goals vs. systems and finding your Ikigai

01 September, 2020 5 minutes read

I recently finished reading Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life. 1It was a short and informational read about how the inhabitants of Okinawa, Japan perceive longevity while living in a place that has the highest life expectancy in the world (also known as a "blue zone"2).

According to the Okinawans, one of the key principals of living a long and happy life is the search and later on following their "Ikigai" (pronounced ee-key-guy). Ikigai loosely translate into "calling" or "reason to live" and can be as specific as cooking rice or as abstract as "making people feel better".

Your personal Ikigai sits at the center of your natural abilities, passion, what the world needs and what you can get paid for3.

Ikigai Chart

The book doesn't dive deep into how one should find hers or his IKigai and instead talk about how eating better, socializing, being resilient and following the ten rules of Ikigai contribute to having a better life. Overall, I left the book feeling that it stayed somewhat on the surface level, more of an introduction to Japanese perception of longevity but left me wanting.

What really got me thinking in the book's ending statement:

If you don’t know what your ikigai is yet, as Viktor Frankl says, your mission is to discover it.

that comes right after -

There is no perfect strategy to connecting with our ikigai . But what we learned from the Okinawans is that we should not worry too much about finding it.

How can we make something a mission but not worry too much about ever completing it? If we take both of these statements at face value they sound conflicting, but I believe I found a way they can coexist and teach us something even more important about Ikigai.

goals vs systems

Most of the people I know are living their life around goals: OKRs or other accountability based goals at work, new years resolutions, birthday goals, heck - I am using a framework for yearly → monthly → weekly goals for over two years and feel good about it. I've been hard at work to perfect my goal setting frameworks so they are more accurate, actionable, achievable and can be broken down and cascaded.

Goals are awesome. Except for when they don't.

Goals are binary - you either meet your goal, or you don't. Because of this 'win or lose' mentality we attribute to goals, they are also emotionally charged: meet your goal and everything's great, fail to meet a goal and you are up for a bundle of shame, disappointment and self-judgement. In order to protect ourselves from the binary nature of goals we designed concepts like 'fail fast' that are all about setting a goal and working through the most efficient way to confirm or refute it.

Goals are either a zero or a one. They are not iterative, they are milestones. and milestones are temporary - a nice, decorated checkpoint we pass through on our way to a destination but when get to ur destination and meet it - what do we do then? Don't get me wrong, goals can be important: In healthcare, a doctor's goal is making sure a patient lives. In defense, the army's goal is to win a war. In some cases we wouldn't want anything else than a goal that very explicit and defines clearly what success look like. But in the case of Ikigai, the journey of self discovery is as important as finding your calling, maybe even more.

Unlike goals, systems represent our way to bring forth identity, principals and heuristics, in order to create a framework that drive us toward things we want to achieve. They are the source of habits and incremental change.

What I like about systems-first thinking is systems are inherently vulnerable. In Japanese culture, there is an emphasis on wabi-sabi4, the appreciation and acceptance of the imperfect and to me systems are the same way. Unlike the rigidness of goals, systems are evolutionary and require us to think pragmatically so we can adapt the system towards what we want to achieve. It's not always about the perfect execution and hitting goals - I found that a lot of times the value lies in the journey, the collaborative thinking about the subject and how are we going to incrementally improve in order to get to where we need to be.

finding your Ikigai using systems

Writing this post could be a part of a goal to write on a daily basis, but the way I see it it's a part of a system that serves me as a writer. It's a small actionable piece in the iterative process to improve and find my framework for growth.

I believe that in its core, this is what ikigai is all about: Putting systems in place to strengthen your identity and unravelling your so called reason to live along the way. This is also way I don't find the two last statements of Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life necessarily conflicted - you should make finding your Ikigai a priority by discovering the right systems that would enable you to get there.

It's all about the journey.


  1. Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles (Amazon

  2. For further reading about "blue zones" I recommend Blue Zones: Lessons For Living Longer From The People Who’ve Lived The Longest by Dan Buettner (Amazon) even though most concepts described in the book are repeated in "Ikigai". 

  3. The Ikigai chart is derived from works in the public domain by Dennis Bodor (SVG) and Emmy van Deurzen (JPG) - Wikimedia commons

  4. See wabi-sabi on Wikipedia