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Ikigai, which means “a reason for being”, is a Japanese word that has gently risen to the forefront of the business world, like a whale coming up to greet the dawn. It is a welcome wave of thoughtfulness and quiet in the face of a usually loud, blustering, profit-at-all-costs model.
The Ikigai concept beckons to us, asking us to consider the question: What do I get up for in the mornings? For most of us, the answer is not “money”.
Money, for most people, is a means to an end. If you ask people at the end of their lives what they wish they could have done differently, the answers are not usually “I wish I’d made more money”. They’re along the lines of “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends”.
Heart matters, both in our personal lives and in business. It seems a bit short-sighted to assume otherwise or to see business as totally apart from our personal values. The industrial revolution saw people exchanging their labor for money and becoming increasingly alienated from the joys of pouring their hearts into their creative endeavors and trade. They became cogs in the wheel of the factory that is capitalism.
We still have a top-down structure in many work environments today, but some companies have begun to embrace a horizontal knowledge approach, where managers and employees are on the same level and treated as equals. The more we learn about what makes employees happy, hopefully, the more we will move towards those models, of which the Ikigai concept is a prime example.
While ikigai is generally applied to finding purpose in your personal life, this Process Street post will look at how the same 4 concepts can be applied to your business as well:
- Ikigai for business: The need for meaning & purpose at work
- Ikigai business concept #1: How are you helping the world?
- Ikigai business concept #2: What lights your fire?
- Ikigai business concept #3: What are you good at?
- Ikigai business concept #4: How can you generate profit?
- Look inwards for your purpose – even in business
Make sure you’re sitting comfortably. Let’s begin.
Ikigai for business: The need for meaning & purpose at work
The past couple of years have seen a wave of young people, in particular, leaving low-wage, unsatisfying, exploitative work. In August 2021 alone, 4.3 million Americans left their jobs. And it isn’t just workers who are demanding more from companies either; consumers are demanding more from them, too.
It’s crucial, now more than ever, for companies to show how they’re making the world, in some way, be it small or large, a better place. As the Ikigai concept would ask; what’s their reason for being, beyond making money?
We are facing huge environmental change, born from our ruthless exploitation of nature, and many people want companies to show them how they’re addressing this. Amazon is using a bit less packaging, some companies, like Ecosia and clothing company “TenTree”, are planting trees.
The time for deafening silence in the face of plastic pollution, the exploitation of workers, carbon emissions, ever-expanding landfills, and more, is well and truly over. We also need to move away from toxic workplace habits which are driving employees away, such as micromanagement or being overly critical of staff, and of course not paying people enough.
The Ikigai concept is the coming together of four key elements: Work you are good at, work that you love, work that the world needs, and work that creates wealth. With these four elements in place, you can find your Ikigai.
To work tirelessly at work that you cannot be paid for, however rewarding it may be, is not pragmatic as a full-time endeavor. We have bills to pay, mortgages to keep up with, and families to clothe and feed.
To do work that you don’t love, on the other hand, can leave you feeling hollow. If your business makes a lot of money, but you have no love for it, that’s not great for you or your employees. That won’t have you jumping out of bed in the mornings in excitement to start the day.
Doing work that the world doesn’t need feels frivolous and lacking in meaning. It’s hard to motivate yourself to sell things that you know the world doesn’t need (or benefit from). Even if the business makes a lot of money, there will always be a sense that something is lacking.
Finally, doing work that you’re not skilled at is not very practical and doesn’t build a sense of confidence. If you’ve ever suffered from imposter syndrome, multiply that by 10 if you actually don’t know what you’re doing. While it’s normal to feel like this from time to time, ideally you’ll have the skills necessary to run your business well. A lack of confidence in your knowledge and skills can really set you back.
You need the four elements of love, money, skill, and need to come together for your business to be successful in all the senses of the word. To find your Ikigai, you need to feel that you’re satisfied on all fronts.
So, you need to ask yourself:
Ikigai business concept #1: How are you helping the world?
To ascertain whether, and how, you’re giving the world something that it needs, ask yourself these questions: Who am I helping? How does my work help other people? Does it make the world better or worse, on average?
Using customer analytics can help you figure out who your customers are and what they need, and give you a step in the right direction of figuring out what value you can add, or are already adding, to your customers’ lives.
It’s hard to have a completely positive impact on the world, because sometimes we print too much on paper, drive to unnecessary meetings in diesel cars, or sell people things that were made unethically. However, these are all things you can address.
Asking yourself to look at all of these aspects carefully will help you to find solutions to any negative impacts you might inadvertently be having on others—be it employees or customers—and on the planet. There are ways to reduce our negative impacts, even if we can’t immediately eliminate them. Taking several small steps in the right direction is far preferable to taking none at all.
Perhaps you can go paper-free, only buy fairtrade food for the office coffee shop, and ensure that everyone who works in any capacity for the company has a livable wage. By finding what types of metrics measure customer satisfaction, you can improve your customers’ experience with your company, too. Perhaps you can go further and plant trees to help the environment, and incorporate that into your marketing strategy.
You can start each financial year the same way many people start the new year: With New Year’s resolutions. Decide what positive changes you’re going to make in the upcoming year, and set monthly meetings with some of your colleagues to decide whether you’re hitting those targets.
For extra marketing points, you could document your journey on social media so that your customers can also see how you’re improving and becoming more ethical as a company.
Ikigai business concept #2: What lights your fire?
In the battle between love and money, love has the upper hand. According to an article from Harvard Business Review, more than 9 out of 10 employees are willing to trade more salary for more meaning. Do you love your job/company? If not, why not? We spend the majority of our waking hours at our jobs, so loving, or at least enjoying what we do, is quite crucial to our happiness. Look at practical changes that can be made to increase your happiness at work and bring you more in line with the Ikigai concept.
Perhaps this means reorganizing teams so that people who are more compatible work together. Perhaps it means a lighter workload. Perhaps it means more stimulating, creative work or problem-solving, or working with different people. Perhaps it means using artificial intelligence customer support to lighten your load.
More than 9 out of 10 employees are willing to trade a percentage of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work.
Whatever a happier work environment looks like to you, take steps to achieve that. This applies to higher-up decisions as well, like who you partner with, the colors of the walls in the office, whether you use cloud-based collaborative software for remote workers to feel more connected. If something consistently makes you unhappy or doesn’t spark joy for you, consider changing it.
Some companies like to get their employees to do Myers-Briggs tests to figure out what their working style is and communicate this to their colleagues. This can be a simple and effective way for people to communicate to other people that they prefer not to be micromanaged, or that they enjoy brainstorming sessions with their colleagues. Perhaps they work better in bursts followed by regular breaks, or perhaps they don’t like to be disturbed at all.
Having your work style understood and respected can reduce stress at work and help with achieving greater joy in the office. Sometimes the spark can be dulled if the types of work you don’t suit you. You don’t want to put a cat in water or expect a fish to learn how to fly. Creative folks shouldn’t be forced to do excessive admin, and analysts shouldn’t be expected to write long marketing blogs.
Ikigai business concept #3: What are you good at?
Do you have any hidden talents that you don’t get to use at work? Or that you haven’t yet discovered in yourself? Perhaps you’re a wonderful public speaker, but your shyness keeps you from discovering that. Many famous actors are quite shy in real life. Perhaps social media retail marketing is your hidden area of expertise.
Maybe you’re great with words but you’re stuck in an administration position and should be writing templates for behavioral emails instead. Or you’re great with people, but you spend most of your time at a computer. If you can put your skills, known and yet-to-be-discovered, to good use at your job, you’re bound to find a new level of satisfaction that you haven’t been enjoying.
From the point of view of management, look at what your team can do. Find ways to challenge your employees and expand and discover their skills and talents. Give them the space to keep growing and blossoming. Don’t let them stagnate and go unappreciated. And more broadly, look at what your company can do. Look at the potential for the future.
By being a little bit experimental, you can end up finding gold. While it might be tempting to follow the methods that have been laid out by others and repeat known strategies, it’s good to try new things once in a while and see what your business can be. Maybe it has the potential to stand out further from the crowd than you realize.
Ikigai business concept #4: How can you generate profit?
To make money, you need to meet a need or demand. If you’re finding that your company isn’t making as much money as you hoped, see if you’re offering the market something that it requires. Are you targeting an oversaturated area of work? And if so, maybe you’re not standing out enough from your competitors.
Or, perhaps you need to revise your marketing plan to reach a more relevant audience. It could be that you need to zoom in on a more targeted audience that will be more interested and receptive to what you’re selling.
It could also be that your team is spending too much time on tasks that don’t bring in enough profit. If you spend too much time talking to clients on the phone, maybe you can use call waiting to spend more time on more profitable tasks, for example. So, what is call waiting? It’s a call management system that can save you time and energy, and free you and your customer up for other tasks.
You should also see whether your employees are being paid a fair, livable wage that increases with inflation. If you can’t offer them a wage they can comfortably live on with full-time work for the city that they live in, then that’s an issue that needs to be addressed and figured out. Your employees can’t fulfill their Ikigai if they’re worried about putting food on the table and paying the bills.
And happy employees that are able to stay afloat = happy business that is able to stay afloat.
Look inwards for your purpose – even in business
You can create a business that pays a fair salary, that you feel passionate about, that helps the world, and that uses your skills. It is not only possible, it is a healthy, people-friendly, sustainable model for the 21st century. We don’t live in the early 1900s anymore, and the time for a quiet, logical shift towards a balanced, psychologically safe work environment was yesterday.
The Ikigai concept is a powerful one for figuring out your company’s raison d’etre. It can help you identify your weak spots and figure out how to strengthen them.
How would you apply ikigai to your business? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
Leks Drakos, Ph.D. is a rogue academic with a PhD from the University of Kent (Paris and Canterbury). Research interests include HR, DEIA, contemporary culture, post-apocalyptica, and monster studies. Twitter: @leksikality [he/him]