An open book with two pages folded in the shape of the heart.
iStock | @noipornpan

Mentioning Japan tends to conjure images of quality products and services, sushi, sumo, anime, and otaku, among other things. Something most people don’t realize is that there is a common thread running through all of these: ikigai.

The word ikigai is often translated as “the reason to get up in the morning,” or even simply, “the reason to live.” It’s a little different from kokorozashi, which is often defined as a “personal mission.”

Jiro Ono, the world’s oldest living Michelin three star chef, creates sushi with expert artisanship. Sumo wrestlers devote their lives to their wrestling careers, whether or not they truly believe they have a real chance at becoming grand champions. Otaku devote themselves to participation in the Comiket (short for Comic Market, an annual convention). All find joy in the work itself, rather than the external rewardsーfinancial gain, social recognition, and such. This is the essence of ikigai

The Five Pillars of Ikigai

In recent years, the concept of ikigai has gained global popularity as people seek to add meaning to their lives in our modern, fast-paced world. It is often mentioned in books and articles.

One such book was written by Ken Mogi, a Japanese bestselling author and neuroscientist. In his book, The Little Book of Ikigai: The Essential Japanese Way to Finding Your Purpose in Life, Mogi introduces the following five interconnected pillars and how they can help us realize our ikigai:

Pillar 1: Starting Small
Pillar 2: Releasing Yourself
Pillar 3: Harmony and Sustainability
Pillar 4: The Joy of Little Things
Pillar 5: Being in the Here and Now

The most encouraging message that I found in Mogi’s book was that ikigai can be developed by anyone, anywhere, anytime. It is never too late to start. Whether you are in elementary school or over 80 years old, you can work on ikigai to bring happiness to your life.

Bringing Ikigai into Your Life

I would of course caution anyone against reading the book with unrealistic expectations. You will not find a magic bean to bring dramatic change to your life, or a recipe for living happily ever after. Mogi’s suggestions must be tested in practice—indeed, his very first message is to start small with whatever you can do right now. It could be as simple as making a commitment and writing it down. Just that action of putting pen to paper can be counted as the first step.

The GLOBIS MBA encourages students to identify and continuously clarify their personal missions, or kokorozashi in Japanese. For the last six years, I have worked closely with students to emphasize the importance of taking action. One of the most common things I hear from students is, “I don’t know what I want to do.” They often feel inferior for not being able to declare their kokorozashi, but a single step forward can uncover a new point of view.

Similar to the GLOBIS philosophy on kokorozashi, Mogi’s book emphasizes that ikigai is about discovering, defining, and appreciating things in life that have meaning and value for you. It is OK if no one else sees that particular value. Students sometimes say that they feel overwhelmed in trying to come up with grandiose goals to contribute to society. It is OK to start with the things you feel passionate about.

In fact, Mogi suggests focusing on these things because they are what make you unique and authentic. He promotes having a personal standard, or kodawari. Starting small from your own kodawari is the first step toward both ikigai and kokorozashi.

Small Actions, Big Rewards

Now, you might be thinking, “I just want an easy solution that will improve my life WITHOUT changing the way I live!” That is the very attitude Mogi urges you change in his second pillar, Releasing Yourself. Simply picking up this book suggests that you want to make your life more worthwhile, happy, and fruitful. Continuing what you’ve been doing will only yield the same result. My suggestion is to try Mogi’s way: start small.

Small action is easy enough for your first move, but this should not be the end of your journey. Even a magic bean needs to be nurtured to grow, and the same is true for ikigai. This brings us to the third pillar: Harmony and Sustainability. The important point here is the order of those words—Mogi puts emphasis on harmony before sustainability. You must maintain harmony with your environment in order to have something worthwhile to sustain. Without harmony, you will find yourself in an endless struggle. With harmony, you will find that not much is needed—you can simply go with the flow. This is the wisdom the Japanese have acquired over time. 

Through anecdotes from Japanese history, culture, and society, Mogi manages to introduce both ikigai and Japan itself. Having said that, one thing the book does (intentionally) lack is an international application. While Mogi emphasizes that ikigai can be applied to life in any country, almost all examples are from Japan, with Western equivalents provided simply to clarify the Japanese perspective. It might be interesting to see more examples of ikigai influencing the lives of people elsewhere. Perhaps in the next edition!

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For those interested in learning more about how GLOBIS helps students develop kokorozashi, the book, KOKOROZASHI: The Pursuit of Meaning in Business is available now on Amazon.