The Meaning of Life for Entrepreneurs: Find What You Love, Then Share It
For most of the twentieth century, Japan held the title for the world’s longest life expectancy. One Japanese man, Jiroemon Kimura, lived 116 years and 54 days — the oldest man to have lived in recorded history. Okinawa, an island at the southernmost point of Japan, is home to hundreds of centenarians (and super-centenarians!), and Okinawans experience low rates of low cancer, heart disease, and dementia, probably due to their nutrient-dense, plant-based diets,
But Japanese people aren’t just living longer. They’re also happier, thanks in part to a concept called “ikigai.”
Ikigai, which combines the Japanese words for “to live” and “the realization of what one hopes for,” culminates in an ideal we might think of as “the meaning of life.” Living with ikigai — having something to wake up for in the morning — is a key component of Japanese culture, which researchers think may lead to longer, more fulfilled lives.
While work can provide one sense of identity, the Japanese tend to search for personal meaning that outlasts their careers; in fact, only 31 percent of Japanese people surveyed defined their jobs as “ikigai.” Rather than a career path or pursuit of success, ikigai is an earnest search for purpose in the day in, day out of life through relationships, hobbies, and personal passions.
For the supercentenarians living on Okinawa, this meaning-focused mindset seems to be paying off.
Defining your ikigai as an entrepreneur.
All of us want to live meaningful lives -- even to find the meaning of life in general.
In western culture, following one’s dreams is as second nature as brewing a morning cup of coffee. Our parents and teachers tell us we can achieve anything we put our minds to, encouraging us to find what we’re passionate about and do it.
But finding that spark of ikigai -- the drive that wakes you up in the morning before your alarm and keeps you motivated and fulfilled when times are tough -- isn’t as simple as identifying what you’re passionate about and good at. A central tenet of ikigai is using your passions and skills generously (getting paid for it is a rare bonus).
Think of two concentric circles; meaning is found in the space where your skills and others’ needs overlap. As theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote:
“Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meet the world’s greatest need.”
So ikigai, and all journeys toward purpose, may start inward. But they also extend far beyond the self.
Finding the work that makes you glad.
If the pursuit of meaning is like a puzzle, then finding work that gladdens you is the first piece. Steve Jobs was quoted as saying, “People with passion can change the world.” I think it’s true: Earth is a better place when we all feel content and fulfilled.
To figure out what kind of work makes you glad, first, ask yourself a few questions. What brings you joy in life? What makes you feel most yourself? How is your mind hard-wired to work? What sort of tasks and projects come most naturally to you, and what are you good at?
Most importantly, what doesn’t feel like work at all?
In an iconic post on doing what you love, Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, wrote,
“The test of whether people love what they do is whether they'd do it even if they weren't paid for it -- even if they had to work at another job to make a living. How many corporate lawyers would do their current work if they had to do it for free, in their spare time, and take day jobs as waiters to support themselves?”
I’ve always been a builder, so I’m lucky that my line of work often feels more like play than work to me. Whether it’s figuring out a bug in a line of code or the most effective way to solve a customer complaint, my brain is wired to toy and tinker until I find a solution that works. That’s why I built JotForm as a side hustle to my main gig before it brought me an income. I love to problem solve so much that I’d do it for free (and I have!).
Perhaps you love to paint, or you fill your spare hours with writing lines of code or poetry. Maybe you’ve always wanted to raise a family. Whatever lights you up, try to fit it into your life. Because when we’re all authentically connected to ourselves, we can not only find our purpose, but use our passions to create a better world.
Related: How to Find Your Purpose in Life
Integrating your passion with the needs around you.
Doing what you love is an important piece of the equation, but it’s just one piece. What good would your personal gifts or happiness be if you weren’t making them useful? Making a mark on the world, and experiencing personal meaning, begins with looking outward.
As Leo Tolstoy once said, “The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.” To figure out how you can serve most effectively, ask yourself another set of questions:
What needs do you see around you, and how can you use your personal passions to meet them?
For example, I didn’t just start JotForm because I’m passionate about building the best forms. I launched my company to make people’s lives simpler. Through a well-designed product and seamless customer service, I’m helping people focus on what matters most to them. That’s what satisfies me at the end of the day -- knowing my product is actually improving users’ lives.
In this way, my talents and time aren’t my greatest gifts to the world. Their effects are.
For example, painting and writing inspire people, and maybe motivate them in their own creative endeavors. The lines of code you love to write could make it easier for people to connect with their loved ones. And your passion for parenting children equips the next generation to live, lead and love well.
Before you begin to think an outward focus might set you back, there’s actually scientific evidence that giving people are not only healthier and live longer, but actually experience more happiness -- fuel for the fire of your dreams and passions.
Plus, figuring out how you can use your talents and skills to better others’ lives is actually good for business, since a laser focus on solving someone’s biggest problems means you’ll have built-in marketing. If you’re passionate about improving lives, people will sense authenticity and in your work, and it’ll sell itself.
Living in the sweet spot.
Finding your passion and using it for the good of other people is one dimension of deriving purpose from life, but it’s not always simple. If you focus too much on yourself and your interests, you may miss out on opportunities to help others. And if you’re hyper-focused on others’ needs while ignoring your passions, you’ll be bored and burned out quickly.
Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, author of Give and Take, highlights the balancing act of living in the overlap between your own gladness and the world’s needs. “Selfless giving, in the absence of self-preservation instincts, easily becomes overwhelming,” he writes. Grant introduces a trait called “otherish,” which he defines as “being willing to give more than you receive, but still keeping your own interests in sight.”
Whether you call it ikigai, vocation, or the meaning of life, strive to find that sweet spot. It may be just a sliver of space, but it’s there — and it’s worth it.