Alex: Welcome back to coaches to the moon podcast. Ladies and gentlemen on this rainy Sydney morning, I'm joined by Coach, author, and Japanologist, Nick Kemp who trains master coaches, psychologists, and educators to coach the concept of ikigai, which I'm really excited to dig into, because a lot of us have heard this term, but maybe not fully understood it. I also understand that Nick, you're a fellow music buff, and you're pretty handy on the sixth string. So straight out of Melbourne, Australia. Thanks for being here, Nick.
Nick: Thank you so much, Alex, it's a real joy to have this conversation with you and connect and as I mentioned being in the same time zone.
Alex: Absolute pleasure. Our last podcast was with Andrew Pain, he was in England, so I was doing at about 6pm my time, which I'm not really allowed to do because I got toddlers and that is prime Bolognese and nappies time, but I got away with it. And so anything we can do at 11am is a blessing. Big question to start off with, Nick. Where's the food better in Japan or Melbourne?
Nick: It's one of those things sometimes, I think it's Japan. But sometimes when I was in Japan there'd be basic things like delicious whole grain bread that you had to go into a city to get. So there are things I would miss in Japan, but I'd definitely say the food in Japan. Yeah, that's it. That's what I really love about Japan. And yeah, you've got me already thinking, actually, my wife and son are going to Japan on Monday. I'm staying home to look after the cat. So I'm quite envious.
Alex: Yeah, absolutely, man. I'll pick Japan over a cat any day. I'd pick anything over a cat any day. I always like to ask about food when we hear people come from different experiences because I was a chef. I was in hospitality for about 12 years. And you know, Japan is one of those bucket list places I've never gotten to, and I'll get there one day, but there's some pretty freaky food coming out of Japan. Some weird textures, I find. Especially Nick, when it comes to sweets. Lots of gelatinous stuff.
Nick: Gushy yeah. There's so much to explore. They're also very good at embracing other food, other culture's food, and tweaking it as well. But yeah, there's sort of a ramen boom I think in Australia at the moment; everyone's eating a lot of ramen. Sweets are interesting, you've got these handmade sweets, you've even got these handmade sweets almost like a sushi bar, you can go into these places and you watch someone create what looks like a small page or just these beautiful creations of soft sweet mochi.
I guess they're really mochi, sweet rice cakes. And that's something I've never done. And that was something we were going to do two years ago, when we were going to go to Japan in March 2020.
Alex: Well, I hope you get back there one day and I'm sure your wife and son will have a sensational time, but we're here, mochi with you all day. We used to actually try that at my cafe, I had a little corporate cafe and we were just trying to run before we could walk because we were both trained chefs. And we're now making coffee and sandwiches, and we have things like okonomiyaki on the menu that were made from scratch.
And we always had furikake and always read ingredients in the kitchen. And everyone's coming and be like, can I get some chips and a ham and cheese croissant? Ah, yes, you can, whatever you like. You know, I love to talk to a fellow foodie. But we're here to talk today about ikigai -- the concept, the big question, the bread and butter, your purpose. You know, it seems that everything for your business is based around this concept.
Understanding the concept of ikigai
How can you explain the concept of ikigai for the total beginners out there who maybe have heard the word but never fully understood what it means?
Nick: Yeah, so maybe we should start off with what it isn't. Maybe some of your audience, if they're in the coaching space would know it's often presented as a Venn diagram framework or four interlocking circles asking: are you doing something that you love, that you're good at, that the world needs, and that you can be paid for? This actually has nothing to do with ikigai, it's not Japanese in origin.
That framework's helpful, it's inspiring, but it's got nothing to do with ikigai. Also, the word has, I guess, romantic ideas of longevity and that it's a word from Okinawa. Again, these are sort of Western interpretations or perceptions that sort of came about from TED talks, and people using a bit of creative licence, when perhaps they shouldn't have.
So yeah, it's not your one life purpose, it's not the sweet spot of a Venn diagram, it's not the secret to longevity, and it's not a word from Okinawa. To the average Japanese, it's actually not a special word. And it's something usually quite small and humble, and personal. So it could be their pets, their hobby, perhaps, you're a parent with young kids, so I'm sure your kids are a source of ikigai.
"Your emotions or feelings are the most genuine aspects of ikigai."
So that's how we can understand that you have sources of ikigai, which can be relationships, people, aspects of your work, having meaningful conversations, hobbies, even memories can serve as a source of ikigai, and even anticipation of the future. Then it's ultimately something you feel. So your emotions or feelings are the most genuine aspects of ikigai. So that's kind of a very everyday basic level.
But there's this large body of research from the 1960s onwards that really relates ikigai to eudaimonia, to intrinsic motivation, and to things like existential positive psychology. So often our most challenging moments in our life, once we get through them, and we discover what we're capable of, and perhaps we gain a stronger sense of identity, we can look back on those challenging moments and think, wow, that was or is a source of ikigai.
So it's very hard to articulate, and this is probably the mistake in the West, we like to define things and think, "Oh yeah I understand that." Whereas in Japan, if you ask someone what ikigai is, they probably wouldn't even try to explain because it's pretty hard to explain. So that's, I guess, a pretty long answer to your first question.
Alex: No, but that makes perfect sense. Yeah, I was looking for a definition and one doesn't seem to exist, which is fantastic. Really, really cool to say that in the West, we try and put a label on things were so much in the world, in other cultures, especially in Australia, it seems like people, it's more of an instinctual, it's such an old concept that it's ingrained in you and you know, whatever have to ask what that word means. So that's a really cool explanation of it.
Nick: Actually a good way for us to maybe understand it, it would be like someone asking you and me what is mateship? So we understand that, we would probably end up offering a different definition. And we'd also struggle because it involves friendship, or looking after your fellow man. But we sort of know there are ties to WWI to it and we'd probably have to research.
And then when we did, we'd probably find some research on its origins and what it really means and why it was almost, I think it was almost written into our equivalent of the Constitution or something. So Japan has many of these words, whereas we only have probably mateship that's quite unique. Yeah, so that's one way for us to kind of understand its etymology.
Alex: Yeah. When you were saying that first explanation, I was trying to think of an Australian word that I could compare it to and mateship, definitely nail on the head there. Because that's not the same as friendship. And it's not the same as having a mate. I guess there is a very rich history to that one word. And, yeah, instantly when you said mateship, I got images of that movie. That movie Gallipoli, you know, Mel Gibson in it, really old school kind of like thin men in a trench somewhere that's having a go. So that's really cool, man. All right.
So we've got ikigai is a concept that maybe is misunderstood, and very clearly misunderstood. But when did you start to see it take off in Australia and really start to change its meaning. The misconception of the ikigai concept
Nick: Yeah, this is interesting because I was actually introduced to the word in 1998, very casually in a conversation. So I was living in Japan, I was teaching English, and I started at a new school. And I was sort of young and ambitious, showing off my Japanese.
And on lunch break a coworker, just casually asked what's your ikigai, in Japanese. I'm like, ikigai? What's that? And she said, oh, you know, it's sort of your purpose in life that, the reasons why you bet along through life. And she gave me this incredible definition. I was like, what you have one word that describes all that, and I couldn't believe it.
So I remember going into work the next day, really excited to talk to her again about this word, and found out she'd been transferred. And then, you know, life got in the way and I guess the word went into hibernation. And 20 years later, I started seeing the Venn diagram. And the first time I saw it, it kind of reminded me of the word.
Then I thought, but that's very unusual, Japanese would never define a word like this. Then there were TED Talks. There's a very popular TED talk on the five blue zones by a man called Dan Buettner, who's written a book. And the book would be now probably 20 years old. But in the late 90s and early 2000s, he actually went to Okinawa because it's one of these blue zones where you have a high concentration of centenarians.
And he observed their lifestyle, their daily habits. In this TED talk, he briefly mentions the word ikigai. He was like, in Okinawa they have this amazing word that imbues their life and the reason they live. And so that actually led to someone merging ikigai with the Venn diagram. And so that Venn diagram, just the purpose Venn diagram. And he sort of did that innocently thinking it was a cool idea at the time, and shared it on a blog post, then that went viral.
Studying ikigai in depth
So I started seeing all these Venn diagrams, and I kind of knew that's not it, someone should do something about it. And I thought it can't be me, because I really didn't know what it was. I just knew that it should be broader and deeper. And then about a year after that, I saw it on the World Health Organisation website, and I thought, this has got to stop.
So that's when I thought, okay, well, I'll do something about it. Then I thought, the best thing for me to do is to research it, and interview people. So I thought I would start a podcast. I thought if I could get a few English speaking Japanese professors, or researchers, that would be the way to go. And so that was about three years ago.
And yeah, I've been studying the concept pretty much full time for three years, and then really understood it's related to all these things like positive psychology and eudaimonia. And there's psychometric tools and frameworks that these researchers develop and it really fits well with coaching. So that's how it all sort of evolved quite quickly, I guess.
Alex: Yeah, so three years. Well, obviously 1998 was a while ago but then three years of really diving deep into it. Love the story about a lady coming to your work in the lunchroom and dropping that word there and then she's gone the next day. Spirit guides whisper into your life briefly and then flick it out right when you need it. That's awesome, man.
So, the World Health Organisation, it was on their website. Why was the World Health Organisation using ikigai? Was that a mental health thing that they were using it for?
Nick: Yeah, it was just a brief article on the Japanese way of living a fulfilling and meaningful life, or a long and happy life. I think it's probably the curse of knowledge for me, because I kind of assume everyone knows that.
But yeah, this Venn diagram, it gets shared all the time. So every day on LinkedIn or Facebook, you'll just find someone sharing it in multiple languages, too. I think because it's shared so much, people just assume it must be accurate. So that's what shocked me about the World Health Organisation website. There was a saying, Japanese have longevity. And one of the reasons why is this concept ikigai, which is this framework.
And I think if we stopped and thought about Japanese culture, we'd probably go, well, hang on, we're talking about an ancient culture, they're very wise, they have Buddhism and Shintoism, would that Venn diagram really fit in?
Because it's a very much very Westernised idea of living the dream, being the best version of yourself, and sort of getting paid for it, which doesn't really exist in Japanese culture. So it is strange, how mistakes are a bit of mystery, you change the word purpose and add ikigai. And then it goes viral.
The blind leading the blind
It's funny how we're attracted to that, yet, we won't dive deeper to fully understand concepts, and we'll take something on face value. And then we have the desire to share it. So you have these people learning about the Venn diagram. And then they go and share it. And it's like, the blind leading the blind.
Alex: I love that. I said to you in our brief little chat, that we've got no bones about calling out some of the bullshit in the coaching community. And it's just one of those things, I don't think anyone's doing the wrong thing by sharing what they believe is a good concept. But we blindly take advice that we like, and then we share it around some more.
You know, it's so obvious, just like, with algorithms, and YouTube, and whatever, it just shows you more of what you like. So you fall into this bubble of confirmation bias, and you just assume something is right. And then you go and tell people, this is the truth. And I'm sure there's a bunch of people who don't like hearing what you have to say about a concept that they've been teaching in their business.
Nick: Yeah, I do get occasionally. It feels like you're being attacked. So I've posted content and had people sort of attack me or try and convince me, why does it matter? Like, if it's helping people, who-cares kind of attitude. So that's probably where we get into this area of. I mean, if authenticity matters, and integrity matters, which clearly doesn't matter to you, you just don't do those sorts of things.
But if you're a coach, and you're passing off ikigai as this Venn diagram, and you're sort of profiting from it, and you know it's not accurate, that's obviously a concern. And then now there are companies selling weight loss products called ikigai tablets or there are cryptocurrency coins that are calling themselves ikigai.
So this is what happens, I think it's happening with other Japanese words, where another word that's really interesting, and actually far more culturally unique to Japan. I'd say, ikigai is a universal concept, we all want to live a meaningful life. Whereas wabi-sabi is something very interesting that Japanese seem to identify that we might find harder, and it's this aesthetic, usually associated with pottery.
And it's very hard to describe, but it's a certain aesthetic that's very hard to achieve. And it involves the elements and nature and it's when you feel a piece of pottery, or maybe a piece of that course to you, and you're sort of, you feel fused with it for a few seconds or a few minutes and then the moment goes. So Japanese have this word to describe that. And it's something you feel, it's a noun.
But in the West, we consider it an adjective. And we try to use it in interior design until you have these interior designers saying, oh, you know, this is a wabi-sabi cup, or this is a wabi-sabi table. And, yeah, my father-in-law actually is a potter. And he tries to create the aesthetic, but you just can't create it, there's a process and it's very random. So we take these beautiful words and concepts, and we kind of almost insult them in a way because we commercialise them, or we just don't spend the time to fully explore them.
Alex: Well, everyone loves to make a dollar when they can from the concept, right? That's something that you said on your website for your book, Ikigai-kan: Feel a Life Worth Living. You say you want to help people go from cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation, which I think is a really cool thing.
Especially from someone who's, you know, we hear cultural appropriation thrown around a lot, especially around Halloween, people dress in the wrong way and stuff like that. But for you, you're so deeply ingrained in the culture. And you just believe that this one concept can be so helpful for people in its original form.
Cultural appreciation of ikigai
So aside from your podcasts and posting on LinkedIn, how are you trying to work ikigai back towards its traditional concepts and beauty, as you've said.
Nick: So as you mentioned, I've got a podcast where I always try to interview researchers or authors. That's quite hard to find because you first have to find them, then second, they've got to speak English reasonably well, and third, they've got to be willing to come on to the podcast. So that's where it really all started. And then, of course this is kind of where it gets interesting for me.
This is one of those moments, you'll understand where the market is, what the market tells you what they want, you have this opportunity. So when I first started this, I thought, oh, wouldn't it be cool to do a podcast and maybe make some sort of course and generate some income out of this. And I know that kind of almost sounds like I'm profiteering off the concept. But obviously, my intention is to share something that's authentic and respectful.
And you know, there are people out there who want to learn. So once my podcast took off, I had people actually reaching out to me saying, Oh, do you coach this concept? Or do you offer a programme where I could coach this concept? And I was like, well, my first reaction was no, like, it's not coached in Japan. It's a cultural concept.
But as I started learning more about it, and I had more people that reached out, I actually spoke to a few professors and said, look, I'm getting people asking me if I could create a programme where they could coach the concept or add it to their own list or their suite of services. And they were really supportive and said, yeah, do it because we want our research to be shared, and it is something relatable to coaching.
So I've managed to create a coaching programme out of it. And I'm pretty selective with who I let in, it's a very small cohort. It's quite intimate. We spend 10 weeks together or 8 to 10 weeks together, and it's sort of a life membership. I have regular catch-up calls. So I'm constantly sharing what I learned. I'm always updating my content.
But the whole programme is designed to really help people flourish and feel better. And explore these concepts of life satisfaction, social affiliation, flow, a sense of purpose, self actualisation. And we don't get to do that. Because we're so busy with our lives. We're trying to make ends meet or succeed or achieve our goals.
And the kanji behind me is kan, so ikigai-kan, and kan is the character for feeling or perception or awareness. So yeah, going back to that idea that ikigai is something you feel. And I think most of us don't feel that great every day, we're stressed out, we're chasing the dream, we're burning out, and we don't stop to think well, is this really making my life feel worth living? Or are the things I'm doing really worthwhile? Or am I chasing a dream? Or am I wasting hours on social media and Netflix and not growing and developing as a person?
Alex: So that's your Ikigai Tribe you're talking about?
Nick: Yeah, Ikigai Tribe. So that's a community I'm trying to build.
Alex: It's really cool that people, you know you've cracked it, when people reach out to you and say, can you teach me how to do this. And it's super interesting to me that that happened for you. Because it seems like such a niche. The concept of ikigai, as we know, is broad, but the way you're teaching, it seems like a relatively niche thing in Australia, because you're going back to this original meaning, and it's kind of like, almost not the antithesis of it.
But it's kind of like a rebellion against what we think is ikigai, this big coaching concept that a lot of people use as a, you know, just a kind of secondary thought within their programmes, or they'll just drop it into a coaching session every now and then. So, you say that you work with counsellors and psychologists and people who help other people feel better.
Coaching the ikigai concept
So given that a lot of our audience are in that coaching space, and a lot of their job is to help people achieve what you're helping people achieve, how can they use the concept of ikigai to help out their clients?
Nick: That is a good question. So that is an interesting point on the people who were attracted to the concept, once they understood it, yeah, were psychologists or educators or coaches with a lot of experience. And they were really wanting to delve into, not just work, but your whole life, and what makes it feel worth living.
So I guess, if we think about ikigai, one thing we could start with is this idea of intrinsic motivation. So doing things that simply feel good that doing them makes your life feel worth living. So you could almost take a popular coaching tool, where you grab a piece of paper, you have a line down the middle, and you'd have something like what gives me energy, what takes away my energy, you could just change that to what generates ikigai for me, or what takes away my ikigai.
And so that really would be what things are intrinsically motivating or make my life feel worth living. And what things are stressing me out, draining me, what relationships are toxic. So that would be one example of ikigai. There's a pioneering researcher, Kamiya Mieko, who wrote an amazing book in the 1960s, called Ikigai Ni Tsuite, which would translate to "About Ikigai." And she identified that there are seven ikigai needs.
And there's an incredible backstory to this, but she identified that to feel ikigai, for the most part, there are seven needs we need to satisfy. And so they are life satisfaction, change and growth, this idea of having a bright future, that you can work towards resonance, which really means social affiliation.
So having meaningful relationships, freedom, or having a sense of freedom. And the way she described freedom's really interesting, I might touch on that later. Then self-actualisation, and then meaning and value. And she also dedicated a whole chapter to purpose and that one would feel ikigai most intensely if they had a strong sense of purpose and felt that they were doing something that only they could do.
But it didn't have to be in a big grand context. It could just be the way you parent or the way you cook or the way you do your job. And when she talked about freedom, she talked about how we live a life of constraints. So we can really only experience freedom by feeling it and maybe connecting to nature or doing activities that give us a sense of freedom. And then in our choices, she noted that we often make choices where we are sacrificing our current freedom for future freedom. So almost like delayed gratification.
And she also talked about, you probably understand this now with two kids that you essentially give up your freedom for the freedom of others, but you're freely choosing inconvenience. Whereas if we relate freedom to the West, it's like, doing what I want, when I want, you know, saying what I want, we've kind of disregarded how that impacts other people.
So her work, and those seven or eight ikigai needs, really fits in well with positive psychology. So she was 40 years or 35 years ahead of the positive psychology movement of the early 2000s. So that's how coaches could relate to ikigai, there's these frameworks, there's research, and a number of psychometric tools that Japanese have created that I share with my coaches.
Alex: It just sounds like if people want to use this stuff, they just need to come and work with Nick Kemp. Do people need to have a certain, you mentioned that people reaching out were qualified people or coaches with a lot of experience? Is that still the case that people need to be at a certain level before they can delve really deep into this concept and use it effectively?
Nick: They don't have to be. So I do it virtually, so I've had people from Dubai, the States, UK, Germany, India, it's quite popular in India, actually. And so a lot of people, they just want to understand what it is. But I think what I'm hoping to create is a community where we are proactive, and we are helping others.
And because my cohorts are so small, and I try to create intimacy, I do hope that people who join are quite invested. And that they really do want to use this content and this knowledge to help others. And I think in business, you probably also know it's probably better to have someone who's got some coaching experience or they're qualified in a certain area that's relatable to ikigai, rather than someone who's just, I want to know what it is.
And that's hard because I've had to remove people from my cohorts because of these problems. And that's not something you look forward to doing, it's definitely not ikigai when you're basically removing someone. So I'm really careful about who comes to join the cohort, and that we have at least similar or aligned values and a shared vision.
Alex: So the qualification is more so how invested they are in doing this for the long term, it's not one of these fleeting Instagram dreams of being a coach, it's like you really want to help people out seriously, effectively, and deeply. And that's where ikigai comes in. That concept of having to say no to people and sort of put a few more barriers up to work with you.
It's not always about exclusivity, it is about how some people would think, you're putting yourself on a pedestal, you're too good for me, it's like, no, you will get better out of it if you come back in a couple years time. I want to give you the best service possible. I learned that in marketing, when I first started my marketing agency taking on people who weren't ready because I wanted the sale, and then hey, presto, they don't get the result that you would be able to get with someone who's a little further along.
And that's your fault, not their fault, you know, so yeah. Nick, this all sounds really, really cool. I can tell you one thing is that you do seem for someone who runs a busy business, and has a kid and all sorts of stuff. You seem extraordinarily calm and fulfilled, which is lovely, because I always feel like I'm jumping from one thing to the other. And you've reminded me to slow down a little bit in this podcast. So thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today, mate.
Nick: Well, thank you for having me on. And yeah, I hope we can have a conversation in person next time I'm up in Sydney. So are you in Sydney or which part of New South Wales?
Alex: Yeah, I'm in the northern beaches of Sydney right up near Palm Beach. Yeah, lovely place to be. We don't need the city, my wife and I, so our ikigai has been able to have a little bit of a garden, not needing to get stuck in traffic too often, and being able to walk down to the park or the lake whenever we can. That's what keeps us sane in the chaos of having twin two year old.
Nick: Wow, I can't imagine, I've got an 18 year old. So going through that journey, you've got a lot to look forward to, a lot of interesting life challenges, lots of meaningful moments as they grow. Parenting is definitely a source of ikigai.
Alex: Yeah, and voluntarily choosing inconvenience is a hilarious way of putting it. So I think that could be the name of a parenting blog for sure. No, really, really cool, man. I feel like you've just given us all the information that we need. I don't want to take my rambling brain and ruin this lovely insight you've given us so far today. So yeah, I'll say thank you so much for being here on the show, bro.
Nick: Likewise, thank you for the opportunity to be on your podcast.
Alex: For anyone listening live or on the recording love you to absolute bits and I will be back next week with some more interesting and insightful guests and coaches to the moon. Thank you so much for listening or watching. Until next time, Much Love and Peace Out