This Japanese framework can help you determine your life's work.

I am so excited to share a guest post by Dena Adriance today. Dena is a transformational coach and consultant, supporting both individuals and teams to discover their zone of genius and harness creative potential. I got the pleasure of being a guest on her podcast recently.

What’s your life’s purpose? 

I know, I know. I can hear your cries of pain at this question. In today’s world, many people are seeking more than just a paycheck from their jobs – we want fulfillment. But this is a mighty big thing to ask for, and I know a lot of people (self included) who spent our twenties (and maybe thirties, or even forties) moving from job to job to job in a never-ending, Goldilocks-style quest to find just the right fit. 

So I imagine, for many of you, this is a pretty daunting question. The idea that we have a singular “life purpose” – and the accompanying implication that we will be unfulfilled, or at least unhappy, until we find it – is kind of overwhelming to those of us who have a wide variety of interests and have been struggling to choose a career that we can really be happy with for a lifetime. 

Yet, as a coach who helps multi-passionate people to build happier, healthier, more productive work lives, I know that it doesn’t have to be this complicated, or this daunting. 

I recently came across a helpful diagram illustrating the Japanese concept of Ikigai (pronounced ick-ee-guy). This roughly translates as “reason for being” – in other words, your life’s purpose. As illustrated in the diagram, your Ikigai can be found at the intersection of where your talents and passions meet with what the world needs and is willing to pay for. 

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In examining this chart, you’ll notice that when you don’t have one of the four core components of Ikigai, there is a sense that something is lacking. For example, if you are doing work that you’re good at, that the world needs, and which you can get paid for – but NOT work that you love – you may feel comfortable, but empty. Or if you’re doing work that the world needs and that you can be paid for, but you’re not particularly great at it and it’s not what you love, you may feel both empty and uncertain, and probably pretty stressed. That’s certainly how I have felt in some past jobs. 

So, finding your Ikigai should be the ultimate goal, right? 

This model can be enormously helpful as a framework to structure your career search: you start by identifying the things that you’re really good at and the things that you love, and then use a mixture of research and experimentation to figure out how those things can earn you an income in a way that is meaningful. 

Yet, I must make two big caveats: 

  1. It is not necessary to seek all four of these things through one single pursuit, and 
  2. This also doesn’t preclude the possibility that there might be something you love and feel a strong urge to do, but that you DON’T want or need to get paid for. In these cases, you might want to pursue a career that will support you to feed this craving.

For those of us who thrive on variety (particularly those of us who have creative urges), it’s important to keep these two points in mind as we pursue the search for our Ikigai.  

Looking at the first caveat, for some it may be more desirable to create a portfolio career rather than a single source of income. Those who have portfolio careers piece together a variety of different activities which – all taken together – make you happy, and pay the bills. This is particularly common among professionals in the arts, for whom one single source of income may not be sufficient to pay the bills in and of itself, but which might be complemented by related pursuits. 

As an example, I’ll give my friend Miriam Castillo, who I interviewed recently for the Everyday Creative People podcast. Miriam started off in graphic design but soon realized that illustration was what she really wanted to do. Along the way she got really into yoga and decided to also become a yoga teacher. In the past year she has brought these two interests together to design a line of yoga clothing printed with her illustrations, as well as creating a meditation workshop based around coloring. 

Each of these activities satisfies a different need for Miriam. What’s more, she has discovered an overarching “reason for being” that brings all of these activities together under one umbrella: to inspire others through creativity. This overarching focus satisfies the “what the world needs” portion of the Ikigai equation, and each specific activity is a different way in which people are willing to pay for the thing that they need.  

As for the second caveat – that you may have something you love which you don’t need or want to make a living off of – I’ll use myself as an example. I spent much of my twenties trying to figure out what role I wanted (or rather, needed) the arts to play in my life. 

Straight out of college, having already decided to not pursue a performing career, I ended up working for a series of social justice-focused nonprofits. On a surface level, this work fulfilled all four points on the Ikigai: there were many things I loved about the work and was good at, and it certainly fulfilled my desire to make a positive impact on the world and paid the bills (sort of). But after a few years of this work I realized there was something missing in my life. I felt this giant hole where the arts used to be for me – and I wasn’t sure where to begin bringing them back into my life. 

That began a long process that ultimately landed me where I am today. I’ve come to realize that there are things I can do for a profession which meet every point of the Ikigai, yet don’t meet my need for creative fulfillment. As for my creative pursuits, I don’t care if I ever make any income off of them – I just know that I need to make time for them. This means that my career needs to support my creative interests: I can’t be so exhausted at the end of the day that I don’t have the energy to do my creative work, and I need to have an income that enables me to take classes and invest in supplies. 

I think one of the biggest mistakes that people tend to make is assuming that there’s only one thing that can fulfill their Ikigai, and if they don’t find that one thing they’re doomed. But as you can see from the examples above, there are a variety of ways to find your Ikigai. 

You can learn more about Dena and her work at, or check out her podcast, Everyday Creative People