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How To Find Your Mission

Crafting a mission statement depends less on what you want than on what you know

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

In my book The Undefeated Mind I make the argument that articulating to ourselves and living by a personal mission statement describing the broadest type of value, or contribution, we want to make to the world will increase not only our happiness but also our resilience (for evidence that it has such an effect, please see Chapter 2, "Find Your Mission"). A mission, I argued, isn't something an outside force assigns us but rather something we assign ourselves. As such, it serves as the reason we engage in various meaning-making strategies we employ throughout our lives (like practicing medicine, writing books, driving taxis, teaching, and so on). So, for example, we might choose a career in education because we've made it our mission to inspire children to reach their potential. Or we might choose a career as a sculptor because we want to fill the world with beauty. Or we might become a cosmetician because we want to help people feel good about themselves. A proper mission statement doesn't require that we pursue any single career or hobby or activity but rather is conceptually broad enough that any number of strategies would enable us to accomplish it. Yet it's also be narrow enough that it feels like the single most important thing we could spend our lives doing.

Of course, we don't have to define a mission for ourselves. The pleasures life brings us will still remain pleasurable even if we don't. We can choose to view our job, our hobbies, or whatever we spend most of our time doing as just that: what we spend our time doing. Or as something we enjoy. Or as a necessary evil, a means to some other end, like making money. But if we embrace a mission--our mission as a provisional bodhisattva (a bodhisattva defined in Buddhism as a person who dedicates himself to the happiness of others)--we'll not only enjoy greater satisfaction in life, but also gain something that the joy we feel from fleeting pleasures can't provide, something that most people fail to associate with a strong sense of purpose but that's nevertheless one of its principal benefits: increased strength.

I note in the book that some people approach the task of finding their mission by first deciding what they think it should be--a choice often influenced by parental expectations or a need to project a certain image to others--and then by attempting to stir up a requisite amount of passion for it. But forcing ourselves to feel something we don’t is probably futile. We might find a better approach in attempting to articulate a value-creating statement about which we already feel the most excited. For that value-creating statement, whether we realize it or not, represents the mission to which we’re already committed. As if a precious jewel had been sewn into our clothing without our knowledge, we only need to realize it’s there to take advantage of its full worth.

Though by no means easy, this part is at least relatively straightforward. All we need do is trace our way back through the strategy to which we’re already the most attached--whether a hobby we like, the job we have, or a job we want--to identify, or “reverse engineer,” the mission that lies underneath it. We shouldn’t try to imagine things we think would excite us. We should examine our experience to find what actually has excited us. Or go out and try a new experience to see if it does.

Since its publication, however, a number of readers have expressed their frustration with this part of the book, stating that they wished I'd offered a step-by-step guide for finding one's mission. In the University of Chicago's Resilience Project, a series of workshops we've developed that teach students how to operationalize the concepts in the book, we've done just that. I offer it here now for interested readers:

  1. Begin with the right question. Don't ask yourself, "What do I want to do with my life?" That is, don't focus on a career. That would be strategy, not a mission. Instead, ask yourself, "What kind of value feels like the most important value I could create?"
  2. You're after meaningfulness not passion. Thought the two are by no means mutually exclusive, they are distinct. Passion is usually more associated with the strategies you use to fulfill your mission (with sculpting, for example, rather than with a mission to fill the world with beauty).
  3. Create a list of 50 things that have brought you great joy in the past and 50 ongoing activities that continue to bring you great joy in the present. The point in aiming for 100 items isn't to reach 100 per se but to create an exhaustive list. Including your current job is a good idea; including the aspects of your current job that you enjoy the most is even better.
  4. From this list, identify the items that felt the most meaningful to you. This is best done by gut feeling. Each item you select should, by definition, be something that in some broad way contributes to the well-being of others.
  5. Group these items into related categories. Maybe a number of items relate to helping others in a particular way (e.g., with their health, with their talents, or with their relationships). Or maybe to helping people in certain situations (e.g., people living in poverty, who are victims of abuse, or who suffer from mental illness).
  6. From these categories, cull out a first draft of a mission statement. Two things to keep in mind: This must be a statement derived from experiences you've already had, not ones you'd like to have. You're looking to discover your mission, not invent it (that is, to find what's already there, what already feels like the most important thing you could do with your life, not what you think it is or want it to be). Second, one reasonable litmus test to apply to a candidate statement would entail imagining being presented a lifetime achievement award in your 80s or 90s by the president for having spent your entire life accomplishing it. Does the statement you've come up with hit the sweet spot? That is, when you gut check it, does it feel like the most meaningful thing you could have done?

Three more points to make: 1) mission statements take time to get right. That is, what you begin with may not be what you end up with, but you must begin with something to end up with anything. Craft a rough draft and start living with it. Do the strategies you find yourself using to fulfill it make your life feel meaningful? This is a question that can only be answered over time. 2) Your mission statement must be broad enough that you could accomplish it in many different ways, but narrow enough that it has "teeth." That is, that it feels genuinely meaningful to you (mine, for example, is simple, broad, but to me more meaningful than anything else: to reduce the suffering of others in whatever way I can). 3) Mission statements might change from life stage to life stage. Your mission as a young and even middle-aged person might very well need some updating when you become elderly. Then again, it might not.

A final word: you very well may not be able to find your mission through your current job. You may hate your current job. But once you find your mission, turning that job into a strategy with which to fulfill it is still often possible—and may even transform the way you feel about your job. On the other hand, you may not be able to link your current job to your mission. In such a case, scary as it may feel, you may need to contemplate trying to find a new job. Or, at the very least, an additional activity in life that helps you fulfill the mission you feel is most important. But don't let a fear of discovering that your mission can't be fulfilled by your current job deter you from discovering and articulating your mission. Just take it one step at a time. After all, when it comes to what you think you should be doing, isn't it better to know?

Dr. Lickerman's book, The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self, is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!

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