Why a mission statement? It’s simple: it helps keep you in your lane.
Have you been to a bowling alley lately? Have you seen the bumpers they put on the lanes to stop your ball from landing in the gutter when you’re way off center? A mission statement is like putting bumpers on the bowling lane of your life — it keeps you on course and in your lane, especially when you begin to veer off.
Here’s a practical example: assume you know your mission statement and you’re happy in your job; you enjoy what you do, and you’re doing valuable work that is aligned with your mission. Then a recruiter reaches out with a very enticing offer. Now what? If your mission is clear, you’ll know right away if the new offer is worth pursuing or not. Maybe that company is offering free lunches and better health benefits, but maybe those perks aren’t so important to you because you don’t like the company’s values. Or maybe that company has been on your “top ten” list for a long time, and you should definitely follow up, even though the timing isn’t right. Your mission statement provides a vision of the bowling pins AND the bumpers, so two things happen: 1. you know where you’re aiming, and 2. you don’t waste time in the gutter.
Here are five steps (with an optional sixth), in the form of questions that will help you create your mission statement. Keep in mind that a mission statement is ideally for a long period of time, although not likely forever; maybe it’s for this decade or maybe it’s for this chapter of your life. So pick your chapter and consider the five questions. Be prepared: this might take an hour — or several; you might be able to complete it in one session, or you might want to complete it over a number of days. Enjoy the process!
FIVE QUESTIONS TO CREATE YOUR MISSION STATEMENT
- WHOM: Whom will you engage with?
- WHAT: What will you do? Help, inspire, lead, follow, or support?
- WHEN: Over what time horizon?
- WHERE: Where in the world? Local? National? International? Online?
- WHY: Why do you do what you do? Think about it.
1. WHOM WILL YOU ENGAGE WITH?
This requires naming the community you are concerned about. Consider first if you are writing your mission statement for your professional, personal or civic life. You could merge these lives together, but more likely, you will create a statement with a focus on one aspect of your life, and one group with whom you will aspire to engage with.
For example, Oprah Winfrey broadly defines WHOM she wants to engage with as her “students.” Her mission statement reads:
To be a teacher. And to be known for inspiring my students to be more than they thought they could be.
So, with a focus on your professional, personal or civic life, whom will you engage with? Whom do you care about? Is it:
- your small circle of family and close friends
- your big circle of your company and/or your town
- a national or international setting
- a digital community
- a defined community of people you care about (defined by gender, race, age, sexual orientation, and/or religion)
- a combination of any of the above?
Start with one group that you can clearly identify, and then focus on this group as you answer the next questions.
2. WHAT WILL YOU DO? HELP, INSPIRE, LEAD, FOLLOW and/or SUPPORT?
This is to help you identify what your strengths are, and what gives you joy. Looking back at Ms. Winfrey’s mission, WHAT she wants to do is inspire, and she’s good at it too.
In order to help you discover what you will do, answer these as best you can:
- What activities do you love to do?
- What are your innate talents (things that come easily to you but not to others)?
- What accomplishments are you most proud of and why?
- What are you willing to do?
Do any of your answers help you clarify WHAT you want to do? What is most important to you?
3. WHEN IS THIS FOR? WHAT TIME OR EVENT HORIZON?
Think about what phase of life you are in, and what phase you want to focus on. Some examples:
- “for a decade after college” suggests that you might have certain goals and expectations for life after college; thinking through your post-college expectations related to your social status, your community, your career and/or travel dreams is important
- “until I have kids” is about the flexibility you might have while you are relatively unencumbered. To be clear, I’m not saying that life stops when you have kids — it might just change (I’ve seen very nomadic parents who couldn’t think of home ownership or settling in one place, with or without kids; so life doesn’t always change when you have kids, but often it does)
- “until your kids can drive” (or take the bus by themselves) because independent transportation might mean you are not needed as often and your work options might expand. Until then, you might be playing a juggling game
- “until your startup reaches break-even” could describe your laser-like focus on creating a successful business
- “until all your kids have graduated” encompasses the phase of life when you are supporting and/or living with your children, whether you work inside or outside of home
- “until you retire” is a focus on your working life, but you also might choose never to retire. Still, try and contemplate what might be ahead for you.
Having a time frame can help clarify the associated goals. There usually is a time frame, but not always; Richard Branson’s personal mission statement simply refers to his journey through life:
To have fun in [my] journey through life and learn from [my] mistakes.
Your time frame has a lot to do with your life right now, and how purposeful you feel about what you are doing.
4. WHERE IS THE COMMUNITY YOU CARE MOST ABOUT?
You are a member of many communities in your personal, professional and civic lives. Where is it that you want to focus? Local? National? International? Online?
To use my gifts of intelligence, charisma, and serial optimism to cultivate the self-worth and net-worth of women around the world.
So, focus on your “whom” and further define it using these categories:
- geography (in what relevant city, state, country, or part of the world)
- in the online or offline world
You might be passionate about the people you lead in your company, the target market for your new product, new parents in your neighborhood, children in Ethiopia, LBGTQ in the military, or artists in your town or in an online community. Where are they? In your company or geographic community? In an association that meets in person or online? WHERE do you find this community you care about?
5. WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
Why do you do what you do? Your answer might not actually end up as part of your final (and short) mission statement, but your “why” is important because it is the essence of you. So figure out WHY you do what you do.
For Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup Company, her why is “to make a significant difference” and this phrase is deftly woven into her mission statement so you might not even notice that it’s answering the WHY question:
To serve as a leader, live a balanced life, and apply ethical principles to make a significant difference.
Another way of thinking about purpose, it to imagine yourself at the end of this chapter that you have chosen (this decade or this phase of life). Consider the negative: at the end of this chapter, what will you be unhappy about having NOT accomplished? Applying this filter will help you avoid loading up your mission statement with “nice to have” accomplishments, versus mission-critical.
OPTIONAL #6: HOW
“How” might relevant to you — if it’s important how you live while executing your mission. Consider Maya Angelou: her “how” was critical to her simple mission to thrive — it was all about doing it “with passion, some compassion, some humor and some style.” Her oft quoted mission in life is:
not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style.
So consider HOW you want to accomplish this mission, and see if it’s critical to being included in your mission statement.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Combine the essential elements of your answers to all the above questions — and morph them into ONE big statement. Eliminate superfluous and obvious components, and remove unimportant words. Just for fun, here are the above examples morphed into one:
- WHOM: My Students (from Oprah Winfrey)
- WHAT: Inspire (also from Oprah Winfrey)
- WHEN: In my journey through life (from Richard Branson)
- WHERE: Around the World (From Amanda Steinberg)
- WHY: To make a significant difference (from Denise Morrison)
- HOW (optional): With passion, some compassion, some humor and some style (Maya Angelou)
Morphed together? It’s a mouthful:
To make a difference throughout my life journey by inspiring my students around the world, and to do this with passion, some compassion, some humor and some style.
This may be how yours starts out. Not only is this a mouthful but it is vague and too impersonal. For yours, try removing unnecessary elements. Remember – you’re trying to develop something that will help you focus on what’s important and filter out the unimportant. Like many writers know, good writing comes from revision, revision and more revision. So revise and revise again until its succinct yet meaningful.
HOW TO MAKE IT SUCCINCT YET MEANINGFUL?
How long should it be?
As short as possible.
In the beginning, your mission statement might be very long. It will get better with revisions. Start with your long statement and whittle it down. Writing something succinct yet meaningful is a skill that you can develop, but it might take practice. For some examples of short impactful statements (albeit not mission statements) look at these blog post excerpts from Seth Godin:
- “Having a point of view is different from always being correct. No one is always correct.” (Seth Godin: “A point of view”)
- “Peer pressure is a little like barometric pressure. It’s constant, it’s all around us and we assume that it’s universal … If it’s not helping you achieve your goals, ignore it.” (Seth Godin: “Do they celebrate on Saturn?”)
Godin has been writing for a long time, and he’s become a master of succinct statements.
REFINING & POLISHING
So, don’t worry if it doesn’t sound clever or succinct at first. Draft a mission statement and refer to it often over a week or two. Ask yourself if it resonates with where you are right now and where you are taking yourself to. Edit as needed. And as you edit, it will get better.
Ultimately, you have to come up with something that is meaningful to you — and yet it needs to be practical so that you can use it as a tool. It might end up being one sentence, or it might be two. Don’t worry. As long as it resonates with you.
I previously wrote about Dean James’s commencement speech at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. He proposed that what we really want in life, as quoted from Raymond Carver poem, is:
To call myself beloved,
to feel myself beloved on the earth.
I agree that that is what many of us want. But that fragment is not enough to guide you through the day-to-day. It may be imbedded in some of your answers, but on its own, it’s not enough.
So, give it a shot — answer the whom, what, when, where and why (and maybe how). And then mold your answers into your own mission statement.
And when the inevitable happens, and life changes, you can always revise your mission statement and switch to a new lane or maybe a completely different bowling alley.
Your mission statement is being written by you and FOR you. So make sure it’s serving you well.