the perfect career-seeking powers of the Venn diagram, with the more foundational five pillars, you can start to build up to something new, while making the most out of any circumstance you find yourself in – seeing you through both the bad times and the good.
 Albert Liebermann and Hector Garcia, Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life (Hutchinson, 2016).
 Ken Mogi, The Little Book of Ikigai: The Essential Japanese Way to Finding Your Purpose in Life (Quercus, 2017)
 ‘Triple bottom line’. Available at: https://www.economist.com/news/2009/11/17/triplebottom-line (accessed 27 April 2020).
 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Happiness (Rider, 2002)