Ikigai through collective

Having put the collective into ikigai, what can we see when we take it out again? Here's an attempt at a clearer view of finding one's purpose, raison d'être, or whatever, in this life in the world. Turns out, the collective really is vital!

Where were we with collective ikigai?

The combined collective ikigai diagram with 6 circles

In my previous piece dealing with collective ikigai, I took the 4-circle diagram which has become common within the last 10 years, inserted a collective perspective, or dimension, to ikigai, and ended up with the 6-circle diagram above. Then, I felt that the journey was unfinished. I was called to return to something more like the original diagram (see my earlier note on origins), bringing with it insights that have cropped up during the ‘collective’ journey.

First, a note in support of Marc Winn, who put together the (Spanish language) diagram with the term ikigai. Some people have criticised the (my word) bastardization of the Japanese concept.1 But in my view, the term ‘purpose’ simply doesn't resonate fully enough. I can't think of a common word in English that describes what an individual discovers and experiences when those four common factors come together. The earlier Spanish language version had four side areas, none of which fulfilled the central spot, with obvious (whether or not completely accurate) English equivalents of ‘passion’, ‘mission’, ‘vocation’ and ‘profession’. The word propósito in the centre was translated as ‘purpose’; but surely we need a stronger, richer word than ‘purpose’ to describe the overlap of passion, mission, vocation and profession? I think ikigai is a pretty good choice. Obviously others must have thought the same; and presumably that is what made Marc's meme go viral.

Another source for possible words would be Ria's ‘Circle of Creation Map’. “Enjoy a Creative and Generative Life” she writes, in the bottom right hand corner, and there are lots more expressive words deserving mention, across that chart. What we're talking about is more than simply a reason or purpose for living. What we're looking for here is engagement in doing what one loves, being in a way that one loves; and a generative life will involve doing things one is good at. In my experience, detached generativity doesn't go far. While there is some personal satisfaction in simply doing something that one loves and is good at, a sense of one's ‘soul's calling’ (as I join in calling it) takes more engagement with the world. And it needs to be resourced somehow. All four of those circles seem indispensable for this full living out of one's life. And that sense of the necessity of all four was given more weight by the common introduction of descriptions of the four ‘near miss’ sectors, right next to the central ikigai.

It does feel as if four seems to be the right number for these necessary distinct aspects of the life well lived. As I introduced them, the collective aspects were intended as something like stepping stones, at least for all of us who want to make a positive difference in the world. So, let's try stepping back from the stepping stones, take away the scaffolding, and get back to four circles.

The return to the individual and the wider world

Back closer to the common ikigai diagram with 4 circles

What changes, and what stays the same, as we move from 6 back to 4? First, I've kept the words for labelling the four main circles. The label ‘ecosystemic regeneration’ still works for me, but on reflection, ‘personal fulfilment’ seemed to me too close to ikigai itself, so I've changed that to ‘self-satisfaction’, which has a more limited sense. In this new (for me) configuration, I needed labels for the top and bottom overlaps, as in my previous diagrams this was where the collective came in. What came up for me was: ‘ethical alignment’ for where what the individual loves meets what the world needs; and ‘making a living’ for where what the individual is good at can be resourced. That covers all the positive labels for the circles and their pairwise overlaps.

But something else felt like it was missing from the diagram. If it is going to be useful in diagnosing where someone is, and perhaps even suggesting how to move towards ikigai, I thought it might be helpful to detail the issues relevant to every separate sector in the diagram. What happens if we have only one of the circles covered, or only two, as well as the ‘near misses’ of three overlapping but missing the fourth. So I've revisited all the ‘near miss’ categories from the collective ikigai diagrams in my earlier piece, and added labels for how we might experience the outer sectors as well. What seems to follow on naturally is to explain what's happening in each of the sectors in turn.

As I did for the inner ‘near miss’ sectors before, I've chosen a single word to stand for how I see the essence of what this sector is like. I've tried to engage my poetic sense here, but of course there may be more evocative single words, and if you can think of any, please do let me know! One of the challenges I found here is that we could be describing how people are acting in that sector; but equally, we could be describing how people are thinking or imagining, or what their attitude is. Single words are unlikely to capture that duality, so here I will try to spell out what I can. I begin at the top left, and move round clockwise, starting with the outermost circles, then the pairwise overlaps, and finally the ‘near miss’ sectors.

Fanciful. If one is doing, or imagining, something that one loves, but missing the vital aspects of the other three circles, it seems to me either self-indulgent (for actions) or wish fulfilling dreaming, which I've called ‘fanciful’ here. It's like living in a magic fantasy world where all your dreams come true. Except that they don't in the real world.

Utopian. Imagining what the world needs, separately from what people actually love or are good at, and what can be resourced, strikes me as utopian thinking, in the sense that people mean when they are using the word ‘utopian’ critically. There are, of course, some examples where writers of utopian fiction have well thought through what might really work in practice, with real people; but sometimes, utopian thinking doesn't take into account either human nature, or economic systems that would actually work in the real world.

Capitalist. If one is only concerned by what can be resourced within an economic system, to me that sounds like capitalism in the sense used by its critics. Of course, there are well-meaning capitalists who imagine that economic growth and market competition will solve all the world's problems, but I sense that there are fewer and fewer people who now buy into that narrative.

Obsessive. I'm not sure about this word, but I'm imagining someone just doing what they have become good at, without even a sense of loving it; without regard for what the world needs, and even if it doesn't provide them with a living. Obsessive repetition can lead to people being very good at what they do – which can be turned into a virtue, if connected with the other three circles.

That's done all four of the circles in isolation, and we can move on to the outer overlaps between two circles.

Impractical. Someone can be loving the idea of doing something that the world needs, meaning that they are aligned ethically, but if they are not good at it, and if it is not resourced, I've called this ‘impractical’. They need to become good at something useful, and find a way of resourcing it to make it practical. In my experience, collective intelligence can show the way better than individuals can find by themselves.

Disorganised; disengaged. We are in the sector where we envisage ecosystemic regeneration. We saw earlier, looking at collective-ecosystemic ikigai, how it's disorganised when not part of an effective collective work system, and disengaged when there is no collective vision to go with what the world needs. We could see this in terms of the individual as well. Either way, this is a sector where the need for the collective is very apparent.

Alienated. Where the individual is making a living, but not loving it, and not seeing it as what the world needs, seems to be a classic case of alienation, even though that term has a lot of history. Alienation seems to me much easier to overcome in collective company.

Individualist; volunteerist. Here we are looking at the self-satisfied situation where the individual is engaged with something they love and are good at, and again, these are terms that came up in my previous piece looking at the collective aspect of ikigai. The individual hasn't connected properly with what the wider world needs. While they may be volunteering, and resourcing their activity from their own means, it doesn't fit into any kind of organised work system that supports it. The individual is liable to feeling disconnected, and perhaps increasingly alone in their concerns and their activity. Closer engagement with a collective is indicated, as a bridge from the individual to the world.

Moving into the inner ‘near miss’ sectors, again I find myself reusing the terms that have already come up in the collective analysis. And in writing these, what emerges is that in each case, the collective has a even clearer and more explicit role in helping the individual towards their ikigai.

Charitable. I used this term earlier to describe what worked collectively, but didn't fit into an economic resource system. To me, it still seems to fit here, in the sense that the individual feels that they are working voluntarily, but still effectively, for a good cause that benefits the wider world. They are donating their time, energy and expertise. This may feel very close to ikigai for the individual, but I can still see problematic issues. Or they may be also donating their money: look at Bill Gates. Great that he is donating very large parts of his wealth to charitable work. But how are the good causes chosen? Is he sure that his foundation supports the best way forward for the world? To me, this points to the heart of the difficulties with the American model of charitable donation. How can this not contribute in some way to replicating the values of the culture in which the donors were embedded while making their money? My view of how to counter this is to focus on commons economics; to build up viable socio-economic systems that are governed and resourced by the commoner participants in those systems. Not surprisingly, this points again to the essential role of collectives, as owners and controllers of economic systems in the regenerative order, connecting the individual into an effectively resourced system of work directed towards the common good.

Amateur. Here we have ethical alignment as well as with ecosystemic regeneration – what is missing is individual experience and expertise, leading to competence. The work can be resourced, and the individual would love to contribute to the work, but they don't have the competence to play the role fully and properly. It's often hard to find good opportunities to learn to do well what one would like to do well. I face this personally right now with computing coding for my CHOICE concept. But a good collective can serve as learning environment. If it can see itself as a community of practice, it will probably have space for people to take on apprentice-like roles and learn through that. Any community of practice also has some kind of knowledge commons, and alongside personal contact, possibly in the form of informal hand-holding, this can provide an effective resource for learning, and an aid to developing the missing competence.

Servile. The word sounds stronger than I would like, but I can't find a good alternative at present. The individual has the competence to fill a resourced role, and the work is aligned with what the world needs, but it's not what the individual loves. They are putting themselves purely in service – a ‘martyr’ role if you like, but that word is also too strong – doing what is unpleasant for the good of the collective and the wider system. What's missing is the individual motivation and connection. I guess this is hard to address as an individual – to get oneself to love something that one doesn't naturally love. But within a collective I can see two pathways. First, within a trusting collective, people can negotiate job swapping or job rotation. Sometimes something can be a great burden when one has sole responsibility, but if the responsibility is shared, it becomes at least pleasant. One can find joy in performing unpleasant tasks in good company! Second, the collective can play the part of a caring, supporting, nurturing, loving, family. I can think of transformations of my attitude to something I did not love, through doing it for someone I love. And appreciative feedback from people one loves can be highly motivating. If the task itself is not inherently lovable, then at least I can love the gratitude of others, and that can rub off onto loving the work itself.

Discordant. I've slightly changed this word, from ‘dissonant’. The sense here is that the individual is doing satisfying jobs that are resourced, but they somehow don't fit in fully with a sense that the work is benefitting the wider world. There is a sense of awkwardness; it sounds discordant rather than harmonious with the bigger picture. There seems to be a lack of ethical alignment, as the work doesn't seem to lead to ecosystemic regeneration. Here I see two roles for the collective. Firstly, it may be that the discord is perceived but not real. Maybe the individual simply doesn't see the way in which their work fits in with what the world needs. In this case, the collective can serve to link up the visions, to inspire, to broaden the perspective of the individual to encompass a new understanding of what the world needs. Secondly, perhaps the work that is being done is really not what the world needs. My sense is that in a collective context, there is more potential for moving into harmony. While the individual's resources and flexibility are inevitably limited, a collective is more able to make a move while staying within the scope of what can be resourced.

Capable collectives are vital to ikigai

I started writing this piece thinking that I was just tidying up loose ends, but I'm finding an unexpected coherence here. I started out in my previous piece thinking that what we need to do is to introduce the collective as an intermediary, by considering first ikigai between the individual and the collective, then between the collective and the wider world, or the containing ecosystem if you like. That is still true, but now I seem to have got a list of the ways that a collective can help an individual find their ikigai in the world. I'd like to set out this list, which picks up points from above and adds more.

So how do we find those capable collectives?

Obviously these qualities of a collective are just potentials, so often not realised in actuality. Hence, a collective can or may be able to offer these things, but that is not at all given – it depends on the quality, the capacity, the skills, the practices, the resources the collective and its members have. I have seen several of these capabilities in some collectives, while not in others. How do we find collectives that can offer this potential to us? How do we find collectives where we can participate in and contribute to offering this potential to other members?

My recent experience, particularly with Collective Presencing, is that powerful collectives often come together by way of some common attractor. In that particular case it was mostly via The Stoa, stewarded by Peter Limberg. Another attractor has been the Collaborative Technology Alliance. Another has been the prospect of a funded European project. In each case, the attractor serves to gather people with some common interests and a possible overlap of values. If the values are not clear in the attractor itself, sometimes I find myself noticing others who look like they share some values with me, and I follow up with them.

I see this as both random and privileged. I think the perceived randomness serves to legitimate it to many people, leading to the attitude of “you just put yourself out there, and when you are ready, people will appear”. Or is it when ‘the field’ is ready? Or when ‘the time is ripe’? Reports are inevitably subject to hindsight bias and perhaps confirmation bias. Other biases result in discrimination, or even abuse, which may have contributed to the individuals not being able to find those attractors, or not being welcomed there.

The clear way forward, to me, involves accepting and welcoming but not relying on random meetings through attractors, but providing the technological support for people to find other people to form a collective around common interests and values, even when those people are lacking resources, discriminated against, shy, introvert, highly sensitive, along the autism spectrum, or are for any reason, or in any way less able to participate in those attractor networking opportunities.

That technology I call CHOICE. It hasn't been implemented yet. My own ikigai quest involves finding a collective that will work with me to implement it. If I find those people, and if we manage to implement CHOICE well, that will, retrospectively, land fairly and squarely in the live centre of my having a meaningful life.


1: See, for instance, Ikigai Is Not a Venn Diagram by Nicholas Kemp. He carefully goes over the history of the “Venn” diagram (actually an Euler diagram) and points out the salient differences. Personally I'm happy with that analysis of ikigai, and would like to include that in my approach. Interestingly, he quotes a Japanese person as saying “the secret trick to finding your ikigai is to find your role within a community, your community.” This is very much in line with my analysis here and in the previous piece.

Topics: CHOICE; Collective ikigai; Collective Presencing; Commons and collaboration; Knowledge commons; Personal development

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