How to Create a Personal Success or Mission Statement

what is a mission or success statement and why do you need one?
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What is a mission or success statement? And why do you need one?

What do you want to do? What does success look like?

A mission statement expresses what we are striving for; it should be a clear and concise statement of what success looks like.

So, what is your mission?

People certainly seem to be on a mission as everyone seems very busy most of the time. Even when you ask people how they are doing, the common response is often, “Things are very busy at the moment!”

It’s almost a badge of honour in a culture that values work so highly. We all want to feel valued, and if we are a busy person then people are likely to respect us. Right?

But there is a problem with just being busy. Busyness is often superficial. I have worked in offices where there is a huge amount of activity, but precious little impact or effect. Equally, you can be putting in lots of effort and making seeming progress, but if you don’t know where you are aiming for, all that work could be taking you in the wrong direction.

“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” 

Henry David Thoreau

So being busy is not enough; it counts for nothing if there is not some deeper purpose.  Thoreau recognised this and this is why mission is so important. We need to know exactly what we are trying to achieve. It’s fine to work hard, as long as you are also working smart. Make your efforts count.

Mission inspiration

I have always dreamed of stepping somewhere no one has ever been before.  This desire fueled a fascination with the stories of adventurers (but especially polar explorers) such as Ernest Shackleton and Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and I have devoured many an inspiring biography.  But the more I read, the more I was frustrated by the feeling that it had all been done.  The big firsts; the continent crossings, poles, peaks and circumnavigations, had all been done. So, where did that leave a budding pioneer?

Frustrated but not completely put off I continued to look at possibilities and became a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. This provided me with a wonderful archive, lectures and events to further provoke me.  It was about this time I read an article on places that were still to be properly explored. This includes Greenland, which has still hundreds of summits that do not have recorded first ascents.

This was enough; the dream grew in clarity and now I had a defined goal, a mission: to be the first person to the top of at least one of these peaks in Greenland.

Defining success

With the measure of success now defined within the vision I was able to plan more effectively.  The next few years were spent building up mountaineering and ski touring skills in various parts of the world and developing experience in arctic conditions.  Much of this was done with my wife, who by that time was caught up in the same dream. So by the time we left for Greenland, we felt as fully prepared as we could be and confident that, conditions permitting, we could achieve our goal.  And we did. During the expedition, we scaled six hills that no one had ever been up or skied down before.

Standing on the highest peak in the area, drinking in a breathtaking landscape and reflecting on the incredible fulfilment of a dream, was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The mission had been accomplished.

Greenland Summit - The Right Questions

The importance of mission

I learnt the true importance of a mission statement whilst in the army.  For any military task, there will be a set of orders, often long and detailed, which tries to plan for every foreseeable eventuality.  But there is an old army phrase that “no plan survives contact with the enemy”, in other words, something will likely come up that you did not expect and that will challenge your plan.  Whereas the plan may have to change, more than likely the mission will stay the same. 

“No plan survives contact with the enemy”

Military saying

For example, you may be ordered: “to capture the enemy position on hill 321.” You may have planned to go on a direct route up the hill.  When you are on the hill you find your route blocked by a minefield.  Your plan changes but your mission does not.  The position still needs to be captured – that is the measure of success – but the plan needs to be adapted.  Because of the chance that a situation may force a change in approach, it is critical to have a good mission statement.  It is the most important part of the plan. 

In a set of military orders, the mission statement is repeated so that everyone can remember it. This means that, even if they forget other parts, they can take their own initiative to complete the mission.

The Right Questions Mission Tool: The binoculars

A mission statement is a clear articulation of what success looks like. That’s why, when thinking about this ‘what’ question in the Right Questions Framework, it is binoculars that come to mind.

I often take binoculars with me, even if I am just out for a local walk. It is amazing how much extra clarity a good set of optics can give you, bringing what is far away, into sharp, detailed focus.

A good mission statement achieves the same thing. Where a vision statement gives the big picture and the grand dream, the mission statement gives the focused, well-defined endpoint.

Constructing a good mission or success statement

A really good mission or success statement should be memorable and measurable.  To make it memorable keep it short.  Less than twenty words is a good start, if you can manage less than ten words so much the better.  When constructing the mission statement start the sentence with ‘to’; this gives the phrase an intentional feel.

A success statement is measurable in as much as you know definitely if and when you have achieved it. For example, the mission, “to be the best chess player in the world,” is measurable.  You know when you have played and won the tournaments to be ranked as the world number one.

As well as the ‘to’ clause, you can also have a secondary ‘in order to’ part of the sentence, for example, a pro tennis player’s mission might be: ‘to rank as the number 1 seeded player in order to be the best tennis player in the world’.

These secondary clauses can be useful for teams or team members constructing mission statements. It ties their mission to the higher intent or mission of the organisation. This can be really helpful in capturing the overall purpose. It links their work to the overall success of a project.

You have probably heard the story of the traveller who comes across some men at a building site. They are masons, shaping stone blocks. When he asks one what he’s doing, he gets the reply, “Chipping away at this rock all day; it’s hard work.” But then he comes across another, doing the same work, and asks the same question. The man replies, “I am building a cathedral!”

This is the difference of understanding the purpose of whatever task, goal or mission we have. Linking it to the overall mission provides motivation and perspective. The stone mason’s mission might then be: ‘to shape these stones to the best of my ability in order to build the most beautiful cathedral on the planet.’

YouTube video: What is a vision statement and why are they important?

What is the difference between a vision and a mission statement?

The short pithy nature of the mission statement sets it apart from the vision statement. The vision statement is likely to be longer and more evocative but less definitive.  Therefore the things are similar and complementary. But don’t worry too much if you find the subtle differences confusing just now. There are a variety of opinions on what makes a mission, success or vision statement. Ultimately the thought process we go through is more important to us than the exact definition.

To apply the idea of a mission statement you have to define what it means to succeed.  This is not as easy! Especially for a large organisation. But the best thing to do is to give it a go, create a rough draft and then refine the statement as time allows.

So, why not have a go now and draft your personal mission statement? Use the instructions above, have a play with the wording and then leave it for a day or so and come back to it and have another go. It might take a few iterations but this way you can craft something succinct yet powerful.

You can read more about this process in How Many Mission Statements Do You Need?

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