Whenever we go through periods of growth, from college admissions to career changes, it’s common for us to question our true calling. We may think we know what our path should be, but where are we getting that information? No one is immune to outside influence, and sometimes the signals we receive are so persistent that we think they’re coming from inside us. Discover your ikigai to help you along this journey.

How to discover your ikigai

Let me give you an example. Anna is a high school senior, an only child from a two-parent home. Both of her parents are physicians. Anna’s parents often reminisce about med school, and that has shaped how Anna views her college experience. Even if her parents aren’t pressuring Anna into the medical field, she may have a hard time imagining a different future for herself.

We’ve all been in Anna’s shoes at one point or another. How do we draw the line between what we want and what others want for us?

Your Ikigai

Ikigai chart to finding your sense of purposeIkigai (生き甲斐) is a Japanese concept referring to something that gives a person a sense of purpose, a reason for getting up in the morning. Your ikigai is not just a reflection of your values and beliefs, it’s the essence of who you are. It’s the truest answer to the question, “What do you want?” It’s not an easy question to answer, but with some inner work, you can cut through what others want and discover your own unique, authentic ikigai.

Ask your inner child

Think back to when you were a kid, before you had grown-up practicalities to consider. Anything seemed possible. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? If you were anything like me, it was something like “an astronaut-artist-FBI agent-ballerina.” Reality wasn’t anything we considered. I certainly wasn’t concerned about the retirement package for an astronaut-artist-FBI agent-ballerina!

When we get older, we tend to lose that sense of possibility. While being realistic is important, adults often divide things into “this” or “that,” ignoring the prospect of this AND that. When considering your ikigai, remember the dreams you had as a very young person. What would you do if practicalities didn’t matter? That can provide you insight into what will fulfill you.

Give yourself a buffer

When I interviewed Broadway producer and elite Executive Coach Alisa Cohn for Forbes magazine, she suggested building “white space” into your calendar so that your greatest creativity can emerge. No matter your passions, your ikigai is closely linked with your creativity, so do what you can to create time for yourself. When you create white space, you won’t have to choose a major by freshmen orientation. If you come into college with AP hours or test out of some general education classes, you’ll feel less stressed if you begin a major and realize later that it’s not your ikigai.

I’ve got a secret for you: you don’t need to have all the answers right now. Figuring this stuff out isn’t easy! In high school, I thought the music business was the only path for me. I soon discovered it was a poor match for me. I had no idea that I’d wind up in the career I’m in now. Remember: 33% of college students change their major at least once. After college, the trend still holds; 25% of workers have held five or more jobs.

Along the way, make sure to intentionally expose yourself to new and different experiences and narratives through courses, extracurriculars, or new hobbies. This is especially true if you’re someone like Anna, who has been exposed to a narrower life experience. It’s important to branch out and show yourself what you may have been missing.

Exercise to help discover your Ikigai

Wouldn’t it be cool if…?

To get back in touch with that little kid who wanted to be a firefighter-lawyer-scientist, try this exercise. Fill in the blanks, and really let your imagination run wild. Don’t be realistic; only write a thought down if it makes you smile.

  1. Wouldn’t it be cool if in ten years, I got to ____________________.
  2. Wouldn’t it be cool if in college, I got to  ____________________.
  3. Wouldn’t it be cool if I got to live in this place  ____________________.
  4. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could travel to  ____________________.
  5. Would it be cool if I could meet  ____________________.

I hope you went big on that exercise. What did you learn about yourself?

Remember: this is your future, and you owe it to yourself to follow your ikigai. As you examine your deep desires and passions, follow them. You’ll be rewarded with a fulfilling college experience, an exciting and meaningful career, and a purposeful life.

Image by kjpargeter on Freepik