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Ikigai can help you find your professional purpose

Gina London


Ikigai is a Japanese concept (stock photo)

Ikigai is a Japanese concept (stock photo)

Ikigai is a Japanese concept (stock photo)

With corporate clients in five continents, Gina London is a premier communications strategy, structure and delivery expert. She is also a media analyst, author, speaker and former CNN anchor. @TheGinaLondon

During this pandemic when we're collectively searching, researching, exploring and expounding upon the meaning of life as well as pondering what it takes to create a life with meaning, come with me on a virtual visit to the Japanese island of Okinawa.

Surrounded by the waters of the Pacific, if you close your eyes you can imagine you're standing on one of the island's many sandy beaches warmed by the sun and subtropical ocean breezes. Soft crosswinds will engulf you as Okinawa, remotely located to the southwest of Japan, is quite small. From north to south, it stretches only 107 kilometres and from side to side its expanse averages only about 11 kilometres.

According to the travel guides, this narrow island is home to around 1.3 million of the most friendly and relaxed people you'll meet. It's also home to one of the largest concentrations of centenarians on the planet.

What makes the residents live such long and apparently happy lives? Researchers believe it has everything to do with the fact that Okinawans strongly identify with the Japanese philosophy of ikigai. Pronounced "Ee-key-guy", the word has no literal English translation, but it embodies the idea of happiness and fulfilment in life. Put simply, and for those of us still struggling with remote working combined with home schooling kids, ikigai is an uplifting reason for why we'll get up in the morning.

In 2019, educators from the University of Alberta conducted one of the first qualitative studies on the impact of embracing ikigai. Their research indicated that practising this philosophy directly connected to a more positive "life legacy and momentum".

International management scholar and consultant Frank Brueck believes this life philosophy is also one that can and should be applied to our professional lives.

"When I was working with businesses, I could see something was missing when they were trying to change cultures," he told me via WhatsApp from his home in Capetown, South Africa.

"So, I began exploring different philosophies to find purpose on a collective level. I discovered ikigai and I was intrigued by it. It means life and the reason for life as in 'what's your purpose?' If you're able to keep up the purpose in your life, you will live longer and more happily."

His new book, Ikigai for Leaders and Organisations, available through Amazon, expands the philosophical approach into a professional model involving its four overlapping circles of understanding.

1) What I'm good at

"Plenty of companies say they have a purpose," Frank said. "But who has the purpose? Is it across the organisation or only for a select few?"

"For a corporate culture to be successful, each person needs to feel a sense of accomplishment, that they have the opportunity to be good at their job," I said.

"Yes, this must be embedded in the corporate culture," Frank agreed.

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2) What I love to do

During company assessments, Frank revealed to me that discussing this circle sometimes prompts tears. "I've had people cry as they tell me, 'I have lost this connection in my life.' We may be good at something, and yet it is not what we are passionate about."

What do you feel enthusiastic about? Are you doing some form of this in your current job?

3) What you can be paid for

"You may have a wonderful hobby, but if you can't make a living out of it, you may have to find a back-up job. If you're able to integrate your passion into what you are good at and what you can get paid for, that's really the thing," Frank said.

"Try to identify your strengths. You must go in each direction and examine what you and your business's situation is. The main point for me is to start the reflection part. This is one of those times, now that we have more time to reflect."

4) What the world needs

Plenty of activities, services or products may earn you money, but to align with ikigai and bring you lasting purpose, they should also enrich the world.

"I'm reminded of Jim Collins and one of the principles from his book, Good to Great," Frank said. "He laid out three intersecting concepts, 'Are you passionate about it? Are you good at it and can you make money?' But it wasn't enough. Think about Wells Fargo or other financial institutions recently in the news. They were making money, but they got into trouble. Their practice wasn't what the world needed. You have to make a big distinction."

Frank summed up: "Last year was difficult and now in 2021, we are thinking, 'How do I proceed?' Companies may try to compensate for lost business and forget the compassionate things we did to survive and support. But my hope is that we don't go back to the way we used to work, that we evolve."

Examine your own personal and professional life through the lens of ikigai. How many circles are you encompassing? By adopting ikigai, I'm eager to create more balance in my life - and I'm also looking forward to it helping get me out of bed on the next cold Irish January morning.

Write to Gina in care of SundayBusiness@independent.ie

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