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Ikigai and the path to a sustainable future

April 26, 2022

We live in interesting times. Just at the very moment when our survival hangs in the balance as a species, we are beginning to wake up a little from the idea of constant growth and "progress" that has been drilled into us from birth. We measure this progress in GDP, not happiness, and not wellbeing, and so many of us are disconnected from the spiritual, reflective sides of our authentic selves, as we earn more, consume more, buy more.

Lucky for us, then, that scientific rationalism and spirituality have decided they should have been friends all along. That "third eye" that Kundalini practitioners told us about for years turns out to be a spot that lights up on neuroimaging machines during deep meditation. That "mindfulness" the Buddhists were always on about is suddenly a real thing, in schools, homes and even boardrooms.

We are starting to reconnect with ourselves and our sense of purpose and connection to a wider living world, though whether we can do it in time to stop incinerating the planet is anyone's guess. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Japanese concept of Ikigai has become something of a phenomenon in recent years.

Ikigai finds the middle path

Ikigai is a Japanese concept, which basically means living your life in a way that is fulfilling, and gives you a sense of purpose and connectedness. That's perhaps a bit too pure for late stage capitalism, which means that the western interpretation has really added (or tweaked at least) the dimension of it, to make sure that this life of purpose is something that also gets you paid.

What we are left with in this hybrid form is represented most often in a Venn diagram like this:


Now that is something most of us never saw hanging on the office wall of our careers advisor, but it is compelling, don't you think? Generations of artists were told by parents and schools that they had talent, but that they needed to find something more "serious" to pay the bills. People who have built careers in one thing talk about "starting over" when they consider changing course and pursuing something that calls to them. It is terrifying to follow your passion and purpose, but only because the world around us has made it so.

Ikigai in education

In our current model of education, Ikigai is only uncovered through serendipity. We measure success in grades, then wealth, and ultimately GDP, so if we also happen to love what we are doing, it's considered lucky, rather than what should be the case for everyone.

Progressive institutions which de-silo subjects, to focus on the development and application of transversal skills, will likely see more learners making the connections between what they do and what they love. Free to explore and reach outside the tick boxes and curricula, free to learn outside the classroom in ways and at times that suit them best, we are finding out more about who we are and what we can do.

Ultimately, the only real shot at finding our ikigai (and we can have many different iterations of it throughout our lives), comes from us being in control of what we are doing. Learner directed education, space for play and discovery, a focus on skills and contribution instead of grades. It is ultimately up to the individual, but as educators, our job is to support that and make room for it to happen.

Imagine being 16 years old and knowing what you love doing, what you want to explore, how you can create learning opportunities in different situations, which activities are fountains, and which are drains. Imagine what your future could be with such a start.

Ikigai and sustainability

We are talking about Ikigai here, not only because supporting others to aim for this is something we would like to see more of in education, but because it also connects to a more sustainable future.

Think about our current world, and the way we define growth and success. It is purely metric, because when GDP grows and our policymakers cheer every half percentage of it, we are not talking about what we have lost. What is the social and environmental cost of that growth? 

Technology advancing brings exciting opportunities, but if we are still thinking we are "making it" in the world just because we can afford each new phone or laptop that emerges, we do an enormous injustice to the thousands of children working in toxic cobalt mines to make these products. GDP is a terrible metric to base any sense of progress on, when in fact it can be quite the opposite.

ikigai includes an important dimension, which is "what the world needs". The world needs regeneration and compassion, care and consciousness. If we make Ikigai an ideal to strive for, if we normalise this sense of balance and alignment, how will our priorities change? How will yours?

A world living this way is not the world we have now, but it is a better one. When we are talking to our children, our learners, our friends, our colleagues about what they want to do and how they want to live, this is as good a model as we can find to hold as an ideal, and as the way forward for all of us.

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