Four simple ways to find ikigai– or purpose– in the workplace

The Japanese workplace is notoriously formal and hierarchical, and the work hours can be punishing. Long hours and workplace stress are the reality in many other nations too. It’s no wonder, then, that an age-old Japanese concept is driving change across Japan, and most of the industrialized world. Say hello to ikigai.

Ikigai has been made popular by the ubiquitous Venn diagram that depicts it as the sweet spot between what you love, what you excel in, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. To practice ikigai means to find this sweet spot, and pursue it.

While this is a good way to explain the concept, ikigai has a deeper meaning in Japanese culture, as ‘purpose of life’ or ‘what makes life worth living’. It’s what makes the Japanese workforce commute to work, put in long hours at office, and then spend the evenings with their colleagues before taking the last train back home. Interestingly enough, for many, their ikigai is not necessarily work. But work plays a part in keeping their ikigai alive, motivating them to return to work every day.

There’s a lesson here for managers, who often struggle to keep their team driven and proud of the work that they are doing. Helping everyone in your team, including yourself, reach his or her fullest potential is possible, with these tips from experts who have studied ikigai for years.

  • Recognize the ikigai of every day. Appreciate the little things that bring joy and meaning to everyday life, like listening to music or traveling. As Gordon Mathews, professor of anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, puts it, “Ikigai is not something grand or extraordinary. It’s something pretty matter-of-fact.”
  • Encourage volunteering. Many employees do not realize how their work positively impacts others. Volunteer programs that put employees in touch with the people who ultimately receive the products and services, have seen great success in driving up motivation and productivity.
  • Express gratitude. Toshimitsu Sowa, CEO of HR consulting firm Jinzai Kenkyusho, suggests that employee morale is boosted when colleagues are acknowledged for the work they put in. Find time every day to thank colleagues for keeping things running smoothly.
  • Explore other forms of ikigaiEveryone has a passion, but life often has a way of getting in between a person and his or her passion. For example, retirement can dampen the chances of meeting co-workers daily. But there’s a workaround possible. A retired worker who misses his job can reignite his passion by mentoring youth. Try out different things by yourself or with your team, and find new outlets of expression.

Simple as these tips may seem, their impact is far-reaching. Ikigai not only leads to increased motivation and productivity, but also helps employees feel greater pride in the company and their skills. They experience a greater sense of fulfilment, a feeling of having had a life well-lived. And that, by itself, is priceless.

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