(2021-12-10 I've followed on in Ikigai through collective.)

Collective ikigai

Take the idea of ‘ikigai’ – a personal reason for being in the world – and add in the missing idea of the collective. Can we see collectives as the most potent vehicle for finding that sweet spot? Collectives need to find their own ikigai for this all to work for the best.

What is ikigai?

According to Wikipedia, the Japanese concept of ikigai started to enter Western culture in the late 20th Century. I only know of the concept through the meme in the last 10 years, not closely related to the Japanese concept, with a four-circle diagram.1 Examples are easy to find by searching for ikigai images on a search engine. In many versions, the four circles are given as: What you LOVE; What you are GOOD AT; What you can be PAID FOR; and What the world NEEDS. The overlaps between the circles are suggested as follows: PASSION is what you love and are good at; PROFESSION is what you are good at and can be paid for; VOCATION is what you can be paid for and what the world needs; MISSION is what the world needs and what you love. In some versions, there is a short description of each sector where three circles intersect, and one is left out.

I like the way that this presentation brings into focus the question of what the world needs, beyond a simple self-centred ambition. But it seems to me very challenging to work out just how to get there in practice. Fine, the ideas are sound enough, but how do you actually find that sweet spot in the middle?

A couple of months ago, I was suddenly struck by what now seems like an obvious thought. How about separating ikigai into two components, by bringing in the idea of the collective in between the individual and the world? Wouldn't that make it a whole lot easier, and also relate to my recent experience? From then on, I have been thinking of ikigai as both between the individual and the collective, and between the collective and the world. I just call it ‘collective ikigai’ because the collective is in the middle, involved in ikigai both ways round. Let me set out my thinking here, and see if that makes sense to you.

Ikigai between individual and collective

Ikigai between the individual and the collective is not too different from the normal ikigai model, just that you put ‘the collective’ or ‘the organisation’ or ‘the business’, or whatever group you interact with, in place of ‘the world’. It is mostly organisations that pay people to do jobs or perform roles, and organisations which need those roles to be fulfilled, and those jobs to be done. I started off by turning the diagrams through 45° anticlockwise – I don't see any persuasive reason for the normal orientation – changed many of the words, and this is what resulted…

(To help you read these diagrams, you should know that, similarly to the earlier common diagrams, the outer leaves name what is contained in that circle, like in an Euler (“Venn”) diagram; the outer overlaps give a positive name to the intersection of the two circles; but the inner leaves give a negative name to what it's like when three circles overlap but the fourth is missing. Those are the ‘near misses’ to ikigai)

Ikigai between individual and collective: 4 circles

We still have two circles for ‘you’, now ‘the individual’, on the left of my diagram, and the overlap of those two circles I have called ‘personal fulfilment’, rather than ‘passion’. But, as the common ikigai diagrams link to the world, if personal fulfilment is not grounded in something larger (I think here of a collective, or organisation, or business, or company, or even family or tribe) it feels like something important is missing. Yes, people can live by themselves, and be self-employed (I was for some time) but the scope and reach of that is not great. Rather, let's move forward with the assumption that some collective is involved somehow.

On the right side, we have two circles for the collective. Just as for the individual, for whom what they love and what they are good at may not be the same, similarly for the collective, their vision of what they could achieve – collective VISION – is not necessarily the same as what they are actually doing practically – collective WORK. I'm using the term ‘collective practice’ rather loosely, to indicate when the work and the vision are acting together. Now looking across between left and right, at the top of the diagram, when what the individual loves is aligned with the collective vision, there is likely to be a two-way sense of belonging. On the lower side of the diagram, when a skilled individual is carrying out an important role in a collective, that could come under a rather broad sense of the word ‘employment’. However, there can be good collective practice which still misses out the individual side. If one of the individuals involved loves their role but is not good at it, I've called that ‘amateurism’. That may obviously cause problems. On the other hand, if an individual is good at their role but doesn't love it, I've called that ‘servility’, because that is acting like a servant, whose preferences don't matter. Again, not a good long-term outlook.

If you don't share the collective vision, then there's some disconnect at the level of values. I call that ‘individualism’ here. And if you are not supported and resourced by the collective, then you're acting as a volunteer – that can work well in some situations, but in my experience there tends still to be something missing, in terms of visible tokens of your value. When it's problematic, I'm calling that ‘volunteerism’. I don't mean low paid workers, often called ‘volunteers’, I mean people working for no return at all. Implied in that situation is that you are well-off and well-resourced yourself, while the people you are helping are probably not. In that situation, you are likely not to have fully realistic feedback of how valued your work is. After all, you're not being paid for it, so they may as well just let you get on with it on the assumption that you think you're being helpful, and it feels good, even if it's not really benefitting the collective very much.

But when this individual-collective ikigai is found, it is like the state of ‘health’ as described by G Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse in their book "Science, synthesis and sanity", developed while working together on The Peckham Experiment: they described it as the “mutual synthesis of organism and environment”. Or, compare it with the idea of ‘co-creation’ written about extensively in Ria's book on Collective Presencing. But is this completely satisfying? What if we were in a kind of dream job, with awesome ikigai between individual and collective, but the company itself was destroying the natural environment? What if the company is making nuclear bombs? That's not what the world needs. My guess is that being in that kind of job may lead many people towards cognitive dissonance. How can they be truly happy when the business they are working with is contributing to destruction? Thus, we need to look at the other side of collective ikigai.

Ikigai between collective and its containing ecosystem

Several times recently I've come across similar situations, rather like this: I'm in a group, or network, or organisation, along with other well-meaning people, perhaps some of whom have escaped from the traditional job market. Then we ‘sit down’ and talk about what the mission of this organisation or network should be. In our customary way of thinking, this seems to be normal. Of course, we have to agree, between ourselves, on our raison d'être, don't we?

Curiously, this has been happening even with groups who are aware of the fact that there are so many different well-meaning groups, networks and organisations out there, with similar values and aims. But such is the excitement of starting with a new set of people, that only a few of them have taken the trouble to check out beforehand who else is doing the same kind of thing. I mean, it is understandable for a group of enthusiasts to want to rush on and start their ‘next great thing’; but surely networks who know about other networks should stop and think about it a little? Like: are you really sure you are the right people to do this particular thing you have in mind?

In the business startup world, at least as I have experienced it, this is one thing that they do take seriously. Who are your competitors? What value are you offering to your customers? What is your unique selling point? And so on. Perhaps, the kind of well-meaning people who want to network us all together don't have that kind of business experience; or maybe they do, and they don't see this as a space where ‘competitors’ and ‘selling’ are relevant, so they don't connect with this kind of thinking.

Some kind of explanation seemed to be called for, so I decided to try out the same kind of ikigai thinking to organisations and their surrounding ecosystem as we have seen above for individuals within organisations. Just as we don't want an authoritarian boss to be dictating exactly what our work should be in an organisation, neither do we want some state or other authority to dictate what the purpose of our organisation should be. Just as it is hopeless if everyone independently picks what they would most like to do in their organisation, so too, if every organisation decides what it wants to do, without taking other like-minded organisations into account, the result will probably be competition, wasted potential, inequality, and many tasks that will be left for the state to pick up, if they are done at all.

I've tried to draw some of this out on a similar diagram. I've carried over the collective vision, work and practice from the previous diagram, put that on the left side, and filled in the right hand side with my interpretation of the ‘world’ side of the common ikigai diagrams. I've put ‘wider world’ to leave it more open to interpretation; and the term ‘resourced’ is deliberately more open than ‘paid for’.

Ikigai between collective and the surrounding ecosystem: 4 circles

Perhaps the clearest part of the diagram is at the bottom, where the work of a collective can only be viable if the ‘economy’ in which it operates can resource it. Organisations which are not resourced by the system they are in are, or can be thought of as, charitable. Finding words for the overlap, at the top, for collective vision and what the world needs was more of a challenge. I'm thinking of how much the collective vision fits well into a suitable niche of what the wider world needs. How widely you want to see the world, and what it needs, can be debated, and I cannot resolve that. This ‘fit’ is not quite the same as whether, say, a product fills a market niche – more like if a product concept fits what is imagined as a potential market niche, but we're talking here of a market in ideas, not commerce. The essence here is in the alignment of the collective with the greater good. If there is good alignment in vision and values, we might still be lacking good organisation – the collective vision is there, but without effective work processes – and I call that ‘disorganised’, even though it is well-intentioned.

Lastly, let's look at what might be imperfect about a viable collective. If the collective is following its own vision, but that's not what the wider world needs – for instance, it is fuelling increased CO2 production – then I call that ‘dissonant’. That may provoke cognitive dissonance in the individual members of that collective, when they find themselves questioning the ultimate value of their work, despite generally enjoying their work life. On the other hand, maybe less likely, a collective could be doing good things for the wider world almost by accident, and not really have the collective vision to go with that. I'm calling that ‘disengaged’, as the collective vision is then not engaged with what the wider world needs.

On the right of the diagram, when what the wider world needs meets what can be resourced (which depends on what kinds of resource you are considering) then we have the potential for ecosystemic regeneration; a regenerative economy if you like. At the heart of where ecosystemic regeneration meets collective practice, and where a viable business has a vision that fits into a niche of what the world needs, we have what I have termed ‘collective-ecosystemic ikigai’.

The bigger picture of collective ikigai

What happens when we put these two sides together? I wasn't totally honest above – actually I started with the whole diagram below, then split it into its two parts. Anyway, let's see …

The combined collective ikigai diagram with 6 circles

What has happened as the two diagrams were put together?

More on what the diagram suggests for collective being and doing. Let's take ‘collective practice’ as a combination of doing – the practice of action and behaviour – and being – the practice of achieving and maintaining a suitable mental and emotional state of awareness that allows the emergence of the collective reality. In placing both in the collective intersection of vision and work, I'm implying that there is more to the practice of being than vision, and more to the practice of doing than just work. Collective Presencing has many great things to say about collective being. But collective being might still be outside the circles of what the individual is good at, and what can be resourced. If there is no ikigai, it can be about the heart but not the hand; we can feel really good about it, but it may not be landing in movement towards change in the ‘outside’ world. Conversely, collective doing, if not enmeshed with ikigai, can be about hand but not heart. There is viable employment there, and the work can be not just productive, but genuinely co-creative, as it sits within collective vision and thus good collective practice; but still missing the circles of what the individual loves, and what the wider world needs. That point in the very middle, where many circles touch, symbolises the touching of heart and hand, of being and doing, the very point where the two sides of collective ikigai connect. Looking at that centre point, I can now feel the symbolic significance of that nexus, that vortex, that dance. It's like the surface tension of the bubbles is just holding them separate, and we are looking for, awaiting, that moment of bursting through, where the collective becomes totally in service of the individual and the world, having served its purpose of bringing the two sides of ikigai into – what? – communion?

Collective ikigai, See-Saw and constellations

What next? To me, the question is, what to do about it? How do we develop collective ikigai? Thinking this over, I notice that a practice I developed, and tried out once several years ago, addresses one side of this. I now call it the See-Saw techique for developing individuals and initiatives. By having short exchanges – a bit like speed dating – between one individual representing herself or himself, and another individual representing an actual or potential collective initiative / enterprise (etc.), just exploring without commitment, my aim was to help individuals feel their way into the individual side of the individual-collective ikigai, at the same time as giving insight to those with a collective vision to get a better sense of how to invite people in, in a way that satisfies the individuals as well as what is needed collectively – and so to contribute to the collective side of that ikigai.

So what about the collective-ecosystemic aspect? I don't know of any practices designed to address this. I know a little, second hand through friends, about family or systemic constellation work, and it suddenly occurred to me, might this be an approach to this wider side of ikigai? Ria is one of those knowledgeable people, and her response to my question suggested that there may be something possible here. We could create meetings where some people represent the collective that they belong to, or that they hold in their vision – as in the See-Saw techique – and other people who are both knowledgeable and concerned about various global issues stand in for those issues. One person comes to mind immediately around global population control. Many other people are building up knowledge about CO2; soil; biodiversity; ocean acidification; plastic waste; and many other similar issues. The UN SDGs also come to mind. Several of these are social issues, and, because of their even higher complexity, may need more than one person to represent them – there may be no single perspective and place to speak from on those issues.

I could imagine trying this with the See-Saw model, with many one-to-one conversations; or with something more like systemic constellations work at present. I don't know. But what amazing experiments these could be!

CHOICE, See-Saw, Collective Presencing and collective ikigai

What led me, no, urged me to write, was a sense of how this can fit in with my other long-term concerns. As readers may know, I've been mulling over ideas related to CHOICE since before 1993. This provides a way for people interested in the same things, maybe the same kinds of initiative, and with similar values, to find each other. When people have found each other, the See-Saw technique is then a start towards identifying potential collective ikigai, while Collective Presencing is a vital step towards another aspect of ikigai, by helping people find generative co-creativity by being truly present with each other.

One possible perspective on ‘collective ikigai’ is that it points to the intermediate goal of preparing ourselves (and each other) to be agents of and participants in the kind of changes that many of us sense deep down as necessary, for the health and well-being of our world and all its inhabitants. But it's a good name, not just for the preparation, but for one result of those changes. The more those changes are realised, the more we may find the satisfaction of finding that our life has been and is meaningful – that we have had, and continue to have, a “reason for being”, to quote some of the common ikigai diagrams.

In my own perspective, ‘collective ikigai’ is a resonant song in many parts that harmonise; or an evocative umbrella, covering all those practices and processes that we can engage with, in order to transform us from groups of individuals who share concerns, into collectives with great potential for working for the common good.

Please see the follow-on piece at Ikigai through collective.

(Edited 2021-12-10)


1: The Wikipedia talk page suggests that it was Andrés Zuzunaga who in 2011 originated the representation of purpose as four circles in diamond configuration (He didn't connect this with the term ‘ikigai’). There's a lot more talk about the origin of the diagram at Marc Winn's page on Meme Seeding, and Marc says it was he who put together the propósito diagram with the ikigai concept. Marc also recommends reading an article by Tim Parsa on Medium for further historical background.

Topics: CHOICE; Collective ikigai; Collective Presencing

If you have any remarks on any of my posts, please send me e-mail, saying what you want me to do with your remarks. Are they private to you and me, or would you be happy to quote you (I will always attribute your words unless you ask me not to), and add your response (or parts of it) to the post it's about?
Creative Commons Licence