Ikigai is not a Venn Diagram

If you go on Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram or any social media and search the term ikigai, you will inevitably come across a four-circle Venn diagram with the following questions: Are you doing something that you love? Are you doing something that you're good at? Are you doing something that the world needs? Are you doing something that you can be paid for? In the centre where all four circles overlap is the word ikigai.

It is believed and perpetuated by many life and business coaches, bloggers, and entrepreneurs that as ikigai lies at the centre of these interconnecting circles, if you are lacking in one or more of these areas (e.g.,you are doing something that you love and are good at, but not helping the world or making money from it), then you haven’t found your ikigai, and are therefore missing out on the chance to live a long and happy life. To put it bluntly: This is nonsense! This Venn diagram has nothing at all to do with the Japanese conception of ikigai.

This may come as a disappointment. In fact, some people heavily invested in the Ikigai Venn diagram interpretation take issue with its being corrected. I have been confronted by social media users, who appear to know very little of Japanese culture, claiming the popularity of the Venn diagram as ikigai validates it as an evolved version of the concept. Others have asked why it matters if it is not accurate, if it is helping people. And I have been told everything is open to interpretation. These attitudes show a typical Western bias to disregard the cultural underpinnings of foreign concepts and instead apply them in whatever context and manner benefits the user.

I feel it only appropriate that we consider some Japanese reactions to the Ikigai Venn diagram, and offer two to you now.

Wellness coach and author Saori Okada shared her memory of being introduced to the Ikigai Venn diagram while attending a presentation on professional development:

‘I remember freezing with pure shock. I was genuinely surprised as I had never seen such a Venn Diagram growing up, and my heart froze. It was as though I felt a pain in my soul. That is the best way I can describe it. I felt such sadness because ikigai is a beautiful, powerful, and meaningful concept that cannot be contained in a Venn Diagram.’

Podcast guest and friend Makoto Furuya shared his experience of learning about the Ikigai Venn diagram when a colleague of his presented it at a conference:

‘So I was attending a conference virtually and the speaker started out with “What's your ikigai?” And it was about a career path if I remember correctly, and I saw the Venn diagram, and it really bothered me, particularly the part about money.’

As you now understand, to the Japanese, positioning ikigai in the centre of the Venn diagram is a blatant misuse of a word that has important cultural significance. Like it or not, the fact that this misuse has been caused by, and is perpetuated by, Westerners is textbook cultural appropriation. This is not to suggest that I am pointing fingers, but to highlight a Western behaviour that often goes unchecked.

One of my personal goals in writing this book is to return this beautiful concept back to its original cultural context and move readers, who are familiar with or use the Venn diagram, from cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation. I hope this is part of the reason why you have this book in your hands.

With all that said, this is not to say that the Venn diagram isn’t thought-provoking and inspiring in its own way; there’s a reason why it has been shared online many thousands of times. First published in Borja Vilaseca’s 2012 book Qué Harías Si No Tuvieras Miedo (What Would You Do If You Weren't Afraid?), the visualisation is the work of Spanish astrologer Andrés Zuzunaga, who posted it on his Facebook page on June 4th 2012 as ‘propósito (‘purpose’) – a name derived from the word used to indicate the convergence of the four main themes:

proposito

Figure 1.1. Andrés Zuzunaga’s original Venn diagram, where the central uniting idea is not labelled ‘ikigai’, but ‘purpose’. https://www.cosmograma.com/proposito.php  I am aware that there are differences of opinion as to the origin of the Purpose/Ikigai Venn diagram and recognise that there are similar versions that pre-date Zuzunaga’s. What is clear is that Zuznaga’s Venn diagram of purpose was the version that became merged with ikigai

When I interviewed Andrés Zuzunaga on my podcast, he described how his Venn diagram came to him, but not from him. He explained how it was inspired by natal charts and the questions his clients would ask him during astrology consultations. At the time the diagram was created, Andrés was meditating regularly and contemplating purpose. He found himself waking up in the mornings with insights and creative ideas; one of these was the seed of the Venn diagram.

Andrés could easily be bitter that he is not recognised for his creative perspective on purpose, yet he remains humble, seeing a silver lining in its association with ikigai:

 ‘I didn't frankly know that it would have so much impact. It's what you have said now, it's because somebody merged it with ikigai, so in a way, I am thankful with this confusion because maybe without that, it wouldn't be what it is today.’

I find Andrés’ acceptance of the misinterpretation of his Venn diagram inspiring, but recognition and gratitude are overdue. I feel those who use his Venn diagram as a coaching tool or as inspiration for a blog post should take the time to credit him, by perhaps renaming it as the Zuzunaga Venn Diagram.

‘I didn't frankly know that it would have so much impact. It's what you have said now, it's because somebody merged it with ikigai, so in a way, I am thankful with this confusion because maybe without that, it wouldn't be what it is today.’

Although this story explains the origin of the Venn diagram, it doesn’t address how ‘purpose’ became replaced with ‘ikigai’. For this revision, we can both thank and blame self-proclaimed mischief-maker and lover of changing the world, Marc Winn. In 2014, nearly two years after Zuzunaga shared his diagram with the world, Marc incorporated a modified English-language translation of it (Figure 1.2) in an inspiring post titled ‘What's your ikigai?’. He wrote the piece after watching Dan Buettner’s TED Talk, which inspired him to replace ‘purpose’ with ‘ikigai’ in the accompanying graphic. He wrote: 

‘According to the Japanese, everyone has an ikigai. An ikigai is essentially “a reason to get up in the morning”. A reason to enjoy life.

Having spent most of the last few years helping dozens and dozens of social change makers and  entrepreneurs find their ikigai, whilst also searching for my own, I can now visualise where it belongs. 

Your ikigai lies at the centre of those interconnecting circles. If you are lacking in one area, you are missing out on your life’s potential. Not only that, but you are missing out on your chance to live a long and happy life.’
‘According to the Japanese, everyone has an ikigai. An ikigai is essentially “a reason to get up in the morning”. A reason to enjoy life. Having spent most of the last few years helping dozens and dozens of social change makers and  entrepreneurs find their ikigai, whilst also searching for my own, I can now visualise where it belongs. Your ikigai lies at the centre of those interconnecting circles. If you are lacking in one area, you are missing out on your life’s potential. Not only that, but you are missing out on your chance to live a long and happy life.’

Figure 1.2: The Ikigai Venn diagram produced by Marc Winn in his 2014 blog post.

The post went viral, and the ikigai graphic has been copied, reproduced, shared and seen worldwide by tens of millions of people – including educators, HR facilitators, life coaches, and others who have been inspired to write associated books and articles. I see this as a serendipitous blunder. The visualisation was his own interpretation of the ikigai concept – and does not originate in Japan or capture the Japanese ethos. However, Marc did get it right when stating that ikigai is a ‘reason to get up in the morning’ and a ‘reason to enjoy life’ – and this message has undoubtedly had positive impacts on the many people who have enjoyed his blog post and reflected on his diagram. 

On episode 5 my podcast, Marc kindly explained his creation process: 

‘…obviously, I didn’t know too much about [ikigai] other than from that one TED Talk. A lot of people say, “why don’t you do a book or why don’t you do this, why do you make something of it?”, and things like that. I said, “Its artistry for me is in that I didn’t really think much about it. It was only 45 minutes of my life and it still grows exponentially and people write books on it.”’

Indeed people do write books on it. In writing this book, I often found myself reflecting on how the questions, creative thoughts, and work of others such as Andrés, Marc, and the Japanese co-worker who introduced me to ikigai more than two decades ago have greatly impacted my life. It is astounding how even the most fleeting of thoughts and smallest actions of others can set in motion events that dramatically impact the lives of others. In my case, I have started a business and undertaken extensive research on a subject that both excites and challenges me; researching ikigai is my ikigai, and I am infinitely grateful for the people and events who have led me to this insight. 

However, despite the prominent role that ikigai plays in my own life, I would like to caution you again against associating ikigai with the achievement of a life goal or the pursuit of one life purpose. Purpose is a central element of ikigai, but it is a mistake to think of ikigai as an ambitious, entrepreneurial framework or extrinsically motivated goal that you must achieve. Doing so will make it unlikely that you will feel and enjoy the full benefits of ikigai in your day-to-day living. Ikigai is not something to chase and then experience only as the realisation of a dream or culmination of a life goal. In the words of Gordon Mathews, ‘Ikigai is not the end but the very beginning of the pursuit of a life worth living.’14

One final myth I’d like to dispel is associated with the idea that all Japanese people have ikigai. Sadly, it is actually something that remains elusive to all too many, including some of my closest Japanese friends.

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