Life brings a lot of uncertainties. And the universe is so darn vast. With the speck of dust that we are, human beings cannot simply comprehend why on earth are we even here for. There are those who find their “north star” to get a direction. There are others who wait for timing or their prime years as the perfect moment to do something big. And there are some who discover meaning after finding “The One” for them. All of those things help scale down life into something sensible, something we can hold on to, something that makes one say, “this is why I’m here for.” A sign, a period, or another human being can make others discover their purpose. I, on the other hand, rely on a framework.
Ikigai is an age-old Japanese concept which roughly means a reason for being; it is one’s motivation for getting up in the morning. It is visually represented by the interconnectedness of passion, purpose, satisfaction, fulfilment, calling, true self, values, and social good.
There is also a similar framework — one that should accurately be attributed to Andrés Zuzunaga’s Venn Diagram of Purpose. It is depicted with four circles equally interlocking with one another and creating a small area in the middle. Each circle is a space which bears questions — what you love, what you’re good at, what you can be paid for, and what the world needs. And that one thing at the very center is your life’s purpose.
Here’s the thing: I haven’t definitively determined what exactly my ikigai or life purpose is. And to make it more perplexing, maybe that item in the perfect center spot does not even exist. I am not sure. But I am still using the framework as a guide.
It appears too clinical and calculated when you interpret life using a “framework” especially compared to big words like our calling, vision-mission statement, and the shining light. It’s as if you’re just doing a structure or a thesis paper for something too transcendental that is our existence. I have been a long-time consumer of self-help books and a fan of media narratives on how to best live our lives. Thus, I saw different ways a person can define life’s meaning. All those methods are equally valid, and maybe they can even complement one another.
But what made me lean towards these two frameworks is on how well-balanced they are for every aspect of life. I am not sure if everybody also felt the same, but growing up, I was fueled with so much idealism — that larger than life spirit in me was so strong that I wanted to do everything! That my personhood can’t just be one-dimensional. But just because I’m good at a certain thing, it doesn’t necessarily mean it can pay bills? Just because I’m doing my passion doesn’t mean I get to contribute something to the community. Before I discovered the concept of ikigai, I was constantly making compromises. I always do stepbacks, thinking a certain pursuit is “too much” or is not within my supposed life target. I felt restricted and anxious thinking I might make the wrong move, and the consequence could mean me permanently invalidating what I was made for.
If one carefully looks at the visual representations of ikigai and Zuzunaga’s Venn Diagram of Purpose, they spread out and cover the actual things in life. It’s not just about heavy-dosing on philosophy but forgetting to ground it to something tangible. It’s not saying give everything to others and end up consuming all that you have, leaving nothing for yourself. It taps on all aspects: Nourish your dreams and fantasies but don’t forget what you need to do in the real world. Extend your hands for others but not at the expense of your right to look inward.
Now that you’ve heard what these frameworks mean in theory, how does one apply them pragmatically? This can only work through an honest conversation with yourself.
- Grab many papers or cards and write all the things that answer the four questions for each circle to individual pieces. Do not think about yet if they fit perfectly in the inner intersections. Just write it all down; let it all freely flow out of your mind. Do not think about what is good or bad, popular or not, big or small. A good way is to look at what you are currently engaged in, and what have you been doing or have done before. These are all your truths.
- Arrange and compile the pieces for each area. You’d notice that you get to identify the shared spaces for each. What you’re looking at is a holistic view of who you are.
- If you can confidently identify the very thing that hits the center part, congratulations. You know your center point! But if you’re still not sure, it’s okay
If in #3, you kind of feel stressed out and pressured to put a piece there, please don’t. I also felt the same way before. Again, I lean towards these two frameworks as a life guide because I don’t want to walk on eggshells anymore.
And this is primarily the reason why I see my life’s purpose as a framework and not immediately as just one identifiable thing. So how exactly do you do that? Well, navigating through life is a never-ending pursuit and not a one-time task. Thus, you have to treat the framework the same — you have to actively think about it.
This can best be explained through a visual representation. If you know a plumb bob, an engineering tool with roots from the time of ancient Egypt, you can apply it in this life framework. A plumb bob is used by suspending a pointed weight on a string to ensure the construction is vertical. But instead on the floor, it’s right above the ikigai and purpose framework.
In this specific context, you have to let your reason for living hang above the framework. Sometimes, life moves you in different directions, maybe due to circumstance or maybe because decisions were made on a whim. Most likely, you’ll only do something if it answers any of the four questions. Let your life sway in this shaky and messy world. But don’t forget that it should always find its alignment, its center of gravity — the sobering realization that there is that small space where one asks all essential questions.
In my experience, these frameworks have made me feel more comfortable living my life and even made me revisit the activities I have done before. Without any guilt, I can go in a certain direction as long as I don’t let go of the idea that no matter how rewarding the trajectory I took is, there is still that one sweet spot, which brings an incomparable sense of fulfillment. I’d like to think that before societal pressure hit us, both coming from capitalist narratives to be rich and successful, and life coaches’ call to have a worldly purpose, we always felt that there is an inner voice, a better guide, telling us what really must be done. But we just point our fingers to what’s in front of us, probably because we thought that where we currently are — the position we decidedly chose — is where we’re only supposed to be. And that we should not move in any other way, never looking back, justifying our further march forward. Which side to look at? What mantra to follow? Do I stay here? We are made to believe that making a solid choice, one that is irreversible and non-negotiable is impressive. That it’s a zero-sum game, and that living our lives is linear.
If life is filled with mysteries and if this massive world is ours for the taking, it seems counterintuitive to journey through life restrictively and fearfully. Live life freely! If that one special thing — our ikigai or purpose — really does exist, at least we have a framework to be used for exploration. But maybe, just maybe, there is no such thing as one categorical singular central point; but it’s just better to believe that there is. And what it teaches us is that you can maneuver through life worry-free. Just actively gravitate back towards a point where you are asked to delicately consider life’s essential questions.
Andrew Beso is a Manila-based content creator who is exploring different ways of presenting art — whether it be written, spoken, and visualized. His work, aside from being in Medium, can also be seen on Youtube, Instagram, and Tiktok. He is currently taking up a master’s in political economy and is using creative expression in discussing social issues.