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250422 unhappy at work ikigai explained

Feeling Stuck and Unhappy at Work? Here’s How to Break Free!

profileXue Miao

After graduating from university, I was thrown into the sea of adulthood.

Here’s the thing about our current education system – it only prepares us for the first part of our working lives.

So after I flung my mortarboard into the air, adulthood came by and smacked me in the face.

Source: Tenor

At that point in time, one of the biggest concerns me and my peers had was our jobs.

It felt like we had to decide right on the spot what we wanted for our careers, and there was little room for error since anything we did in our 20s would serve as building blocks for our careers.

I was 23… and not like one of my overachieving peers; I didn’t know exactly what I wanted in life.

(TBH, LinkedIn just added to this ball of anxiety because everyone seemed to be acing the game, spamming notable achievements on their profiles.)

After spamming resumes and interviews, I was fortunate enough to land a cushy government job as my first job.

Source: Tenor

I really enjoyed moments about my work, but after being at it for a while, there was just this nagging feeling within me, and I knew I needed to do more.

With phrases like ‘millennials are just strawberry generation lah!‘, it’s easy to start questioning whether you’re a bratty, entitled millennial for wanting something more.

But knowing that I had to take action and be responsible for my own life, I knew that being aware of what I wanted (or didn’t want) was the first step to getting out of my existential crisis.

And so, when I chanced upon this beautifully relatable article , I heaved a sigh of relief.

I knew I wasn’t the only one feeling this. 

Source: Giphy

If there’s anything this pandemic has brought us (besides that vicious virus, of course), it would be a wake-up call for some of us, questioning our mortality and whether our time has been well spent.

And since we spend the bulk of our lives working, that was naturally what was in question.

After trying to reach out to our modern God (aka Google) for answers, I came across this beautiful concept – Ikigai.

So if you’re feeling jaded and not really sure where you’re headed, this concept might be helpful for you.

What Is Ikigai (生き甲斐)?

Ikigai (生き甲斐) originates from Okinawa, which is home to one of the highest percentages of centurions in the world.

Iki means life, and gai means value or worth.

The following Venn diagram encapsulates the meaning of ikigai.

Once you’ve reached that tiny sweet spot in the middle, you’d have attained ikigai, or found fulfilment in whatever you’re doing in your life.

The beauty of ikigai is that it does not depend on what your job is – you could be a cleaner in a school or a CEO at a big company; as long as you can find pleasure and satisfaction in what you do, you’re good at it and can make a living out of it, you will achieve fulfilment in life.

1) Something You Love

This is typically what we call ‘passion’, something we think won’t make us enough money.

It could be something you enjoyed when you were young. For example, you could have been making cupcakes and selling them to your classmates or drawing portraits of people.

This is something you don’t have to anchor to anything professional; it is something you wish you could do if you don’t have to worry about money.

2) What You Are Good at

To know this, some level of self-awareness is required.

A way you can look at would be something that you used to effortlessly excel in school.

It could also include things that have been learnt in classes, where you’ve acquired skills or gained mastery along the way.

Examples might include being good at speaking, cooking, coding, organising or designing things.

3) What You Can Be Paid For


This is usually the aspect our society places a heavy emphasis on these days.

While money can’t directly buy us happiness, it sure can provide us with choices.

The intersection of what you’re good at and what you can be paid for is usually where our day jobs would lay, where we would be remunerated for working on what we are good at.

4) What Does the World Need

Now, what does the world need?

As you can see from the Venn diagram above, the intersection of what the world needs and what you love would result in mission.

This is what missionaries usually do, where they provide services and promote their faith via means like social work.

For this aspect, think of what problems you could potentially solve, what can make people’s lives easier, or how you could contribute to society.

This section is what is lacking for most of us at our jobs.

Because it defines our sense of purpose, without it, we tend to feel unmotivated and uninspired.

So How Do I Find My Ikigai?

There is no one right answer to this, but there are ways to figure it out.

While finding your ikigai might sound straightforward and simple, it definitely takes a lot of work.

This is because A LOT of self-exploration, self-reflection and deep-diving is required in this exercise.

So how do you start figuring it out?

Finding your ikigai does not mean leaving behind whatever you have right now, and starting fully anew.

This means that you should not just quit your job immediately and jump straight into knitting.

What would be more feasible is to start by exploring it part-time.

These days, a very common way is to start a side hustle, which allows you to spend more time on what you love and skills you wish to hone.

By doing this, it provides an opportunity to transition your part-time ikigai to a full-time ikigai.

Spend some time to get to know what you love, what you want to do and what you’re good at.

Practising this would allow your ikigai to come to light.

What If I Don’t Want To Quit My Job?

So far, all these seem like we have to leave our jobs to pursue fulfilment in life.

But not all of us have the financial stability to do it.

There are also ways to find fulfilment in what you’re currently already doing.

One way would be to focus on what you can learn from your current role.

Source: Giphy

Find new challenges in your work and areas which you are not familiar with.

A way to be fulfilled is to engage in new opportunities and challenges and find ways to solve them.

Another way is to look at how you can help people through your work.

Source: Giphy

According to Winston Churchill,

We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.

In fact, experiments show evidence that altruism is hardwired in our brains – and it’s pleasurable.

Helping others is a powerful pathway to personal growth and happiness.

You can also look at how your current work is helping you achieve your bigger life goal.

Being in your current job might be a placeholder for you to earn an income and gain substantial savings before moving to the next goal post of your life.

This might remind you that while this moment is not what is ideal for you, it is necessary for the bigger picture.


Employees are no longer just seeking a fat paycheck to feel fulfilled in this current day and age.

They seek meaning in their work and hope to find purposeful work that can fit into a larger context of their career.

This also serves as a reminder to companies of the importance of employee engagement, which it could ultimately lead to high productivity and profitability as well.

As for us, remember that the amount of money we have is also not the sole indicator of our happiness.

(That being said, it’s still important to have good financial planning as that would allow us to sleep well at night)

A meaningful life isn’t a destination. It is something you can enjoy right now, anytime you want to.

Finding this way of living will be a lot of work.

But know that as long as you’re willing to take charge of your life, it’ll eventually be worth it.

About Xue Miao
A millennial who is learning to adult. She doesn't believe in the rat race and hopes to live on a farm someday.
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