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High School

Help Your Undecided Student Find Their Ikigai

V. Peter Pitts, M.A.


I have found the Japanese concept of ikigai a helpful framework when I’m working with students (and their families) to find the best college for them, especially when that student is undecided about a course of study.

What Is Ikigai?

The term combines two Japanese words: iki, meaning “alive,” and gai, meaning “benefit” or “worth.”

Basically, it’s your reason for being; in French, raison d’être. It’s why you get up in the morning. And right now, after more than a year and a half of pandemic living, it’s one of the more popular self-help philosophies out there.

Your ikigai lies at the intersection (think Venn diagram) of these four questions:

  • What do you love?
  • What are you good at?
  • What does the world need?
  • What is going to make you money?

Very rarely does a student find their ikigai in grade school, middle school or high school. Most students find their ikigai during (or shortly after) their college years. I didn’t find mine until two years after graduate school!

Some people never find their true ikigai, and it’s not necessarily their fault. For example, many of us are influenced by family into a career path that becomes a profession, but not ikigai. (“I’m a lawyer/doctor/teacher, so you’re going to be one, too!”)

Yet parents, relatives, counselors and teachers are constantly asking, “What are you going to major in?” The pressure students feel to make a decision is tremendous! If they were truly being honest with themselves, most students would say that they're undecided about exactly what they want to do, what they want to study, and which college they would like to attend.

These “undecideds” are my favorite students to counsel, especially during their junior year of high school.

Most students don’t know what they love, and they haven’t sampled enough of life to know all that they’re good at. Students for sure do not know job forecasts or salary structures.

Use the Ikigai Model to Help Your Student

When I counsel an undecided student, I explore ikigai without them even knowing that I'm doing it. I guess I could just come out and ask “What do you like the most? What are you good at doing?” But there are more subtle and thoughtful questions that work much better. Let me tell you some of my favorite questions.

  • “What careers have you ever (even casually) thought you might enjoy? What do your parents encourage you to consider (or major in)?”
  • “What skill or ability, of one of your best friends, are you most envious? What do they envy about you?”
  • “What do you like to do in your free time?”
  • “If computers didn’t exist and you had to rely on books, what kinds of books would you want to read? Tell me three subjects you'd like to read more about.”
  • “If you had to teach a subject to someone, what subject would you choose to teach? Why?”
  • “Are you good at explaining things to your friends? Do your friends come to you for help? If so, in which subjects?”
  • “What can you do better than most of your friends?”
  • “What is your ‘rabbit hole’? In other words, what gets you SO engrossed that you lose track of time?”
  • “Is there something you've always wanted to do or study, but it wasn’t offered at your school?”
  • “If all your teachers from kindergarten through high school were in the room, and you weren’t, what would they tell me about your best traits and where you need the most improvement?”
  • “Which subjects are your favorites? Which come most easily to you? Which do you struggle with? Which do you absolutely hate?” (Follow-up question to each of these is “why?”)

If a student appears to have their mind set on one specific career (engineering, nursing, law, etc.), I always ask them for a Plan B — and a Plan C and Plan D.

For example, if they say law, I ask, “If you are not admitted to law school, or you are admitted but find out you don’t enjoy it, what would be your second choice? What would you do for money?”

Since a pre-law student can major in virtually anything, I encourage them to pursue their Plan B as their course of study. I encourage students to (a) always keep an open mind, and (b) always have multiple backup plans.

A Picture Begins to Form...

...and it can lead to a college list.

As your student responds to these questions, a picture begins to form about potential majors and programs. Once you have that, you research to find colleges that offer those subjects, whether as majors, minors, certificates or programs.

You will rarely find a college that covers all of your student's interests, so list the most likely ones. Recently I worked with a student who had six different potential programs/majors (all very different from one another), and I was fortunate to help them find one university that actually offered all of them!

In the end, the goal is for the student to have a clearer idea of what they really like, what they are good at, and job potential — plus a list of colleges to which they should apply and, most importantly, visit. Obviously there are other factors to be considered, cost being the primary one, but this is a good starting point for students. A college advising service can help families plan for the future.

The right college will help lead your student to their ikigai. The more we as parents and counselors can do get our students to begin thinking about their future in terms of interests, passions and talents, the easier it will be for them to complete the ikigai process as they go forward.

V. Peter Pitts, M.A., is an advisor with My College Planning Team based in the Chicago area. He retired after 42 years in the college admission business, most recently spending 27 years at Monmouth College. Peter holds a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s from Wartburg College.

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