I’ve been working at a non-profit for the last 3 ½ years, and we’ve just concluded a process where we revisited our mission. It occurs to me, though we may consider a mission statement crucial for an organization, we may never consider having one as individuals. Yet, when we look at the most fundamental questions of meaning and purpose in life, they point toward crafting our personal mission in the process. The following is a step-by-step process by which any individual could articulate his or her own personal mission, as well as vision, values, calling, and guiding principles.
Let’s get started!
Personal Mission, Or Why Do You What You Do?
Simon Sinek, in his crucial book Start With Why, notes that any organization can tell you what they do, and the majority of organizations can tell you how they do it, but only a handful of them can tell you why they do what they do. However, Sinek argues, if the leaders and employees in any organization understand and are on board with the why, then the what and how will follow naturally from that. So, you need to start with the why.
In this context, we are talking about why as the company’s mission and vision, how as values, and what as the activities you do on a day-to-day basis. The same can be applied to individuals.
Nicholas Lore, in his tome on self-guided career satisfaction, The Pathfinder, gives several excellent tools in this pursuit. For example, he clearly defines mission as outcomes that we aim to produce. He’s careful to separate mission out from meaning, in that we can have meaningful lives without trying to create any specific outcomes. However, he notes that if we do choose a mission, we have set out our goals in the largest sense. Just as organizations can articulate missions, individuals can, too.
To go about articulating your personal mission, think about why you do what you do, and what outcomes you aim to achieve in life. Is it to ensure the safety of others? To raise a happy, healthy family? To create beautiful things? To bring about justice? Consider what you find most enlivening and what you most like to offer to others. Also, consider what you have been passionate about your entire life. When you find that through line, it will give you major clues to your personal mission in life.
Ask yourself, why do I do what I do? What outcomes do I aim to achieve?
Personal Vision, Or What is the Ideal you are Shooting For?
A vision is so large, it is unlikely that it will be achieved by one person, or in one lifetime. It is an ideal for society that reaches far beyond individual mission and goes into the envisioned perfect future. For example, at the non-profit where I work, the vision is that all New Mexico youth have safe and stable housing. That may not seem large, but given the scope of our work (state-wide), our demographic (youth), and our mission (to house youth), this vision, fully realized, would put us out of a job. And that would be a good thing!
Again, just as organizations can word their vision for the future, so can individuals.
To begin articulating your personal vision, close your eyes. Think of your ideal world, 50 to 100 years from now. What is the main aspect of this world that you notice? What do you care the most about? What is the scope of your vision (e.g. state, nation, world)? What is the demographic that concerns you most (e.g. children, elderly, working adults)? How is the outcome of your work evident in this vision?
Then, open your eyes and consider which aspect of this vision motivated you most to action. What image stands out the most in your mind’s eye? What moves you the most or makes you the most proud? What inspires you so much, you could spend the rest of your life working toward it? That image is the core of your personal vision. Take it and put it into a short statement that encompasses what you care most about. For example, the vision statement for Habitat for Humanity is “A world where everyone has a decent place to live.”
Ask yourself, what is the ideal I’m shooting for, years from now?
Personal Values, Or How Do You Do What You Do?
When I interviewed for the non-profit where I am working now, they went over their top organizational values. I am fortunate that my interviewer asked me about my personal values and cared about how or even if my personal values aligned with their organizational values. Sure enough, once I listed and ranked my own personal values, I found that Integrity, Safety, and Mutual Respect are among my top values, just as they were among the organization’s top values. In having a clear sense of my personal values, I can ascertain whether working for a particular organization is a fit for me, or not. Any one of us can do the same.
To create your own personal mission list, write out all of the things you value. They should all be nouns, such as Family or Adventure. This list will likely be quite lengthy. Start with brainstorming (i.e. not editing at all).
- Then, use the following criteria to narrow your list down to 10-20 top values:
- Which of these feel absolutely essential to you?
- Which could be argued with by someone who has a different set of values?
- Which have you valued throughout your life?
Take note that some things, like Love, will be so universal that they may in fact be Guiding Principles (see below), rather than a value with which someone could disagree.
Next, take your list of top 10-20 values and prioritize them in the following fashion. In What Color is Your Parachute? and the accompanying workbook, Richard N. Bolles offers an invaluable tool: the prioritizing grid. Using it, you compare each of your top values to another and see which you value more, and you assign a point for each time a value scores higher than another. The value with the most points at the end of this process is your #1 value, and so on. This may seem simplistic, and you may need to repeat it a few times to get a list that feels appropriately ordered for you, but it is well worth the effort. Prioritizing our values can help us make decisions, see why we feel the way we do in a given conflict, and make our way forward. Best of all, they show us how we do what we care most about.
Finally, write out each of your top 10-20 words as an action. Each one needs to be a declarative statement that shows the action of the value. Sometimes the value word is contained in the statement (e.g. Safety – “I’m attuned to safety.”), and sometimes it is not (e.g. Integrity – “I keep my word. As needed, I update it.”). However, it is key that each of these statements is an action that can be performed in day-to-day life as the “how” of meeting one’s personal mission. The practice of writing these sentences, referring back to them, and taking action on them regularly grounds the values list in healthy, mission-affirming habits. This is how, over time, we achieve our mission and express our values in the world.
Ask yourself, how do I do what I do?
Personal Calling, Or What Do You Feel Called to Create?
Too often, we leave discussions of mission to job, or career. By the same token, we leave creativity to “creative types”, those who paint or dance or act. Yet there is a larger arena in which our mission can be carried out: our personal calling.
Both The Pathfinder and Do What You Are cover the specifics of what jobs, careers, and callings may apply to each Isabel Briggs Myers' type. If we look not only at work but also at play, we can start to get a sense of what calls us forth in our lives. For example, INTJs create systems and solve problems; INFPs create meaningful conversations; ESFJs create caring environments for others; ESTPs create opportunities for adventure. When we look at personal calling, then, we must notice what activities inspire us to give the best of ourselves, in both our work and our free time. More than likely, this answer will point to our calling.
Ask yourself, what do I feel most called to create in this world?
Personal Guiding Principles, Or How Will You Stay on Path?
I have found that a short list of 4 or 5 guiding principles is sufficient. The list needs to be short, so you can memorize it and keep it in mind for anytime you might need it. These are principles of which you can remind yourself when things get difficult. They can be guiding ideas or truths, or a frame of mind.
For example, one of mine is having a sense of humor, because when I perceive a situation as difficult, I’m usually not seeing the humor in it. I can’t tell you the number of times since I’ve articulated this one that I’ve made myself laugh about a previously stuck predicament, just by reminding myself this one of my guiding principles.
Ask yourself, what fundamental principles will help me stay on path?
No matter your type, I hope you take some time to articulate your personal mission. You can set aside an hour per night for a week, or you could do a weekend retreat on your own. Though you might run these by someone else later, it’s important that you start on your own and with a firm connection to your inner voice. More than anyone else on earth, you are best qualified to know your strengths and to articulate your personal mission. I hope you do, because the world so needs your unique offering.