Most business leaders today are familiar with Jim Collin’s hedgehog metaphor (borrowed from an ancient Greek story).  In nature the hedgehog does one thing very well, rolling up in a ball with its spiny quills out, to ward off all sorts of predators and danger.   

Collin’s suggests organizations need to find their “one thing” that they can do really well, and continuously maintain leadership in that area.  Further, Collin’s provides a model to help leaders find their “one thing” which is often located at the centre of three intersecting questions: 

  1. What is your organization passionate about? 
  2. What is or can you be the best in the world at? 
  3. What drives your economic engine?  

This concept and tool have been central to many strategic and visioning meetings over the last 20 years, but can we apply similar thinking to ourselves personally? 

In Japan, there is a word translated as Ikigai ( 生き甲斐  ) that describes a person’s purpose or calling.   Instead of 3 circles, the Ikigai diagram has four similar qualities to the hedgehog model: 

  1. what you love,  
  2. what you are good at,  
  3. what the world needs,  
  4. and what you can be paid for 

When I spoke to a Japanese friend of mine, she told me that Ikigai is important in Japanese culture and students learn about it in junior high school (if not before from their parents).  She gave examples of people with mundane jobs, like taxi drivers, finding great purpose and pleasure in meeting and helping travelers get to where they are going safely.  Those who ‘practice’ Ikigai are much more common in Japan than North America or other places in the world. 

This story reminds me of the fable of the three bricklayers.  The first went to work each day sad and frustrated because his whole life was dedicated to laying bricks.  Similarly, the second felt bored and apathetic as he built brick walls each day.  But the third was energized and engaged because he was building a cathedral to the glory of God.  To an observer, each of these individuals are doing the same work.  It’s just the framing and attitude towards the work that is different. 

We may be lucky enough to find and work in our Ikigai for most of our career.  But today in a world of rapid change, answers to “what the world needs” and “what will people pay for” is constantly changing.  All we know for sure is that we need high self-awareness to know what we are good at and be willing to learn perpetually and aggressively.  I would also recommend using the 4 Ikigai circles regularly in personal planning to assess how far away you are from the centre, and establish activities and plans to move closer. 

Have you found your Ikigai?  Do you work in it most of the time?  How did you find it?   

Join the conversation below.