Ikigai for creatives — or how to find your purpose

Ikigai is what makes us climb all the stairs. Every day. Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash

I grew up in probably one of the most Japanese of all cities outside of Japan — Dusseldorf. More than 6,500 Japanese live there, one of the largest Japanese communities in Europe. Every time I’m in the Japanese Garden in the North Park, I enjoy eating in my favorite Japanese restaurant on Klosterstrasse or visiting the Museum Island Hombroich, where the Tadao Ando-designed building of the Langen Foundation stands. The love of the Japanese for the smallest details fascinates me: how they stage food, how they incorporate the label of a garment into their aesthetic concept, how they embed architecture into landscapes with the utmost respect for nature.

So, I was curious when I read about a Japanese philosophy of life that could be our next hype: Ikigai. For the Japanese, of course, it’s not a hype, but attitude. Literally translated, it means “worth living for”(iki for life, gai for value). Our personal Ikigai is what drives us, for which we get up every day, which gives us pleasure. It’s about nothing less than the meaning of life or the purpose of our existence, which everyone may define differently for themselves.

There are some guidebooks on Ikigai. I read one written by neuroscientist Ken Mogi (Quercus, 2017). Ikigai is said to be the key to a long, healthy life. Mogi compares Ikigai with a kind of consciousness and behavioral hub around which we organize our living habits and our systems of values, and he does not consider business and private as separate cases, which I like very much, after all, it suites my personality. You won’t hear anyone say: “She is totally different in private.”

Mogi names five pillars of Ikigai that should show us the way. I’ve been thinking about what they mean to me in the creation process:

Every detail matters. Photo by Leio McLaren (@leiomclaren) on Unsplash

2. Learn to let go– or “kill your darlings”. In terms of creative processes, this means that the first idea is not always the best. We have to stay curious and be ready to question our favorite idea. After all, we are not freelance artists. What we devise serves a purpose. We fall in love with a beautiful story, an aesthetic design. But is that what drives the audience? We finally do it for them. So: don’t forget to test, test and test. And if necessary, reconsider, rebrief, adjust. A colleague and friend once summarized what following your Ikigai means for all kinds of relationships: “Surround yourself with energy plus people and keep away from the others.” What he meant was: after every meeting, every conversation a positive energy should be felt. Inspiration, joy, inner growth. For everything else, my time is too precious. Yours probably too.

3. Living harmony and sustainability– for me, means to develop concepts that are in harmony with the goals and values of our client AND also fit our ambition: We do not want to throw smoke candles, we rather follow a journalistic and (self-)critical narration, we inform and like to entertain the audience. In everything we do, we ask ourselves: Would such a concept be good for our customer in three years’ time? How could it evolve? Does it have the potential to move people? To change consciousness? Promote transformation? These are the most exciting projects for me.

Build something to last. Photo by Sora Sagano on Unsplash

4. Discover joy in small things– there are creative people who do not particularly care about the details. They prefer to specify the big lines, and leave it to others to complement the shades. I’m actually in love with detail. The efforts of the creative team with buttons or the small texts such as author profiles, captions, formats are essential to the user experience. Even when it comes to creating brand spaces e.g. an exposition, it is often the small elements of user guidance, the simple haptic experiences that elicit a wow or a smile from the visitor — and not just the big effects.

5. Being in the here and now– Of course we should listen carefully in counseling situations, what our customer tells us. And ask him or her what he or she wants. Give orientation, impulses and advice. Sometimes we have to question the methods and channels chosen — or the task itself, because they do not fit the goals and target group.

Being in the here and now also means being awake to social developments. So unlike some politician we do not wonder, why the topic of climate change “suddenly draws so much attention”. Being in the here and now also requires to be aware of fashions. Yes, that’s right, I mean fashions. This is anything but superficial, fashions reflect zeitgeist, if you look closely.

The most exciting creators and fashion influencers are currently the ones who do not create a style for women and men, who do not want to give them a specific personality. They simply make clothes in which the person wearing or using it feels good, stylish or deliberately looks “ugly”. This teaches us about the self-confidence of our target groups and their ever changing moods. A smart watch says a lot about how big the infobabbles are that people can digest on the fly. And how many threads we want to pursue in parallel — no more than three to four.

Critically, Ikigai is nothing new. At first, it sounds a bit like the mindfulness concept of Jon Kabat-Zinn, which has its origins in Buddhist teachings. However, Ikigai feels much more sensual to me. That’s why it appeals to me. I can see the advocates of the mindfullness doctrine forgetting for a moment that they should not judge by any means. Anyway, I am aware of the little pleasures of each day much more consciously since I read Ken Mogi’s book.

Search for meaning in the shamrock

Here a little finger exercise, for those who want to find Ikigai: write / paint your themes in this graph and find what meets all requirements almost equally well (the sweet spot at the center of the graph). That’s where you should cling your heart to — and what you should commit yourself to. It is worth it. It was created by Marc Winn in 2014, and slightly adapted by many others since.

Credit: Marc Winn, adapted

And what is my reason for being, my purpose in life? I am very happy with what I am doing. But there are moments — as in the life of every creatively working person in which I ask myself: should I rather save children in need? Or at least plant trees? Children and climate mean a lot to me. But the truth is: I’m not really good at development aid and forestry. And I could not make a living from it. So these are topics that I can get involved in, they even play a role in some of my projects. However, I can not derive any profession from it. Back to the questions that show the way.

Discover your reason for doing things. Photo by Lan Pham on Unsplash

What do I love? Stories. They have to be well told — using the right words and visuals. And I want to shape the world around me — at least a little. My stories should inspire people to think, motivate them to change their perspective and if necessary, their behavior. What does the world need?Stories — among other things, true ones (in journalism and communication) and invented (in fiction, film, art and culture). So that we remember where we come from. So that we can imagine where our journey is going. So that we learn and develop ourselves. Stories stimulate the imagination, they arouse emotions. And what would man be without sensory experiences?

The answers to the other two questions “What am I good at?” and “What do I get paid for?” lead me back to the stories. My whole life revolves around them. Over the years, the way of storytelling changes, but what remains is the passion for good stories. My reason for being is to share my love for good stories. That’s what I do.

It seems like I’m doing a lot right. The only question is whether that is due to the strong Japanese influence in my native city of Dusseldorf. Maybe I literally inhaled Ikigai with sushi. In this case: Much helps a lot.

PS: The audio book available through the link below is delightful and easy listening to, while you are going for a walk. Red by Matt Addis.

Author, Communication Strategist, Entrepreneur (Founder of Rat fuer Ruhm und Ehre and Kreatur Publishing)