What is your Ikigai? Finding the Career that's Meant for You

"How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives." -- Annie Dillard

As a longtime recruiter, I have multiple conversations with individuals each week about their current and future career path. For many of these folks, their work and skills are clear but their future feels opaque and uncertain. Even the most seasoned executives get stuck in what is expected or typical, and lose sight of new and potentially more fulfilling ways to put their talents and personal “superpowers” to best use.

Figuring out that future path may start with some questions first raised by a Japanese psychiatrist named Mieko Kamiya in the 1960s. Based on her experiences with leprosy patients, Kamiya reflected upon reconciling one's duty with one's career -- and the disasters that happen when these don't match up. In her book On the Meaning of Life (Ikigai Ni Tsuite in Japanese), she coined the concept “ikigai," or life's purpose, from the Japanese words ikiru (“to live”) and kai (“the realization of what one hopes for.”)

When I talk with people in the education field about making a change to their job or career, I don't start by matching their current job title or resume up with job openings I’m recruiting for, or even with organizations I know. Instead, I walk them through a series of questions designed to help them figure out their own personal ikigai.

In this post and the next two, I’ll walk through the conversations I have with job-seekers, as well as how I recommend they put their answers and ideas to the test.

START HERE: WHAT DO YOU LOVE?

“What would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life?” -- Alan Watts

As humans, we are hardwired to look for patterns. We think that what we do next should be closely tied to what we are doing today. Although that is often a really positive byproduct of the evolutionary instinct towards survival, sometimes maximizing our job satisfaction means thinking beyond what we have done to envisioning where we would like to be.

In ikigai, this kind of exploration is in a sense your mission or passion. What kinds of causes get you excited? What angles or approaches to educational inequity are you most passionate about supporting? How close to students or communities do you want to be? Recruiters David Osborne and Michael Weyandt suggest you consider the kinds or groups of people you most enjoy interacting with, the amount of structure or autonomy you crave, and what types of activities and recognition motivate you.

I ask all these questions before I even start to dive deeper into the organization folks have worked for or role(s) they have held, because at the core, what people love is more about who they are than about what they want or can do. Tapping into that intrinsic motivation is what makes work feel less like work, and more like a calling.

Moreover, figuring out what you love to do can help you identify verbs and nouns to look for in organization summaries and job descriptions, rather than just the names of organizations and the words in titles, which often vary a great deal across the field. Do you enjoy contributing individually or would you rather collaborate with a team? Do you like big picture vision work and creating new things or would you rather carry a strategy through to flawless execution? Do you want to be focused internally or get out in the field?

One approach devised by career coach Christie Mims starts with your resume itself and then works outward: "Circle the things that you most liked doing. What, specifically, were your favorite parts about each job? Once you’ve done that, think about any job tasks that don’t appear on your formal resume, but that you really enjoyed." Mims also suggests you consider activities or tasks, in either your personal or professional life, that “occupy your full attention so much so that you are completely engaged in the present moment.”

Whether it’s working on a project with your children, leading new employee orientation, planning your parents’ anniversary party, or choosing a new logo for your organization, identifying what you truly enjoy is the best place to start your career exploration.

Stay tuned next Wednesday for the next post, on connecting what you love with what you do well and what the market needs.