Every language has beautiful, unusual words that explain abstract concepts and help us see the world in a new light. What we broadly call as “our personal values”, French call it “raison d’être” and Japanese call it “ikigai”. Ikigai is a combination of two words, iki (life) + kai (worth, use, benefit), meaning “the reason to be” or “the meaning of life” or “what makes life worth living”.
All of us have an ikigai; but not everyone has discovered it. Finding the meaning of one’s life requires a deep and lengthy search within oneself to find those things we value the most, and to answer the question “what drives me in life?” These values define who we are, what matters to us, and how we interact with the world, and the significance of knowing these values came into sharp focus for a group of 25 managers at NBS Bank in Malawi last year.
I recently had the wonderful opportunity to be a part of the core training team delivering Women’s World Banking’s Management Development Program (MDP) for NBS Bank. This opportunity was afforded by our ‘Build the Bench’ initiative, Women’s World Banking’s employee cross-training and job rotation program. As much as the MDP was enlightening for the managers at NBS, it was also an equally profound, introspective experience for me. The program started with discussion on ‘Values’. What are some of those things in life that matter the most to us? How do our values influence our behavior and thus our approach in building and managing relationships with the people around us? During the session, the participants were given ten minutes to reflect and jot down their values on a piece of paper. Believe me, ten minutes were just not sufficient. In that moment, the participants realized how little they knew themselves and that they never spend enough time thinking about the things that drive them in life.
The next exercise called for participants to talk about their values to their colleagues. Some participants giggled nonstop while some were simply amused. This exercise helped them realize that talking about one’s personal values to others is a) not as difficult as you think, b) very exciting, and c) creates a window for the world to see who you are as a person and what drives you in life. Better yet, the more we talk about our values to others, the easier it becomes to share with others. This process also subconsciously helps in creating deeper sense of self-awareness.
One more thing happened while participants were sharing their values with each other, a kind of open interaction the team never had the chance to engage in before. The NBS managers realized that each person held a set of values quite different from their own, a realization that was surprisingly a surprise for most. Despite sharing certain common organizational values by working at NBS, every person is still a unique, different individual. Different values drive different people. This is what we call “diversity” and it is what makes a culture rich and the world an exciting place.
Understanding the fact that people are different gives room to understand and appreciate different points of view as well as opens up new doors for communication. Participants mentioned that this activity made them understand their colleagues in a new way. All of them were surprised at the interesting things they didn’t know about colleagues they had known and worked with for a long time. After this activity, they could now appreciate—even celebrate—their differences better, they could work together more effectively and leverage each other’s strengths in making their organization a true leader in the industry.
Personally, I could not be more thankful for having this opportunity to see a new country, understand a different culture and meet new people. Delivering this type of program also gave me an opportunity to gain a perspective I might not have been able to, given my day job as a microinsurance specialist at Women’s World Banking. I realized that in our day-to-day interaction with our co-workers, we at times get lost in the technical details that we forget to appreciate that there are different, multiple ways to achieve the same objective.
It’s very fruitful to invest time in socializing outside work and get to know others better. It helps build stronger personal and professional bonds. It also gives us an opportunity to train our mind to understand and accept new ideas and contribute to self-development. The people we worked with at NBS Bank are some of the brightest minds fueling and driving the global mission of financial inclusion. If we all areas lucky as them to know what our ikigai is, together we can be much more effective and efficient in achieving our collective mission.