One way to live purposefully is to live with a mission.
Many businesses and organizations use mission statements to guide them in making decisions, and many individuals do, too.
The philosophy underlying a mission statement makes sense: How do you know when you’ve arrived if you don’t know where you’re going?
Your Mission in Life
A small shift in the way you think can help you live more purposefully.
If you call something a “mission,” rather than a “goal,” it gains weight and significance in your mind. A mission requires that you take an effort seriously, plan for it, and focus your energies around it. A “mission” implies a vocation or calling – something you do because you are passionate about it.
A mission is different from an ambition, which starts with something you want for yourself (a higher degree, a new job, a promotion, a retirement home in Hawaii, a medal in the senior Olympics). A mission, on the other hand, starts with something others need.
According to The School of Life, a global organization that helps people lead more purposeful lives, “People with missions may end up making money and having status, but that isn’t what led them to the mission in the first place. Missions are about the intrinsic worth of the tasks” (https://www.theschooloflife/thebookoflife/finding-a-mission).
The School of Life suggests that you consider two questions when contemplating your personal mission:
- Given all the problems facing humanity today, which one interests you the most? (Is it the environment? Immigration? Educational opportunity? Health care reform? Animal rights? Affordable housing? Raising the minimum wage? Legalizing marijuana?)
- How can you bring your specific knowledge and skills to bear on this problem?
Jackob Sokol, a blogger for tinybuddha.com, a website that promote peace and happiness in a complex world, offers the following formula for identifying your mission or purpose:
your values + your strengths + your passion + service = your purpose
The School of Life reinforces this formula, noting that “where your skills and aptitudes intersect with the needs of the world, that is your distinctive zone: That’s where your mission lies” (“Finding a Mission”).
Having a mission doesn’t mean you have to operate on a grand scale. If you are motivated to work on one tiny aspect of one problem in your own little corner of the world, you are doing your part. Improving the world is a collective effort, and we all have our unique part to play.
For example, if you are concerned about animal welfare, you could volunteer a couple of hours a week at your local animal shelter. If you want to improve educational opportunities for at-risk youth, you could tutor in an after-school program. That’s all it takes to pursue your personal mission.
Of course, you will do many things in your life that are not directly related to your mission, and over time, as your concerns and circumstances change, your mission may change, too.
Still, it is a valuable exercise to identify a mission for each phase of your adult life.
Write it Down
Once you’ve followed the formula and identified a personal mission, it’s a good idea to write it down in the form of a mission statement.
Your mission statement reflects your core values and the beliefs that distinguish you from other people. Your best friend should be able to pick out your statement from a selection of many other statements, because it clearly reflects who you are, what you choose to do, and why.
Many websites explain how to write a good mission statement. The best ones agree that your statement should guide you in making decisions by defining the good you wish to do in the world.
Your statement should be honest, direct, succinct, optimistic, and inspirational. It sets the tone for future life choices.
I find that some companies’ mission statements are useful models for writing personal statements that are motivating. Starbuck’s mission statement, for example, is written in a way that makes me want to buy a cup of coffee: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”
The mission statement for Life is Good, an American company that markets products to counter the daily flood of negative news, makes me want to buy a T-shirt: “To spread the power of optimism.”
A personal mission statement might share the same purpose as a corporate one, only on a smaller scale. For example, an individual mission “to spread optimism” might take the form of smiling at strangers on the street, collecting stories about good people doing good deeds, and putting a positive spin on the news when discussing it with others.
My Own Mission
My personal mission statement, which started only as a vague notion 25 years ago, is “to expand how people think about aging and old age.” My interest in this subject began when, at age 40, I began to conduct research on aging. When I described my work to others, including my mother, who was 75 years old at the time, they invariably said something like, “Why would you want to study that? How depressing!”
Quite the contrary, I found the subject fascinating, as well as personally relevant. What better way to become a wise old woman myself than by reading avidly in the literature on aging and by talking to old people? I also met many gerontologists who shared my passion and taught me how to conduct quality research and write about it.
Now that I am semi-retired, I still make decisions based on my mission statement. I do many things that are not directly related to it – cooking, playing the piano, working out at the Y, attending book club meetings, going to antique shows with my husband.
But at the same time, I am usually working on a project or two that is related. I review books and articles on aging for various journals, mostly on a volunteer basis. I maintain contacts with age studies scholars locally and around the world. And I write blog articles for this website on emotional and spiritual development in later life.
I also serve my mission on a personal level: I try to encourage my curmudgeonly husband, who belongs to the “there’s-no- gold-in-the-golden-years” school of thought, to open his mind to the potential in growing old. In the six years we have been married, I have succeeded only slightly in this endeavor.
At least now he admits that (1) some people see aging in more positive terms than he does (although he thinks they are most likely naive or deluded) and (2) we would all be better off psychologically, socially and even physically if we could develop a positive attitude toward aging (although he can’t imagine how he personally could muster such an attitude).
But I’ll take what I can get. No one ever said that a mission would be easy!
The best I can do is to pursue my mission, one day at a time, and know that I am living purposefully according to my values. That alone might encourage others, even if they don’t share my beliefs.
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers her time at a local hospice and animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.