Okinawa is a small island off the southern coast of the main Japanese island. Some might know it from the U.S military and the bases located there. However, according to Japan's ministry of health, the island is also known for having one of the highest populations of centenarians and amazingly low rates of illnesses that plague the rest of modern societies.
Why? Well, many factors are likely at play; however, one of the more interesting ones is that the residents of Okinawa have a long tradition of creating productive and personally meaningful lives for themselves. And, according to National Geographic Fellow and New York Times best-selling author Dan Buettner, this has led to high levels of happiness and personal satisfaction, and a strong sense of purpose in life.
The Okinawans have given this general sense of living a meaningful life a name. The Japanese word is ikigai (pronounced eek-ee-guy) and it represents a balance among four key factors that drive satisfaction and motivation: passion, expertise, demand, and value.
As a strategy coach, I've found that businesses can use these same four factors to find a perfect balance that creates a unique and powerful driving force for the growth and momentum of a company. While applying them to a business is a little different, the core ideas are the same and they transpose rather well.
These are the four factors of ikigai and how we can apply them to businesses to help balance and align your organization.
1. What you're passionate about
First is discovering and clarifying what you're truly passionate about. For an individual, it's what you just love to do. For a company, it's what work motivates the organization's culture. This could be a specific activity, an impact you have in the world, or a customer you love to help.
A few examples that come to mind: Apple loves to create beautiful technology, Toms Shoes loves to help communities that are underserved, and Google loves to organize information. The trick is that though there may be many things you love to do, only some of them will also meet the other criteria below.
2. What you're good at
While you might love to do many things, you will only actually be good at some of them. And to live a meaningful life and be a well-balanced business, you need to make sure you're good at what you do. This is where ikigai departs from the common advice to just "do what you love" and everything else will follow. In fact, just doing what you love won't lead to a meaningful life. You need to be good at it too.
3. What the world needs
Regardless of whether you are an individual or a business, if the thing you focus on isn't really needed in the world, you're going to spend a lot of time making and doing things that will go unused and unappreciated. Your focus needs to provide a product or service that is desirable and needed by someone somewhere.
While it's fine to have a niche, you need to make sure you have a sizable enough market to build a business around. Thankfully, in today's highly connected world, you can create very niche markets and reach them globally through the internet. I'm always surprised when I run into incredibly focused companies that have significant markets behind them.
4. What you can get paid for
While you can find something you love, something you're good at, and something people need, if you can't charge enough for it to cover your costs plus make a reasonable profit, you won't be very successful. The problem your product or service solves needs to be important enough to incentivize people to part with their hard-earned money. If not, you're building a charity, not a business.
Just like the residents of Okinawa, great businesses have found a sweet spot that covers all four of these factors and have mastered the art of ikigai. And, as they evolve and change along with the world, they continue to monitor and hone this balancing act.
Done poorly, it will result in subpar performance and frustration. Done well, it can create a life full of meaning and impact.