This post’s two-part mission is to:
- To convince you that having a personal mission statement is a good move.
- To help you start writing up with a personal mission statement that doesn’t make people’s eyes roll when you tell it to them.
It’s an ambitious mission.
The first hurdle is to help you overcome the common (and well-deserved) perception that personal mission statements are corny nonsense—the type of ineffective self-helpism that desperately bored housewives and unfulfilled middle managers fiddle with. “Successful” people are too busy being successful to bother.
Then, if you manage to clear that first hurdle, this post aspires to help you avoid falling into the trap that follows it: writing a useless, cliché, meaningless personal mission statement like, “To inspire others to achieve great things,” or, “To positively impact the life of every person I encounter.”
Let’s see if you can’t come up with a meaningful and effective personal mission statement that inspires you and others around you instead.
Writing your personal mission statement is a worthy exercise because even if you move on to some other self-helpishness a week from now, at the very least it gets you to pause and think bigger picture. And if it sticks, you’ll have a clearer sense of direction and meaning to the story of your life—and you’ll go farther in it.
To write your personal mission statement, think of what greater good your existence will serve, what obstacle or conflict you’ll have to overcome to achieve it, and what you want your great-great-grandchildren to remember about you. Then put your personal mission statement in the form of a question. Publish it, get moving, and evolve it as you go along.
Why Write a Personal Mission Statement?
Reason #1: To go somewhere that matters.
You can either float around life aimlessly—getting tugged by others, busily going in circles, or letting the currents of fate take me adrift—or you can purposefully steer in a single direction.
If you choose the latter, which you probably do, then having a personal mission statement as your North Star would seem like a wise choice, no?
What’s more, it can:
- Save you from getting thrown off course by meaningless distractions.
- Get you back on track whenever you’re hit by life’s inevitable storms.
- Motivate you to stay sleek and streamlined rather than adding (or lusting after) useless bells and whistles.
But what if you pick the wrong direction?
That’s a risk. But don’t you think not picking any direction is even riskier?
Reason #2: To deliver better returns.
Every successful business has a mission statement.
Your Life is your business, you’re the CEO until you RIP, and you presumably want it to be a success. So why shouldn’t Your Life have a mission statement, too?
- Align the various departments in Your Life—finances, R&D, relationships, career, health, etcetera—toward a single long-term mission.
- Guide your decision-making.
- Make clear to your stakeholders (friends, family, acquaintances, readers) where you want to go so they know how to help you.
- Hopefully deliver exceptional returns to your shareholders (your future selves).
Reason #3: Why not?
Because it’s hokey self-help-ism?
We’re being rational here, not judging, so that’s not a good reason.
Because it’s a waste of time?
Yes, it takes time and mental energy, but even if your personal mission statement doesn’t pan out, this big-picture thinking exercise might have value. It’s a strategic time-out in your game of life.
Because it’s impossible to encapsulate your life into a single mission?
Maybe some people can have multiple personal mission statements. But I’d argue that the more focused you are and the less you multi-task, the more progress you’ll make. (See: Reason #2.)
Because many successful people don’t seem to need personal mission statements and people who have them rarely seem to succeed?
There are a couple of flaws to this argument:
First, maybe successful people could be even more successful if they had personal mission statements. Or maybe they have them and we don’t know. Or maybe they’re not as successful as they appear.
And second, maybe unsuccessful people are more successful than they appear. Maybe how you measure success in life is misguided. Or maybe (likely) their personal mission statements suck and they’re not executing on them well.
How to Write a Personal Mission Statement
If you expect to come up with a personal mission statement in a matter of minutes (or even hours or days), don’t waste your time reading any further.
Your North Star isn’t as easy to spot as the actual Polaris. And it will inevitably move around with changes to your life. So it will only help you if you’re committed to honing in on it for the long haul.
Think of your great-great-grandchildren.
Ask yourself: What do you want your great-grandchildren to say about you to your great-great-grandchildren who’ll never meet?1This is one of the 10 “GPS” questions to ask yourself to ensure you’re on the right track.
This question might help you think big picture and in words that make sense to other people.
To give you an example, here’s my answer:
“You would have liked to have met Great Great Grandpa Chris. He seemed to have cracked the code to life and inspired us all with his independent approach to everything he did.”
Ask yourself: What makes you angry?
That anger indicates where your values lie and what you won’t get tired of working toward.
Make it bigger than yourself.
The most effective corporate mission statements look beyond the company toward its impact on society.2Mission Statement Quality and Financial Performance concludes that “be responsible to the society in which you do business” is one of three main components of a successful mission statement. And the authors of Effectiveness of Mission Statements in Organizations – A Review write that “mission statement development ought to be directed toward both internal and external stake-holders.” Your personal mission statement should do the same.
Ask yourself: What greater good can my existence on this planet serve?
Think of the plot to your life’s story.
Of all the structures for writing your personal mission statement I’ve found online and in books, my favorite is from this podcast episode by Donald Miller. I like this structure because it sets the plot for living a meaningful life story.
It has three steps:
- Conflict. What problem do you want to take on? (i.e., What makes you angry?)
- Action. How are you going to solve it?
- Resolution. What’s the desired result of your mission?
For example, here’s Miller’s personal mission statement:
Many people are searching for a deep sense of meaning [conflict]. I teach a series of frameworks [action] that help them find meaning in their life so work and life are happier [resolution].
Write it in the form of a question.
Consider if we rewrote Miller’s mission as a question instead of a statement:
How can I help people understand and apply meaning-finding frameworks that help them be happier in work and life?
A personal mission statement is more effective in the form of a question because it:
- Sounds less arrogant and official.
- Shows that the mission’s in progress rather than being completed.
- Invites participation and collaboration.
Get it done.
Pick a direction, get moving, and adjust course along the way rather than sit around waiting for your mission to find you.4See How to Be Extraordinary: The 7 Childishly Simple Rules
Put it in your face.
Ask yourself: Where can you plaster your mission statement so you’re consistently reminded of it and use it to better guide your decisions?
For example, I’ve added my personal mission statement to the top of my weekly and monthly goals in my lifelogging practice so I see it every day.
Put it in others’ faces.
If you want other people to help you with your mission, you’ve got to make it public.
Use it as a more interesting answer to the boring question, “What do you do?” Tell it to your friends, family, and first dates to get their feedback on whether or not it’s not gobbledegook and hold yourself accountable to it. And post it on your Twitter, LinkedIn profiles so people know what you’re really about.
I don’t know about you, but my mission statement from 10 years ago would be very different from what it is today. And I bet whatever it is 10 years from now will be different, too.
“A mission statement is not something you write overnight. It takes deep introspection, careful analysis, thoughtful expression, and often many rewrites to produce it in real form,” wrote Steven Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
It’s not a task you complete. It’s an ongoing process. The value comes from going back to it, thinking about it, evolving it, and working towards it.
It’s a personal summary of why you exist: the problem you seek to solve with your life, how you intend to do it, and your vision of what the result of your life will be.
Vision statements are about where you want to go and mission statements are about why you’re going there.
Some self-helpers say you need one or the other or both.
One statement’s enough for me. I think it should have both a vision and a mission. Call it whatever you want.
It should be short enough for someone to understand when you tell it to them, but not as short as most of the other big sites recommend (this, this, and this post, for example). Their personal mission statement examples like, “To be a leader to my team, live a balanced life and make a difference,” or “To inspire others to achieve great things” are too generic, unspecific, uninspiring, and unactionable to be of use.
Better to err on the long side to ensure your mission statement includes all the necessary components, then try to trim it down as you go.
Viktor Frankl, author of one of my favorite books, Man’s Search for Meaning, said we detect rather than invent our missions in life.
So think of it like you’re using a metal detector. Keep moving, experimenting, exploring, and listening until your mission detector starts beeping so loudly that it’s impossible to ignore.
The post I wrote on How to Be Extraordinary has a childishly simple approach to this.
“I, [Your name here] prefer to take shortcuts in life by using other people’s templates rather than doing the hard work of creating my own life and mission—and personal mission statement—from the ground up.”
How can I motivate people to resist complacency and conformity so they experience more rewarding lives?
Walk the walk.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly convinced myself more than ever about the value of personal mission statements after all the research and thinking I did to write this.
And hopefully it’s not all talk.
Reciting whatever big words we come up with for our personal mission statements won’t magically make them happen. We have to walk the walk.
I plan on doing my best.
More Resources to Help You Write Your Personal Mission Statement
- Building a Storybrand Podcast #180: Personal Life Plan. This episode is what first got me thinking of having a personal mission statement. The host, Donald Miller, is also the author of one of my favorite sledgehammer books, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey. This book is a classic. Habit 2, Begin with the End in Mind, goes over personal mission statements in depth.
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