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Ikigai: the Japanese secret to finding meaning in your work for busy women in STEM

Female leaders in STEM are fantastic professionals, not just for what they do at work, but who they are for their families – whether they have children or not. Thinking of what they take on, I was recently reminded of the Japanese concept of Ikigai. 

A client called Sara used her coaching session to share what she was facing with her disabled mother. That’s great, as executive coaching is about the whole person – not just their title. 

The psychiatrist Mieko Kamiya, explains that as a word, ‘ikigai’ is similar to “happiness”. However there’s a subtle difference in its nuance. Ikigai is what allows you to look forward to the future, even if you’re miserable right now.

Sara is a senior manager in a software company. Her mother had recently been told she had a degenerative disorder and was struggling, as many of us would, to accept the diagnosis. Indeed, Sara’s mother was still engaging in destructive behaviours, such as smoking and eating poorly, that she’d been advised against – maddening for Sarah. 

As we talked through the challenge, Sara came to see that she should take the long view with the diagnosis and her mum’s daily challenges.  That sense of a ‘wider perspective’ is often what people are referring to when they speak of ikigai. After all, Sara and her mother were indeed miserable, but focusing on the future was what Sara wanted to do.

1. Nobody wants your ‘answers’

Sara wanted to go in with 101 ideas to help her mother, but with every idea she posed, she got a flat refusal. When I’m coaching, I never give clients specific ideas or suggestions – I’m only helping people discover their own ideas. If I don’t help my clients unlock the right answers themselves,  my answers will always be wrong 🙂

In sessions, clients routinely say: ‘That’s a great point.’ but the reality is I never gave them an idea. I just asked a question that unlocked that point for them to realise.

Humbly, what they get is often not even where I would have taken the session if I was ‘giving the answers’! 🙂  But that’s the beauty in it. My answers would not have been the right ones in any case – it’s for the client to do the work. 

2. Ikigai listens more than talks

The shift came for Sara when she realised that rather than tell her mother what to do and chide her for all she was doing wrong; she was better off with a different approach. 

Instead, Sara realised she could use the concept of ikigai and ask: ‘The doctors had a lot of ideas for how you could make things better for yourself; which ones would you like to try?’ Under initial sufferance,  her mother was also now allowing a carer into the home just twice a week. Over time she then built up her comfort with having care in the home. 

Demonstrating ikigai again, rather than Sara giving the carer a list of things she could do for her mother, Sara asked her mother: “What could having a carer in the house allow you to do?’ or ‘What could a carer do that you’d really value?’ She could use that coaching approach to give her mother more of a sense of being in the driver’s seat.

3. Ikigai owns ‘slow progress’, and helps others see their own

Sara wanted to speed ahead and had advocated for the seven days a week care and a range of therapies her mother was now entitled to. However, I asked how her mother likely felt. That slowed Sara right down, as she admitted her mother likely felt she was ‘losing control’.

In fact, her choosing to smoke was probably one choice that made her feel still in control. When I asked Sara what this meant for her, she responded that her mother was now down to just one cigarette a day – and maybe Sara should view that as progress.

My clients are often professional women like Sara, high-achievers who are used to getting things done. To grow ikigai, however, slowing down is a key skill to learn. It’s a hard one, as their forward drive is often what made them successful… up to this point.

However, you never hear anyone describe the person who runs around the office like a headless chicken as ‘having gravitas’, let alone displaying the daily small joys of ikigai. 

Ikigai and even developing gravitas is about taking the longer-term view and appreciating the small joys or little marks of progress you see around you.

So if you are ever in Sara’s place, I invite you to ask yourself:
  • What would it mean for you if you could accept and even enjoy ‘slow progress’? 
  • How would you come across to others? 
  • What would be easier for you?
Ikigai: the Japanese secret to finding meaning in your work for busy women in STEM
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Ikigai: the Japanese secret to finding meaning in your work for busy women in STEM
Discover the concept of Ikigai and how it can help you find meaning in your work and life.
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InclusIQ Ltd
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