[LI] West of ikigai: Skilled, motivated, & paid, but not needed?

Article originally published on LinkedIn, 1 January 2019

The 4-circle & 4-elipse versions of the ikigai diagram, with set notation. The L∩G∩P overlap in red is the focus of this article.

The ikigai meme – a Venn diagram intended to show how overlapping of work you Love, are Good at, that the world (or some part of it) Needs, and that you can be Paid for can lead to finding purpose (ikigai) – seems to me to lend itself to discussion of aggregates of work. I previously “misused” this diagram in that way using set (builder) notation, per the images in the header – such that ikigai is at L∩G∩N∩P – to look at what this might mean in general, and then specifically in one region of the Venn: L∩G∩N.

In this article, I’ll focus on another region that has an unusual, even paradoxical character: L∩G∩P (the regions in red in the images in the header).¹ This, if we accept that the diagram has utility for illustrating relationships to work on an aggregate level, is where people are passionate about the work they’re doing, they’re good at it, and get paid to do it. However, the work is not what the world needs – at least not now, or perhaps ever.

On the face of it this makes no sense. Is it even possible to pay people for work that the world does not need?

Paid but not needed?

What would paid work doing something not really needed (P\N, paid but not needed) look like? Perhaps like David Graeber‘s “bullshit jobs” – work that is pretty much pointless in terms of production or personal rewards. Since one could never be good at such jobs in any meaningful way or love that kind of work, this is not directly related to the L∩G∩P subset of P\N of concern here. However it gives us a starting point.

Since the P part of P\N is clear, it may be helpful to step back to look at N, “what the world needs.” In the social sciences, the concept of “need” is defined from the perspective of an individual. In economics it is, at its most basic, considered to be what is necessary to survive (and generally contrasted with “wants“). Psychology adds more dimensions – for example in hierarchies of needs. But none of these address the meaning or import of work activities, and whether they (are believed to) meet needs beyond what the individual needs to satisfy. (In psychological terms, this might be related to the need for meaning.)

In the original ikigai meme – which, remember, is also constructed from the viewpoint of the individual – the idea of “work that the world Needs” is a role or activity that a person believes serves some larger purpose or good. The Japanese equivalent (if I am correct) is “light work” 「ライトワーク」, in the sense of what illuminates. The sense I get is work that one believes is of service and makes a positive difference beyond one’s own needs and likes.

Taking this to the aggregate, social level – the focus of this article – requires asking if the activity actually does serve a broader need and is demonstrably beneficial in its socioeconomic outcomes. This is not so easy to define (beyond extreme cases).

We might begin, therefore, by acknowledging that:

  • what is needed is not the same as what might make money (per the existence of L∩G∩N, discussed in the previous post), and
  • what might make money does not necessarily meet needs (per economists’ distinguishing between needs and wants).

The market follows its own logic, which only partially (or substantially?³) overlaps with that of meeting needs or of improving quality of life for all.

P\N and L∩G∩P: Cases

Perhaps the best way to understand P\N work (and the boundary between N and non-N) in general, and the L∩G∩P subset of interest here, is to consider some specific cases.² Each of the cases below might be questioned in terms of my depiction of them and their inclusion here, but my main argument is that this is a category and there seem to be some interesting dynamics here.

Marketing gimmicks & getting people to click on ads

One possible example of P\N work – which depending on the skill and passion people bring to it might be L∩G∩P – is that of developing marketing gimmicks to give a mundane product more attention. A recent but high paid variation is engineers and designers in online media companies working on ways to entice more people to click on ads. No matter how you might try to rationalize this work in terms of needs or aspirations, it is hard to make that case.

“Pet Rock” & other novelties

A related phenomenon is that of developing new (but useless) products or novelties like the 1970s fad “Pet Rock.” Whatever people choose to spend their money on is not the issue here – it’s still hard to categorize a job working on such items in terms of meeting needs or serving any higher good.

Basic research

One interesting limit case for understanding P\N is that of basic scientific research. In general, people involved in this work can be assumed to like it and be good at it (L∩G). Given the requirements of basic research, it is almost always funded and Paid (so, L∩G∩P). A narrow interpretation of needs might exclude basic research (applied research, on the other hand, is in theory at least, directed at addressing needs). However, if one accepts the value to humanity of expanding our knowledge, then work in this area would actually be in L∩G∩P∩N (at least ideally).

“Invention is the mother of necessity”

A related but different issue is that of inventors and innovators. Inventors we usually think of as working to find a novel way to solve a problem/meet a Need – in the mode of “necessity is the mother of invention.” While that certainly true for many cases,⁴ Jared Diamond suggests it is also true that many inventors start from liking to tinker (which they are evidently good at, making another example of L∩G). and ultimately have to figure out how to use devices they create (which implies the work was not intended to address a need – hence L∩G\N). Since new inventions often end up filling a new need, Diamond flips the usual formula as “invention is the mother of necessity.” If inventors are Paid during this process, their work would be L∩G∩P.

People involved in innovation in technology and of products may also be passionate about it (L), skilled at it (G), and doing the work in the context of jobs (P). The jobs they do focus on the market, which I see as a combination of meeting and creating needs, so they may or may not intersect with N.

The extent to which work of inventors and innovators takes place in L∩G∩P and seeks to expand N (creating needs; invention as the mother of necessity) seems to make this L∩G∩Pregion a very dynamic one (in a value neutral sense), almost like a motor in the functioning of the material economy. In other words, the fact that it is possible to pay good money to motivated and skilled people to do work that succeeds in the market, but doesn’t meet the world’s needs or illuminate our path to the future, is something that requires more consideration than it is currently getting.

“Please don’t change my genes just because you can”

Related to the above is what’s happening with genetic engineering/genome editing (GE). Beyond debates over whether current uses of these powerful technologies are safe or wise, is that of whether and how they may address vs. create Needs.

The dynamic here is basically the same as that discussed for innovators above. It is clearly something people have to be Good at to do (or at least one hopes), they have to really want to do it (L) to master the technology, and companies Pay good money for them to do it. So at least partly it would be L∩G∩P (and to whatever extent it does not meet Needs, would seek to expand them in its direction).

There is an additional consideration, however. People who have invested in learning an advanced technology and are paid to use it, will find ways to use it. So those working in GE jobs (like the organizations which employ them) will naturally seek to apply that knowledge, daily. This all but guarantees a volume of production that inevitably will all result in at least some extreme cases utterly untethered to needs as most people might define them (like a glow in the dark tobacco plant).

Weapons & defense

Weaponsweapon systemsarmed forces, and defense establishments have their reasons for being, which range from security and freedom to far less noble ends. Because their use and misuse (purposeful or accidental) involve potentially lethal consequences, it is important to ask where our need for them begins and ends. Without getting too deep into that discussion, it seems safe to say that in at least some (though not all) contexts, jobs in this broad sector are P\N, and that people who like this work and are good at it would be in L∩G∩P.⁶

The existence of arms races indicates that there is a kind of “creation of needs,” in the form of escalation of needs, involved here too.

Complicating this category further is the fact that some kinds of weapons are used for hunting, which may figure in sustenance, so could be argued to be something that part of the human family Needs.

L∩G∩P as a dynamic subset of P\N

Since all remunerated work (jobs, etc.) are within the “what you can be Paid for” circle in the ikigai Venn diagram being (mis)used here, and some subset (but not all) of that overlaps with “what the world Needs,” that leaves a large and varied number of jobs that do not address needs – i.e., P\N. We may assume that many of these do not have any interest or reward for people working them other than a paycheck (and perhaps some social benefits, which are not represented in the diagram).

The L∩G∩P subset of P\N, on the other hand, involves people who Love what they’re doing and are Good at it. However anomalous it may seem to have skilled and motivated people remunerated for doing what the world does not need, this may actually be – in part – a dynamic region of change and fomenting change.

Since L∩G∩P work is not matched with N, it arguably is unsustainable, regardless of how the market might work for it in the short term. On the small level – novelties and gimmicks – perhaps that doesn’t matter since there’s always some potential new shiny thing to move on to. On the higher investment and income level – such as advanced technologies of one sort or another – it would seem that organizations and people working in L∩G∩P “mode” always need to justify themselves. One set of ways of doing that is in anticipating needs and creating needs, and those have both positive and negative aspects.

At any rate, this is another effort to explore use of the ikigai Venn as tool for understanding the world of “work.” Comments and feedback are of course invited.


  1. In some iterations of this meme, which portray individual feelings to the work roles, this region is assigned names like: “Smart, but useless“; “satisfied, but feeling uneasy“; “satisfaction, but feeling of uselessness“; and, more positively, “opportunity for service.”
  2. In the interests of completeness, note that P\N (paid but not needed) work may also be in the extreme very negative – in effect “anti-N.” For example, a fixer for a criminal element, a paid troll on the internet, a torturer in a prison, or a fabricator of IEDs.
  3. In the Venn diagrams being used, the circles or ellipses are always represented as the same size, with symmetrical overlaps, but the reality – as much as such an illustration can reflect it – is certainly more complicated.
  4. For example, my maternal grandfather, Ken Canfield, held a (1929) patent for an in-transit cement mixer, devised at a time when improving the early technology for mixing cement en route to building sites was an issue.
  5. After lines in Dolly Parton‘s “Jolene,” with apologies.
  6. This gets to a set of fine distinctions on a brutal topic. People whose jobs may involve taking lives of criminals or enemy combatants to protect innocent lives, are clearly regarded as serving a Need. On the other extreme – wars of conquest and actions that deliberately or knowingly kill civilians – would be yet more cases of “anti-N.” In the difficult terrain between the two is where one will find debates over “just wars” – all of which, of course, goes way beyond the scope of this piece.

Other blogs > LinkedIn > LinkedIn articles & posts, 2019 (Jan-Jul)

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