January 30, 2020

Venns and Pyramids — Living according to "success" templates

Diagrams and systems can often serve as helpful guides when we get lost on the path to success. But with new one emerging every few years, there’s the danger of making sweeping changes to our lives to match these templates as they become widespread.

Venns and Pyramids

At regular if inopportune “intermissions” between life chapters such as leaving school, a job or a life stage behind, we might find ourselves wondering where our lives and careers are heading. While all of this is happening, trendy “new” and exotic systems emerge as the cure-all to our career and existential ills (KonMari for companies, anyone?). But while that method is undoubtedly rooted in organization, particularly of material things, the buzz behind ikigai (“value in life”) that preceded it is focused on the source of value or meaning in our lives — our “reason to get up in the morning.”

Our most often frequent experience of the concept is in a four-circle Venn diagram with ikigai lying at the intersection of all four sections:

  1. What you can be paid for
  2. What you’re good at
  3. What you love
  4. What the world needs

This “ikigai chart” has some parallels with the commonly seen peak of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, which held that as different types of needs were met (from bottom to top), a person would eventually be able to meet the last series of needs, that surrounding the achievement of their potential:

  1. Physiological: such as food, water, warmth and rest.
  2. Safety: shelter and security.
  3. Belonging and love: intimacy, friends, and community.
  4. Esteem: prestige and sense of accomplishment.
  5. Self-actualization: achieving one’s full potential.
  6. Transcendence: goals and needs beyond the individual.

Of course, these theoretical frameworks aren’t the only ones that have tried to capture and arrange life in order to discover or maximize one’s potential, but they are among the most frequently referenced with ikigai being more recent.

Why context is still king

The understanding of ikigai through that chart is often attributed to Japanese culture as a whole, but it’s important to note that the culture did not produce the chart. Rather, as writer and neuroscientist Ken Mogi points out, it’s as simple as our daily coffee ritual or something as grand as becoming a world leader: “in a nutshell, Ikigai is a spectrum. And the complexity of Ikigai actually reflects the complexity of life itself.”

But like ikigai, age-old philosophies become popular again and the understanding about them shaped around specific contexts:

  • Business: Before the four-circle ikigai diagram made the rounds, the three-circle Hedgehog Concept intersected “what you are deeply passionate about,” “what you can be the best in the world at,” and “what best drives your economic or resource engine.” or essentially circles #1-3 of the ikigai diagram. Regardless, the Hedgehog Concept originally began as a means of achieving for businesses, companies, and individuals working in them.
  • Longevity: Ikigai is frequently brought up when referencing the residents of Okinawa, the Japanese island noted for its high number of people over the age of 100. This, in turn, is tied to Dan Buettner’s research into Blue Zones, select regions of the world with the longest-lived people, for National Geographic. Even for non-centenarians, ikigai is applied to situations where people are concerned with “what comes next” after retirement from company life or comparatively short athletic careers.
  • Connection: When it comes to longevity in the Okinawan context, what’s also often left out is the accompanying lifestyle commitments such as hara hachi bu (eating slowly and only to 80% fullness), exercise as part of daily life versus training for a purpose, and most importantly, moai. Moai are groups of lifelong friends that pool money and meet regularly for leisure and support. These emerged from social support groups on the island, which happens to have the lowest income in Japan and has an identity that’s culturally distinct from the rest of the country.

But outside of these contexts, the different frameworks risk being seized upon, diluted, commodified and promoted for the average lifestyle. Make no mistake, the entirety of the Japanese population does not live every day according to their ikigai any more than every Scandinavian optimizes their waking hours to maximize hygge (a feeling of wellness and contentment that accompanies a cozy mood).

Connection is missing

We cannot ignore the fact that the chart and others like it don’t account for another key human need. Even in the ikigai chart, what even comes close is the intersection of the “do what you love” and “do what the world needs” sections, which produces your “mission.” But of course, fulfilling something because the world needs it isn’t the same as regular, meaningful interactions with people that are intrinsically good for you and the other people, even if they aren’t necessarily “useful.”

And even if we were to assume the pyramid of needs has to be fulfilled in order, we might find that the increasing absence of intimacy, belonging and friendship has essentially cut off the path to the top of the pyramid where we would find our esteem and our self-actualization.

Or more importantly, we might actually consider as media psychologist Pamela B. Rutledge puts it, that “needs are not hierarchical. Life is messier than that. Needs are, like most other things in nature, an interactive, dynamic system, but they are anchored in our ability to make social connections.”

The Takeaway

Templates save us the time in figuring things out for ourselves, which can make finding answers that much more a reality where we might otherwise have given up out of frustration. But arranging your entire life or career according to a template is a pretty drastic decision to make, especially when life takes place in ways that directly contradict the neat layouts of these diagrams and systems. For one, many creatives are doing what they love or are “actualizing their potential” without having the requisite rigid layers around career and financial stability fulfilled first and vice versa.

The point is that we need to have the freedom of choice: to know and feel when it’s best for us to stick to the plan with laser focus, when to change our perspective (as even ikigai can change over time) and when to go “off-template” so that our mind or maybe even some of our life runs unguided; when to choose productivity and when to choose presence.

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