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Use Japanese “Ikigai” to Find Your Purpose

“I just don’t feel like this is what I was meant to do.”

It’s a refrain I hear constantly in the career mentoring work I do. Often the day to day isn’t even so bad– nice colleagues, interesting work, a decent paycheck. And yet still there is this gnawing inside, this inner knowing, that this is not what life was meant to be.

The trouble is many people decide, at 18 years old, “what they’re going to be,” and then fall into a career half accidentally after graduating– this is a problem because there is no forced inflection point for introspection, for digging deep and resetting. If you got to start all over again, is this what you would choose?

If the answer is no, I would first ask you to be gentle with yourself and forgiving. It is never too late to change. If you’re unsure of where to start, I’d like to introduce a short exercise that might help you begin to reconsider where you might like to take your career.

It is based on the concept of “Ikigai,” a Japanese concept that roughly translates to “a purpose for being.” Block one hour from your calendar to honor your future self, take out a notebook (your brain literally processes information differently when it is handwritten so I do recommend this), and let’s get to work!

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1. Take 10 minutes to write down all of the things you love

You might feel like you are done after a few minutes, but really dig deep. Visualize the times of your life when you were filled with excitement and joy. Here are some questions that might help get you started:

  • What are you most excited about right now?
  • What are your hobbies? What are the things you are eager to spend your off hours doing?
  • What were your passions growing up? What are the jobs or hobbies you are inspired by seeing others do?

2. Reset the clock for 10 minutes & write down your skills and expertise

Honor the entire time period, allow your brain to keep thinking!

  • What do others come to you for help and advice for?
  • What type of work comes naturally to you that others seem to struggle with?
  • What skills have you acquired over the years? What domain knowledge?

3. Begin marrying the two lists together

Such as: “I’m good at interior design and I like writing,” or “I have excellent business acumen and I love serving passionate people,” etc. Set your timer for 30 minutes and start to work through all the natural pairings, seeing which ones you gravitate towards naturally. Narrow it down to 3-5 and then start a Pros/Cons list. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • Do you see a feasible path to being compensated for this? Even if it’s not obvious at first, get creative with your thinking. Is this a hobby or something you might make a living from?
  • Does this work provide some benefit to others?
  • Close your eyes and imagine yourself doing this work. What are the gut feelings in your body? Excitement? Anxiety? If it makes you feel anxious, dig into the WHY. Is it because doing this work would stretch you outside of your comfort zone and help you grow?
  • What are the parts of doing this work you would really enjoy? What are the things that you suspect would become monotonous over time or you would want to outsource?

4. Congratulations!

You’ve spilled your guts out and done some curating, whittling it all down to the last 3-5 possibilities of what lights you up. Now look at that list. Do you need to decide on one, or is there space in your life to pursue a few?

Maybe you absolutely love making paper cutting cards, but the idea of pursuing it full time doesn’t appeal to you. Could that be an Etsy shop you put up and then dedicate some time to on Instagram, as a passion project that connects you to other artists and brings in some side income?

Maybe you’re a great teacher and you love helping others sharpen their skills. That could mean a job in corporate training, a university position, or an online personality who builds ecourses. Which one feels right to you and how do you pivot your career in that direction?

This is such a personal exercise but so worthwhile. So many people live their lives sleepwalking through the next promotion in a company or career path that doesn’t even interest them. After going through this exercise and getting to your short list, make a plan to map yourself towards the future you’ve chosen in the next year. Now break it down quarter by quarter– what things can you implement in the next three months to map you towards the future you’ve chosen? Maybe it’s taking a class, networking with people who do the work you’d like to get into, or digging into some books at your local library.

By acquiring new skills or building in newer, healthier habits month by month you will be amazed at the person staring back at you in the mirror one year from now.


Kathryn loves writing and helping people. She couldn’t figure out what to do with this after college, fell asleep at the wheel, and woke up 8 years later with a high income tech job and an empty soul. After having children she realized all of the lies she was telling herself, and decided to reroute her life to pave a better future for herself and others. She now helps women rewrite their futures with passion and intention. Follow her on IG @BohemianBosslady.

2 thoughts on “Use Japanese “Ikigai” to Find Your Purpose

  1. I love the ikigai philosophy…brings so much clarity!

  2. I love this. I definitely need the focus this process brings. Thank you!

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