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Defining Your WHY using ikigai

Do you ever feel like you are going through the motions to just get through the day? Do you continue to do what you have to do every day because you have always done it that way? You may not have even considered that you could do anything different. For many people, staying with the status quo feels comfortable because change can be scary and difficult. I understand why teachers feel like this because they have so much on their plate.

I decided to reach out to educators I knew to find out about their stories. Everyone has a story and educators are amazing. There were a few who told me how they have been struggling with the current system and thought they would be making more of a difference in children’s lives. Some shared with me that they weren’t sure what they could do to change their situations.

After listening and talking with them, I got it. Teaching is tough, especially today. The world has changed so much that traditional teaching doesn’t engage and empower kids enough to motivate them to want to learn especially Generation Z kids (born 1998-2012). We still have systems in place where teachers and schools are held accountable for what students are learning. There continues to be too much focus on teaching to the test, meeting standards, separate subjects, and teacher-directed curriculum which means teachers are still the hardest working people in the classroom. When, actually, the people doing the learning need to be the ones working the hardest. For students to be the ones responsible for what and how they learn, then teaching has to change. Some educators told me they were not ready for this because it meant letting go of control. Several said to me “Aren’t I supposed to be the expert?” or “I’ve been teaching for a long time and the kids are doing well so why should I change?”

Then several teachers talked to me in private and told me that they lost their purpose.

Using ikigai to Define Your WHY

I learned about ikigai years ago and used it to help me find my WHY. I was questioning my situation and needed help in finding my purpose. It took me time but finally, I realized my WHY is storytelling. I started sharing my story and how ikigai helped me and eventually, helped my friends and supported educators at my workshops and through coaching. So, let me share what ikigai is with you.

ikigai is the Japanese concept of “a reason for being.” Everyone has an ikigai (pronounced like “icky guy”). To find it requires a journey of self-discovery. The search is worth it. Your ikigai is the meaning of your life. Some people have found their ikigai, while others are still looking for it. They may not be aware that they carry their ikigai with them throughout their lives. It’s your path to self-realization, unique to you in every way.

There is no word for “retirement” in Japan. The happiest and longest-living people in the world are from Okinawa, Japan. Their average lifespan is seven years longer than in North America. They have more 100-year-olds than anywhere else in the world. Instead of retirement, they use the word ikigai, which roughly translates to “the reason you get out of bed in the morning.” It’s the thing that drives you the most. ikigai is similar to passion but holds a strong “purposeful” connotation. The Japanese see the discovery of your ikigai as requiring a deep, long search within yourself that can bring about satisfaction and meaning to life. ikigai has nothing to do with income so I changed the wording from “What you can get Paid for” to “What you are Valued for.”

How do we balance all of these factors in a life that is meaningful, purposeful and aligned with our true calling? Is it possible to have it all? The essence of ikigai gives you a framework to balance these elements into a cohesive whole. While you can make lists of the four elements above and figure out what it is at the center of them all, finding your ikigai can also be as easy as just stopping yourself throughout the day and ask yourself: “Why am I doing this?”

I start with the four primary elements using the additional points and questions to define your WHY.

What you Love

Start thinking about the things that you love using keywords, phrases, and any ideas.

Brainstorm all the aspects of your life that make your heart sing

What you are Good at

What unique skills and dispositions do you have that come most naturally to you?

What talents have you cultivated and what do you excel at even when you aren’t trying?

What the World Needs

What cause breaks your heart or pulls at your gut?

What change would you most love to create in the world?

What you are Valued for

What service or offering do you bring or could bring that brings real value to others?

What is something people need and will pay for or share some value in exchange?

Discovering your ikigai can be one of the greatest journeys you can embark on. However, it can be challenging with many ups and downs. Just remember defining your WHY using ikigai does not happen overnight. I tell everyone to just start. Start by brainstorming some ideas around the four elements. What I found out was that my WHY was to tell my story and model it so others share their stories. I needed to find the stories so I started my podcast to have conversations with inspirational thought leaders who had great stories to share. I learned how to listen better and kept refining my story. This helped me come up with the throughline “Don’t Rent Someone Else’s Story, Own Your Story and Tell It.”

It took me some time to let go of my preconceived notions of teaching, personalized learning, and professional development. I wanted to be there for the kids, for teachers, for others, but I lost me along the way. I needed to pause, breathe, and change my mindset to define my WHY. Throughout the process, it led me to write my book, Define Your WHY: Own Your Story So You Learn and Live on Purpose

I’m still searching and growing and now accept that my ikigai keeps changing every time I change. At first, it was overwhelming, but I’m really enjoying my journey. Try discovering your ikigai then you may be amazed like I was what you discover as your story. Enjoy the journey of discovering YOU and then own and tell your story.

Barbara Bray


Twitter: @bbray27

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Barbara Bray is a creative learning strategist at Rethinking Learning, a division of her company, Computer Strategies, LLC. She is a writer, keynoter, instructional designer, futurist, coach, a #TeachSDGs Ambassador, co-author of two books on personalized learning, Make Learning Personal and How to Personalize Learning, and author of her new book, Define Your WHY: Own Your Story So You Can Learn and Live on Purpose, to launch in 2020. She is the host of her Rethinking Learning podcast Conversations on Learning and co-hosts the Twitter chat, #rethink_learning. Barbara keynotes and does workshops on Define Your WHY and works closely with schools and district teams to support the development of innovative personalized, competency-based systems that are globally connected cultures of learning.


My book, Define Your WHY: Own Your Story So You Can Learn and Live on Purpose, is around the process I went through to figure out my own WHY and to coach educators. There are also over 20 stories from inspirational thought leaders who shared how they found their WHY. Many educators have told me that they were frustrated with what they were doing, not feeling appreciated, and some have told me that they were ready to give up. I listened and learned from them. Their stories needed to be told but they realized they needed to define their WHY first. I discovered strategies that helped them find their WHY so I want to share that process with you. The process works since it is personal for you because it is about YOU.

No matter who you are or what you do, you can define your WHY by getting to know all about you, your beliefs, strengths, skills, interests, and aspirations. You just need to believe that you are worth caring about and fighting for. When you are passionate about working toward your purpose and own your story about your WHY, then nothing can stop you. Each chapter provides stories, activities, resources, ideas, tips, and questions to go deeper. Use this book as your guide as you go on your journey to discover your WHY and to own and tell your story.

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