Ikigai, The Great Unthought

Ikigai, a Japanese concept, refers to one’s reason for being or to one’s reason for getting up in the morning. One conception of ikigai has been making the rounds on the Internet:


My target in this post is not Ikigai the broader concept but Ikigai as it’s represented in this pretty graphic, the one that entrepreneurs, founders, and executives are unduly and erroneously jazzed about.

Critique #1: Unreasonableness

The thesis is that the affective dimension (“love”), the talent dimension (“good at”), the market dimension (“get paid for”), and the altruistic dimension (“world’s needs”) can all be brought into harmony. Their harmony is an expression of ikigai.

But this is unreasonable. You may love something that, rightly so, you wouldn’t wish to get paid for. Your talents you may delight in, yet they may have nothing to do with what the human world needs. You may have achieved mastery in something you find tolerably interesting–but are you loving it?

Go further and imagine four archetypes: the artist (love), the athlete (excellence), the merchant (payment), and the moral saint (world’s needs). Are you really going to believe that it’s feasible for you to combine, let alone seamlessly, being an artist, an athlete, a merchant, and a moral saint? Or is it far more likely that the virtues of each may be incompatible with, indeed perhaps in conflict with, those of the others?

Critique #2: The Unexamined Life

Let me put some philosophical questions to the unexamined philosophy of life represented in this graphic:

  • Why don’t we wonder about how love, a religious and literary affect, got coopted by work?
  • Why does “world” exclusively mean “human world,” the world that humanism created and that we were born into?
  • Why would getting paid, and therefore the ubiquity of wage labor, ever be deemed valuable enough to be included among the highest goods?
  • Why would mission, a military excursion involving the possibility of death, be that which we want to go on in lieu of—I don’t know—pilgrimages, peregrinations, or windy paths?
  • Who, apart from evangelizing Protestants, really urges vocations or callings on all living beings, and who believes that they’re universally available to all of us?
  • And being a professional—whoop de do—that’s one of your great aspiration in life?
  • Lastly for now, couldn’t being jazzed about something, going somewhere with it, being called to do that thing, and being professional about how it’s undertaken actually make for a rather jejune, impoverished life, even, or especially, if followed to the T? 

The Ikigai exemplar strikes me as lacking depth of the kind that may arise when one recognizes that the human world doesn’t function according to a “pre-established harmony.”