"Your mission, should you choose to accept it..."

Signpost: Happiness/ExistencePlease forgive the silly title, but lately I've been thinking a lot about mission statements.

For a long while, I've been avoiding this very thing, for several reasons. First, I tend to think of those cheesy corporate mottos inscribed on plaques in front lobby reception areas, often reeking of hypocrisies like "we're here for the little guy" or "our customers come first" (none ever mention profits, did you notice?). Second, the whole idea of a mission statement was --for me-- inherently tied to 80's/90's team building and management camps, the fruit of which is often a shallow and redundant "philosophical" statement, a mantra chanted by the team members as one hoists the legs of one colleague like a wheelbarrow while another steadies the log that they're about to walk across, but a phrase that soon gets lost again in the quest for corporate attainment. Such connotations can fool one into believing that a mission statement is a futile and lifeless thing, devoid of soul or flesh.

Leaving all this aside, it now seems like a valuable enterprise for one's own sake, if for no other reason than to kick the mind into gear and muse about what our values, principles and life purpose should be.

Now, I'm going to talk a little Covey here, mainly since I've been reading a lot of his work lately, but the idea applies equally as well to other methodologies. It's the GTD notion of high altitudes, principles and vision/outcomes. It's the philosophical/religious concepts of epiphany or enlightment. It's even inherent in the age-old question we ask to little children, "What are you going to be when you grow up?" I'm also going to get a little personal here, since a mission statement is a very personal thing, and I can't do justice to its dicussion without some reference to my own life.

For the better part of fifteen years now, I have been a technologist. I've drifted back and forth between different positions --such as project manager, instructor, creative consultant, writer and solutions architect (i.e., problem solver)-- but always within the sphere of technology. But much of the time I was unhappy. I couldn't quite put my finger on it: after all, I was a technologist, and so choosing any career path within that core area should be a natural fit with my abilities and preferences. Right?

Covey writes about the difference between values and principles, and what happens when they aren't aligned. Values are defined as those things you personally see of worth. For example, we may love gadgets, big houses, never-ending parties, beautiful appearances (ourselves and of others), stability, financial success, and a full social calendar. Principles, on the other hand, are those essential and universal truths that are fundamentally intrinsic: they come from within. They are things you believe "ought to be," like charity, justice, compassion, the need to make a difference among the underprivileged, the spiritual aspects of life, freedom, and a desire to be true to oneself and one's dreams. When your values and principles are not in alignment, then --at best-- you can only find short-term happiness. This, he argues, is the fundamental reason why many of us feel unfulfilled, and many psychologists tend to agree. A mission statement is considered to be the best way to re-align values and principles, to come to an understanding of our life's purpose, and to give us direction for our future goals.

My latest exercise, in devising a personal mission statement, has finally led me to understand what truly makes me happy and fulfilled, what my ultimate purpose should be. It has nothing to do with technology at all, it seems. It has to do with helping people to learn, grow their minds, and act in harmony with their surroundings. Technology has just been a tool, a means to an end. This shouldn't come as any real surprise, as I've constantly drifted in this direction when the currents were right: I have an education degree, and I've worked as a trainer, teacher and instructor when given the opportunity, but yet it never really occurred to me that unless what I was doing was somehow tied to helping people learn (including writing pieces that might help others to see something new, or perhaps discover a little more about themselves), I could never be truly satisfied with myself and my actions.

Now, there are a tonne of books about mission statements (Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First are two of the best, in my opinion), and there are a lot of workshops, online helpers, and theories about the best way to write one, but here's the very simple way that I went about it.

  1. I took out a blank piece of paper. Nothing fancy, no form, no tight little structure to squeeze your thoughts into, just a blank and unassuming piece of paper.
  2. I thought about each of my jobs, listing them in turn, and about what I loved and what I hated doing each one. You can learn a lot about yourself by creating such a list. We often tend to "fall into" jobs through design, whether deliberate or subconsciously, and they hint strongly at our quest for an ideal. This doesn't mean that every job is reflective of this internal quest, but there are always aspects of every job that we like and dislike, no matter what it might be. Note these.
  3. I made another list: those moments of my life which bring me the most joy. For me, this includes: seeing the curiosity in my newborn son as he interacts with and learns from his surroundings; watching several students of mine rise from the mire to advance three grade levels in one year; bonding with elderly folks using my materials and instruction to embrace new technology with gusto; and receiving letters from people who found that my D*I*Y Planner kits and my little scraps of writing have allowed them to achieve focus and effective life management skills for the first time in their lives. Each of these incidents --although perhaps small in the grander scheme of things-- are incredibly meaningful to me, and allow me to re-affirm my direction in life. From each, I summarised the one or two main reasons why it made me feel so fulfilled.
  4. I studied the list for a while, and on another sheet of paper, wrote down the key words. This was the foundation of my list of principles.
  5. From those words, I wrote a few key phrases to describe my personal mission. These were broken down by my roles in life, such as educator, husband, parent, writer and so forth.
  6. A little bit of editing and massaging, with some images thrown in that helped me make abstract concepts more concrete (the writer in me responds well to metaphors), and I had formed my mission statement.

In case you're interested, it reads thusly:

Personal Mission Statement of Douglas Johnston

As a member of a tribe of all-too-clever primates entrusted with stewardship of the Earth, I have a responsibility to work in harmony with the world, not come up with imaginative and destructive ways of changing it.

As an educator, I have a duty to help other members of the tribe understand their circumstances, environment and essential truths, and live in accordance with them.

As a parent, I must see the spark of curiosity in a child's eyes, and seek to fan it.

As a husband, I must see the passion in a moment, and seek to embrace it.

As a thinker, I must see the forest in a leaf, and seek to explore it.

As a manager, I must see the mountain in a grain of sand, and seek to climb it.

As a writer, I must see the ocean in a drop of rain, and seek to swim in it.

And, as a mere monkey, I must not take myself too seriously, regardless of how well I learn to holler and stomp and beat my chest.

Whatever you write, it should resonate with you, with who you want to be. Don't write something grandiose or metaphorical if that isn't you: keep it simple and to the point. It may be a single sentence, or it might be a page. If you find thinking of a role model helps you find purpose, consider his or her words. Whatever the case, remember that this little statement should serve as a signpost giving your life some sort of direction. Don't worry if it isn't perfect. It won't be. In fact, you should go in and revise it constantly as you get new ideas, new focus, new circumstances, and so on. It must become a living document, one that changes and grows as you do.

Many experts recommend you carry around your mission statement in your planner or PDA wherever you go, so you can review it frequently, and rewrite it as your life situation changes or warrants it. I've tried this for a while now, and I must admit that it is rather empowering, having your purpose so well-defined and at the forefront of your outboard brain.

Those looking for help to write mission statements can read about them in both Seven Habits and First Things First --the latter even has a nice little workshop in the appendices-- or can go through a Flash-y (ugh) online Mission Builder at the Frankin-Covey site (where, first things first, you should nix the cheesy muzak).

Whatever you do, take it seriously, make sure you are able to invest several hours of quiet and reflective time into writing it, and remember that its purpose is to give you direction towards a fulfilled life. It's a signpost of your own making, a road map to your future: don't assume it's anything less. And above all, be patient. Remember that these statements will grow as you do, and we rarely know enough about ourselves to get such things exactly right the first time. It's a cycle of learning: direction comes from knowledge, knowledges comes from growth, and growth comes from direction. Start with direction, and the rest will come naturally.

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Mission statements that resonate

I've always felt that most mission statements are too dense, using words like "proactively" and "customer-centric". Some however, are so resonant that they take my breath away.

My favorite mission statement of all time is that of the Phoenix Fire Department, quoted below in its entirety:

"Prevent harm, survive and be nice.”

That about sums it up--and not just for the Phoenix Fire Dept, eh?

I am fond of Garrison

I am fond of Garrison Kiellor's sign-off, which covers many bases:

"Be well, do good work, and keep in touch."

the nature of mission statements

These are great. I think a section in the forum where people could share mission statements would be very inspiring.

There is something to be said for simplicity. Doug seems to feel that things we know and feel implicitedly need not be part of our mission statements. We do not need to be told to love and protect our children for example.

I'm not so sure about this. Is it important to remind ourselves of our core values. How many times do we see people who become disconnected from their true selves in times of extreme stress and turmoil? It could be an important mantra, or an reminder like a marriage vow, which is I think a mission statement of sorts.

Perhaps mission statements and mantras come in many different forms. I was just remembering our sweet home room teacher in high school. Every morning the class would read "Make me a channel of your peace". It set the tone for the day, and in many ways it is the closest to a mission statement that I've heard in a hymn. It is part of the reason I choose it when we married.

But as an artist my mission is written on my heart and in my soul and I have a hard time putting it in words. I'm not sure I should, but rather work on it in each painting I do. Perhaps some mission statements and the ones that are closest to our hearts like love are best left unspoken.

just musing...


mission statement

I saw a book plate once that read:
Small house,
Large garden,
Few friends,
Many books.

Taking care of them is what I'm trying to achieve. Not easy, but a good life when it works.