Ikigai consists of the words ‘iki’ (to live) and ‘gai’ (reason) and refers to the importance of having a purpose in life. Yes, writing about Japanese philosophy probably comes off as pretentious, but I’ve read so much about this concept recently that I feel I have to share. It started when I saw the amazing movie "Jiro Dreams of Sushi". I got completely fascinated by the old mans relentless pursuit for perfection, and reading about him I realized how deeply rooted his way of life is in Japanese culture.

I think finding your purpose is as necessary for companies as it is for people. The world is a maelstrom of opportunities and competition, and forces pull us in all directions at every moment. Finding purpose, and building a culture of joy around that, is necessary to thrive. So what does it take to find purpose?

Focused commitment. I am a devout believer in focus. I think a lot of the anxiety people and companies suffer from today stems from an inability to focus and commit to a cause. I think it’s also an important reason once-successful companies deteriorate and die. We see a world of endless opportunities and waste effort every day considering all the things we could do, instead of focusing on doing something. Or we try and do too much, loose quality in what we do, and are killed by more focused competitors. Creating a successful life, and company, requires being obsessed with a very specific problem for many, many years. Access to information is both a blessing and a curse. We know about all options, which can be overwhelming. I recommend reading “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz on this topic. While freedom and autonomy are critical to our well-being, limiting our options and imposing a sort of “voluntary simplicity” can reduce anxiety.

Craftsmanship and a state of flow. One of the most powerful things with focus is the flow that it enables. When a company, team, or person can focus on something that they enjoy, that is needed, and that they can get paid for, they are radically more productive, not to mention happier. A company that tries to do too many things will fail in a world where there is no second place. They will waste time constantly switching from one thing to another. Only the best product survives global competition, and that takes focused craftsmanship.

Excellence in everything. Focused teams that strive for excellence in everything they do accumulate enormous momentum over time. As a company, you have to be willing to spend on excellence. You need to invest in the most talented individuals, the best tools, the best environment, the best training, and the highest engineering velocity. The moment you start compromising, more focused competitors will crush you. Not to mention that mastering a craft can be very satisfying.

Why then is focus so hard to attain?

Most engineers I know would love to work according to these three principles. So why aren’t more companies organized this way if it’s so great? I see three main forces that tug at the attention of product teams:

Market size. The risk with focus is that you limit the financial potential of what you, or your company, is doing. A particular product will only warrant investment proportional to the potential value of its market. Some products have huge markets and merit massive investments. Others have smaller markets and lead to smaller companies and investments. It’s similar to personal skills. Getting a PhD narrows your “skill market size” but allows for deeper focus. It’s tempting to search for ways to increase the potential market for a product you are working on, but this only makes sense if you can maintain quality - or you might end up losing the foothold you already have. On the other hand, a competitor with a significantly larger scope might be able to outspend you so much that they win anyway. Herein lies the hardest part of building a successful business; it has to be large enough to be strong but focused enough to be the best, and all of this while moving extremely fast. Most companies will be tempted to grow a bit more at the expense of quality.

Timing and network effects. Speed is critical in today’s market. A great product might be launched too early, and fail because there isn’t enough need for it. Or too late when everyone has already found a different solution. Switching costs create significant hurdles, even if the alternative is much better than what you have. Timing is closely related to network effects. It doesn’t matter if you are building a great social network today unless you can somehow get everyone onto that platform. Machine learning has similar traits, where the one with the most data can outcompete everyone else by better automation. That means attention to detail and quality might not be something companies can afford without missing their chance at a market.

Disruption and experimentation. Another concern I hear about focus is that you might get blinded-sided by unexpected shifts in society or technology. Personally I think this is a misconception. True craftsmanship includes constantly searching for better ways to solve the problem you are focused on, and constantly reading about the latest development in your domain. While you have to commit to certain solutions for enough time to transform them into high-quality products, you should always experiment with the next generation of products. And be ready to let go of outdated solutions quickly.


Search for a problem that is valuable enough to solve to warrant a lot of work, and focus on that for many years. Learn to enjoy that problem and use it to hone your skills. I’ve found that this brings me a sense of calm and happiness. And as far as I can tell it makes a good basis for a company too.