Ikigai & Collaboration: A Conversation with “The Ikigai Guy” David Marlow

Oct 6
Join our short 27min chat with David Marlow, "The Ikigai Guy" where we talk about Ikigai and Collaboration.

This is Episode #7 of our Collaborwocky series.

Topics include:

  • What is Ikigai?
  • How does it factor into collaboration?
  • How can organizations utilize this concept?
  • How does Lean, Agile, Six Sigma etc. fit into Ikigai?


Tonianne DeMaria: Hi everyone and welcome to Collaborwocky, Modus Coperandi, and Modus Institute's conversation series about collaboration and humane work. I'm Tonianne DeMaria, and as usual, I am joined by my co-host and partner at Modus Coperandi, Jim Benson.

Jim Benson: Hi there.

Tonianne DeMaria: We are thrilled to have on our show today someone we've worked with, broken bread with, and respect immensely. Please join us in welcoming David Marlow.

David Marlow: Hi. Excited to be here.

Tonianne DeMaria: So, David, you have an interesting background. Perhaps you can tell us how a former Marine and a strategy executive finds his way to becoming “The Ikigai Guy.”

David Marlow: Yeah, yeah. So, let's go back just a few years, and I could see that my career was not going to end the way I had originally planned. Companies change, cultures changed. And so, I started just getting on LinkedIn, because the worst time to want to connect with people in network is when you're out of work. So, I thought, well, about 5 or 6 years ago. And I just started writing, just started writing what was on my mind, what I was thinking of, what I thought was valuable to people. And in the course that, it was really a representation of me, because it wasn't an agenda or anything like that.

And so, I asked some folks, yourselves included, what was I projecting? What was the brand that was coming across? Because again, it was me. And one guy that I talked with said, “I don't know about your brand, but you ought to look into a Ikigai.” And I said, “What's Ikigai?” he said, “Oh, just look into it. Just look into it.” So, I dug into it. And what I found was a direct connection to all of the work I had done over the years in the various, as you said, the various kinds of work I've done. There was a thread of the time I was most satisfied, that I was the most effective, that I was having the best impact. And I was able to put a name to it, and that is Ikigai. And that's what led me to that.

And what's cool about it is I'll actually share my entire, my entire career path, because it'll be even more unusual and reinforce the idea that Ikigai is that deep, interpersonal representation of you, as opposed to a profession. So, I started years ago. I mean, I was 16 years old. I was in commercial radio, not like a school radio station, like a real radio station as a disc jockey. And then I moved into news and did some TV news, mostly radio though. With this face, I needed to be in radio more often than then on TV. And that world is so crazy that I joined the Marines for more sane life, if that tells you anything about that business at all.

I left the Marine Corps, got into engineering. Was in radio frequency engineering, because I worked on radar and radar jamming in the Marine Corps. Then transitioned into IT. Was GE for a number of years and the still remember this boss I had saying, “I think this internet thing may turn out to be something. We should probably start a team.” And so, I helped create an IT team, became an IT engineer, and then, as you said, moved into executive leadership, and then eventually into corporate transformation work and things.

But again, throughout all of that, and I'll throw in coaching my daughter's 8th grade basketball team to like a national championship level, 6th place in the national championship, all of those things had those same elements that really jazzed me and helped me be what I believe I was created to be. And in those moments, I was the most fulfilled. And so, when my career began to change, I got an opportunity to retire early. And the really cool thing about it was, because I understood my Ikigai at its deep level, I knew that they offered me another role. So, they did away with my... my entire department was eliminated. And very gracious, they came to me and offered me another role. And I just knew that wouldn't be where my heart would be. That particular role wasn't where I could live out as much of my Ikigai as possible. And so, I turned that down and started my own consulting and coaching business, Vluru, right behind me here. And that's kind of how I came to Ikigai.

Tonianne DeMaria: For those who might not have a familiarity with Ikigai, how would you explain it?

David Marlow: So, Ikigai is a Japanese combination word that literally means ‘life purpose’. And Ikigai is your reason for getting up in the morning. That purpose, that unique expression of you, your gifts, your passions, your skills, your experiences, your opportunity to impact the world. And when you're living your Ikigai, you're spending your time doing what only you can uniquely do. Again, it's that special combination of everything that is you, your personality, your interests. And then it’s understanding that to level and then becoming the best in the world at it, which is it being yourself.

And the great thing about a Ikigai, once you've got a sense for that, it becomes core to your essence to your being, to your doing, and it's like a north star like a guide. And incredible things start to fall in place for you. Your natural ref... you have a naturally... sorry, excuse me, you have a reframe for your focus and your energy. And that happens naturally. And doors begin to open where you didn't even know it existed.

Tonianne DeMaria: Is it a concept only embraced by the individual? Is it something that teams can apply or embrace, or organizations?

David Marlow: Yeah. So, the really cool thing I found about it is it's at a personal level, but it can also be at a company level. So, what I do in my coaching and my consulting work is I help individuals find it, and find that fulfillment in living into it. Then I help businesses identify their purpose and bring that into their products and into their people. And I know both of you are wonderful, wonderful leaders and thought leaders in continuous improvement work. And what I have found is that when you add a Ikigai into that, you really multiply the benefits of any kind of transformation work.

So, let me give you an example. In I'll just say a company that I worked with, there in life insurance, we'll call them Acme Life Insurance. How's that? There might be an Acme Life Insurance, I don't know. But we'll just pretend. Okay? And they were headlong into, and I was leading a transformation effort there and doing all the right things in an area interestingly called death benefits. So, as you have life insurance, you have a benefit, there's death benefits. And they were all about improving that process, speeding it up, getting the money to the beneficiaries. Someone's lost a loved one, they've got a life insurance policy for all the right reasons, you want to get it to them as fast as you can.

Well, what we found out was when we dug deeper and when we connected it more to purpose, the team's purpose, they thought was speeding that up. In reality, what the clients needed was to have less burden placed on them at a really tough time. And everything we were doing to speed up the process was putting more burden on the clients. And so, there was a mismatch there. Again, they did all the right things for all the right reasons, getting rid of waste, all of the things, wasn't really connected to the purpose of that team. So, when you have a company purpose, which this company had a very solid understanding of their broader purpose, but none of the departments saw a connection, a direct connection to that purpose in their day-to-day activity. They just looked at the operational accountabilities they had.

So, when you can connect that, now you've got that from a company standpoint, and that supercharges your continuous improvement efforts. And if you can link that then and support your employees in working in that same way, in living out their Ikigai in the work that they're doing, man, you just get a win-win all the way around.

Jim Benson: What I like about that, that story is that they couldn't find their purpose without finding out what the customer need actually was. And customers, especially customers in a life insurance situation, often don't have a lot of opportunities to just call up the company and say, “Hey, let me tell you about my needs.” Because they don't know their needs until it's too late, and then they're like, “Oh crap, those are my needs, and you are or you aren't meeting them.” So, it seems to me that whether it's for the individual or a team or a company or what have you, you have an entity. And that entity has some purpose, some raison d'etre. And in order for that purpose to have meaning, it has to be in relation to something else. So, “How am I making an impact? How am I helping? How am I furthering something out there in life?” And so, that nature of the collaboration, I find really interesting.

David Marlow: Yeah, you've got to be willing to commit to go deep and listen, listen to the clients. Because and even that, that insight was derived, no one had said it explicitly, it was more from conversations and things that we had. And we were very lucky that we had several clients who had both Acme Life Insurance and (come up with another one) Acme Junior Life Insurance. And we could compare the 2. And in listening to their experience, we came up with, and then did a further investigation into a company that wasn't well known for maybe being as caring as Acme, and yet, the experience was more caring. And that really smacked us right upside the head, because it's like, “We’re the caring ones. We’re the caring ones.”

Jim Benson: That's awesome.

David Marlow: Maybe not. Yeah. So, one thing about that too, Jim, and I'll actually show you a little something here real quick. Some of the... there are some frameworks around Ikigai, some of which are... are what, if you Google it, you'll get that definition that I shared earlier, at least around the life purpose. And you'll also find a Venn diagram that I'll show you.

So, this has become kind of the de facto definition of Ikigai. And those of us who really practice it and teach it will tell you it's not... this is like my grandson's played... was playing T-Ball. And he loves T-Ball. He's very good at T-Ball. His dad played college baseball. So, he loves baseball. This year, he moved up to coach's pitch. So, we went up another level. And T-Ball provided that nice framework and foundation. But it's not the game of baseball. And this is not an Ikigai. However, it does provide a nice framework for understanding how you might apply it, how you might live it out.

I always coach my clients is especially the personal coaching, that it's not about your profession. This sort of focuses on your profession, but as I gave you the example, I was a disc jockey, and a sergeant in the Marines, and an engineer and all those things, and I was able to live out my Ikigai. It's clearly not about the profession. That's just the way that I could live into it and make a living.

So, this though does provide a nice diagnostic. So, if you look at the Venn, it's what you love, the intersection of what you love, what the world needs, what people are willing to pay for, and then what you're good at. And as a company, you can certainly use that. I mean, maybe we don't... maybe we know what we're, we're about in terms of our purpose. Maybe we have an idea, we've done that deeper dive, that empathy, listening where we understand what they need, and what they're willing to pay for. Maybe we're not good enough at it yet ourselves, we got to build skills. Or maybe we have some mad skills in a particular area, but we don't know how those might be applied. So, we need to understand what the world needs. And so, this becomes a diagnostic for you.

And then it can become... it's a great diagnostic for the individual as well. So, I have a client who was a pastor, and he got cancer. And although he survived, it was a very, very tough, tough thing for him. And so, he doesn't have the energy and the physical stamina to be a pastor full-time anymore. But he's a super interesting guy. He's a devout follower of his faith. And he likes to read novels about multi-dimensional travel and the real physics of multi universes and all these things. And so, he started writing stories about that and just kind of combining them. So, he loved that. He had an interest in it. He has sold a number of his books. So, people are willing to pay for it.

When we were working together, what we found though was he had a skill gap to really be able to live that out and do it right. His editing skills are not that great. He's a very good writer. But as you know, you're an author, Jim, and Toni, you guys are authors. So, you know that writing a book is one thing. Writing a novel and dialogue, and that is a whole different thing. And so, we identified by using this, a skill gap for him. And so, he actually hired the editing, but then he also had some training and stuff in dialogue and has done some really amazing things with it. That's one of the tools that we use that applies both to the personal and to the professional space.

Tonianne DeMaria: What struck me is we've all met in a lean environment, working on a lean project. And what struck me was, obviously, it's another Japanese concept, and we were working with continuous improvement as you mentioned before in Kaizen. And looking at the word ‘Kaizen’ and then looking at ‘Ikigai’, and then looking at the overlap. When you're coaching somebody in Ikigai or with Ikigai (I don't know how I would frame that), do you look at their current state and then look at their ideal state? Is that how you help them make the jump?

David Marlow: Yes. I mean, as you pointed out, I mean, that's where... so, I named my company Vluru for a versatile guru, because I'm not a lean guy. I'm not a sigma guy. I'm not an Ikigai guy. Well, I am an Ikigai guy, but I use whatever works for the client. So, that's why I named the company that. And I think when you've been deep into it like we have, how can you not apply those tools and things that you know that work? And yet, it's not an explicit lean engagement. It's not an explicit philosophical engagement. It's all of the things.

Let me show you one of the other things too that links right to what you're talking about, Tonianne. And so, these are the 5 pillars of Ikigai. And these are just principles and things that we utilized to help people grasp it at a deeper philosophical level. So, to go beyond the bend. And I’ll just... so, one of them is, “Be in the here and now.” See, if you see any lean stuff in here. “Embrace starting small. Take joy in the little things. Seek harmony and balance and sustainability.” And by sustainability, I don't mean in the like environmentally sustainable sense. It's, can you continue to do this? What is it? And that's a direct linkage to lean. And then finally, “Release yourself through self-acceptance.”

So, “Embracing that small,” especially, I use that in the Kaizen principle, small incremental... excuse me. I get very emotional about Ikigai. Small incremental change to help people accept and to grow into it and to learn it. So. So, definitely a strong linkage to that. And helping them see the other is, a lot of times, our discussions will start with a career conversation, because that's where most people are reaching out. It's like, “I want a career change. I want to do all this.” And so, you almost have to start with that kind of a process to even get them to invest in the reflection that will help lead them to the self-realization that comes with an Ikigai on top of career work.

Tonianne DeMaria: Working with teams, individuals, organizations, doing this type of coaching, have you had any major epiphanies?

David Marlow: Wow. Probably the biggest is that it just takes time. And if you think about it, I guess like anything, I mean it's just narrowing down. You think you've got your Ikigai, you think you've got your improvement, you think you got your transformation. And then you go to the next phase, you go, “Wow, we are so much further than we realized, and there's so much more to go.” And you just... and it never gets to zero. That's the thing. And it’s so true of this, your understanding of it, and an application of it just keeps going deeper. So, that's probably the biggest revelation to me.

Tonianne DeMaria: There's no perfect process. There's no perfect individual. There's no excellent...

David Marlow: No, you guys are like this. I always, in almost any engagement, especially in this space with lean or anything, I tell people, “I want you to commit to embracing something for me,” they'll say, “What is it?” I say, “Be comfortable with life into the phrase, ‘it depends’.” Because everything depends. I've worked with some companies that they really wanted, and they were serious about connecting their purpose and connecting to their employees and all that. Excuse. Sorry. And they were very serious about it. And yet, they couldn't deliver their services right now in any kind of reasonable way. It's like, “Well, we got to get to that first.” You're getting kicked in the head every day because you're not delivering what you're committing to your customers, we may have to fix that before we can do a lot of deep-dive purpose work.

And so, it does... it depends. Some companies or some people are at a point, I'm working with a client right now who was willing to explore the reflection and Ikigai at the beginning, but thought it was a kind of a waste of time. And then found herself out of work and is now really trying to find something that's more meaningful. And our session just a few weeks ago, she goes, “Oh, now I kind of get why I need to know my Ikigai.” Because she was looking at 10 different jobs and I’m like, “Why would you pick this one? Why would you pick that one?” and she's like, “Oh, so I should look for one that connects more to where I get fulfillments.” It’s like, “Yeah.”

Tonianne DeMaria: That's something that we've been struggling with clients lately is the acceptance that reflection is not a waste of time. Because there's such a tendency to have a bias towards action. People want a product... they want an end product. And what is the end product of a reflection? Well, hopefully, you learn something, or hopefully an epiphany. But sometimes people don't credit the intangible. Especially now living in a COVID world, in a world where people are concerned with climate change and political crises, and cultural and social conflict right now. How are you finding people are gravitating more towards this sense of self-reflection right now to get a better sense of, “What really... now, what matters to me, what my purpose, now's the time. Now's the time for me to nail that,” are you finding that with your clients right now?

David Marlow: Oh, yeah. Yeah. The kind of hit upside the head that we've all gotten from COVID and just everything, it's forced us to start examining and understanding that we need to examine, “Well, that's not just a muscle you just start using it. You got to develop that.” And so, that's where I'm finding people reaching out, is they know they need it and they're not sure how to do it. Again, because it's not a muscle that they have strengthened or developed over time. And that's a lot of the early work that I do too, is just even getting people to understand, “What does it mean to spend some time in self-reflection? What does that take? What does that, again, mean?” I have one client, he's like, “Man, I'm thinking all the time now. I’m thinking all the time.” And I said, “Why is that?” he goes, “Because I got so much I got to think about it.” You asked me a question,” and I'll ask him a question to prompt it, “Because then I can't get it out of my head for a week until we talk again.” It's like, “Great, that's good.”

Tonianne DeMaria: That can be scary.

David Marlow: Oh, yeah.

Tonianne DeMaria: Having all that time to reflect. And reflecting on the things, on the epiphanies that you do have, then what do you do? What do you do with them?

Jim Benson: And for a lot of people, that's scary because they're like, “What if I get it wrong?” And there's an infinite number of ways to get your life wrong. So, and people are very skilled at it. So, they're like, “Oh, my God, I don't want to think about that.”

David Marlow: To me, that's one of the freeing things too about the concept of Ikigai. It's not, “Should I be an accountant? Should I be a lean guy?” It's deeper than that. And it's really, if you think about it, Ikigai is there. And a lot of times, we have a really good sense of it when we're young, and then life happens. Disappointments and urgencies and jobs and kids and this and that. It gets covered up. And it really the process, some people ask about discovering us, I say no, “It's more uncovering because it's there and it's you.” And you can live into it by being the real and genuine you. So, you can't screw it up. You can't be wrong. You can't have made this decision or that decision and it messes stuff up forever. Because it's really not about those things. It's about being you and living into that fully and wholly as yourself.

Tonianne DeMaria: Well, I have to thank you, because over the past crazy or while the world is burning, a little admission, I would go on LinkedIn in the morning, and I would read your latest post. And it always gave me so much help. And it always gave me something to think about throughout the course of the day, and something that I could tweak and something that I can change. So, I appreciate that. And I want to make sure that all of our listeners know how to get in touch with you and where they can read your writing and look into your consulting. So, if you would share that.

David Marlow: Sure. The best place to get a hold of me is on LinkedIn. And it's David E Marlow. So, just my middle initial, because there are a surprisingly large number of other David Marlow's. I don't know how that could be. But so that's the easiest way to get a hold of me. And you can email me through that or DM me. The other would be to email me at vluru1@gmail.com.

Tonianne DeMaria: Okay. We’ll make sure that we have that posted with this video. Thank you so much for joining us today. I learned a lot.

David Marlow: It's been a pleasure. You guys are 2 of my favorite people.