Ikigai – Reason For Being

For us, millennials, “Do what you love” became the default career and life advice. We followed it with a passion only to find out how impractical and often impossible it was to live by that simplistic rule.

the Ikigai, reason for being - infographic

Do what I love? Wait, how do I even know what I love before I do that thing I love. If I had the time and resources to have done enough of something to conclude that I love it, I would not need to ask if I loved it. I would just keep doing it without ever having to ask the question. This is not a game one can win. And it is probably true of love in general, if you have to ask if you love someone or something, the answer is no.

So, doing what you love is a circular kind of advice, equivalent to “Love what you do”.

A more nuanced approach to defining one’s mission or purpose in life comes from Japan. It is the concept of ikigai. Dan Buettner, the author of Blue Zones: Lessons on Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, believes that ikigai is the reason for the famous Japanese longevity.

As with all things imported from another culture, the definition is easily lost to translation. Ikigai (生き甲斐) consists of iki (生き), meaning life and gai (甲斐), meaning worth. Although to many people in Japan the purpose of life may have nothing to do with work, the concept of the meaning of life in the West is more often connected to work.

Does ikigai solve the problem of finding one’s life’s purpose? As a thought experiment, let’s dive into an infographic exploration of what the concept of ikigai means.

The Ikigai

Work in general in tiring. Jobs age us. The art of living without fading away prematurely while being useful to society is what ikigai seems to be about.

The Ikigai, according to the eponymous book by Hector Garcia [1], lives at the intersection of four things: one’s skill, the love of applying that skill, the world’s need for it, and the world’s willingness to pay you for it.

  1. Skill — this is the ability to do a job at an acceptable level of competence or above.
  2. Need — this is the world’s demand for your skill.
  3. Love — your subjective passion/obsession with what you do.
  4. Money – getting paid for what you do.

Intersecting all four components yields a Venn diagram that produces seven intersections, six of which are not the Ikigai but can be mistaken for it. The four-way Venn-diagram is in my opinion an improvement proposed by data journalist David McCandless [2]. The diagram David was improving was originally published by The Toronto Star [3]. There were earlier attempts at drawing this diagram as well.

Here my quest is to define the intersections because part of defining the ikigai is elimination of what it is not. Now let us run a thought experiment for what each category and each intersection of two or three categories represent using some syllogistic reasoning:

What I have What I am
Only Money (no skill, no love, no need) You’re a drug dealer? 🙂
Only Money + Skill Any hard and joyless job.
Only Money + Skill + Love You have a lot of potential, but probably no marketable idea.
Only Skill Eternal student?
Only Skill + Love You are pursuing your passion in a hobby sort of way.
Only Skill + Need A charity? Or You are working for free despite having the skills. Why?
Only Skill + Need + Love (no money) You are on a mission but you struggle with finding customers or marketing.
Only Love (no money, no skill, no need) You are a … pure heart 🙂
Only Love + Money (no skill, no need) A philanthropist? A love monetized? 😉
Love + Money + Skill + Need IKIGAI

See the full table with our reasoning.

On one hand you have yourself with your existing preferences and existing skills. On the other hand, there is the world with its needs and its willingness to pay you money. And the big drama of life is in inserting yourself into such a world but without getting burnt out prematurely. In other words, how does one work sustainably?

Working Sustainably

If Ikigai requires that at any point in life we have the love, skill, compensation, and need for our work, all at the same time, it rules out the vast majority of job opportunities. Most jobs are “stepping stones” to something else, another job that maybe will some day materialize. Jobs often advertise “opportunities for growth”, “perks”, “exposure”, and “potential for growth” – all of these are great except they betray the fact that the job itself is not what you are going to enjoy. So when then will we finally “arrive”?

I am under no illusion that I have the world’s greatest job. Although, now that I come to think of it, maybe I do. I actually did enjoy writing this article. The keyboard is clacking away as I type. I am under no pressure to publish this. I am thinking about what you, the person reading this, will think about at this moment. Although we will probably never meet in person, this is a sort of thought handshake we are making. I like making the infographic above. I even liked procrastinating on writing this article for a year and a half because I thought I would come up with something better to write. I am enjoying editing this, too. I guess the work itself is the reward. The net energy spent on this article should be zero. If it is, presumably I can keep creating infographics for a long time.

We shall see… And this brings me back to the Japanese definition of ikigai. In a 2003 research paper on ikigai [4], co-author Akihiro Hasegawa, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Toyo Eiwa University, discovered that the concept of ikigai for the Japanese aligns with seikatsu referring to the everyday life and the quotidien joys it brings. This sort of definition might feel anti-climactic. Perhaps, we are back to square one with our definition. Maybe all we have done here is explore what ikigai is not. Despite the illusive nature of ikigai’s definition, the effects of it are quite measurable. Broadly defining ikigai as “what makes life worth living,” a 2022 research has linked simply having an ikigai (versus not having one) with a 31% lower risk of developing functional disability and 36% lower risk of developing dementia during the three-year follow-up [5].

As we worked on this article with Dan Action, it turned out he had filled in his own ikigai diagram before which I think is a great idea because it can be made specific to one’s career and life options. So here we are giving away this diagram to fill out.
You can tweet, email or leave in comments your diagram if you want to discuss it. When I filled out mine, I found that writing full sentences rather than keywords yielded more specific results.


How We Made This Diagram

This infographic is a new addition to our previous graphic exploration of the meaning of life in different cultures and contexts. One of my earlier works ‘How Big Is Life’ was an attempt to estimate the impact of one’s life on other people numerically.

I also explored the topic by comparing what is the meaning of life according to different schools of philosophy.

Recently I stumbled on David McCandless diagram “Ikigai, Reasons For Being”, which is loosly based on a concept coined by David Buettler in his Ted talk on longevity.

I really like David’s version of Ikigai, who improved it by introducing the 4-way venn diagram where each of the concepts intersect uniquely. The naming of the intersections, I thought, was where some room for improvement remained.

Together with Daniel Action we further explored the linguistic defitions of ikigai and its assosiated concepts. We found that intuitive naming of concepts resulted in a confusing model inside the diagram. A better approach, we thought, would be running them through syllogistic analysis, hopeully resulting in a statement that is true without needing proof. For example, the intersection of medicine and a professional gives us a physician (medical doctor).

You can check the table that Dan and I compiled and see if you can come up with a more bulletproof syllogism anywhere in the diagram. Perhaps, even more interestingly, one could run these statements through a deep-learning language model, such as GPT-3, or a rule-based reasoning engine, if one already exists.

A special thanks goes to Mark Vital for helping with the design and research. Many thanks to Alexander Vushkan, 0xABADBABA1, Mark Rose, Amy Bramely, Murray Newlands, Siobhán Healy-Cullen and Roman Aleksandrenko for reading the article and giving valueble feedback.


1. ^ Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, 2012, by Héctor García.

2. ^ Reasons for Being – Ikigai, by David McCandless, Information is Beautiful. Retrieved Jun 1, 2022.

3. ^ Why North Americans should consider dumping age-old retirement, by Neil Pasricha, The Toronto Star. Retrieved Dec 02, 2021.

4. ^ Regional differences in ikigai (reason (s) for living) in elderly people – Relationship between ikigai and family structure, physiological situation and functional capacity, August 2003, Nippon Ronen Igakkai Zasshi Japanese Journal of Geriatrics. DOI:10.3143/geriatrics.40.390

5. ^ Ikigai and subsequent health and wellbeing among Japanese older adults: Longitudinal outcome-wide analysis, The Lancet Regional Health – Western Pacific
Volume 21, April 2022, 100391. DOI:10.1016/j.lanwpc.2022.100391

Further reading