Your mission statement: a meaningful life defined

We spend a fair bit of time on this blog differentiating between strategy–delineating one’s goals–and tactics–carrying out those goals. Many of us nowadays, myself included, get so wrapped up in finding the perfect suite of technologies and habits (i.e., the optimal tactics) that we lose track of what we are actually trying to do. If we don’t review our life strategies every once in a while, we run the risk of going nowhere, but doing it very efficiently.

I came across an opinion piece by Todd May at the New York Times asking just how we identify a meaningful life. After the requisite nod to, and dismissal of, that happy go lucky man about town, Jean-Paul Sartre, May mentioned a recent book by Susan Wolf,  “Meaning in Life and Why It Matters.”

A meaningful life, she claims, is distinct from a happy life or a morally good one. In her view, “meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness.” A meaningful life must, in some sense then, feel worthwhile.  The person living the life must be engaged by it.  A life of commitment to causes that are generally defined as worthy — like feeding and clothing the poor or ministering to the ill — but that do not move the person participating in them will lack meaningfulness in this sense. However, for a life to be meaningful, it must also be worthwhile. Engagement in a life of tiddlywinks does not rise to the level of a meaningful life, no matter how gripped one might be by the game.

In the interest of brevity, this appears to boil down to the following equation:

The meaningfulness of an act = likelihood of performing an act * the social utility of the action

(and yes, for those who know me, there were units in an earlier draft, and the equation included the terms “work”, “activation energy”, and “fitness”, but hey, I’m trying to get a few hits from the philosophy blogs around here).

A perhaps more practical approach to the problem of finding meaning is to write your own mission statement–a concise outline of what is important to you. Mission statements are ultimately useful in their ability to clarify one’s own thoughts and focus the mind like a laser beam on the tasks at hand. Next, I present a five step process toward crafting your own mission statement. 

  1. Write your own obituary. Yeah, this is always a crowd pleaser for first year graduate students. But  the task of imaging what someone would write about one  when one dies does tend to focus the mind…onederfully. Asking yourself “What kind of person do you want to be remembered as?” is a nice way to begin the task of moving to make those things a reality.
  2. Make a list of your heros.  Who, at a visceral level, do you admire and why? It is likely not just for what they accomplished, but for how they accomplished it. There are likely a lot more people you admire/envy for what they have done, than folks whose lives you’d like to emulate. I admire John Lennon; Abraham Lincoln is a hero of mine.
  3. List your roles. OK, now imagine your constituencies, the individuals or groups that you feel obligated to serve. Start with yourself, spouse or partner, family, colleagues, society, students…it can be an impressive list. Each deserves their own treatment.
  4. List the most important principle associated with carrying out each role.  What you prioritize when serving your students will differ from what you feel is important when interacting with your brothers and sisters; your colleagues are not the same as your spouse; your role as a scientist demands different principles than your role as a son or daughter. As you think about these, and craft those sentences, you will find your mission statement growing organically on your paper/screen.
  5. Consult, revisit, revise.  At the beginning of each week, read through your mission statement. Consider it your “meaning calibration moment” for the week. Then start thinking about what you want to get done. Every year, say during holiday breaks, sit down with your mission statement and tweak it. It will not change much. But as your life marches on you will find yourself adopting new roles, and dropping others, and learning, through simply living, what your principles truly are.
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