We all strive for satisfaction and purpose in our lives. We want to do what we love, love what we do, and do it well enough to pay bills and buy groceries. The Japanese have a word for this “sweet spot”: Ikigai, which translates to “a reason for being”. Artists have rendered the overlapping criteria like this:
The main four overlapping circles are what you love, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and what you are good at. According to the diagram, the intersection of what you are good at and what you can be paid for is your profession. The intersection of what the world needs and what you love is your mission.
Sometimes three of the criteria overlap, like the case where your passion (what you are good and and what you love) and your mission (what you love and what the world needs) overlap. In that case, you have “delight and fullness, but no wealth.” Ikigai is when all four criteria are satisfied.
What the world needs, and what people will pay for, are the same
An economist wouldn’t really see a difference between the what the world needs (red circle) and what you can be paid for (blue circle). If somebody needs something, then they would be willing to pay for it. If somebody is willing to pay for something, then they necessarily want or need it.
Even if we consider social problems like poverty and homelessness, those with resources are willing to pay to help alleviate these problems. We economize on the use of resources to alleviate social problems through voluntary donations from others. Thus, somebody with a need who cannot pay for that need to be met is still covered by the blue-red total eclipse.
The law of association guarantees you a spot in the division of labor
Furthermore, the law of association guarantees that everyone has a comparative advantage. Using the language of the ikigai graphic above, everybody has a guaranteed spot in the what you are good at (green) and what you can be paid for (blue) overlap. And since the blue and the red circles are really the same, what this means is that everybody has the profession-vocation combination.
Everybody has a comparative advantage because even if somebody is really good at something, it means they incur a high cost by doing anything else. Said another way, if somebody is really good at something, then somebody else can produce something else at a relatively lower cost. The law of association is based on this logic. One man’s relative productivity in A is necessarily another man’s relative productivity in B.
Individuals find their comparative advantage by interacting with others in the market. It is only by surveying existing producers, goods, and the prices of those goods that one can make an informed decision on what to produce or where to apply for jobs.
Government gets in the way
The only thing that can hinder the natural process of individuals finding what they are good at, what they can be paid for, and what the world needs is government intervention. Price controls (including minimum wages), regulations, taxes, subsidies, and crowding-out effects can only prevent individuals from finding ikigai.
Government can also separate the what the world needs category from the what you can be paid for category. When the government removes resources from the market to pursue a separate set of ends, certain people get paid, but not necessarily to produce what the world needs. The use of the resources is no longer subject to the strict profit and loss test of the market.
We know that consumers value what producers do by the profit earned by the producer. Losses indicate that the resources used by the producer have higher-valued uses elsewhere. Since there are no market prices for anything the government does, there is no way to calculate profit and loss.
Government budget surpluses and deficits do not proxy for profit and loss because tax revenues are not related to the citizens’ satisfaction with the government’s projects. Thus we get a lot of what we don’t need and not enough of what we do need through the government.
What you love and what you prefer
So far, we’ve seen how economic theory guarantees everyone a job that satisfies three out of four of the ikigai criteria: what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and what you are good at.
Unfortunately, economic theory cannot guarantee the fourth criterion: that you love what you do. That part is up to you and your values.
Economics can guarantee, however, that you will do what you prefer, which might be considered a broader category that encompasses what you love to do.
Anything that you do voluntarily is necessarily your most-preferred course of action given your circumstances. This concept is called demonstrated preference. Murray Rothbard famously employed it in his article “Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics”:
The concept of demonstrated preference is simply this: that actual choice reveals, or demonstrates, a man's preferences; that is, that his preferences are deducible from what he has chosen in action. Thus, if a man chooses to spend an hour at a concert rather than a movie, we deduce that the former was preferred, or ranked higher on his value scale. Similarly, if a man spends five dollars on a shirt we deduce that he preferred purchasing the shirt to any other uses he could have found for the money. This concept of preference, rooted in real choices, forms the keystone of the logical structure of economic analysis, and particularly of utility and welfare analysis.
Demonstrated preference does not just apply to one’s purchasing decisions. It also applies to selling decisions. If you sell your labor to an employer for a certain wage, you demonstrate that you prefer that arrangement over any other alternative given your current knowledge and preferences. You may not “love” your job, but you certainly prefer it to not working or working somewhere else, or else you would choose those paths.
One way to interpret the economic concept of demonstrated preference in a psychological way is to reflect at any given moment on all the choices you have made that have led you to your current situation. Every choice you’ve ever made has been the best one you could have made given your circumstances at the time of your choice. If you look back and see some choices you regret, this has only added to your set of information, allowing you to make more informed decisions going forward.
No matter what, we can find a certain level of contentment in the thought that all of our past experiences and choices have brought about either better circumstances or more complete information to help us make even better choices.
The demonstrated preference concept and the law of association have delightfully optimistic implications. Find your comparative advantage and participate in the division of labor and you will find purpose in your life knowing that you are helping the world, taking care of yourself and your family, and making the best use of your skills. While finding a profession/vocation that you love can be difficult, you can rest assured that you are always doing something you prefer to all other alternatives and that any regret can be chalked up as a learning experience.