How the Japanese concept of Ikigai can help you find your purpose

Rooting your plans in an overarching purpose makes decision-making a whole lot simpler, says Insights Group CEO Andy Lothian.

by Andy Lothian
Last Updated: 18 Jul 2019

One of the pitfalls of tremendous business disruption is that at any given moment you are presented with any number of directions you could take. That’s why you need a strong purpose, and not merely a plan.

Purpose provides the ‘why’. It’s important to have a purpose you’re working towards, whether it’s reaching 100 new customers in the next year or eradicating poverty from the world. If you feel you don’t have one already, then spending time considering what your purpose is, and what you’ll have to do to achieve it, is a huge fillip for a satisfying work life.

The Japanese concept of Ikigai is very helpful in finding your purpose. Ikigai roughly translates as "a reason for being", "the thing that you live for" or "the reason you wake up in the morning", and we’ve used it to explore:  

-          that which we love to do

-          that which we are good at

-          that which we can be paid for

-          and that which the world needs

The sweet spot, or Ikigai, is found where these four overlapping circles intersect, and this is your purpose. Whatever activities you plan, whatever goals you set, whatever industry you set out to disrupt, you should always hold true to this purpose, your very own Ikigai.

When starting any business, you must begin with whatever is inside this intersection. Having a purpose that you believe in is the bedrock of any new venture. It will set you up to focus on the future you want to create and why, and regardless of whatever is thrown at you, only pursue what furthers your purpose.

In support of your purpose, you’ll probably create a plan – but you should know that it’s likely to be knocked off course regularly by world events, new technologies, or any one of the million factors in your industry that are outside of your control. So, be prepared to ditch your plan if you find it isn’t serving you well. Hold fast instead to your purpose. When you do, your decision-making process will become that much simpler.

Go big or go home

Knowing your Ikigai will give you direction, but when it comes to execution, you can do worse than reading Jim Collins’ Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, which has been a huge inspiration for our business growth strategy over the years.

As he sets out in that book, it’s essential to develop big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs) for your organisation. Where your strong purpose keeps you focused and aligned, your BHAGs become your mechanism to stimulate progress and growth. As Collins writes, "All companies have goals. But there is a difference between merely having a goal and becoming committed to a huge, daunting challenge – like a big mountain to climb."

The key with this type of goal setting is that it inspires your organisation and your people – that community of people who are spending their working lives leaning into your dream – to strive for something beyond just the day-to-day operations of your business. You may not know how you’re going to do it when you set it, but it doesn’t matter.

Just set the BHAG and consciously commit to it, and you will strive for it, getting closer with every step. BHAGs might seem a bit more visionary and out there than, say, budgeting and planning, but it’s every bit as important to get right, for you, your leadership team, and your wider community. It’s simply telling the truth in advance.

Andy Lothian is co-founder of learning and development company Insights and CEO of Insights Group.

Image credit: Quang Nguyen Vinh/Pexels


Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

3 ways to retain customers when you're forced to shut up shop

Non-alcoholic aperitif firm Aecorn needed to find ways of being relevant when physical availability was...

What's the single most important thing you should do as a new leader? ...

Six chief executives look back on their first 100 days.

Does time management actually make you more successful?

Yes, but not in the way you think.

Sara Davies: "A pat on staff's back is worth more than a fiver ...

In conversation with the founder of global craft retailer Crafter’s Companion and the youngest investor...

Has the government finally learned its communications lesson?

Boris Johnson is making no promises when it comes to easing lockdown restrictions.

When an outspoken boss has to go

Compare how KPMG’s chair exited with what happened to Tokyo’s Olympic chief.