favourite word of the month: ikigai

My favourite word of the month of January is ‘ikigai’. It is a Japanese word which, loosely translated, reads as ‘the reason for being’, or the reason why you wake up in the morning. Ikigai isn’t something tangible like money. It is actually the nexus where four circles meet. What you love, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and what you are good at. If you fulfil all four circles, then you have achieved ikigai.


There’s another concept called ‘flow’, which is complete absorption in what one person does. It is a mental zone where you are focused and fully involved in the activity, and you lose track of time. For me I experience flow in writing, group discussions, thinking about people and why they do what they do, social interactions with new friends, reading, and walking in parks and the like. Experiencing flow for something that you are paid for, which the world needs, is ikigai.

I once thought that McDonalds had great impact but zero ikigai for those who work in the lower paying food counter jobs. I had to reassess my assumption of ‘meaning’ when an acquaintance told me that McD’s fries are her comfort food. It is something she eats whenever she is feeling down. It cheers her up, it is what she enjoys. That is meaning in a salty, oily, finger lickin’ good packet, it is what the world needs. Meaning is what we are attracted to, it doesn’t need to be logical, it is like personal preference. Some people find their life’s meaning in being a theoretical mathematician, I find meaning in writing my thoughts down. I don’t think we can all articulate why we are drawn to the things we are.

As a final year undergraduate in Singapore, with four months to securing a job offer, the concept of flow and ikigai sometimes seem so far off from what I actually am experiencing. I don’t know if my degree is something that I love (like really, really love), and with only theoretical/internship experience I don’t know if it is something that I am good at. I know that my job is something that I will be paid for, but I am not sure if my job is something the world needs. Or if my company is providing a service that the world needs.

The job matching process can feel like I am selling myself to the company- what does A do, who are its competitors, why do you think you are a good fit for the culture of A. Which is interesting because at every point in this job matching process, even though I am the one getting interviewed, I am also constantly assessing if I am a good fit for the company culture. Do I want to work for an organisation who focuses very strongly on coaching, matching strengths to passions, and unlocking the potential of individuals? Do I want to give years of my life to a company whose by-line is “High performance. Delivered.” With every question and answer and career chat, I am assessing if they are providing the sort of services to the world that I would be proud to introduce to my relatives and friends. But still, the job search can seem like a race against time and against other undergraduates. Or worse, MBA students, with more experience and more theories in their head than I have.

I would like to integrate all four circles in my life, but there is a footnote to the finding of ikigai. It is a lengthy process that requires years and years of experience and reflection. Some people never find their ikigai and they die unsatisfied and unknowing about their higher potential. As Oprah Winfrey puts it, she is still moving towards her ‘aha!’ moment. Most fresh graduates spend the first few months of their job really putting in the hours, wanting to make a mark in the industry with the skills they have. Balancing what we want from the company, with how we can contribute to it.

I don’t know if I am doing the right thing by going into HR, because everyone (my mother, my father, my uncle, my boss, my friends, and my family cow) says that HR has no technical skill sets. I am not very useful in times of recession. But the thing is, I am going where I find meaning.

If there is one thing that I have learned in my 23 years of living, it is that I always screw up and hurt the most when I follow the well-intentioned advice of others, while my intuition tells me to go the other way. Because other people don’t know how I feel. They don’t know what I think of on a daily basis, they don’t know what ‘flow’ feels like to me. They don’t consider the things I consider, that the one thing I am scared of is wasting my life. 80 years on earth as a cycle of growth and decay, with nothing to show for it but a few human beings surrounding me and a lot of money.

Even if HR is the first ‘cost centre’ to be laid off in the future, it doesn’t matter. Everyone is laid off at some point. Laid off from family, laid off from church duties, getting fired from a personal relationship. It doesn’t need to be a failure at work to feel that I have failed in this period of my life.

In Japan, they use lacquer to repair broken ceramics, like tea pots. It is called ‘kintsugi’, using a mixture of gold, silver, or platinum. The piece is more beautiful for having been broken. Let me make my mistakes, I will learn from them. Or maybe I will find my ikigai.

P.S. My next favourite Japanese word is tsundoku, loosely translated as buying books and leaving them unread in a pile. Because I always do it HAHAH.