Ikigai and the Importance of Being Curious

Ikigai and the importance of being curious
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What gets you up in the morning?

Recently I wrote to email subscribers with a story about discovering my number one personal value thanks to a probing question from a friend and a sharp retort of realism from my wife. I got a lot of responses and feedback. Everyone asks themselves this same question.

The thing I value the most is freedom. I wrote that “freedom to me is the ability to decide how I spend my time. To take a day off work to spend it with my future son. To work through the night finishing an article I’m writing. To work on two companies to make a difference for people in different ways. To not grow Curious Lion into a company with unmanageable headcount. Of course, financial freedom is part of freedom, but it’s a component of the overall driving force, not the driving force itself.”

I argued that clarifying your values is more important than setting goals because your values are the driving force you need to live a better life, to be happier and to make better decisions, including which goals to pursue.

In Japan, this concept is known as Ikigai.

What is Ikigai?

Ikigai (生き甲斐) translated to English roughly means “thing that you live for”. It has been confused with a Venn diagram doing the rounds that looks like this:

This is not ikigai
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This is not ikigai.

Although this interpretation has become quite popular with self-help gurus and motivational bloggers.

Ikigai is thought to have originated in Okinawa, where the term is most closely associated with “the reason you get up in the morning”. The author and explorer Dan Buettner took us on a journey to lands of longevity, which he called Blue Zones, in his TED Talk, How to live to be 100+. Okinawa was one of those lands and Buettner suggested the Ikigai philosophy was one of the reasons people in the area have such long lives.

Health Ministry data from 2001 showed 400 centenarians living in Okinawa, or 34 for every 100,000 people. The equivalent figure for the United States at the time was about 10 in 100,000. Clearly they have something going on.

The word ikigai refers to two things according to Noriyuki Nakanishi of Osaka University Medical School:

  1. The source of value in one’s life or the things that make one’s life worthwhile.
  2. The mental and spiritual circumstances under which individuals feel that their lives are valuable.

According to Nakanishi’s paper, it’s not linked to one’s financial status.

You can feel ikigai even if your present is clouded in dark, as long as you can hold on to that thing that you live for. The feelings associated with ikigai include a sense of fulfillment in everyday life, self-realization, the motivation to live and a sense of existence and control.

How do you find your Ikigai?

Once you make a conscious choice to be the determined, creative force in your own life, your life is changed forever: you’re happy; opportunities appear; successful projects lead to other successful projects, and the practice of being true to your purpose becomes effortless.

So how do you go about finding this purpose?

The good thing is that each individual’s ikigai is personal to them and specific to their lives, values, and beliefs. Ikigai is also a spectrum, according to the neuroscientist, Ken Mogi.

Ikigai exists on a spectrum
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Finding your ikigai – the Western Way

To satisfy our Western craving for frameworks that lead to some ultimate goal, we can look to Dan Buettner’s book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. In it he suggests making three lists:

  1. Your values,
  2. Things you like to do, and
  3. Things you are good at.

The cross-section of the three lists is your ikigai. This is the thing you never have the desire to retire from. The thing you continue to do for as long as your health is good.

Finding your ikigai – the Eastern Way

In Japan, true ikigai is not about making money. It’s not about what the world needs from you, or what you’re good at, or even what you love. It’s not any lofty goal to achieve.

True ikigai is embracing the joy of the little things, being in the here and now, reflecting on past happy memories and cultivating a state of mind that can lead to a happy future. Ken Mogi says that “in order to reach your really big goals, you will really need to take care of the very small things” first.

Mogi alludes to community as the key to finding your true ikigai:

  1. Ikigai is something private and unique to each person.
  2. To find it, you need to know yourself well.
  3. To know yourself, you need to have a mirror to your thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
  4. This is only possible in the context of comparison with other people.
  5. So you really need other people, and communication with other people, in order to know yourself.

Get to know people from different backgrounds, and with different personalities and value systems. I learned the benefit of this when I moved from South Africa to America in 2009. Here are my reflections on the experience of moving to a new country to settle.

It’s worth noting that this doesn’t mean you need approval from others. Studies demonstrate that a sense of purpose in life, ikigai, is negatively correlated with a need for approval from others and anxiety.

What can we learn from ikigai?

As you can see, ikigai is very much what you make of it. You may take something different away from the study of this concept, but for me, two aspects have stood out that I want to end off with. The first is the codification of 10 rules for living taken from studying the long-living residents of Ogimi, a small village in Okinawa. The second is the importance of being curious.

10 lessons from the long-living residents of Ogimi

Authors Héctor García and Francesc Miralles studied the residents of Ogimi to understand the lifestyle habits and secrets that enabled them to live such long lives. I find these to be helpful, sensible guidelines for how to live a happy and healthy life. They are by no means edicts, and I think it would be very difficult to follow all of them, all of the time. But if you can incorporate as many as possible, you’re bound to live a better life.

10 rules to living a longer life from the residents of Ogimi.
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The 10 rules, with quotes from the book IKIGAI: The Japanese Secret To a Long and Happy Life, are:

Stay active; don’t retire.

“Those who give up the things they love doing and do well lose their purpose in life.”

Take it slow.

“Being in a hurry is inversely proportional to the quality of life. When we leave urgency behind, life and time take on new meaning.”

Don’t fill your stomach.

Towards the end of a meal, Japanese say ‘hara hachi bu” which translates roughly to “eating only to 80% keeps the doctors away.” This is a helpful mantra to remind you to watch your calorie intake.

Surround yourself with good friends.

“Friends are the best medicine, there for confiding worries over a good chat, sharing stories that brighten your day, getting advice, having fun, dreaming . . . in other words, living.”

Get in shape for your next birthday.

“Water moves; it is at its best when it flows fresh and doesn’t stagnate. The body you move through in life needs a bit of daily maintenance to keep it running for a long time. Plus, exercise releases hormones that make us feel happy.”


“A cheerful attitude is not only relaxing – but it also helps make friends. It’s good to recognize the things that aren’t so great, but we should never forget what a privilege it is to be in the here and now in a world so full of possibilities.”

Reconnect with nature.

“The Japanese word shinrin-yoku translates to ‘forest bathing’ and means connecting with nature using the five senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. It is a mindfulness practice to help you reconnect with nature so that you can rejuvenate the body and give the mind a moment of peace.”

Give thanks.

“To your ancestors, to nature, which provides you with the air you breathe and the food you eat, to your friends and family, to everything that brightens your days and makes you feel lucky to be alive. Spend a moment every day giving thanks, and you’ll watch your stockpile of happiness grow.”

Live in the moment.

“Stop regretting the past and fearing the future. Today is all you have. Make the most of it. Make it worth remembering.”

Follow your ikigai.

“There is a passion inside you, a unique talent that gives meaning to your days and drives you to share the best of yourself until the very end. If you don’t know what your ikigai is yet, as Viktor Frankl says, your mission is to discover it.”

The importance of being curious

Curiosity is a concept near and dear to my heart. I named my company after it as I firmly believe it’s one of the most important attributes you can have. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s see what Albert Einstein has to say:

“‘I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious.”

The late, great Kobe Bryant echoed this when he said:

“I have always been extremely curious. I had a great teacher in high school that sparked my curiosity in writing. The reason I thought writing was important is because there are things in stories that can help me be a better basketball player. Be a better teammate. Be a better leader. Things that help me understand emotions better.”

Curiosity, as an attribute, is absolutely something you can learn, and from an early age too. Marc Andrreessen had this to share on the topic:

“Curiosity is really critical. Curiosity and ability to learn. Frankly, our educational system is still dominated by Industrial Age theory. That we are creating cogs for a machine. A lot of K-12 is to get people to work on farms or in factories.”

Curiosity is naturally associated with childhood, but as Naval Ravikant points out, it’s something you should try to keep with you always.

“Don’t lose the child-like curiosity innate in humans. Children are always asking questions. The problem is our educational systems replace curiosity with compliance. That makes a factory worker – not a creative thinker.”

The greatest NFL coach of all time, Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots, built his reputation on adaptability, curiosity and the willingness to learn from others. In research by Harvard Professor Boris Groysberg, on what organizations can learn from NFL head coaches, the author points to “Belichick’s remarkable ability to adapt his strategies over time, as well as his penchant for staying curious and learning from others. It is clearly not the case that young people are the only ones capable of being innovative.”

As Belichick’s legacy attests, being curious is merely the beginning. As you mature, you learn how to synthesize experiences and observations. You learn to follow your ikigai, and as Chip Conley points out, pay attention to what’s important.

“Curiosity opens up possibility and wisdom is what distills down the essence of what’s important.”

If you want to learn more about the fascinating concept of ikigai, then I highly recommend the website Ikigai Tribe.

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