Envisioning the Future: Writing Personal Mission and Vision Statements

Edwin M. Stone

The mission and vision statements of an organization are a form of succinct communication among leaders, workers and supporters about the goals and purposes of the organization. When accurate, specific and meaningful, these statements help people find organizations to lead, belong to and/or support that are in good alignment with their personal values.

Personal mission and vision statements are very different. They are a form of internal communication with yourself. Well what could be easier? Who knows you better than you? Usually lots of people, especially at the beginning of your career.

Education in medicine and biomedical science is so scripted and driven by competitive admission processes and various “matches” that people in these fields can easily get to age 30 having never really thought about who they are, what they want to be and how they want to get there (imagine someone putting a golf ball into a very long PVC pipe at age 18 and having it shoot out the other end at age 30). One advantage to the choices that are not entirely your own in the first 3 decades of your life (e.g., a “match”) is that you will likely find yourself at least occasionally in unfamiliar territory geographically, politically, socially, and/or economically. You should welcome these experiences and think a lot about your responses to them, because these responses will help you better understand what you really want from your life.

When you start trying to write your vision of the future down on paper, you will usually find a bunch of ideas that belong to other people admixed with your own true feelings and beliefs. It is important to detect and understand the difference in your and others’ ideas if you want to live your own life and not someone else’s.

It will take several cycles of writing, reading what you write the next day, editing, reading what you edit the next week, etc., before the document will start to become familiar to you and start sounding like your own voice and dreams instead of a cacophony of other people’s voices and dreams.

As part of this whole process you should also formally assess your Jungian personality type and core values using established instruments. When you have got your mission and vision statements right, they will be in good agreement with your formally measured personality type and values.

To begin, try to create a vivid picture in your mind of who (and where) you would like to be 15 or 20 years from now. Get a blank pad of paper and go to a quiet place where you will not be disturbed for a while. Write down the things that you are good at and/or like to do. Write down the things that you are not good at and/or don’t like to do. Who are your role models? What parts of their lives do you most admire and would you most like to emulate in your own life? If you were in control of all variables, what would you most like to be doing 15-20 years from now? Imagine it in detail. What city would you live in? What kind of practice would you work in? Would you do research? What would be your main project if you had funds to start on it today? What would your house or apartment look like? Are you or would you like to be married? Do you or would you like to have children? How many? What type of work does or would your spouse be doing in your vision of the future?

The more you can imagine these things in detail, and think about them as real, the more likely they are to happen. The less clearly you envision these things, think of them as real and believe in them, the more likely the world will just deal your life to you randomly.

VERY IMPORTANT: You should not show any of the writing that results from this exercise to anyone until both of the following conditions are met: 1) the statement has been in use by you for at least 10 years, and 2) you are sharing it in person with a junior colleague you are mentoring about how to write mission and vision statements (unless you are retired at which time you can share the whole thing with anyone you wish, even in print or on a website). Any other sharing of these statements as statements will corrupt them and make them unlikely to be true for you. You should only talk to yourself here. Be honest. No one else is listening (an uncommon situation in most adults’ lives).

So, how do mission and vision statements differ?

A vision statement answers the question: “What would you like a small group of people you admire and respect the most to say about you among themselves (or publicly) after you retire?”

Or even better, after you have retired, as you sit on your back deck with some cheese and crackers and some preferred evening beverage in your hand what will your personal assessment of yourself be? You will be very satisfied that you have always been . . . what? And/or, you are most pleased that during your career, you achieved . . . what?

My current personal vision statement has 56 words.

In contrast, a “daily mission” statement is a list of the things that you believe you need to do day in and day out between now and the day you retire if you want the outcomes in your vision statement to come true.

To help you get started on your own daily mission items list you can ask some of your mentors and/or role models for a few of the things they think about frequently and consider important guiding their daily decisions.

My current “daily mission” statement has 32 bullet items (368 words).

Please start working on this now and keep these documents current and meaningful to you for your entire career. It is the single most important thing you can do to ensure your success.