[LI] A gentle critique & constructive misuse of the “ikigai” meme

This post was originally published on LinkedIn on 22 April 2018. The figures in this version are presented differently than they were in the original.

Fig. 1: Ikigai Venn diagram with set notation. Adapted from image in WikiMedia Commons.

The Venn diagram popularized as a representation of how to apply the Japanese concept of “ikigai” in life and career¹ has issues and possibilities. This is a quick look at both, with the idea that such a schematization can be more than just a meme, in that it is useful not only to individuals as a way to look at organizing and balancing work, jobs, and career, but also potentially as a framework for expanding and differentiating the ways we think of “work” in the socio-economy at large. The latter is especially important in an economy and job market poised for significant changes.

Gentle critique

The Venn illustration is premised on finding one’s ikigai, or purpose in life, in the overlap of different motivations and rewards. These are represented in four circles: a job that pays enough/well, with work that one likes to do, is good at/can do well, and contributes meaningfully to the community and the world. However, this interpretation would benefit from some additional considerations:

  • A single point, or several? At any given time, most people would probably find themselves filling roles at multiple points on this “map.” For example, someone with a day job to support them and their family while they pursue work or education (which is also work) that they want to do. Or people doing gig jobs – a recent piece in The Atlantic about Walmart shifting to an employment model using more short term people is another indication we’ll see more of this. How does one find an ideal ikigai when in multiple roles like this? Can purpose be founded or pursued in a chord of different notes?
  • Dynamic circles. Each of the four circles (and the sets they represent) may, and in fact will evolve or change. That’s true as much on the personal level (what we Like to do and what we’re Good at) as it is on the socio-economic level (what we can be Paid for and what the world Needs). A certain amount of this is under our control as individuals, and much of it not. In any case, it is important to note that the overlaps – including the ideal(ized) central region labeled ikigai – will also change.
  • Interrelationships. Just as the circles are dynamic, they are also not entirely independent. For example, to what extent is there a “Love the One You’re With” (L) effect of being paid (P) for a kind of work you never previously were attracted to? Or do we tend to be good at tasks we like, and like what we’re good at (L↔G)? To what extent and under what conditions does the economy respond (with paid positions, P) to what the world really needs (N)?
  • Who pays who? The title “what you can be paid for” might be rephrased to better account for work that earns money, but not on a salary or wage basis – for instance small business owners and farmers. (For purposes of this article, I’ll leave it as it is).
  • Missing elements? The selection of factors to include in such a schema are inevitably a matter of choice and interpretation. One major consideration that might have its own “circle” would be family. What if one finds an ideal ikigai role but that entails less than ideal circumstances for one’s spouse or children (due to time commitments, geography, etc.)? Are there any kinds of work (roles) that can’t be categorized under any of the four headings in the diagram?
  • There is also a minor issue with the Venn interpretation itself (missing regions), which is better treated in the next section.

Such as it is, the diagram is useful in offering a structure to organize thinking about work, job, and career. But is that all there is to it?

Constructive misuse

It seems to me that this ikigai schema can also be used (tentatively, understanding its subjectivity and limitations) in a more prescriptive or analytical way, looking at the socio-economy as a whole. In order to do that, it is helpful to begin by taking the figure at face value as a Venn diagram illustrating sets of individual relationships to work roles, which fit under one or more of the four headings.

Many versions of this ikigai diagram – and there are quite a few – also assign names or characteristics to the various overlaps of two or three of the four circles (for example, “passion,” “mission,” “profession,” and “vocation”). However these are subjective and limit the range of interpretation, especially as we move from the single individual to the aggregate level. In the above figures, therefore, I replace such labels with simple set notation,² where for example the ikigai = L∩G∩N∩P, i.e., the intersection of work you Like, work you’re Good at, work that the world Needs, and work you can be Paid for (technically the intersection of sets of possible work activities through the lens of how individuals perceive those roles).

With this notation, we identify immediately two overlaps that are not accounted for in the usual 4-circle Venn (Figure 1; this is the technical issue previously alluded to): L∩P and G∩N. Are these important and how? The 4-ellipse model (Figure 2), and a 3D 4-sphere model (not shown) do cover all the possible combinations.

Fig. 2: Ikigai Venn diagram with set notation. Adapted from image on InfoGraphicsNow.com

How might one use this analytically? Here are some observations and suggestions:

  1. Due to the way the economy works, P is the primary concern for the vast majority of people – you can’t make a living doing anything outside of that circle unless you have access to significant wealth. Hence when people speak of “work,” they are often referring only to P (i.e., jobs). P is also the preeminent focus of the field of economics (as well as a prominent topic in fields such as sociology and of course management studies), and we know a lot about activities and roles under this heading.
  2. So, when someone like Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz suggests in a TED Talk that “we wouldn’t work if we didn’t get paid,”³ what they really mean is that there are kinds of work that people wouldn’t (be motivated to) do without an agreement to be be paid for it. In other words, jobs (P). Prof. Schwartz does mention motivations along with pay for taking jobs, and how we tend to overlook those. The ikigai diagram can be seen as a way of making those motivations (or perceptions of work roles) more explicit by separating them out. That separation highlights certain other considerations in work or employment: L (you like it), G (you get some kind of reward or affirmation from accomplishing something you’re good at doing), and N (you get a feeling of self worth by doing something you believe to have a higher value or purpose), and that in some combination these may be ample reason to do certain kinds of work without pay.
  3. More specifically, the regions outside of P, i.e., (L⋃G⋃N)\P, include a range of significant work activities: community-level volunteering, crowdsourcing, participatory development activities, avocations, and studying to improve education and stills – not to mention all the work that goes into raising a family and maintaining a home. Can we be more specific about these activities,what reward structures exist for engaging in them, and what their cumulative value is to society and the economy? This would seem to be essential in discussions about “the future of work.”
  4. Of the non-P areas, the L∩G∩N intersection seems particularly interesting. It is the zone of highly skilled and motivated volunteer work and pro bono professional services, which may have particularly significant value to the socio-economy, even if they are not remunerated.
  5. Of the P intersections outside of the central overlap, L∩G∩P may have a peculiar role in technological development and economic growth. Here, like in the central overlap, there are very talented people (G), earning a living and perhaps more (P), doing what they’re passionate about (L). However, unlike in the central overlap, this work is not necessarily what the world needs (N; again, we’re taking this Venn at face value). It may be that the world doesn’t really need what they’re working on yet, or that it will never really need it (as is arguably the case with some consumer goods and weapon systems, for example). So is the system set up to sometimes incentivize jobs producing what isn’t addressing the world’s needs? Not such a crazy question if you consider how much of the world’s population has little sway in the global marketplace.
  6. Another P intersection outside of the central overlap, L∩N∩P does incorporate what the world needs, but has a different problem. Some iterations of the ikigai meme apply a label to this region that includes the word “uncertainty,” and that would seem an obvious fit since this is a zone where competency may be an issue (i.e., non-G). One would imagine some Peter principle outcomes are found here, as well as in other non-G locations, aka (L⋃N⋃P)\G. Is there a need to do more do develop skills of motivated people in L∩N∩P situations?
  7. What about P locations that are non-L aka P\L? What does it mean to have a job you don’t like? We’ve all probably been there at one time or another, but what if that’s all one can look forward to? What about jobs that no one particularly wants to do? What exactly is going on here?
  8. If, as is often suggested these days, AI and automation will lead to a net reduction in jobs (P), that would then mean changing the “size” (meaning number of opportunities) in the overlap areas (including narrower ikigai possibilities). In the extreme, if all paid work (P) were to be taken over by machines, there would still be L, G, and N, although these may also be affected by changes in the economy.
  9. It is generally suggested that a response to changing P is more job training for new skills, which would change and perhaps increase G to maintain at least some overlap more with new P values. Here one imagines that the dynamic of retraining could be illustrated as trying to maintain a high overlap by “growing” G to keep up with “shifting” or “shrinking” P.

These are just a few examples of how one might use the ikigai diagram to generate questions and new perspectives on work (in its broadest sense).

Conclusion

Visual aids are often helpful in considering how things work together, and the relationships between and dynamics among them – where “things” could be physical, conceptual, or social (as in roles in an organization). Since illustrations represent abstractions, one can only take such exercises so far before one needs to ask more precise questions and bring in evidence and perhaps new research.

The ikigai diagram is productive in that it separates out several ways in which work (not just jobs) can be viewed and associates them in a Venn diagram. I found that this lent itself to a use not evidently foreseen by its originators. Next steps in this exercise would be to address some of the questions posed above, including how similar issues may have been raised in more formal research on what we call “work.”

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Notes:

1. As mentioned in a previous posting – “Four categories of ‘work’ in Japanese & ‘ikigai’” – the use of this Venn for ikigai originated with Marc Winn in 2014. However, the four circle diagram he adapted for this purpose may have its origins in 2011 with Andrès Zuzunaga, who called the central overlap “propósito” (purpose).

2. Three set notation symbols are used in this article: ∩ = intersection; ⋃ = union (or combination); and \ = relative complement (such that the members in the set preceding the \ are included, but not if they are members of the set following the symbol).

3. Prof. Schwartz’s talk was a lot more than the assumption behind this phrase that I’m finding fault with (which occurs just under a minute into the talk). Entitled “The Way we Think About Work is Broken,” it approaches the problem from the point of view of the ideas that shape how we organize work roles and relationships. The people he mentions working under terrible conditions at mind-numbing tasks only for the pay they need to survive can be interpreted as worst-case (and unfortunately all too common) scenarios within the P circle, far from any ideal overlaps with other rewards.


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