On Activities That Give Meaning and Purpose

N Gautam
5 min readMar 6, 2023

In case you have not seen the Ikigai chart, it is reproduced above from this world economic forum website. Take a moment to view the chart carefully, and, if needed, read about Ikigai either in the aforementioned website or elsewhere, or you can also watch YouTube videos on Ikigai. The idea is wonderful, if we spend our time doing things that we love and that we are good at, while at the same time they are impactful (i.e. what the world needs) and we can earn a living doing that, then such a life would be a dream life, i.e. a reason for being. The Japanese concept of Ikigai is practiced in the island of Okinawa (which has the maximum number of 100-year-olds per capita) where the concept is greatly embraced and celebrated. Wonder if we too can be in the Ikigai chart’s center.

Let us first go through the chart starting with the four big circles. It would be a worthwhile exercise to list out things we do. Then we will find that we do some of the things because we love doing them (these fall in the yellow circle in the Ikigai chart above), viz. playing sports, singing, doing algebra, and cooking. We may not be good at all of them, for example I like to play volleyball but I am not good at it. There are many things we are good at (let us set aside our imposter syndrome for a moment), viz. making power point slides, writing, telling jokes, and creating computer code. These fall within the green circle (in the Ikigai chart). If there are things that we love and what we are good at, then those things fall under the intersection set of activities that defines our “passion”.

Moving along to the blue circle which are activities that we can be paid for. Now, paid does not have to be monetary but could also be recognition. So “profession” are things that we are good at and get paid for doing. Thus, a professional basketball player is one who is good at basketball and gets paid for it. That is the idea of “profession”. The last big circle is in pink: what the world needs. This may be a bit tricky. Generally it is what creates a positive impact in a large number of people. So doing something that your family needs or your company needs does not really cut it here. The term “vocation” is used as the intersection between the blue and the pink circles. Perhaps not all professions are what the world needs?

The intersection of the yellow and pink circles is “mission” and this is where most of our ideas for purpose live. For example, writing these blogs is my mission (I surely love it and I would like to believe, possibly falsely, that the world needs it). But it belongs to the solid orange part because I am neither good at it not I get paid for it. We could in that way think of the things we do and see if it falls in one, two, three, or all four of the big circles. We spoke about the intersection of two big circles. Now let us move to the intersection of three circles. These items have been added to the original articles on Ikigai. That is why it appears with dotted lines with a more detailed description. However, those details are important.

If you see what is lacking in the three-way intersections, it is usually what people that are dissatisfied are facing. Some people feel useless, some feel poor, some feel empty, which others feel a sense of uncertainty. When we are in one of those states, it is usually that we are missing one of the four big circles: yellow, green, blue, or pink. For me, my big moment was when someone asked me “so what do you do for research that the world needs” and I immediately went into feeling useless (i.e. the part in the Ikigai chart that is not pink) and I still have not recovered. Most people that are just waiting to retire because they do not love their job can be often said to feel empty (not yellow). The “not green” category is one where we are not good at our work although we are doing things we love. The non-blue ones are parents’ nightmare when their children choose their college major!

But if we dig deeper, it is not true that 100% of our time we are in one and only one of the 13 regions. In fact each activity we do, puts us in a different region. We stay in a region for a random time doing an activity and jump to another region, and this process keeps going. Yes, it does look like a discrete state stochastic process (if you do not know what that is, not to worry, it is not important for the rest of the article, but my students and colleagues who can relate to it will get a chuckle). Many of us within our work-life itself jump from one category to another. For example at a university when we are teaching, we may be impacting a large number of students (assuming we have passion for it). But if we always do only teaching, especially at a research-heavy university, the blue circle gets hit.

Likewise when we are doing funded research, for some of us it is where the four circles meet and we are in Ikigai but for many of us it is outside green, yellow, or pink. However, by doing a little of both, and also service, we tend to try and hit all four colors, not necessarily through one activity but across time. Ideally, if we hit all four each day then in general our spirits are high, even though we never really did any task that was in the intersection of all four colors. As another example, consider a person who writes code for a big company, and most of the day checks the yellow, green, and blue circles. But in the weekends they work at a charity helping the needy, thereby getting a lot of the pink, i.e. what the world needs.

In summary, although it would be ideal to be doing things that hit all four colors (what we love, what we are good at, what we can be paid for, and what the world needs), it would be good enough if we hit those four fairly regularly, say every day or every week at least. Across time if we have a good balance of all of them, that may be all that is needed (and that may be what is realistic, I need to ask my medical doctor friends if they are always in the center of the Ikigai chart, I doubt it). However, it is also important to journal and write the activities and categories down. So when we feel useless, unaccomplished, empty, or stressed, we can look at the journal and get our spirits up. The main point being that many of the Ikigai articles gave me the impression that I need all four at a time, but I feel I just need to hit all four across the activities consistently and frequently.