This Japanese Word Changed How I Approached My New Year’s Resolutions


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Ikigai (ee-key-guy) is the Japanese word for the meaning of life. “Iki” means “life,” and “gai” denotes value or worth. It is a philosophy that overlays someone’s passions, skills and money-making capacity with their potential contribution to the world. Each aspect is represented by a circle in a Venn diagram, and where they overlap at the center is one’s ikigai. Ikigai gives a person purpose and inspires them to get out of bed every day.

When I discovered ikigai, I found that it linked up perfectly with the upper level of Maslow’s five-tier model of the hierarchy of human needs: self-actualization. Many people do not understand what self-actualization means, and even fewer people are able to achieve that level of personal development. Ikigai makes it more comprehensible. When we are able to work through the four questions of ikigai, we can fill in the gaps of how we are living. As a philosophical formula, it is the perfect way to craft a New Year’s resolution and lay out an approach to fulfill it in the year ahead.

Related: The Meaning of Life for Entrepreneurs: Find What You Love, Then Share It

The value proposition of ikigai

To grasp ikigai, visualize the four overlapping circles representing these questions: What are you passionate about? What are you good at? What can you be paid for? And what is it that you have or can do that the world needs?

The key to starting the year by using ikigai is seeing how all four circles come together. To answer those questions and discover one’s ikigai, you must, as the ancient Greeks understood, “know yourself.” Knowing yourself is the same as knowing your value proposition. It is why, in the business world, when one knows their value, they should worry less about the competition — they can always come up with a different perspective.

Where people go wrong is being unable to even identify their passion. Without knowing their passion, they fail on the second layer (expertise) and the third (making money), and so they have no resources to offer something of value to the world. Finding the bottleneck in one’s personal process can define how they strategize putting their New Year’s resolution into action.

Taking it one bite at a time

In Chinese, we say “It’s impossible to become fat with just one mouthful.” Or in English, “Rome was not built in one day.” There is no rush. Knowing the ikigai process will help individuals understand their next bite as they contemplate their broader objective. Similarly, in business, there is always some bottleneck in the supply chain.

In ikigai, the first link in the chain is identifying your passion. Think about it in terms of attention. Google’s 2017 research paper, “Attention Is All You Need,” introduced a deep learning architecture that revolutionized artificial intelligence and laid the foundation for AI in its current form. It also made it very fashionable to say that attention is everything.

But everything does start from attention, which means it starts from passion. We can focus on the negative, but even that form of attention is not dichotomous. Las Vegas was built in the imagination before it was physically built. Starbucks changed coffee culture forever when it became the “third place” — that space between home and work where people enjoy coffee and life outside home or office. Both started as an idea. Identify where your attention often goes, what excites your imagination, and you have your passion.

Related: Happy New Year! Now, How Exactly, Are You Going to Make Those Resolutions Stick?

Working through the layers

My passion is to use my expertise in strategy development to help people, so the next step for me is to establish authority through the classic rhetorical triangle: by building trust and credibility (ethos); appealing to emotion (pathos); and appealing to the audience’s intellect (logos). That is how I map out expertise so that it will be easier for others to accept what I promote.

If you are passionate about organic coffee, then go to that industry to see how other people make money. If expertise is missing, then take steps to develop it. Ideally, that would have been your New Year’s resolution — but it is not too late to shift focus.

When we address the third aspect of ikigai, making money, we want to get our mentality right. I tell the people who come to me for help that they are not going to be a slave for money — but the master of it. To realize the meaning of life, we need money. That is just the reality of our world. Then, once we have addressed any reticence around money, we can focus on how we are going to have a global impact.

Enacting your New Year’s resolution

The last piece of the ikigai puzzle can be the easiest one. What can you do to help change the world? Once you have answered the first three questions, finding the affinity between what you do and what the world needs is usually not difficult. Ikigai assumes the intrinsic connection between personal fulfillment and social contribution. If you have identified what you love and what the world needs, the next logical step should be quite obvious.

For instance, if someone has a passion for dogs and wants to utilize the ikigai philosophy, they could put themselves in a position to understand any gaps in the market. Once they develop their expertise, it is time to find a way to make money from their passion — so they could create a monetized YouTube channel dedicated to dogs. Then, they would use that platform to educate viewers on dog adoption, health, grooming or however else they can serve the market. Wherever one is weak in this example, that ought to be the focus of their New Year’s resolution and beyond.

It is safe to assume that most people have not found their ikigai yet, so the new year is the perfect time to begin to put the four aspects together, one layer at a time. In this Japanese philosophy and model, the value of life is hidden in plain sight and is awaiting your discovery in 2024.

Related: Why Most New Year’s Resolutions Fail and What You Should Do Instead



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