Ikigai: Finding purpose in the workplace

Written by Marketa Benisek - December 14, 2023

My life completely changed thanks to a THINK Climate event at IBM in London, where six people (some of whom I’m lucky to call my friends today) delivered six powerful talks in just under two hours. For the first time, someone clearly explained what climate change is, why it matters and what we can do to change it. 

These six talks turned me into a climate activist. They resonated with me on a level I had never experienced before. I felt inspired and motivated to make a difference in any way I could. 

Following the THINK Climate event, I started investing all my free time into learning more about climate change and sustainable solutions that can secure a better future for all. At that time, I was working in digital marketing and the event sparked a strong desire to make an impact in my professional life. Little did I know that the answer was just around the corner. 

Around the same time, I met Vineeta Greenwood, the co-founder of Wholegrain Digital, for the very first time. During our meeting, she dropped a comment that “every single email has a carbon footprint”. I felt like I was in a movie where the world pauses for a moment. My initial reaction was “WHAT? What do you mean? How can that be?!” For those with a similar reaction, a quick clarification: everything we do online involves data, and this data requires a significant amount of energy to travel from data centres, through transmission networks and to our end-user devices (laptops, mobile phones, etc.). More on that on our Digital Sustainability page

It was at this moment when Vineeta introduced me to the concept of digital sustainability for the very first time, that I found my ‘why’, or as some people call it, my ikigai

What is Ikigai?

Ikigai or 生き甲斐 is a Japanese philosophy that originated in the Heian period in Japan, particularly in the Okinawa islands of Japan. It’s taken from two words: 1) ikiru which means “to live” and gai which means “worth”. Together, they make up ikigai, which refers to finding the thing(s) that give your life value, meaning, or purpose. 

The concept of ikigai has evolved from traditional Japanese philosophy, initially rooted in finding joy in the ordinary aspects of life such as making tea, watching the sunset or cooking with friends. The original notion carries a more spiritual essence, emphasising the appreciation of every moment and feeling gratitude for simple joys, even in difficult times. 

In recent years, Ikigai has gained widespread popularity thanks to the book Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles. The contemporary, ‘Western’ interpretation of this philosophy focuses on finding your dream job and living your purpose in your professional life. They created a straightforward diagram that includes four pillars: 

  1. What do I love 
  2. What does the world need 
  3. What am I good at? 
  4. What can I get paid for?

The Japanese believe that everyone has an ikigai, whether they intentionally seek it or not. 

The best thing about finding your ‘why’, or your ikigai, is that you can find joy in your life and in your work. It’s not something that someone can force on you. You can only find it if you want to find it. And once you do, it builds a beautiful sense of confidence and calm. It doesn’t matter whether there are other people focusing on the same thing. Regardless of whether others share the same focus, your ikigai becomes a unique, personal purpose that no one can take away. You become deeply invested and even more passionate in your chosen area and, with complete absence of doubt, you know where you should be heading. It’s a magical experience that can put you on an entirely different life path. 

In my case, this transformative journey began with my first meeting with Vineeta. Since then, I started researching the topic of digital sustainability and especially sustainable web design, and both Vineeta and her husband Tom kindly and patiently answered all my questions as I was finding my way through this niche topic. Around the same time, I came across the concept of ikigai and it got me thinking about ways I could combine what I love and what I’m good at with what the world needs and what I can be paid for. In my mind, I designed myself the job that I currently do! 

Is now the best time to find your ikigai?

The ‘Western’ adaptation of ikigai transformed this philosophy into a relatively quick and easy exercise that anyone can do. As things tend to quiet down around the winter holidays, if you’re thinking about changing your job, perhaps this exercise is just what you need. 

All you need is a piece of paper, a pen and a bit of quiet time. When you have those, draw four circles on the paper and start writing down anything that comes to your mind. Go back to your childhood, write anything even if it sounds silly. The questions you need to answer are: 

  • What do you love? What is the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning? What would you do for free (if you didn’t need money)? What makes you light up? What makes you lose track of time?
  • What does the world need? If you struggle with this question, I highly recommend turning to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals defined by the United Nations. Pick any one of the 17 goals that inspires you the most and you’ll find a whole list of things that the world desperately needs, and you might be the best person to help with it. 
  • What are you good at? What can you talk about for hours? What do you get recognised for? Where do people ask for your help? 
  • What do you get paid for? Or what can you be paid for? Can you think of your dream job? 

Now write anything you can think of in each circle. Once you’re finished, try to see where those circles cross over. Where is your purpose, your why, your ikigai?

Can you make your job a climate job? 

Finding your purpose can bring you joy and a sense of confidence in both your personal and professional life. Simon Sinek describes it best in his short video ‘Why Learn Your WHY?’ 

So how can you find purpose in your current (or your future) role?

There is increasingly more evidence that most of us want to find a role that is filled with purpose and meaning. People are also more likely to accept a job offer from companies committed to sustainability and actively looking for positions in responsible, innovative and sustainable companies. 

What if embracing sustainability is the best choice to not only address what the world needs, but also add purpose to our professional lives?

Now, the real question is – can you make your job a climate job? If you’re unsure, Project Drawdown released incredibly helpful action guides to help employees in various industries scale climate solutions in the workplace and beyond.

If you need more inspiration to find your climate action in your job, I highly recommend watching a TED talk by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist, policy expert and writer, on How to find joy in climate action. In her talk, Dr. Johnson presents a simplified version of ikigai and turns it into a Venn diagram that you can use to help you find your climate action. You can download a free template on her website here: https://www.ayanaelizabeth.com/climatevenn

A couple of years ago, I never even dreamt of collaborating with the likes of Unilever, Lavazza and BBC to help them understand what digital sustainability is and why it’s so important that we act on it. Each project feels like a contribution to climate action in its own right and I can honestly say that I love what I do and I feel incredibly lucky to call this my job. My endless passion for this topic is the driving force that gets me out of bed in the morning. 

I believe that finding ikigai in the workplace can also help with a sense of belonging. Wholegrain Digital is a company dedicated to using the business as a force for good and accelerating the shift to an internet that’s good for people and planet. We actively seek solutions to minimise our carbon footprint and create a positive impact. To me, that feels like the place where I belong. I feel very lucky to be a part of such a company where our shared commitment to sustainability and meaningful change creates positive ripples, both within our company and beyond.

So, what about you? Are you living your ikigai? If not, are you ready to find it?


This blog is inspired by the wonderful work of my friend Jeremy Connell-Waite who introduced me to the concept of ikigai and who played a fundamental role on my sustainability journey by telling stories that matter in a way that resonates, educates and inspires.