What is mission? What is your mission statement and definition of success?
“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” Henry David Thoreau
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.
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 bagged, 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 which 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, including 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.
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 Juliette who by that time was caught up with 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 to date. The mission had been accomplished.
The importance of mission
I learnt the true importance of mission 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, it is highly likely something will 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. For example you may be ordered “to capture the enemy position on hill 321” and 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 strategy 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, from the lowest to the highest-ranking soldier, can remember it (even if they forget other parts) and take their own initiative to complete the mission if necessary.
Constructing a good mission statement
A really good mission 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. A mission 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.
The short pithy nature of the mission statement and its closed definition of success 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 is a variety of opinion on what makes a mission or vision statement and ultimately the thought process we go through is more important to us than the exact definition.
To apply the idea of a mission statement for an individual or organisation you have to define what it means for you to succeed. This is not as easy as it sounds when you are applying it to your whole life or a whole company!
(For exercises to help develop your mission statement go to the Resources page)
Who has inspired you to achieve a goal? Do leave a comment and share your story.