How to Use Ancient Design Thinking to Transform Your Business & Your Life

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Pete Sena
Pete Sena



"Do what you love, and the rest will follow" always sounds good in theory, doesn't it?


But what happens when you're doing what you love and it leads to great things, like a successful, profitable business that serves many high-profile clients … but eventually brings you to the brink of a nervous breakdown?

That makes me think of another old adage -- "Victim of your own success."

Not too long ago, that was me. My company was designing amazing digital experiences for brands and their customers worldwide, which was all I'd ever dreamt of doing. But one day I woke up only to realize I was no longer happy -- in fact, I was miserable. I couldn't even remember why I was doing what I was doing anymore.

Cue The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony".

I was so busy designing my life around what I thought others wanted or expected from me that I managed to earn myself a dreaded spot on the lonely, exhausting hamster wheel of endless emails and tasks.

Image courtesy of giphy

Perhaps you can relate?

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My unhappiness was obvious to everyone around me, both at work and at home. Fortunately, my brother intervened by giving me Nightline anchor Dan Harris' book, 10% Happier. Harris is a guy, like me, who realized that the very habits that paved the way to his success were also habits that led to anxiety. Mindfulness was his lifesaver, and it's worked for me, too.

Don't panic -- I promise I'm not going to get all New Age-y on you here. But I will say this opened me up to explore other existential practices and philosophies to find a more authentic and upbeat life.

To be completely honest, this was actually the perfect challenge for me. After all, I'm in the business of designing human experiences for complex systems, and what's more complex or human than me -- and you?

To find newfound joy in my work, I ultimately turned to Okinawa, Japan -- a town that boasts the largest population of people who live to 100 or older. Known as "the land of the immortals", the people of Okinawa have cultivated design thinking that can help you learn how to "do what you love" without inevitable burn-out.

Here, I'm going to tell you how.

Ancient Japanese Wisdom for Modern Times

There's a term for this Okinawan secret sauce -- Ikigai. While there's no direct word-to-word translation in English, it's essentially your reason for living, and the thing that makes you jump out of bed in the morning.

Needing something more than a strong cup of coffee to take on the day is not a new concept. In fact, according to a research paper cited in a BBC article on Ikigai, the term dates back to the Heian period (794 to 1185). Even from early times, the Japanese were driven to find value in work.

Ikigai ultimately integrates all aspects of daily life that provides people with a sense of purpose.

In other words, to get to the deeper meaning of your life beyond the superficial -- which includes money, fame, and status -- you have to engage in a multifaceted exploration of what drives you.

However, it's not all hearts and rainbows. Psychiatrist Mieko Kamiya, author of a classic book on ikigai published in 1966, points out that the concept provides a more nuanced version of happiness. Ikigai is what helps you set your sights on a brighter future.

The Ikigai Framework

Now that we've explored the history of Ikigai, let's try a fun yet complex mapping exercise where you can apply the concept of Ikigai to your own life. It combines the aspirational with the practical, and grounds the spiritual in reality. So, the "do what you love" bit (your passion) is only one small piece of the puzzle.

There are other things you have to look at, such as:

  • What your mission is (how you can serve the world’s needs)
  • What you're good at (your talent/vocation)
  • What you can get paid for (your profession)

From this framework, it's easy to see how passion is just one petal on the flower that is Ikigai. You need all the other aspects to create the critical piece that allows the buds to bloom -- you need to find the intersection of it all.

Change Your Frame and Watch Your Game Change

Ikigai is undoubtedly human-centered design at its finest -- it considers your needs and desires within the context of a wider humanity.

It's all about connection. It's not this or that, it's this and that. That's where you find the juice necessary to become more adaptable, take more risks, and increase your productivity.

Plus, you can minimize the stress and anxiety you currently feel in the workplace.

Ultimately, Ikigai helps you construct the best version of yourself.

How to Find Your Ikigai -- And Your “&”

To start, all you need to do is come up with a few honest lists:

  • What you value
  • What you like to do
  • What you’re good at

It can be as simple as typing them up or putting pen to paper, but I'd recommend doing it on whiteboard, so you can go nuts with the Post-it notes.

For example, here's a short overview of my lists:

  • Value: Innovating technologically-driven solutions to make things better for others, honoring diversity, embracing creativity, and creating opportunities.
  • Passion: Problem-solving, designing, coding, hacking, and finding strength and inspiration in the intersection of science fiction, technology, and culture.
  • Good at: Ideation, design, development, collaboration, and having the heart of a growth-hacker (scrappy).

Which brings me to my Ikigai:

What I care about, what I like, and what I'm good at is all about design, technology, and problem-solving.

What the world needs, in my opinion, is forward motion -- evolution through innovative solutions.

This leads me to my mission: To be a force for positive change in people's lives.

Then, there's profession, which a couple of years ago was the wilted petal that was destroying the whole arrangement. I was so immersed in doing what I thought was necessary to build my business that I stepped away from the work that brings me true bliss.

Bliss, by the way, isn't some kind of frivolous hysteria. Instead, it's a state of being completely content with where you’re at.

Getting in touch with my Ikigai reminded me that in order to align my profession with the overarching goal of making a difference in people's lives, I had to get back to my roots.

Today, I can clearly and easily assert my profession as technologist, designer, developer, and business leader.

As you might imagine, it's not static, nor is it merely one thing. The beauty of Ikigai is that it's an ever-expanding spectrum. You can express it in ways both large and small. It's all happening in the here and now, reaffirming the other age-old Eastern adage: "There is no path to happiness; happiness is the path."

For the record, the Japanese don't have a word for retirement. Work is the sum total of our days, so the point is to be sure it all adds up to meaning and purpose.

So … what's your Ikigai?

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