How to decide what to build next?
Use this Japanese secret to leading a purposeful life as your decision criteria before you embark on your next major project.
Turning the page to write your next chapter is hard, especially when you truly enjoyed writing the previous one. I am starting 2022 with a new team and product area (within Meta). Rediscovering my ikigai has yet again helped me build conviction in choosing this next chapter to write. This post introduces ikigai as a decision criteria for fellow builders -
This is a Japanese concept that combines the terms iki, meaning “alive,” and gai, meaning “benefit.” Ikigai goes back to a medical tradition form the Heian period (794 to 1185) that holds that physical wellbeing is affected by one’s mental–emotional health and sense of purpose in life. It states that your ikigai is optimized at the intersection of the following 4 -
What you love
What you are good at
What the world needs
What you can get paid for
So why is this relevant to builders?
1. Builders get only a “few” shots.
Building a dent in the universe takes time. What seems as overnight success often took a 10+ year journey of building. What I have come to realize — after 2x startups & 2x product gigs — is that in your life you only get a few shots at building something that truly makes a difference. This year, whether you are building a new product, team, company, or community — think of it really as one of those shots at building your life’s work. Thus it is totally okay to be nervous before you start writing your next chapter.
Since building successful companies takes time this concept tends to resonate more quickly with startup founders. But really anyone who loves building things is a builder — you may be a builder in disguise as an engineer, designer, product manager, researcher, recruiter, community creator, etc. So before turning the page to the next chapter, try taking some time to reflect on your values and discover your ikigai to help you better shape your life’s work.
2. Builders must turn the chaos of possibility into conviction.
One key period of decision making is in the -1 to 0 phase (a term coined at South Park Commons) or the phase before you embark on your next marathon. This is that period between leaving your last major project and fully launching your next. It is the time to turn the page to write your next chapter. Reflecting on my ikigai in the -1 to 0 phase helped me provide a clearer “decision criteria”.
In a recent interview Kyle Vogt, co-founder of Twitch & Cruise, shared the decision criteria he used to start Cruise. While he expressed this as 3 principles, it really covers the 4 principles of ikigai very well -
“I wanted to use the skills I had as an engineer and developed to do something good. It had to have extremely hard technical problems that need to be solved because I know that's what engages me and keeps me motivated. It had to be a good business because to actually achieve that positive social impact you need scale.”
3. Your feelings dictate your sustenance. And sustenance is imperative to building great things.
We all aim to be in a spot where we hit all 4 principles of the Ikigai. But often tend to miss 1 or 2 if we over index on one or skip to value another. After exiting Twitch for 970m$, Kyle could have easily chosen to ignore “what you can get paid for” before starting Cruise. However, as he mentioned, it really needed to be a good business to actually achieve the positive social impact at scale. Builders tend to lose motivation and break off at a point when they miss 1 or 2; noticed with these feelings —
Satisfaction, but feeling of uselessness — You feel “useless” when you are building something that the world does not need.
Comfortable, but feeling of emptiness — You feel “empty” when you are doing things that you do not love. You also feel less engaged and motivated.
Delight & fullness, but no wealth or scale — You feel “capital struggles” either personally or as a business when you are building something that you cannot be paid for or is not a good business.
Excitement & complacency, but sense of uncertainty — You feel “uncertain” because you are not sure if you can sustain this or if you are building the right thing in the right way. Thus there is a lot more doubt than conviction.
4. Your ikigai evolves with your journey. Ongoing self reflection helps open new possibilities.
How much money you want or need? What is the nature, depth, and scale of social impact you want to see? What is the nature of work you like to engage in? What are your strengths? These are personal questions and the answers continue to evolve with time. Your experiences and life situation heavily influence them.
I remember after returning from my first internship outside India, in 2008 Germany, I got convinced that I want to build my life’s work in uplifting the working class in India. I thus started as a robotics engineer back in India. However, a key interest to embed myself in a community solving deeper technical problems pulled me to the United States. It honestly took me a few years before I could appreciate the value of bringing positive social impact at a global scale. The satisfaction in delivering value on ground and back to my roots was always more obvious. Now after a decade and a half — I see my self as a global citizen and my definition of “what the world needs” has totally evolved. I recognize how people are building things that the world needs at a global scale.
I am not saying one kind of impact is better than the other. I am saying that the definition of your ikigai is personal and will continue to evolve with your journey. Thus making a habit to do a hard sanity check (in writing) every 18 months or before turning the page to the next chapter has been extremely useful. And no doubt that it is really a continuous self-discovery process.