Unlocking Life’s Purpose: A review of The Little Book of Ikigai

Masters student Morgan Guess-Williams has written this terrific review of Ken Mogi’s book – and explains how it taught him things he’ll never forget…

Late last year, as I considered deleting the Audible app from my phone, I decided to give it one last try, and chose to use up my final credit on a book that is set to leave a long-lasting impact on me: The Little Book of Ikigai by Ken Mogi.

I knew nothing about ikigai. A quick Google search told me that it was a Japanese concept that focused on a person’s sense of purpose and living. ‘Interesting.’ I thought to myself. I waited until I was in bed, and as I lay there surrounded by the darkness of the night, I pressed play.

This article will be my love letter to The Little Book of Ikigai. Join me, as we find out how we can unlock our purpose in life through the power of ikigai.

One of ikigai’s pillars is finding harmony in the environment around you. (Image generated by DALL-E 3)

What is ikigai?

Many Japanese words and concepts have entered our lexicon: anime, emoji, karaoke and so on. Ikigai is yet another part of Japanese culture that has gone global. Ikigai (pronounced ee-key-guy) is a Japanese mindset that translates to ‘your reason for being’. ‘Iki’ in Japanese means ‘life’, and ‘gai’ means worth or value. Put them both together, and it means the value of life.

Ken Mogi’s interpretation of ikigai is that it is a ‘Japanese word for describing the pleasures of life’. He summarises the purpose of it brilliantly: ikigai is ‘the reason for getting up in the morning’. Mogi shows us how we can embrace ikigai, through following five pillars:

#1 – Starting small

To figure out how we can start small, it’s important to understand the concept known as ‘kodawari’. Mogi defines kodawari as an approach in which you take extraordinary care of the small details in your life.

Take for example the way that Japanese chefs prepare the delicacy that is ramen noodles. There are many factors to consider when making them: the flavour of the soup, the kneading of the noodles, the toppings to supplement the dish, and the proportion of the toppings. Japanese chefs emphasize these small factors when making ramen, with the end goal of providing a perfect and delicious meal. Kodawari is arguably what makes the dish so delicious.

So how can we use kodawari in our lives, instead of using it to make great food? Mogi uses the meticulousness of kodawari to frame it as a method towards achieving your goals. By ‘starting small’, he means that you should take small steps towards your goals.

Each small step you take will lead up to your goal. (Image generated by DALL-E 3)

#2 – Releasing yourself

Mogi provides an interesting analysis of the psychological phenomenon known as ‘focusing illusions’. This term comes from the idea that you can be focused on a particular aspect of your life, so much so that you can believe that your happiness and well-being depend on it.

For example, one might think that being married or finding a partner is a prerequisite for happiness. In that case, that person will feel unhappy when they are single. Money and careers are also prerequisites for happiness for some people, too. In having a focusing illusion, you create a reason to be unhappy.

Releasing and accepting yourself is one of the most beneficial lessons taught from ikigai. (Image generated by DALL-E 3)

Releasing yourself involves letting go of these focusing illusions so that you can accept yourself for who you are and your good qualities. As Mogi states, ‘accepting yourself is one of the most important and yet difficult tasks we face in our lives’. But accepting and releasing yourself is ‘one of the easiest, simplest, and most rewarding things you could do for yourself. It is a low-budget, maintenance-free formula for being happy.

#3 – Harmony and sustainability

There is an ancient Japanese cultural concept called ‘wa’, which is translated into English as ‘harmony’. Originating from ancient Japan, wa is still a defining feature of Japanese culture today.

Living in wa is essential for ikigai. In Japanese culture, ikigai has much to do with being in harmony with your environment, the people around you, and society at large. If you do not live in harmony with these things, sustainability is impossible.

Sustainability is one of Japan’s most unique values. The pursuit of individual goals in Japan is balanced with the sustainability of society and the environment. If you have an unsustainable society and environment, you cannot pursue your ambitions. To be sustainable, Mogi recommends you to ‘show consideration for other people and be mindful of the impact your actions might have on society at large’.

Living in harmony is an essential part of ikigai. (Image generated by DALL-E 3)

#4 – The joy of little things

It is important to find joy in the little things in our lives. This could be the taste of your morning coffee, the sun in the sky, a song in your playlist, or the episode of a TV show you’re looking forward to watching.

In Japan, it is customary to have something sweet for breakfast in the morning. No matter where you are in the world, if you make a habit of having something you love after you get up, like a cup of warm tea, dopamine will be released in your brain. This gives you a reason to get up through finding pleasure in the little things you love, and to give you the strength to seize your day.

A few years ago, a friend of mine made me some motivational posters for my birthday, still proudly hung on my bedroom wall. One of them says…

‘I hope there are days where your coffee tastes like magic, your playlist makes you dance, strangers make you smile, and the night sky touches your soul. I hope there are days when you fall in love with being alive.’

Embracing the small things, like a morning coffee, is an important pillar of ikigai. (Image generated by DALL-E 3)

#5 – Being in the here and now

Being in the here and now is important, especially when practising mindfulness. Focusing on being aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment relaxes the body and mind. It’s a nice feeling when you sit down, take a deep breath and ground yourself in the present, instead of worrying about what happened in the past or what you think will happen in the future.

I’ve learned all about the notion of flow coined by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi from the gaming modules that I have studied here. Flow, or as it’s better known as the feeling of ‘being in the zone’, is a mental state in which a person who is performing an activity is fully immersed and focused on that activity.

Once you’re in a state of flow, anything that bothers you isn’t even thought about – you are simply focused on the here and now, and that’s all you can think about. Mogi leaves us with this powerful statement on being in the here and now:

‘In life, we sometimes misplace priorities and significance. Too often we do something for the sake of rewards. If the rewards are not forthcoming, we are disappointed and lose interest in the work. […] If you can make the process of making the effort the primary source of happiness, then you have succeeded in the most important challenge of your life.’

‘Make music, even when nobody is listening. Draw a picture, even when nobody is watching. Write a short story, even when nobody is reading. The inner joys and satisfaction will be more than enough to make you carry on with your life. If you have succeeded in doing so, then you have made yourself a master of being in the here and now.’

When you’re in the here and now, all distractions fade away. (Image generated by DALL-E 3)

Concluding thoughts

The lessons that I have learned from this little book will undoubtedly stick with me for the rest of my life. It is my passion one day in the future to share lessons like this with others to help them find harmony and motivation in their lives.

It’s a book that I recommend everyone to read at least once in their lives. In my opinion, it is as essential as George Orwell’s 1984, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

I hope that this article has made you fascinated with the wonders of ikigai, hopefully giving you some helpful motivational advice and tips