Become a Key Guy with Ikigai

Most filters exist to keep things out. We put filters in our water supply in order to keep contaminants at bay. We have filters in our engines to separate dirt from the circulating oil. Even our noses serve as filters screening dirt from the air we breathe before passing it on to our lungs. Our emails have filters seeking to keep what are considered annoyances away. Filters are intended to protect. Though, sometimes, the best of intended filters prevent us from seeing the hidden diamonds in the rough.

Are you trying to stand out or to fit in? Whether you’re looking for a new job, trying to market your services to prospects, or jockeying for a promotion during a performance management review, how can you demonstrate your contributions in a way that will be recognized by others? Are someone else’s filters keeping you out? If you’re on the outside looking in, how can you put yourself in a position to win the filter war? It is no fun being at the mercy of someone else’s filter.

It’s tough to stand out where we’re forced to wear the same uniform. Our CVs typically follow the same format. We’re taught from high school through job recruitment offices at University how to put together our resumes. There’s a process to pursue. Our resumes end up looking the same and it’s hard to differentiate individuals. Our CVs are cookie cut, carbon copies of the chronological walk through school and work we’ve each had. If you’re not enthused when you put one together, that may be a good indicator of its value. It’s similar when we’re putting together our profile picture for business platforms or network groups. It’s even the case with corporate marketing materials. Our websites have an about us page, a services page, etc. The ways we project ourselves and our businesses onto the world have more similarity than difference. We’re told to present ourselves a certain way. In the end we all look and dress similarly and are indistinguishable.

Richie Norton wrote a brief book, more of a manifesto, titled Resumes are Dead. Norton presents the case that the standard CV or resume isn’t intended to help those seeking work but, instead, those doing the hiring. Resumes serve to filter. Our resumes are like our personal sales pitches. In many cases, a pesky obstacle to overcome is simply putting the materials in the right person’s hands. Layers of bureaucracy are built in businesses to screen several times prior to the decision makers reviewing for the first time. The work of culling is done by either a machine or somewhat disinterested employee. HR departments initiate the hiring process and focus on reducing candidates for serious consideration.

Whether you’re looking for a job, in a position to hire, or happy where you are, consider an alternative approach to the resume wars. Are those hiring getting the best with filters based on conformist contributions of historical education and work? Are those looking for work giving themselves a chance for consideration with the default approach that’s all too often used? Filters attempt to keep those on the inside protected from icky guys on the outside. How can we circumvent filters and find our way inside in order to show that we’re not an icky guy but a key guy?

Consider crafting your C.V. around the Japanese idea of Ikigai. Ikigai means a reason for being. Iki in Japanese means to live and gai means reason. It is considered a high state of being where one is highly motivated to move towards their self defined purpose. Ikigai reveals itself in those that can’t wait to get up in the morning. Those that have it pursue their passions and are more likely to achieve feelings of fulfillment and accomplishment. Ikigai is reflected in those living life like they are right where they want to be. The concept was introduced to Japan via a psychiatrist, Mieko Kamiya, in the mid 60’s. Originally, Ikigai was a construct intended to positively influence contributions to the betterment of society. Over the decades the concept has shifted to the idea of fully developing oneself while contributing to the good of others.


This article offers a perspective on Ikigai and presents some tools to help you work towards uncovering your own. In Japan, Ikigai is believed to be available to each individual. Everyone has Ikigai. Our job is to find our own. The idea can be illustrated as a Venn diagram of three circles. Ikigai lies at the center where all circles overlap. Your search for Ikigai ends at the intersection of:

  1. You love it. You enjoy doing it. What do you love to do?
  2. You are great at it. What are you very good at? Are there things that you do well that others find difficult or seek to avoid doing?
  3. The world needs it. What skills seem to be in demand right now? What temperaments seem to be desired by employers? What skills and temperaments are likely to be in demand over the next 5-10 years?

Sahil Lavingia sums things up nicely writing in The Minimalist Entrepreneur, “I believe our goal should be to bring together our passions, our missions, our professions, and our vocations. This is the Japanese concept of ikigai, which aligns what you love, with what the world needs, with what you can be paid for, and with what you are good at: When you are in ikigai, you feel at peace, and you can work to improve the world at the same time. You can live in the present while working toward a better future.” It’s a motivating and meaningful place to be and one that’s sure to add to workplace satisfaction.

Consider using these as three prompts and detail your answers to each area. Start by trying to brain dump as many answers as you can for each category. Initially, you’re not looking for the answer. You’re looking for errors of commission. You’re trying to include as much as possible in each category. Where are you presently in your life? Are you able to find answers to some of these prompts easier than others?

The first two components typically combine to produce your passion. What matters to you? It’s the merger of something you love and that you’re good at. Your mission may lie at the overlap of what you love and what the world needs. Finding this connection can be deeply fulfilling. You may be highly motivated to spend time in this area. However, finding your mission doesn’t mean that you have the skills or that a paying job is available. A vocation can be found where what the world needs and what you can be paid for overlap. Professions are found where what you can be paid for and what you’re good at intersect. Any one of these locations where two of our Ikigai ideas overlap can serve a purpose. However, achieving two of the three categories may be nice and needed from time to time, it won’t be your reason for being. It won’t necessarily get you bouncing out of bed each morning eager to enjoy your day. We are encouraged to aspire to finding the intersection of these areas to achieve Ikigai which is, effectively, our personal purpose. Where you can connect what the world needs with your skills and your interests, you’re in the rare position of being paid to do something you enjoy and are good at doing.

The first two components determining what you like to do and what you’re good at are similar to what author Peter Bregman suggests in his book 18 Minute Method. Bregman offers that where our strengths, resources, and passions intersect is where your personal secret sauce lies. This is where we can make the biggest difference. Kevin Kelly in Excellent Advice for Living, offers “That thing that made you weird as a kid could make you great as an adult – if you don’t lose it.” Chewing on what this was and may still be could lead you to uncover your unique strengths. Along the same vein, Kelly offers, “Do more of what looks like work to others but is play for you” and “Don’t be the best. Be the only.” Each of these are ways to encourage you to distill your skills which differentiate you from the crowd.

Paul Graham principal of a tech investment firm wrote an article “How to Do Great Work” posted on his personal website’s blog. He suggests great work consists of three qualities, “It has to be something you have a natural aptitude for, that you have deep interest in, and that offers scope to do great work.” Graham’s qualities sound similar to those at the heart of the idea of Ikigai. Graham suggests as a path to find what you’re most interested in is to ask, “What are you excessively curious about—curious to a degree that would bore most other people?” Is there a rabbit hole you’re willing to wander down deeper than most?

Pamela Slim in her book, Body of Work, writes of determining your “ingredients.” Slim provides six categories of ingredients: job roles fulfilled, measurable skills, personal strengths, experience, values or beliefs, and scars. Brainstorming answers to these categories helps us get a deeper perspective of where we’ve been and what’s contributed to making us the person we are today. With respect to your roles, have they been mostly in one area of expertise or field? Or, have they covered a range of responsibilities and domains? For skills, what credentials have you earned? Do you know a second language, have you taken continuing education courses? For strengths, are there things that seem to be easy or natural for you that others seek to avoid? Do you like reading, writing, public speaking? What kinds of life experiences have you had? Have you worked mostly for a small business, been entrepreneurial yourself, worked for large, public corporations, or government employment? What are your core beliefs and values? Finally, what struggles have you faced? Have you felt adversity and experienced set backs? What were these experiences and what did you learn from them? From here we’re invited to consider which of our ingredients we may be most proud or which ones we wish to focus on using in our next effort. When considering our strengths we can also consider personality traits as demonstrated from objective tests. For example, can we communicate our conscientiousness or agreeableness? Additionally, consider asking yourself of roles you’ve had questions Seth Godin poses in his most recent book, The Song of Significance, “What is the change we seek to make? Who would miss you if you were gone? What are you doing that is special? How do your unique skills and passions help this work go better? Does this work matter? Are you making choices that create an impact?” Developing evidence in support of these types of questions will go a long way to showcasing your strengths to others.

Alternately, consider focusing your efforts on uncovering what the world needs first. Seek an external focus instead of internal. This will allow you to adapt or carve your place in the world as it is. It may be easier to focus on what the world needs and to develop yourself accordingly than to focus on your existing likes. Determining specific industries where demand may be decades down the road isn’t easy. However, perhaps there are some traits that are in demand today and are likely to still be needed regardless of which industries may be in favor? Godin points out that self-discipline, productivity, and persuasion are good places to start. These are skill sets which are valuable independent of role and domain. Working on developing these will put you near the front of the line demonstrating what the world needs.

Pronouncing Ikigai sounds a lot like saying “A Key Guy.” A key guy is exactly who you will become for yourself, your workplace, and your community when you commit to developing your Ikigai. Consider using the concept of Ikigai to become A Key Guy while detailing it as a framework for distinguishing yourself in your job searching efforts. Instead of using a Resume to reflect your chronological educational and work experiences, spend time preparing your work value and reflect it in the form of a Venn Diagram. You may see different patterns in your past that showcase better your skills than a linear walk through your life. We’re seeking to objectively illustrate the answer to a question Jim Collins poses in BE 2.0, “What are we better at than anyone else, and what are our unique capabilities that give us a competitive advantage?” It’s how we distinguish ourselves by demonstrating our secret sauce. Illustrating your Ikigai allows you to put your unique skill set forward separating you from the boiler plate, canned CVs.

Moreover, this exercise isn’t just for job searchers. It is useful preparation in advance of a performance review. It can also be done to take stock of where you are in your career and to evaluate where changes can be made in your current role in order to seek a better fit. Dig in to detailing your Ikigai. Step out to stand out. Review your efforts to date to represent yourself in a way that highlights what you’ve done as opposed to a linear look. This approach may well be more work than traditional approaches. Avoiding the standard, chronological resume has risks. You may be sorted from those that are looking for generic conformists. But, ideally, these are exactly the kind of “opportunities” you’re trying to avoid. Taking the time to build a resume around the exact job opportunity you’re seeking will reflect both your competence and commitment.