I Found Ikigai and I Decided to Use It To Help My Students

I Discovered Ikigai and I Decided to Use It To Help My Students | Eleanor Snare - Sustainable Marketing for Creative Businesses

Back at the end of 2015 I learned about a concept called ‘ikigai’. You might’ve heard about it, because it’s going to  be the new hygge.

Once I’d found out about it, and worked on exploring and finding my own ikigai, I wanted to use it to help others.

(After all, my ikigai is to help fulfil potential).

I decided to create an employment programme for my final year students based on the idea of ikigai. It seems that lots of people come to their ikigai at an mid point in their life; how could I bring my students closer to this concept earlier on?

How could I introduce it to them so they would start to make employment decisions based on that, not on external pressures?

This is the story of how and why I came to develop that programme.

In 2015 (my first year as a lecturer) I wanted to write an employment programme for final year creative students which was based on a more holistic view of ‘work’ and ‘career’. I wanted it to anticipate the blocks they may face in pursuing a creative life while giving them specific knowledge about how to develop a career in which they are confident and satisfied.

Rather than approach this through providing an outline for the sort of person they need to be or career they need to have in the creative industries, I was interested in helping them work out what was important to them first – then designing a career around that.

I hoped this approach would help students realise they have some level of autonomy in choosing their work. I also wanted to move away from working on CVs and LinkedIn profiles, and towards exploring basic yet deeply rooted elements which are essential to happy work and life.

Ikigai and self-actualisation

My starting point was ikigai, which you’ll have heard of by now. It’s a Japanese term originating in the Okinawa area (although that has been contested).

Loosely translated it means “the reason for which you wake up in the morning”. It is not necessarily about work, but about anything in one’s life which is this “reason”.

This concept has been identified as key to the long and fruitful lives of people in the Okinawa region, including in a seven-year longitudinal study of around 50,000 Japanese people which found that those who had not discovered their ikigai had a significantly increased risk of mortality (in a 2008 study by Sone, et al.).

I saw ikigai as similar, in some ways, to the ‘final destination’ of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-actualisation and the transcendent needs (helping others to self-actualise).

(If you’ve not heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs before, read this).

One way they’re similar is because ikigai and self-actualisation can take any form; they don’t have to be high-brow. For example, the love of family might be your ikigai, which would be classified as a ‘lower’ need in Maslow’s hierarchy – but can also be a way of you self-actualising.

Another similarity is that ikigai and self-actualisation are dependent on the individual and their social context. I love this quote from Maslow about how the self-actualisation desire is different in different people:

“The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person…the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically…in painting pictures or in inventions”

For me, one of the most important similarities – and actually one of the most important things about ikigai as a whole – was that they are a continuous practice. It is the reason for waking up every morning, not just one single morning.

And from Maslow:

“[self-actualisation] might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming”

You don’t just ‘get’ your ikigai and stop. It is the complete opposite of our pervasive #goals culture; it’s something you find, embrace and just keep doing because every time you do it you become more you.

I believed ikigai and self-actualisation were key to talking about creative careers in a supportive and student-centric way. I saw that they placed the holistic development of the whole person at the heart of any activity.

They were the ‘colour’ of the colouring in, rather than the prescriptive outline.

 Discovering ikigai and self-actualisation

The next step I took was to understand the process by which someone could achieve ikigai and self-actualisation, the behaviours needed to do so, and then develop this into a programme.

In his work as a coach and entrepreneur, Marc Winn created a visualisation of how a person could achieve their ikigai. This diagram has been shared a lot so all credit to Marc; it’s a brilliant representation.

ikigai diagram by marc winn

This diagram has similarities to the one designed by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, showing the key characteristics of companies which significantly improved their operations.

Collins’ diagram consists of three overlapping circles: ‘passion’, ‘best at’ and ‘driving resource’. These translate in turn as ‘what lights your fire’, ‘what could you be the best in the world at’ and ‘what makes you money’.

The corresponding values in Winn’s diagram would be ‘passion’, ‘profession’ and ‘vocation’. But by adding ‘mission’, Winn saw the link between internal fulfilment and external, social need – which can be central to ikigai and self-actualisation.

When I saw the links between Winn’s ‘path to achievement’ diagram and the characteristics Collins discovered of significantly improved businesses, it suggested the principles in Winn’s diagram could be successfully applied to individual career development.

I felt confident that an employment programme based on ikigai would work.

Mr Arden steps in

From there, I looked more closely at some of the behaviours Maslow identified of people who he believed had achieved self-actualisation, which he shared in his 1970 book Motivation and Personality. These included absorption, experimentation and honesty – and a few more too!

One of my favourite books ever is Paul Arden’s It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To BeI saw links between his chapter subjects and the behaviour he encouraged in creative business people, and the behaviours Maslow identified.

For example, Arden has a chapter called “It’s all my fault”. One of Maslow’s self-actualising behaviours is responsibility.

Arden has another called “When it can’t be done, do it. If you don’t do it, it doesn’t exist”. Maslow lists experimentation as another self-actualising behaviour.

I saw that Arden was articulating – maybe unconsciously – Maslow’s self-actualising behaviours, and matching them to success in a creative career. I realised that adding this into the ikigai mix could make for a great employment programme.

The results

With ikigai at the very heart of the programme, I added an understanding of Maslow’s self-actualising behaviours.

I was inspired by Winn, Collins and Arden that this combination of ideas could work when teaching students about getting a creative career they were fulfilled by.

So I designed and ran an 11 week programme with around 15 students.

And it wasn’t half bad.

Read more about the results of the programme right here.

When I Taught My Students About Ikigai, Here’s What Happened

When I Taught My Students About Ikigai, Here's What Happened | Eleanor Snare - Sustainable Marketing for Creative Businesses

In this article I shared how I came to devise an employment programme for my final year students that had ikigai at its heart.

Here, I want to explain some details of the programme and some of the results I gained.

What was the programme?

The programme was run over 11 weeks with my final year Fashion Marketing students, with seven in-person sessions and four self-directed sessions over the Easter break.

I sent a weekly email newsletter to the students for 10 weeks, which had a session recap and homework as downloadable PDFs. I included creative activities, video and images (no-one likes a boring email).

Because these were my marketing students, I used marketing concepts to help them approach ikigai. In marketing you have your objective (the goal), strategy (overall way of getting there) and your tactics (ways of implementing the strategy). So:

  • Ikigai was the ‘core objective
  • Strategies were for achieving ikigai
  • Tactics were for implementing the strategies

Many careers programmes focus purely on tactics (such as writing a CV) without considering the ‘core objective’ – the ultimate purpose of the activity. Keeping the objective in mind meant the strategies and tactics we discussed were meaningful and relevant for the students – they were writing their CV for a purpose they believed in.

The sessions I facilitated were a combination of explanation, discussion, and independent and group activities, and were very relaxed. We covered everything from ikigai to salary to skills and vision boards. I also got to dream up ikigai-achievement strategies with the students, in a mentor/coach capacity.

My favourite aspect of the sessions was the way the group bonded with each other; they went from 15 or so strangers to 15 friends who understood and cared about each other’s passions.

That, for me, was worth all the work.

The results

I managed to wrangle feedback from the students before they left to get into the big, wide world, and the results made me do a happy dance.

They’d approached the course expecting it to be tactical – as one said, “more about cvs and cover letters”. Ikigai was a brand new concept, and they found applying it to a range of ‘normal’ employment ideas was quite challenging.

This was some of their feedback on that:

“It let me know that it is important to know myself in order to know what I can do and should do.”

“…it was more about actual purpose which I really liked”

“[Elly’s] approach to careers was on a larger, more thought provoking scale. The programme’s focus on Ikigai made us look at our whole lives rather than just a job.”

Although my sample size was small, I was really pleased to see that they’d started looking at their work differently; rather than succumbing to external pressures, they’d started to turn inwards to make decisions. Importantly, one of them said they no longer expected there to be “one exact right way” to continue their career.

For a generation plagued by social media comparisons and FOMO, this was massive.

But my favourite bit had to be when I asked them what one thing they would take from the course into the future. Here’s what some of them said.

“…knowing that we’re all in the same boat and it’s okay to not know exactly what you’re doing”

“That there is no one path to achieve your goal”

“To look for personal fulfilment in a job.


I just want to share that last one again.


One student would remember and hold with them: “to look for personal fulfilment in a job“.

That’s what they learnt from the course. That means before, it wasn’t seen as important.

Perhaps what we’ve been telling our young people – actually, all our people – has been wrong. We’ve focused too much, accidentally, on external pressures for work, rather than what fulfils us.

That, to me, is the essence of a creative career; moving towards what fulfils you. Living your ikigai.

So, did they find it?

Did my students find their ikigai?

I didn’t ask them.

Why didn’t I ask them?

Because it’s a hell of a lot of pressure to ask a graduating student “Did you discover the reason why you get up in the morning?” while they launch themselves into adulthood.

Do I think they did find it?

It’s hard to answer.

I believe it’s only by attempting, failing, getting burnt and getting back up that we find out who we truly are, and what we truly want to achieve in our lives.

I spent 27 years not knowing why I was here, and doing lots of things for lots of reasons that didn’t make me happy. And I think I was lucky I discovered my ikigai when I did.

My students (now graduates) have a lot of attempting, failing, getting burnt and getting back up to do yet. That’s the way life is.

But they have an advantage; they know there is something out there that will fulfil them. Their ikigai is out there.

By planting the seed of ikigai in their mind, I have brought them one step closer to finding it.

“Even though I do not yet know what my ikigai is, and was reassured by Elly that this takes time to find, being aware of the concept has adjusted how I think about my future career. Having one purpose that drives forward every decision is a powerful thing.

For me, I was always concerned with having that one particular calling; a job title that I could aim for throughout my education. However, I never knew and do not know at this time what this should be.

Finding an Ikigai makes the prospect of choosing a career less daunting as everything becomes broader; with personal fulfilment as the criteria, a lot of avenues appear to open.

One final note: a big thank you to all the students who took part in this programme; you were brave and it was an honour to help you.