Polygence blog / How to Conduct and Showcase Research

Choosing the Perfect Project Idea using Ikigai

6 minute read

Deciding on what kind of project you’d like to do with Polygence can be a daunting task. It can feel like there’s a never-ending list of opportunities that has your head spinning. Loved ones might offer advice like focusing on a project that incorporates one of your hobbies. Or the exact opposite, maybe you should explore an area of interest you know nothing about. While there’s no one-size fits all among dozens of perfectly sound ways to make a decision, we at Polygence would like to offer you another tool: ikigai, a Japanese secret to a long and happy life.

Ikigai is a Japanese word that originated in the country’s Okinawa prefecture, home to the largest population of centenarians in the world. Many researchers suspect that it’s possible that this philosophy could have an influence on the Okinawans' longevity. This is especially so because the concept that is “ikigai” isn’t exclusive to Okinawa or even Japan. Other communities that share a similar life philosophy, such as Sardinia and the Nicoya Peninsula, are also known to reach record-setting ages. And not only do they live long, but they lead healthy and happy lives as well.

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Right now, you may be thinking, “Okay, a long and happy life is nice, but I thought we were here to talk about project ideas?” We are! We believe that the secret to a fulfilling life could also be the secret to a fulfilling project.

Ikigai literally translates to “a reason for being,” your “why you get out of bed every morning.” The Japanese make note that much of our lives are dedicated to our studies and later, to our jobs. Thus, they believe a happy career equals a happy life. And the key to this happy career? Ikigai! Which can now open the door to a satisfying project as well.

Ikigai is made up of four primary components

  • What you love

  • What you’re good at (not natural talent, but what you’re willing to improve on)

  • What you can be paid for

  • What the world needs

Finding an activity that combines all four of these elements is finding your ikigai. As the above image suggests, not just one or even three of these components are likely to offer someone a feeling of completeness. Doing what you love and what you’re good at can offer a sense of passion, but you may feel as though no one appreciates your efforts or that you’re unable to make a true impact in your community. On the flip side, doing what you know you can get paid for and what you believe the world needs can make one feel useful, but feeling like they’re somehow stagnated without the push for improvement. Like-mindedly, having a strong mission with few ways of advancing it and having a tiring job or profession that feels meaningless are both equally frustrating. So, if happiness can supposedly only be gained from having all four elements, how does one do such a thing?

Here is a list of tips inspired by advice from the life coach, Seiiti Arata, to finding your ikigai:

Tip 1: Ask yourself questions

The four principles force us to ask ourselves why we have the dreams that we do. Ikigai is less about the actions and more about the motivations behind them. So when you understand the motivations underlying your desires, you can then use them as a key to achieve your goals and lead a satisfying life. Common questions people ask themselves in this case include: What do I love? What am I good at? What can I turn into a career? And what is a cause I fight for?

Action: Answer the questions above and ask another: Why? If you love basketball, why is that? Is it because you love training? Do you love winning? Or do you simply love working on a team? There’s no wrong answer here. It’s all about finding our core and where it can lead us.

You can also make three separate lists of your values, things you like to do, and things you’re good at. The cross section of these lists might just be your ikigai.

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Tip 2: Start small

Many of us want to live extraordinary lives. We’re often told that our life goal should be to become a millionaire, travel to luxurious places, have a huge house, hang with celebrities, be a celebrity, etc etc. Yet, we focus so much on having that we end up with basically nothing. Instead, try starting small. Don’t put pressure on yourself to solve cancer right away. Push aside the idea of jumping straight to greatness and build your ikigai (or in this case, your project) slowly and steadily. This way you’ll be better at planning for the long-term, which might just be what keeps up your motivation for the next few months you’re with Polygence.

Action: Instead of immediately setting overbearingly high expectations for yourself, why not start by looking at the mentor profiles on our website? All of our mentors have the projects they have done or are interested in listed in their bio, so they might just offer you some inspiration!

Tip 3: Free yourself

It makes sense to choose a project you think will look impressive to others, especially college admission officers. But ask yourself if you would actually enjoy that project. Be blatantly honest with yourself and try to differentiate between what you think you should do and what you truly want to do. We gain a lot of our ideas on what a successful life looks like from society, culture, family, friends, and so on. Yet, who can really prove any of that will lead to a better life? After all, just the word “better” is subjective, right? Simply trust that you can do a project in which you find both joy and pride.

Action: If you take a look at the rest of our blog, you’ll see that the number one piece of advice students give in their exit interviews is: “Do something that you love. You won’t regret it.” So, ask yourself if your current ideas of what a perfect life (or project) looks like actually resonate with you or if they’re just products of the external world. Reflect and find what it is you want from life.

Tip 4: Seek harmony and stability

There’s no use finding your ikigai if it doesn’t add harmony to your life and if it’s not sustainable. Ask yourself if what you’re doing right now (literally or in general) can be sustained in the long run. Is it good for your mental, physical, and emotional health? Choose a project that you know you’ll be able to see to the end, not one that is going to make you so busy that all you feel is stress for the next few months.

Action: Consider finding a way to include your current hobbies. Not only will this make it easier to implement your project into your everyday life, but it could also sustain your motivation and excitement for the long term.

Tip 5: Have joy in the little things

Steer away from conditioning your happiness only to the fulfillment of grandiose projects and ideas. For example: if you place your happiness on the condition of completing med school, which is a long and arduous task that will take many years (as many of our mentors can affirm), you will deprive yourself of happiness during all the years leading up to graduation day for just a few hours of glee. Moreover, once you graduate, you will only look for even greater and more grandiose sources of happiness. The cycle never ends. Life is made up of more small, ordinary moments than exciting, momentous ones. If you only allow yourself to be happy during the latter, you are setting yourself up for dissatisfaction. So, make sure to celebrate all the tiny victories along the way, from writing the first page of your research paper to finishing the 100th.

Action: Consider choosing a project that you know you’ll be able to at least tolerate all the steps of, even the smallest and most tedious ones. So, maybe don’t choose to do a podcast if you vehemently hate rehearsals.

Tip 6: Being in the here and now

Similar to the last tip, learn to live in the present and to enjoy the entire journey. Find happiness in the doing of your project rather than just the finished product. Fixating on a certain outcome will only stifle your project and make it feel stale, which leads to frustration. However, focusing on the process rather than the end will allow it to evolve into something even better than you could’ve imagined. So, it’s important that we allow ourselves to grow and for our interests and passions to change with time.

Action: Keep in mind that it’s okay for your finished project to end up completely different from what you originally envisioned. Give you and your project some flexibility and room to grow. You don’t need to have every little thing figured out or stress about the details now. Who knows? You might pick up a new interest while analyzing an article that ends up being your college thesis.

There are tons of ways Polygence students decide on a good project. Ikigai is only one. Still, we hope you find it helpful in both your decision-making process and the rest of your life as you choose a college major, and later, a career. More importantly, if there is one thing we hope you take away from this article, it’s to focus on what you love just as much as what you think looks good on paper (or even a little more). The fact you’ve chosen to do a research project during your free time is already impressive as it is.

Also, know that what you love may change overtime. You might even find that your ikigai now will be different a year from now. And that’s okay. Polygence is here to offer you the exploration you need to narrow down the endless possibilities at your feet, not to box you in before you’re even 18.

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