By Dr. Jim Dahle, WCI Founder

Other cultures often have much to teach us. In today's lesson, we reach across the Pacific to the Japanese to learn about the concept of Ikigai. Ikigai compounds two Japanese words, “Iki” meaning life or alive, and “Kai” meaning worth, use, or benefit.


What Does Ikigai Mean?

Put together, it means a motivating force; something that gives a person a sense of purpose or a reason for living. It's basically the feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment that follows pursuing your passions. While the concept has been around for centuries, it was popularized by a 1966 book called On the Meaning of Life that has never been translated into English.


Ikigai and White Coat Investors

While you (probably) can't read the book, you can understand the concept, and I think it is a worthwhile and useful construct to think about. The concept of Ikigai can bring some meaning into your life, and those who feel Ikigai also are less likely to have cardiovascular disease and to die. Do I have your attention yet? Good.

Finding Ikigai in your life can improve your finances, reduce your burnout, and improve your health.


Ikigai as a Venn Diagram

I think the best way to understand Ikigai is by using the world's most complicated Venn diagram. Here it is:

Let's start at the top. The top circle in the Venn diagram represents “What You Love.” High school and college students are told to study and to do what they love. That advice is often criticized, but the problem is not that the advice is wrong. The problem is that it is incomplete. People who follow it end up with $150,000 in student loans and a degree in Art History (median salary $49,850, with a range as low as $17,000). It turns out that just doing what you love can lead to a great deal of unhappiness.

It is also important to do something at which you excel. “What You Are Good At” is the left circle in the diagram. When What You Love and What You Are Good At overlap, you have found your Passion. This is a great place to be for passion projects. You can do great work with your passion. It may be work that only you can do, at least in such a fantastic way. However, as you work on it, everyone else thinks you're really weird and you're probably going broke.

The What You Love circle can also overlap with the “What The World Needs” circle in the diagram. The intersection of these two circles represents Mission. When people find something the world needs that they enjoy doing, they often dedicate their entire life to it. It is even better if it also overlaps with What You Are Good At. In this space, you get delight and fullness. In fact, there is only one missing component here, which is wealth.

You see, there are four circles in this Venn diagram, and the fourth one is “What You Can Be Paid For.” When you can find something that you love, that you are good at, that the world needs, and that you can be paid for, you have found Ikigai.

If it is just something you are good at and that you can be paid for, that's called a Profession. Perhaps this is medicine for many people, but most of them have serious burnout. If it is something the world needs and that you can be paid for, that is known as Vocation. Look, somebody has to clean out the septic tanks, even if nobody loves it.

When your work is unneeded—even if you can be paid for it AND you love it AND you're good at it—you may get satisfaction, but you will feel useless. Perhaps you work in something you love, that the world needs, and that you can be paid for, but you're actually not that good at it. You'll be excited and perhaps a bit complacent, but you'll also always feel uncertain about it. Finally, it is important to do something that you love to do. If you find something the world needs, that you can be paid for, and that you're good at, but that you do not love doing, you'll be comfortable but you will also have a feeling of emptiness.


How to Find Your Ikigai

I want to encourage you to get more Ikigai in your life. I feel like I've had the opportunity to experience Ikigai twice in my life, for which I am very grateful. Many people, after all, never experience it once. Let's use both of my experiences as case studies.


Case Study #1: The White Coat Investor

I started blogging at The White Coat Investor in 2011. I loved doing it. I spent lots of free hours working on it. And when I say free, that was a pretty good description in more ways than one. Despite trying to make some money at it, it was definitely a labor of love. For years.

At first, I wasn't all that good at it, but as I kept at it, my writing got better, and I could relate to more people. While I felt from the beginning that the world needed what I was doing, the world wasn't yet convinced. Medical schools, residencies, medical centers, and doctors themselves weren't so sure that physicians really needed to become financially literate. Over time, that changed. My passion and my mission coalesced into one.

Still, there was the problem that I was burning a lot of hours doing something that was not actually making much money. Through trial and error, further education, and a whole bunch of hard work, I finally figured out how to get paid to blog about finances for doctors. I had reached Ikigai. Still, there was room for improvement. It turned out the things I got paid for were not exactly the things I enjoyed doing. With time, however, I hired other people who did enjoy doing those things (and who were better at them anyway), which allowed me to do what I truly wanted to do (and honestly what I was best at) while still getting paid.



Case Study #2: Emergency Medicine

I like science, and I love helping other people. Just like you, that's basically what my medical school application essay said. I started with something I loved. Science was great, and the more it related to medicine, the more I loved it. Clearly, this was a need the world had. However, the problem was that I wasn't yet very good at it. My knowledge base was inadequate, and my skills were nonexistent. Enter medical school and residency. Seven years later, I came out of the pipeline with competence and got a job that actually paid me to do something I loved. I had reached Ikigai.

However, there were still ways to improve as I often slipped in and out of Ikigai. For example, it turned out that what I was good at and what I loved was not the urgent care and military medicine stuff I was doing during my HPSP payback time. So, I got out at the first opportunity. I figured out how to get paid more for it by becoming a partner in a private group. Now I was doing something the world needed (at least based on all the people in the waiting room), something I was good at, and something I could get paid for. However, there were still parts of the job I did not enjoy. It turned out that I didn't love Emergency Medicine enough to still enjoy doing it at 3am. So, I found a way to not do it at 3am. Yes, it cost me some money to do that, but again, more Ikigai.


Case Study #3: You

Now, let's turn to your life. What can you do to enjoy what you are doing more? More mission and more passion. What can you do to become better at your craft? Is there some part of it that the world needs more than the rest? Can you focus there? Finally, is there a way to get paid better to do it than you are currently being paid? Around and around the diagram you go until you have so much Ikigai that you don't know what to do with it and that you can't even imagine a time when you might not be doing it.

I hope you have the opportunity to experience Ikigai at least once in your life—and that it lasts as long as possible for you.

What do you think? Have you found Ikigai yet? What circles are you missing? What can you do to get there? Comment below!