The Search for Ikigai: Why who you are is more important than what you do

Note: if you would like to work with me to discover your own ikigai please email:

I can still remember the rabbit in the headlights moment when he described me as a ‘transformational leader‘.

I already had several labels like sport scientist, physical therapist, runner, coach, lecturer and researcher but a transformational leader?

I appreciated his positive sentiment and respectfully parked his misplaced compliment, until a few days later. Again, sat over lunch, in a completely different environment I received a similar compliment. I began to dig a little deeper.

The Search for Ikigai 生き甲斐 – a reason for being

The first conversation, in the cramped canteen, was with a University Professor who was describing the change in research activity under my leadership as something he had not seen in 25-years at the University. The second came from a rugby club member who suggested that the clubs recent progress had more than a little bit to do with me.

I began to reflect to see if there was any other supporting evidence to substantiate these claims. I realised that during my first lecturing position I had mentored a colleague and an undergraduate student to publish the first paper of its kind in my department. Before that, when I was a PhD student, I had trained an office full of people to successfully complete a half-marathon, many for the first time. Even as a young undergraduate and  postgraduate student I had a tendency to pull house-mates together in a way which meant we were all out exercising together or taking turns to cook for one another.

It seemed there was some basis to suggest that I had a tendency to know how to make the ship go further and faster in a way that seemed to benefit all of its inhabitants. This new found awareness made me wonder how my skills could be used in my personal, professional and social life.

In order to maximise the gift, I needed to know why I was good at this and how I did what I did. This took another 2-years and has resulted in this blog.

Digging Deeper into Ikigai

What are you world class at?

Everyone has one or two skills which they tend to perform better than most other people. Finding out what this is, is very important (and takes time). My key skill is abstract reasoning or conceptual thinking.

In other words, I can zoom out and see the big picture. I don’t get lost in the details  and I can identify what details are most important for progress overall. I can see the overall vision clearly (or create one) and I can see what actions are most important to take (removing energy from the least important actions) in order to realise the vision. This helps enormously with being able to communicate a vision to people simply. Linked to this, I can see how the talents of individuals best fit into the overall picture. This means people tend to be working according to their natural strengths and therefore, feel better. They are not square pegs in round holes. Being able to see the project (and people) from a distance means I can also easily see where blockages exist and problem solve them.

What are your personality traits?

I score highly on vitality (energy, passion, assertiveness), conscientiousness (discipline, persistence), unconventional thinking and sensitivity to others.

What happens when your key skill interacts with your personality?

In my case, let’s look at the requirements for transformational leadership:

  1. Create an inspiring vision of the future (requires abstract thinking)
  2. Motivate people to buy in and deliver (requires vitality and the ability to communicate the big picture)
  3. Manage delivery of the vision (requires knowledge of the most important factors and the ability to problem solve)
  4. Build ever-stronger, trust-based relationships with your people (requires an ability to consistently model the behaviour you wish to see, requires knowledge of individual strengths and how they relate to the big picture and sensitivity to others hopes and dreams).

I tend to be able to see and communicate the big picture (key skill) and I have a personality which is likely to (a) motivate others, (b) persist long enough for the project to gain momentum and (c) consistently model the behaviour required (building trust).

An Ikigai poster I had drawn to hang at the entrance to my office (Drawn by Dominika Stoppa using her own Ikigai).

Why Ikigai matters

Ikigai matters because it is more aligned with who you are rather than the titles given to you professionally or academically. Life flows a lot easier when you live it closer to who you are. For some people, Ikigai might be creativity (art, cooking, carpentry etc.), for others it could organisation (administration, cleaning) or numbers (accounting, statistics). Doing things that come naturally to us allows us to build competence and competence builds confidence.

This level of self knowledge has made my life and decisions easier. To provide a few examples:

  • Deciding what chapters to include in my first book Running from Injury. Knowing that my key skill is to summarise the key information, I was able to write chapters that would have maximum impact toward helping runners to avoid injury. If I didn’t know this I would have been tempted to fill it with detailed science so that it aligned with other science books. The book would completely lose it’s impact.
  • At work. Deciding where to focus the majority of my energy (and where not to, equally important). I tend to seek out working groups, modules to teach on and activities where my ability to zoom out will have greatest impact. Equally, I avoid voluntary committees and modules where there is little requirement for these skills (easier to do when you know where you major contribution lies).
  • Setting up groups. Recognising my skill allows me to recognise skills in others. In the research group I direct there are two individuals in particular who are statistics wizards. Needless to say, I consult them for the groups statistical needs rather than trying to learn it myself. The same individuals have consulted me to keep their projects on track and stop them from spending too long on the details (the stats!!).
  • Working with sports teams. Previously, I have joined sports teams as sports science/sports medicine support. Nowadays, I am more inclined to join as a Human Performance Coach engaged in transformational leadership. Because, this is what seemed to happen anyway when I was being myself. My energy is better spent on keeping an eye on proceedings overall and problem solving rather than coaching specific skills or fitness.
  • Removing barriers. I dislike doing too many social media updates because it distracts me from what I am world class at. So, I am in the process of mentoring someone with a passion for media studies to realise their potential while I focus on my own.

Peter, how the f**k do I do this?

You might be thinking that’s great for you Peter with your transformational leadership but I’ve got an office job I hate and 3 children who need my attention at home, how can I get in on my own ikigai?

Step 1: Pay attention to what you enjoy and do not enjoy.

In my case, I realised I enjoyed writing, presenting, speaking, mentoring, problem solving, pulling people together etc. But of course, it wasn’t the writing or the presenting, it was the ability to create a vision, communicate it and help others to take action toward meaningful goals.

I dislike administration, bureaucracy, politics, paperwork, groups without purpose or direction, ticking boxes etc. When any of these begin to take up more than a fraction of my time, I begin to wither and die.

Step 2: Find as many free online personality tests as you can and do them. There will be some variance among them but strong patterns will emerge.

Step 3: Read articles / books on the importance of knowing your values.

Step 4: Take action no matter how small. If you love administration start doing more of it at work and for your local club / charity. Outsource or minimise the things you enjoy least.

Take your time and remember, who you are is more important than what you do.

Two Caveats

  • Being good at a few things. This can be useful e.g. I have experience of being an athlete, coach, scientist and therapist. This means I can draw knowledge on the same topic (i.e. running) from multiple perspectives without necessarily being world class at any of them. Using knowledge from multiple domains with my key skill is a potent combination. In other words, it can help a top restaurant manager to have knowledge of food and it can help a top chef to know how a restaurant runs.
  • Failure. Doing things we don’t like or are not good at can build resilience – perhaps the number 1 life skill. But if life was all failure and resilience it would be miserable. So while it shouldn’t and can’t be all Ikigai, it shouldn’t be all suffering either.

Note: if you would like to work with me to discover your own ikigai please email: