How You Benefit from a Personal Mission Statement & How to Quickly Create One
"My uncle once told me that during World War II if an unidentified soldier appeared suddenly in the dark and could not state his mission, he was automatically shot without question. I wonder what would happen if we reinstituted that policy today."
Years ago, I bought a book (The Path by Laurie Beth Jones) at Borders largely on the basis of this first two-sentence paragraph. It impressed me then, the same way it does now, as having all the qualities of a great message: it is dramatic, compelling, simple, concise—and profound.
My purpose here is threefold: (1) to elucidate what a true mission statement is, (2) to show you how you can benefit from having a strong personal mission statement (and, inversely, why you are losing out if you don't yet have one) and (3) to tell you how you can develop your personal mission statement, with relatively minimal effort (notice that I said "relatively" and italicized the word for emphasis).
What Exactly Is a Mission Statement?
Simply stated, a mission statement is an expression of purpose that either clearly articulates or at least implies a set of accompanying values. Most mission statements, both company and personal, are so poorly conceived as to be largely meaningless.
In my work with applicants to academic programs, I am consistently impressed by the weakness of the mission statements of even the most prestigious universities. I say weak because they tend to be so generic and verbose as to be utterly uncompelling. You might think that with all the great minds resident at those "ivory towers," there would be ample talent to tap into in order to arrive at something truly unique and inspiring. But admissions committees tend to leave it to applicants to identify the unique selling proposition (USP) of the school or program, in one of the application essays.
Although most large organizations have corporate mission statements, few individuals have personal mission statements, probably in most cases because they simply don't know how to go about constructing one. If Ivy League schools—with their many millions of dollars of resources and access to top talent—have such a hard time crafting effective mission statements, is it any wonder that the average person would find the task daunting?
An effective mission statement is concise, crystal clear and compelling.
An effective mission statement is concise (no more than a sentence), crystal clear and compelling ("evoking interest, attention or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way," as Google's dictionary so aptly puts it). It should go without saying that a good mission statement is a perfect fit with the person behind it.
Mission statements often benefit from adjustment over time, so don't worry about getting the perfect statement that will work for you for your entire life. Also—not everyone agrees with this—but I believe that it is entirely appropriate for any given person to have more than one mission statement, for different dimensions of life (work and family, for example).
How Can You Benefit from Having a Strong Personal Mission Statement?
To quote again from The Path: "A personal mission statement acts as both a harness and a sword—harnessing you to what is true about your life, [while] cutting away all that is false."
In other words, a good mission statement gives you CLARITY and FOCUS, which translates into POWER. This enhances energy and motivation. Decision making comes more easily. As a result, you save time and are more productive. People with well-defined missions will always have an edge over those without well-defined missions.
People with well-defined missions will always have an edge over those without well-defined missions.
Without a clearly articulated mission, you will not achieve your full potential. You may still accomplish much—but not as much as you could if you had a well-formulated personal mission statement. Would the "savings" in time and energy, if you decide to skip doing this, justify missing out on all these benefits?
How to Create Your Personal Mission Statement
If you are taking this seriously, as you should, your answer to the question posed immediately above would have to be a resounding "no." But, you may ask, how—in the context of limited resources—do I go about creating a solid personal mission statement?
Numerous books have been written on the subject of crafting mission statements. Some of them, like the one mentioned above, contain excellent material. The reality, though, is that most people don't have the time or inclination to make their way through an entire book. As far as I have been able to tell, moreover, no one has simplified the process sufficiently to make it painless enough for most people to get through.
What about online mission statement generator tools? All the ones that I have found don't work very well. It took me a long time to wade my way through all the steps—and at the end of the arduous process, I didn't even have a genuine mission statement to show for it!
So I'm going to suggest two other ways that are the closest thing to a shortcut that exists (remember, I did say that some effort would be involved). Generally, the easiest way I know of to arrive at a solid mission statement on your own is to look at EXAMPLES of exemplary mission statements that others have written for themselves. Take the parts you like, combining and adapting them to your own situation. That’s the shortcut (relatively speaking) to crafting your own exemplary mission statement on your own.
That's at least a good starting point and it may lead you to statement that you are satisfied with, at least for the time being. Again, remember: A personal mission statement can be adjusted over time. Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good, as the saying goes. A half-way decent mission statement is infinitely better than no statement at all. At least it would be a starting point, on the way to an even better statement down the road. And you will immediately begin to accrue the benefits described above.
A half-way decent mission statement is infinitely better than no statement at all.
How, exactly, do you find examples of exemplary mission statements? You could search online for phrases along the lines of "personal mission statement examples," "best personal mission statement examples" and "personal mission statement examples for [fill in your category, such as high school student, entrepreneur, senior executive or whatever]." Keep an eye on the auto-populated phrases that appear in the box as you are typing, for any that appear particularly relevant to you.
The second "shortcut" to crafting an effective personal statement is to engage a professional to help you with it. It may take an hour or two but if you're like most people, it will be one of the best investments you ever make. The process can be enjoyable as well as rewarding.
Practicing What I Preach
"So," you might justifiably ask me, "what's an example of a powerful mission statement—and what about your own?"
My all-time favorite example is one I read more than 20 years ago, by an open-source hacker named Jamie Zawinski: "To improve people's lives through software." Concise, clear, compelling: this is a bold, memorable statement that has it all. Jamie was obviously a man on a mission, whose razor-sharp focus propelled him with a force that discouraged anyone from standing in his way.
Jamie Zawinski's mission: "To improve people's lives through software."
My own mission statement? "To help people communicate their messages effectively, so they can achieve their goals." Not quite as pithy as Jamie's but it works for me, covering the broad range of the work I do as a coach, consultant and editor in the realm of communication.
In fact, the benefits of having a strong mission statement go beyond what was described above. For high school students applying to colleges, for example, a mission statement helps position application essays and ace admissions interviews. For job applicants, a mission statement helps land the desired position. For employees, the statement helps get promotions and raises. If you’re a small business owner, a truly well-crafted mission statement will distinguish you from the competition and help you grow your business. The same principle applies just as much to larger organizations, of course.
In short, regardless of your situation, a sound mission statement will significantly help you achieve more and live a richer life. I hope I've inspired you here to take the next step in that direction.