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By Dr. Ted Cross, Academic Director of the Online Master of Applied Leadership & Management
I held my first three fingers in the air and recited the phrase “Be Prepared.” Several other 12-year-old boys my age did the same. We all knew the Boy Scout motto by heart, along with some longer, more complicated verses that we repeated at the beginning of meetings. Boy Scouts seemed to be full of mottos and slogans. I did not know it then, but I was being introduced to an important organizational and leadership principle—the concept of a mission statement.
We expect that organizations will have mottos and mission statements, but what about us? Have we spent the time to uncover our own life motto?
In the Japanese culture, everyone is expected to have a life purpose. In fact, the Japanese have a special word that embodies the idea of personal mission--“ikigai” (ee-ki-guy). “Ikigai” is “your reason for being.” The Japanese believe that everyone has an “ikigai” and that it is important to know your own reason for existing and then to order your life in accordance to this purpose. I believe that one of the most important steps in living a happier and more productive life is figuring out our own personal “life mission” or motto.
When we are engaged in activities that are intrinsically motivated (i.e., done for their own sake), we experience “flow”—that sense that we are in the zone and time seems to stop as we focus on a single activity. Because flow is part and parcel of achieving lasting happiness, it follows that our life callings should be something that produce these feelings and states. I, for example, experience high levels of flow and gratification when I write, learn and teach. Thus, some of my possible callings are: to teach, be a writer, a blogger, etc. Yet the question of how to arrive at these conclusions is often complicated. I suggest using some old wisdom, combined with some new ideas, to discover and re-discover our callings, aspirations, and dreams.
The two most mortally dangerous times in our lives are near infancy and right after we retire. It is easy to understand infant mortality; there are complications with pregnancy, etc. But why is it that retirement poses a risk to our lives? One very real explanation is the loss of purpose. We humans need purpose and many times when we retire we
Why is it that retirement poses a risk to our lives? One very real explanation is the loss of purpose.
We humans need purpose, and many times when we retire we lose a large part of our life’s meaning and our own identity. James O’Toole, author of "Creating the Good Life," notes that Americans are obsessed with financial planning for retirement and, although this is necessary, as many baby boomers find themselves bored on the golf course or in front of the TV, it is becoming increasingly obvious that “we need to engage in robust life planning.” While O’Toole especially suggests this type of planning for the middle-aged, I suggest it for the young, the old, and all of us who think we fit somewhere between those two groups.
While your calling will indeed extend into all areas of your life, by and large the type of work you choose will determine whether or not you live your life’s mission. Like it our not, all of us spend large amounts of time at work. It is the nature of modern society; we have to work to eat. The question is whether or not our days and years working help us live our purpose. In other words, we have to find those things or thing that we do despite money, fame or accolades. We have to find what we love to do. Steve Jobs illustrates this point very well. After starting Apple and being fired from his own company, Jobs rebounded to make the company even more successful. In speaking to graduating Stanford seniors he recounts the wisdom he gained from the experience:
"I'm pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn't been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle." (Jobs, Stanford, 2005).
Jobs is right. We cannot settle. Interestingly, Jobs makes the connection of finding our passion in work with finding our passion in relationships. My wife Stefanie added to this insight, reminding me that we spend enormous amounts of effort to find the “right person” to date, yet we often do not approach our work choices with the same care. This seems crazy considering that a quarter to a half of our waking lives will be spent working (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). I suggest we consider taking the Japanese’s lead and think about our life’s driving purpose.
We need to ask ourselves tough questions and answer those questions through careful self-examination. To find our purpose, life calling or mission, we first have to examine those things that produce flow and gratification.
Ask yourself the following questions:
Take a few minutes to write down your responses. Also, it may be valuable to ask a trusted friend or spouse to answer these questions for you, but without revealing their answers to you until after you have written yours.
Next, imagine you did not have to worry about money.
Again, write these answers down.
Last, we can use a test devised by Aristotle thousands of years ago. It is called the deathbed test.
Aristotle used this concept to test the morality of activities, but it can be used to help you and I find our callings. Imagine that it is some time in the distant future, and you find yourself watching your own funeral. As the large group of people grows quiet, you see a speaker preparing to give your eulogy...
As completely as you can, respond to these tough questions.
As you begin to answer these questions you might see patterns emerging. You may learn from your “deathbed test” that your family is so important to you that you need to choose work that allows for time with them. In addition, you may realize that you want to be remembered as a caring or wise person. Ask yourself how the legacy you want to leave behind can fit with your work life and personal calling.
With a list of both things you want to be remembered for and activities that you find gratification in, you are ready to start crafting your own personal mission statement or motto.
A personal mission statement is a compelling description of your calling; it can be short or long. My own personal mission statement reads: “Always Better.” Your mission statement may be longer or shorter, but it should describe your calling in general terms.
In organizational settings mission statements help convey what an organization is all about. Part of Coca Cola’s mission statement says, “To refresh the world... To inspire moments of optimism and happiness... To create value and make a difference.” In essence, a mission statement tells the reader why an organization or individual exists.
The more time you put into this process, the more you will get out of it. Also, do not worry if it takes several drafts; this is normal. Also, don’t be concerned about your mission statement being “set in stone.” My motto has changed various times through many iterations, but each one has brought me closer to what really wakes me up in the morning--my “ikigai.”
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: the psychology of engagement with everyday life. Basic Books.
Jobs, Steve. Stanford University 2005. http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html