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Career planning – the Ikigai strategy

Whether you are considering career planning for the first time, or are reconsidering your career choices to date, I believe the Ikigai strategy is a really easy and meaningful way to get started. Ikigai is a Japanese concept and loosely translates to “reason for being”. The framework can be conceptualised as shown above as a Venn diagram, with four intersecting circles. Essentially, you are trying to work out your own unique ‘happy place’ by considering what overlaps between four different elements: (1) what you love doing; (2) what you are good at; (3) what you can be paid for; and (4) what the world needs.

I don’t know about you, but when I was at school I vividly remember the career counsellor encouraging me to consider a career that reflected ‘what I was good at‘ and ‘what I enjoyed‘, therefore only incorporating two of the four elements listed above. For me this was biology, so off I went to university and enrolled in a Bachelor of Science. I had no idea where this would take me, and my inner monologue went something like this: “I’m good at this and I like it, so I am following the right pathway… right…?!“. Although I did pursue the science up to Ph.D. level and become a research scientist, something just wasn’t quite right for me and ultimately I didn’t continue with that career. Now when I reflect back, with the Ikigai strategy in mind, I can see that some key elements were clearly missing when I first embarked on career planning. The one that really stands out for me is: ‘what does the world need?’. Your answers to this one will be completely individual. For me, as I started to reconsider my career as a research scientist, I realised that I felt that the world needs more people who are well educated. This was the start of my transition into becoming a Learning Advisor and working in the fields of student success and retention. This provided more meaning for me personally than continuing to work as a research scientist. But for many others, they may well feel that what the world most needs is more scientific research, so they would have felt fulfilled continuing along the trajectory I was on. And that’s awesome! All of the choices are valid – each to their own! They key is that you consider all four elements from the Ikigai framework and apply them solely to yourself – you must pause and go within.

Another key element is ‘what can you be paid for?’. This is really about being realistic and confirming that you will be able to make a living from whatever it is that you are keen to pursue. The amount of money you wish to make is also very individual. This is not a huge motivator for me – as long as I have what I need, am prepared for retirement, and don’t feel I am going without, I’m pretty content. You need to think about your short and long-term goals in order to work out what you want and need here, and then identify which career options meet those goals. But remember, if you are earning a sufficient income, or even a high income, but you don’t feel you are good at what you do, or that it is all that important in the grand scheme of things, it is very unlikely to be fulfilling or sustainable. Again, we need to consider all four elements.

I think it’s important to point out that the Ikigai strategy won’t necessarily provide you with a single lifelong career plan. Why? Because your answers to the four elements will change over time. This is normal and to be expected. Your career will evolve as you do over your lifetime. A case in point is the upheaval brought about by covid-19. Many people’s answers to ‘what the world needs’ will have shifted since 2020. Think of this as an opportunity! At the end of the day, life is a series of challenges and changes to navigate, and this will be reflected in your career pathway.

My method for applying the Ikigai strategy:

  1. Draw or print out the Ikigai Venn diagram, with all four elements.
  2. Start with the top element: ‘what you love’. Brainstorm and write down absolutely everything that you LOVE doing. Don’t think about the other elements yet. Even if there is something there that you know won’t ‘make the cut’ when you consider the other three elements, just include it anyway, because we will want a comprehensive list later.
  3. Continue brainstorming for the remaining three elements. Add in as many items as you can. The more the better!
  4. Take a break now – maybe sleep on it. This is just to make sure nothing else comes to you.
  5. Once you are confident you have gotten everything down for each of the four elements, create a new list called ‘Ikigai’. Now go through every single item you have written down and cross check against all four criteria – if an item hits all four elements, you can add it to the Ikigai list. Yay!
  6. Pay attention to which ideas (from the new Ikigai list) make you feel really excited. I would use this to initially prioritise the items.
  7. Hopefully there is something that stands out – start getting excited about this and start making some plans for how you can move towards this career.
  8. There might be other ideas that met all four Ikigai criteria but are not #1. Maybe they are not far behind. Keep a list of these as ‘back up career ideas’. You might want to revisit down the track. It can be quite reassuring to know you have many options and things are never set in stone.
  9. Now get out a highlighter and go back through all of the items you listed across all four elements. Focus in on those that did not make it to the Ikigai list; maybe they only hit on two or three of the elements. For each item, ask yourself: ‘do I need this in my life?‘. If the answer is yes, apply a highlighter to the item. These will be really important for you to try and make time for as hobbies or personal goals. For me, these items ended up being ‘science’ (I still engage with it significantly as a Science Communicator) and also loads of fun stuff like hiking, dancing, collage, macrame, crochet, and so on. I have accepted I am not in a position to make a living from these and don’t personally feel they are the biggest contribution I can make to the world during my lifetime, but I definitely NEED them in my life! Haha! So I intentionally make time for all of them. And things feel pretty good and balanced.

Other helpful ideas:

  1. Make a list of the things you HATE! I think it is important to keep this in mind too – you don’t want to choose something that will involve a lot of horrible tasks. Boo!
  2. Think about what you have loved and hated in past jobs, your current job, at school, and so on. This can be quite informative too.
  3. Think about what you loved doing as a child – this can sometimes be a clue to things that you may still be drawn to. But think about the skills and style of thinking being applied to these activities, rather than interpreting it as a need to pursue the exact activity itself. For example, say you loved LEGO, does this mean you should have a career in building LEGO, or can you go a bit deeper and flesh out the reasons WHY you loved this and what potential careers would involve those skills? Or maybe, you really do need to pursue that career in LEGO?! Again, each to their own!

Happy planning! And remember, your career will change and evolve just like you will – it’s going to be a fun ride!

Further reading:

Ikigai: The Perfect Career Diagnostic

What’s Your Ikigai: Finding Meaning in Work and Life

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