- Ikigai is a clash of ideas from existentialism, to meditation, to flow, to healthy aging. All these come together to create a powerful meaning for a life well lived and a company that endures.
- As a company “tinker and try” until you find your Ikigai. You will know it when you find it.
- I would remove the word “perfection” from the dictionary!
Welcome to the 5th Series of The Notion Capital “Pain of Scale,” podcast series. I’m beyond delighted to launch this new series with a special guest speaker, Hector Garcia. Hector is the best selling author of “Ikigai, the Japanese secret to a long and happy life.” This is a book that washed over me and really resonated with me on a personal level but also in the work I do with Notion Capital and the founders we invest in. And even though it was disconnected from the startup world, where I’m operating in venture capital, I found it very, very powerful.
The book was published in 2016 and has sold more than 1 million copies around the world. I’ve dipped into it many times, and shared it with lots of people and so when I found out (purely by chance) that Hector was good friends with Paul Papadimitrou, who I collaborate with on this programme, I couldn’t believe my luck. Hector also recently launched The Ikigai Journey, a practical guide to finding meaning.
I hope you enjoy this episode as much as Paul and I enjoyed recording it.
For those unfamiliar, could you explain the philosophy of Ikigai?
Let’s start with explaining the word. Ikigai is one of those Japanese words which is almost untranslatable, but we can try. It has two characters. The first one – Iki 生き- is life, or something that is alive. It doesn’t have to be a human being it can be anything. And the second character – Gai – 甲斐- means “worthwhile or something that has meaning.” Then if you put both things together it is “something that has life and is worthwhile.” In French it would be “la raison d’etre” or, you could say, it is that thing that when you wake up makes you feel like, “oh, wow, this is going to be an amazing day!”. In life, wouldn’t it be great to feel like this every day? Sometimes it might not be like that, which is okay if it’s one or two days, but if it’s many days and weeks, you might have to think how to recalibrate.
I like to think of Ikigai as my compass, giving me direction. You can see it in many ways, but I see it as a way of staying aligned with my Ikigai. Every morning, I check with myself, okay, how am I feeling? This is what Ikigai means to me.
But let me tell you a story of how I found these words. I have been here in Japan for 16 years now and, as Paul knows, Japanese is a crazy language. I learned many words, but when I first encountered the word Ikigai it stuck in my mind. As a computer scientist I like the idea of compressing things. With the word Ikigai it is very easy, when we have a friend or a family member that is feeling down, to ask them whether they’ve thought about their Ikigai. It says so much, it’s very compressed and yet very powerful.
So it stayed in my mind and I thought to myself this word should be known by everyone in the world, not only Japanese people. It’s one of those words that I thought has to be exported, like Geisha or Katana or Sushi! But I was in my 20s in Tokyo and it was amazing. Everything was beautiful in my life, I could find almost any job in Tokyo. I had my adventures, building startups, I got married to a beautiful Japanese woman from Okinawa. Everything was beautiful, and nice. I wrote my first book ‘A Geek in Japan’ which was a success. I was indestructible. Then when I was 31, I started feeling really bad, in my stomach, in my intestines. I was in and out of many Japanese hospitals, and they couldn’t find what was causing it. I couldn’t work for more than two years, I felt powerless. It was exactly the reverse of my 20s.
Finally, an expert diagnosed it. It’s called SIBO and it’s one of those illnesses for which there is no solution. At the beginning I started thinking like an engineer, I got into biotechnology, meeting biotech startups in Tokyo. But I started also looking at ways that were less about engineering, that were not how to fix my illness, but how to find lifestyle changes, like meditation, having a more relaxed life, how to not feel the pain every day so much. And that’s when I started reading existentialist philosophers. Existential philosophy basically says that you can have many beliefs – you can believe in a religion, you can believe in the afterlife, you can believe anything you like, but there is one truth that we can all agree on which is that we are now on Planet Earth, and we are alive. We are here and we have a limited time and we have to make the best of it. That’s the essence of existentialism. To make the best of life, we have to really have a meaningful life.
That’s where I started connecting all the dots in my mind: now I am ill, how do I find meaning in my life? That was the genesis of how I put so many things together in Ikigai. That one word says so much. It’s not like I’m the inventor of the philosophy of Ikigai or the creator of the word, I just put many things together: Existentialism, Ikigai, logotherapy (the search for purpose), and also the lifestyle of the Okinawan people – more on that in a moment. And that’s how the Ikigai philosophy was born.
What is the relevance of Okinawa and Ogimi?
Japan is the place in the world where the average lifespan is the highest in the world. And the place in Japan where they live the longest is Okinawa. And inside Okinawa, the place where they live longer still is a little village called Ogimi. Ogimi has 2800 people. They live in the middle of the jungle, next to the sea. They have a very community-based lifestyle. If you ask them about their Ikigai, they answer you immediately. Or in Japanese, they say “Atarimae” which is like saying, they take it for granted. It’s in their DNA, they have no doubt.
But If I experiment, and ask the same question in Tokyo, “what is your Ikigai?” they don’t know how to answer. There are other so-called Blue Zones, but on Ogimi I think I’m an expert and I have been many times.
My last trip to Ogimi before COVID was in December with National Geographic and my book was everywhere. They are very proud of it, for some reason! So now it is becoming like the prophecy that the village is becoming the Ikigai village, it’s their story.
Breaking down the four components of Ikigai: what do I love to do, what am I good at, what am I paid to do and what does the world need.
This is very simple, but it’s very universal at the same time.
So let’s start with what you’re good at. So depending on our self confidence, it can change a lot. Like when we are listening to other people’s opinions, especially when we are children, we get used to our teachers, or our parents to tell us you are good at this or that. And that kind of stays in your subconscious even until you’re an adult. And you have these beliefs of what you’re good at or not. So one exercise is to write down what you think you’re good at. But also try to think of things that you believe you could be good at, but you’ve never had the chance in your life to try because we got caught up or are now running a business. Maybe you could be good at playing the piano, but we’ve never even had the chance to do it.
And then what you love. Like with philosophers I admire, I like mixing things up. So you might want to write down. I love eating tacos while looking at the sunset, or binging on Netflix on Sundays. That gives you freedom to fill that circle with whatever you want.
And then the money one is very interesting because this depends on the person and the stage of your life. Young people are the ones that struggle the most or people who want to be an artist. But some other people, they don’t worry about that circle. So if you are in that situation, the money circle should be also how you can give back the money to your community or to the world.
And that connects us with the last circle, which is how can you help the world. And this might feel overwhelming. The real meaning is, “how can you help?” If you help one person, or you inspire one person, that will kick start something beautiful. I think that small acts of kindness are very important. And you can write that also in what the world needs. It doesn’t need to be “I want to found a charity” or something that’s overwhelming, it can be small.
I fall into this artist group; I focus so much on what I love, which is writing that I forget about everyone, about my friends, my family. And sometimes I push myself, okay, the world needs me and my friends need me and my family needs me.
So I see those circles as trying to find balances or imbalances in my life very easily. And if you put all those things together, you can do the exercise of trying to write down your Ikigai.
And for me just writing would be a bad Ikigai, because I’m not taking into account all the circles. So for me a good Ikigai could:
Writing the best that I can while enjoying what I’m writing, because I really love doing it and hopefully, the words I write will be enjoyed by people around the world and have an impact and improve their lives and that will bring wealth to everyone, not only me. Hector Garcia’s Ikigai.
Now, if you notice, in this sentence, I’ve included one part of all circles. I’m curious now Stephen’s Ikigai would be? It’s a very powerful exercise that might not come to you now. But maybe it is hidden in your subconscious. Over the next few weeks listen to your intuition and keep thinking about your circles. At some point everything will start to come together in your conscious mind and you will be ready to write your own full Ikigai sentence that has elements of all of your four circles.
Learning about how startups succeed from the work I do with the founders of the companies we invest in and the extraordinary people, like Hector and Paul, that I seek out; I like to capturing those learnings and share them widely, in simple and accessible ways to bring greater success and happiness to me, my colleagues, our companies and the wider European SaaS community. Stephen Millard’s Ikigai (work in progress!).
And Ikigai can work in a similar way for companies!
For organisations, I haven’t thought about it as deeply, but I’m being asked more and more, because you know, companies have a mission statement and it’s very similar. There is a better book than mine for this, Start with Why, by Simon Sinek.
Startups typically start with an obsession with a problem and a pain, which is good for a while, definitely for a few years. Because when you have a big problem, it gives you purpose and that will keep you together, for a while. But what we see is startups breaking down because that purpose was not good enough to sustain the organisation. Perhaps the co-founders develop a different vision and the belief on which the organisation was built starts to crumble.
Startups that survive, for example WordPress or Basecamp for example, and companies that are successful and in business for a decade have that sense of a unifying mission. For example WordPress’ mission is that they’re making the best software possible to allow millions of people to publish whatever they want for free on the Internet. And that common belief keeps WordPress together. If a company does not have this common belief, their Ikigai, their mission statement, then their “Why” will start to create conflict and doubt and people will leave. This applies to any team or community.
Staying true to the company Ikigai is crucial.
A sense of purpose that binds a group of individuals, and then a growing company together, is one of the fundamental differences between the successes and the others. But staying true to that is hard. The key is to review that constantly and to keep it in mind. You can start with, “okay, we have this problem, we are going to solve it.” And when doing that you will become probably the biggest expert in that field in the world. So there is no one better than you to start defining, “What’s going to be our next step?”
The examples that come to mind might be cliched, but consider Microsoft. The first few years were Paul Allen and Bill Gates banging source code and trying to solve problems. They got a contract from IBM, writing basic. OK, problem solved. But there was not really a huge mission statement or Ikigai. But then they started rethinking and putting things together. “Okay, what’s our next step?” Their next step was to build an operating system. And then next Bill Gates said, “okay, we are going to put a personal computer in everyone’s home all around the world,” and that Ikigai was powerful enough to put Microsoft through the 90s and become one of the biggest companies in the world.
And something similar is the history of Apple, at least when Steve Jobs came back.
I like the concept of tinkering. So you start tinkering with ideas until the great idea comes. And when you find that, I think you can feel it and you discard the rest. And I think investors can feel that too. Tinkering and trying things until you find your Ikigai, your real why, that will make you big.
Our personal life is the same, our Ikigai might not be the same in our 20s as it is in our 50s. And it’s worse when you are not aligned. If you’re in your 40s and you’re living like in your 20s, you feel something inside of you saying, “okay, this is not how I want to live.” You might have that middle age crisis and it’s similar to ‘middle age’ in a startup. For example, if you’re still thinking like a 5 person organisation, but you should be thinking like a 50 or 100 person organisation, then that’s where the pain comes. It’s good to feel that pain. But you have to clear out how to get over it.
There’s a Japanese proverb “Ku areba raku ari” which is “There are hardships and delights” and both are worthwhile. I think in middle age, you realise that pain is as worthwhile as the delight. When you are in your 20s you’re probably more innocent and you just want to have fun. That’s the delight part. And you understand maybe later in life, that pain is what makes you what makes you grow.
In Asia, they think about pain differently. When you read a translation from Buddhism, they talk about pain and suffering but they’re not really talking about suffering in the way we do. It is more a feeling of suffering that makes you want to do something. “Kurushimi no bigaku” means suffering is beautiful. Sometimes that can be negative, but the way they see suffering is very different. It is important for growth and beauty, and suffering comes before success.
Getting back to that startup journey. When there are 10 people in my startup, everyone’s on the same page, everyone knows the collective Ikigai. But 10 years later, there are 10,000 people. How do we best engage them and help them to live individual working lives that are happy and purposeful.
This is becoming a problem everywhere. Big companies like Amazon, Google, Apple etc could always attract great talent and keep it. I’m not sure this is the case anymore. because there is something about big corporations that seems to leave people feeling miserable. Many people quit jobs after two or three years. The first year they’re doing something new and they’re meeting some new people but then the fun is finished, and they jump to another company. I think the companies are just thinking about optimizing with KPIs. KPIs are nice, but all the KPIs are focused on customer satisfaction. So a very product focused company, or KPIs based only on profit. But there is no KPI for your employees Ikigai or satisfaction, I think in Europe, you are better. But in Japan, for example, they are really bad at this.
In Europe there seems to be more of a trend of employees also trying to find their purpose. I’d imagine that the talent and the companies in which Notion invests want the best people and the best people only want to join companies, startups and cultures that give them that sense of purpose. And we’re seeing that play out with COVID; people are having to stay at home and rebalance their work life balance. Suddenly many people have realised that their job was not as important as they thought.
“At the end of the day, the best talent will choose companies that offer them a sense of purpose, and a sense of meaning, that Ikigia. Most of the companies that Notion invests in have this drive not only because they’re founders, but want to make the world better and they really think and care about their people. There’s something really powerful about Notion in their portfolio.” Paul Papadimitrou
To give a more concrete example: you might not notice, as a leader, that as a company grows, people become very, very specialised. There might be people that are very talented and they get assigned to just a very narrow role. I think that’s where meaninglessness can start to be found, where an employee might have blossomed by doing something else. I have a feeling that there is a natural tendency of organisations to over-specialise. I don’t have a solution for that either, because it’s the best way to optimise your organisation but I think it’s a little bit dehumanising. There’s an amazing book on this topic Range: How generalists triumph, in a specialized world, by David Epstein that people might find useful.
“Notion has done a lot of work into the construction of leadership teams in the world’s most successful tech companies which embrace range across the leadership team to protect agains that overspecialisation, embracing range in terms of age, experience, education, gender and ethnicity. Those differences can come together in a very powerful way.
What’s very interesting is that in a SaaS company everything is interconnected. If you don’t know how the whole machine works, and you’re not being exposed to different ways of thinking about organisational design and structure and strategies and models, then then you’re going to be really constrained.” Stephen Millard.
What part does the concept of flow play in Ikigai?
The idea of flow was defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He read Ikigai and said that our chapter of flow is the best summary he has ever read about his work. Which was a huge compliment. Because I went really deep. I read all his books on flow. And why I went so deep into flow is again, going back to, “how do we make the best of our limited time? And how do I make the best of one day today?” It’s all about flow. I’m here with you today, we are talking, my computer has just one application to talk with you. I am very present , I am here in flow with you. I’m not now thinking about what to have for dinner or something like that. I’m here with you in the present moment, and enjoying it the most I can. And when you do that, you enter into this state of flow.
We’ve all experienced this, there are certain things and activities when it’s easier to enter flow, like playing a musical instrument, skiing or snowboarding, or any type of sport, there is a moment you enter this state where you feel bliss. For me it is writing. If you are an engineer, it can be programming. In designing a business, you can also enter a flow. The problem these days is that we have a world of interruptions, such as notifications from social networks that are like delicious food around us, constantly tempting us. So I might’ve started writing something and after 10 minutes, I get distracted; I scroll through Instagram or start chatting with my friends on WhatsApp. This used to happen to me all the time but not anymore. I wrote this chapter on flow for myself. Now I define “flow times” in my calendar, usually, in the mornings, the first three, four hours, of uninterrupted writing time. For you it might be something else. But after those three hours in the morning, anything else can happen, I will be satisfied and happy that those were three hours of very meaningful flow time. I’ve been very happy after that, because it changes my mindset. It’s a conscious decision to say “Okay, I’m going to do just this one thing.”
Some of the listeners might be thinking, “Okay, how do I find my Ikigai?”
This is the question I get asked the most. There are many techniques we give in The Ikigai Journey, our second book. We give many ideas, because there is no one answer. But one of the answers is that for 15 days, at the end of each day, write down when during the day, you forgot about the passage of time and you felt you were in flow. What were you doing? Write it down! After 15 days, you will find patterns. Maybe you’re in a sales department and you believe you really enjoy sales. But the moment you are in flow is when you’re messing around with numbers in an Excel sheet. And you love doing simulations, maybe your Ikigai is not really sales but maybe more like finance and getting into numbers? That’s a good technique, what things get you into flow. Start from there. Those things might have something to do with your Ikigai. And then you can start shifting your lifestyle to have more of those flow times.
And coming back to how to engage employees; if the founder and the culture of the startup allows people to do this lateral shift and helps work in a way where they are in flow, think of how incredible that would be! We know many examples where people started in one job and moved laterally, not only simply in seniority, we know the famous “20% of time at Google, people try other stuff.” This lateral movement within a company ensures that you get the best of the talent you already have, but also that that can create a spillover effect.
Marissa Mayer comes to mind. She started as an engineer at the beginning of Google. And Google was very good at letting people move laterally especially at the beginning. Many amazing people were created, because all the ingredients were there.
Self observation is critical
This comes from Greek philosophy – know yourself. Everything starts with knowing yourself. So, for example, you study something at university, and then you start doing something, you start a startup or you start working somewhere. And then 5 or 10 years go by, but you’ve never stopped to think, “is that what I really love doing? Is this really who I am?” You went to university and studied things, because your friends were doing the same course or maybe because your parents were expecting you to do something. Or maybe the reverse, you did something just to annoy your parents. Self observation is not easy; you may need to ask your friends or you can write a diary.
But it can be something very simple like a checkpoint. You write at the end of the day, three bad things that happened to you that day, and the three best things. So the three worst things can be I had a meeting with a client that was horrible, I don’t like them. I hated doing paperwork for two hours, it was horrible. And then the best thing can be other things like spending three hours on my own doing this, blah, blah, blah. So at the end of the 15 days, again, you go back, and you learn about yourself and your priorities, you might start finding patterns that you never thought of. And that’s part of you. That’s how you’re interacting with the world. So I believe in that time at the end of the day of writing down things.
For other people it might be to use meditation to develop introspection on who you are, what do you really love doing. So don’t just keep going and going, reacting every day. Self-awareness and self-observation are very important. And you’ll find that everywhere. In all Asian tradition such as Shintoism, Buddhism and Asian philosophers, they all start with meditation and introspection. Knowing yourself.
Find beauty in imperfection
You just spoiled my next book! So that’s exactly how the Japanese think. Something broken is considered more beautiful. A broken cup is considered more beautiful than the original one in Japan. At the personal level I also think the imperfections of each human being is what makes us unique and it makes us more beautiful than someone else. So if you have an imperfection that could be used as a superpower, you might exploit it. It becomes your character. Consider Elon Musk, as he obviously has many imperfections but uses them as superpowers. He’s not like the best person at talking in public, but he is amazing at the other things and he’s becoming a character because of his imperfections. If you think about it deeply, the concept of perfection itself only exists in our imagination or in mathematics. In the real world, there is no perfection. It is not defined, there is no perfect human being. Japanese have the Wabi Sabi thing, but they don’t have the word perfection used as much in daily life and also in the business world. They have the concept of continuous improvement. We all know ‘Kaizen’, let’s be a little bit better than yesterday. Things will still be imperfect and that’s okay. We have to realise that there is no perfect human so it’s just kind of useless to even think about it. I would even remove the word ‘perfection’ from the vocabulary.
How does Ikigai align with anti-fragility?
Antifragile says that when you are hit by pain, you become stronger. With a very well defined Ikigai, you can be incredibly robust, perhaps antifragile. If you have a sense of meaning, bad things can happen to you, and it will not affect you as much as if you have a meaningless life.
That’s how I see that Ikigai can make you more robust. And hopefully, you might be antifragile, because you have more serendipity in your life. But I think about antifragility in a reverse way too, we can apply anti-fragility concepts to help us find our Ikigai. One of the concepts of antifragility is that if you do just one thing in life, you’re putting all your risks in one basket. And if that thing goes wrong, your whole life is gone. Whereas if you put your life in three baskets, or maybe 10 baskets, one of the baskets might be very, very good and change your life. It’s the same as investing in startups: you put money in many baskets and you’re making an anti-fragile strategy!
Notion is indeed blessed with having invested in some extraordinary companies. Individually, they’re incredible. Have responded extraordinarily well over the last six months, almost without exception they are saying, “you know what, this is turning us into a better business.” They became stronger. They are indeed antifragile. Stephen Millard.
How can people learn more?
There might be people listening, thinking “that’s easy, I know my Ikigai”. That’s beautiful. Or after this conversation, they may have many questions in their head and that’s a good thing. You already have an Ikigai, now go find it. Good luck, or “ganbatte” (“Do your best”), as the Japanese would say.