The ikigai Venn diagram unintentionally became a global phenomenon after its creator Marc Winn combined several other people’s ideas he had heard into the visual and used it in his 2014 blog post. His primary focus was not the Japanese culture’s understanding and experience of ikigai but rather the Western thought of finding your life purpose and making a living based on it. As Marc tells in this podcast interview, it took him only 45 minutes to write that blog post, and he had never expected it to gain such popularity.
Later, in an internationally bestselling book IKIGAI*: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, published in 2016, the authors Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles referred to Marc’s diagram and offered their adaptation. This image, including its various modifications, comes up most frequently in online searches for ‘ikigai’ today.
However, as Marc points out, it is important to remember that this “version of ikigai does not reflect the original Japanese thinking about the concept.” Nonetheless, the undeniable global success of the diagram “helped him realize how one image can change the course of people’s lives in all sorts of ways.” It is a case of the importance of small things. Sometimes we see the impact they have, as Marc did, while sometimes, we don’t. That, however, does not mean they have none.
When you look at the ikigai Venn diagram in any of its currently widespread versions, there is an interesting observation you can make. Of the four circle areas, one stands out. While three areas explicitly refer to you – what you love, what you are good at, what you can be paid for – the fourth remaining area does not refer to you at all – what the world needs. How are we to understand this?
One crucial insight is, I believe, that we cannot create a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives without being integrated into something beyond our personal selves. If I do what I love and am good at, and I am even paid for it (which at least partly signals that there is some demand for it), the sense of uselessness will gradually grow as long as the area of “what the world needs” is not covered. But why? The answer to this question reveals the second important insight the diagram can give us.
While the question “what the world needs” does not address you personally, the feeling of uselessness is experienced on a personal level. What’s the connection here? Why can it be true that even though something you do (that you love, are good at, and are paid for) is considered something the world needs, you can still experience the gnawing sense of uselessness?
Because we never approach the world from an abstract, entirely objective, detached perspective, as if looking at it from nowhere. Whatever we think about the world and its needs, we do so from our viewpoint. We always look at the world from somewhere – a personal standpoint that influences what we see. I need to connect myself to something out there to have a sense of meaning and purpose in my life, but I can only do that with respect to something accessible to me in my current circumstances. Otherwise, the connection will be tenuous at best and nonexistent at worst.
This insight reveals that the question “what the world needs” goes too far beyond my particular context and may quickly feel disconnected from the other three, more personal, areas of the diagram. How to understand this question without feeling intimidated, overwhelmed, and discouraged by it? You could try rephrasing the question to ask “what your world needs” or “what the world needs from your perspective”. Although better, these variations still feel too distant to afford a strong connection. At this point, it is helpful to remember the importance of the small things mentioned at the beginning of the article.
Using this idea here means applying a smaller scale to that “world” in the question. It can be whatever particular context you are in at this phase of your life or one you would like to be in if you are looking for some changes. Then, “what the world needs” can translate into anything from “what my family needs” to “what my home planet’s environment needs” (and, perhaps, beyond, if outer space is your thing). As your personal circumstances and priorities change, so will this question, and your answers need to be updated.
It does not mean we cannot come up with some overarching theme for our lives, a more unifying narrative that is an ocean or a sea into which all the separate rivers of our more particular situations flow. In fact, I think we all have such personal life stories that we call our identities. They are the bigger contexts that determine how we interpret smaller ones and what we consider meaningful. Then there are the even larger contexts encompassing our personal identities – our cultures, for example. But that is a story for another time.
The vital insight from observing the ikigai Venn diagram, and especially its “what the world needs” area, is that we need to relate to something beyond ourselves in personally meaningful ways to have a sense of purpose in our lives. It is only within some such personally meaningful context that you can answer the question “what [that context] needs” in a way that allows you to relate to it and feel that your actions are valuable and purposeful. Compare this with Viktor Frankl’s thoughts on the importance and possibility of creating a sense of meaningful life even in the most challenging of circumstances.
If creating a sense of meaning and purpose in one’s life is a process of integrating one’s personal self with something beyond oneself, then it cannot be so far beyond that one can no longer relate to it on a personal level. Integration requires respecting both parts of the whole that make up a life of purpose and meaning.