The Art of the Personal Mission Statement

Around this time last year a good friend of mine invited me to participate in a 31-day process of developing a personal mission statement for 2010. It sounded like a daunting task at first, but I ended up doing it when the friend who invited me agreed to be my planning buddy — step one of the process.

Granted, a 31-step process is pretty involved, so let’s boil it down to 5 key steps, adapted from Accelerated Success.

Identify strengths

What are you great at? Make a list of things you know are your strengths. But don’t stop there. Ask 5-7 people who are close to you to also make a list of what they see as your strengths. This is important because your mission statement should focus on your strengths, and those 5-7 people may come up with something that you don’t see in yourself. And hopefully they will also affirm some things on your own list.

Identify opportunities

Next think about what type of activities (both work and extracurricular) you excel at because of your strengths. Also think about your networks: professional and personal, live and virtual. What opportunities can you find or create based on who you know and what they do? One thing that might be helpful at this stage is to identify your accomplishments of the past year so that you can easily think about what you might continue with or what you might do differently in the next year. The important part of this step is to consider the question, “What is possible?” Don’t limit yourself.

Identify assumptions

What do you assume about the way the world works? About change in your life? The economy? Your industry or profession? Your family? Your health? Demands on your time? Taking time to identify your assumptions helps you to be more aware of your own expectations and limitations. For example, you probably wouldn’t include something like “expand independent consulting to a 25-employee firm” in your mission statement if you assume the economy won’t be picking up for another year or two. Your assumptions have a direct impact on how you interact with the world and thus should be reflected in your personal mission.

Identify desired legacy

Your desired legacy is what you want to be known for in life, which is one step removed from nailing down your personal mission statement. The best way to identify your desired legacy is to answer the question, “What do I want friends, colleagues and loved ones to say about me at my funeral?” Or, finish the sentence, “I will be known as someone who was consistently thought of as…” Try to create a bullet point list of words or phrases that are general in their meaning, but specific to your legacy. For example, if you’re a writer and you want to get 10 books published, become a New York Times best-selling author, become an international best-selling author, travel on book tours, give readings, etc., etc., that’s a very specific list. Instead you could say you want to be known as an inspiring writer, which you know encompasses all of those individual specific goals.

Identify personal mission

If your desired legacy is what you want to be known for in life, your personal mission statement tells how you will accomplish your legacy. So if we use the inspiring writer example from above, part of your personal mission statement could be something like “tell compelling stories.” Ideally your personal mission statement is one sentence that encompasses your strengths, realistic opportunities and aspects of your desired legacy. That may seem like a lot to cram into one sentence, but trust me, it can be done!

Without getting into a grammar lesson on sentence types, think of it as a two-phrase sentence. The first phrase is the most important, and should describe the aspect of your life that is the core of who you are or want to be. So it might be something like, “to be a loving parent,” or “to be a successful independent marketing consultant,” or, “to be a well-known photographer/singer-songwriter/novelist.” The second phrase describes supporting elements to your core — what else do you want to pursue in life while you pursue the core of your being? A good connector word for the second phrase of your personal mission statement is “while.” You want to pursue the core of your being, while “maintaining a healthy lifestyle,” or “continuing to learn,” or  fill-in-the-blank. Try to summarize no more than four supporting elements — this forces you to choose precise words that clearly articulate your mission.

But why bother with a personal mission statement? Good question. Here are a few things that a mission statement does for me:

Prioritize goals

Having a personal mission statement has been a huge help as a gauge for prioritizing and setting goals. It is something I continually refer to as a guide for making decisions about what to work on — it’s a way to identify which goals will help me accomplish my personal mission and which goals should be completely abandoned because they aren’t even in the realm of my mission. Basically a personal mission statement is a great way to narrow the options for how and when and where to spend time and energy.

Maintain focus on chosen activities

Once my goals are prioritized, my mission statement helps me maintain focus. Once I make a decision about what to participate in based on my mission statement, it might  get boring, or I start to feel like I’m not accomplishing anything, or a new opportunity comes up and distracts me when I can’t decide whether or not to take it. Just referring back to the mission statement keeps me on track because it reminds me why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Determine what not to do

As I mentioned with prioritizing goals, the having a mission statement is a great way to determine which goals to abandon. It helps you say “no.” If you’ve already prioritized your goals and you are focused on a few activities that support those goals, then you can feel better about turning down an opportunity even if you think you really want to take it. If it’s not in line with your personal mission statement, just say no! Don’t let other things creep in and distract you from your mission.


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Janna Marlies Santoro writes, edits, teaches and explores other creative outlets from her perch at ThinkHouse Collective, a big yellow Craftsman house-turned-collaborative workspace that she co-created in Downtown Sacramento, California.


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