By Heather Fischer, Harvard Business School Partner
A little over a year ago, I sat in the gym parking lot with my husband, Matt, sipping on a pre-workout energy drink as we decompressed from the day. It was our regular routine to meet up after work, talk for an hour, and then head inside to hit up some weights. Some might call it a gym rat’s happy hour. That particular day, I was eager to tell him about a meeting I’d had with a mentor who had encouraged me to spend some time mapping out my interests, development goals, and overall sense of purpose in an effort to gain some clarity on where to invest my time.
Nervous to ask him to try it out with me, I attempted to sell it as a “fun Saturday activity.” I wasn’t sure if it was the endorphins from the caffeine fix in his pre-workout or what, but before I’d even finished talking, he looked at me with bright eyes and said “I’m in! Let’s do it.” That weekend, we set aside uninterrupted time for Fischer family vision planning, and the output of those few days proceeded to change our lives forever.
You see, it was more than just goal setting. It was more than mapping out an action plan to land the next job or get into HBS. It was about the underlying purpose behind it all. It was about identifying the overarching, unshakeable sense of “this is what I exist for” that would serve as a compass for how we then lived. We found that it’s this process of identifying the higher sense of purpose that’s far too often missing in the planning and reflecting we’re all trained to do. And when we miss this aspect, we miss the mark completely.
When I mention the concept of developing a “personal vision statement” to people, I sometimes get an odd look in response. “Vision statement? Isn’t that what you do at like…work?”
It sure is. And for good reason.
Truly impactful companies all take the time to create a meaningful vision for their organization.
Who will they be? What do they stand for? What is different about them? What will make them succeed?
The answers to these questions get wrapped into one powerful vision statement, which in turn drives their strategies, which drives their tactics. Without a vision, they may have short term gain, but they’re left without long-term direction to set them up for sustainable success. Operating off of personal goals without a connection to a higher purpose leaves us in a similar position; we may have temporary achievement, but low lasting fulfillment.
In our life at HBS, our personal vision statements have continued to anchor Matt and I as we face each big decision. Matt and his classmates are smackdab in the middle of having to answer “where do I see myself after graduation, or ten years from now?” and while the self-reflection assignments from their program have helped jump start the process of answering this question, many are still left feeling confused and at a loss as to which direction is the right one for them. There are so many possibilities – so many paths students are blessed to have before them. But sometimes, that blessing feels like a big fat curse and a giant stress inducer when all you want is a sign, more time, and a gin and tonic.
Exposure to so many options can make discernment a bit murky, and the question we have to ask ourselves is “does this fit in with my life vision? Does this align with my passions and how I want to live my life?” If the answer is yes, then we proceed confidently. If the answer is no, we guiltlessly toss it out the window, knowing that we’ve remained true to who we want to be. If there’s ever been a right time to evaluate our purpose, it’s now. We’re on the brink of life changing trajectories and more than ever, we are desperately in need of a compass.
The guiding knowledge of who you were designed to be becomes the difference between taking a job because it is safe, or taking a job that feels risky but makes you feel more alive than you ever dreamed. It’s the difference between going through the motions as society tells you to, or living the life of adventure you were born to live.
Since creating my mission statement, I’ve turned to this method of realignment countless times as I’ve found myself questioning…well, just about everything. (Heck, working from home in a small apartment on campus has its way of making a person feel crazy.) Yet every time I read it, it pushes me to be courageous. Every time it beckons me back to the life I truly want to be living.
So how do you create your own powerful vision statement? With a lot of thinking, a bit of time, and a little writing, you’ll be well on your way. Here’s how:
1. Set aside time
- Pick a specific weekend and give yourself a few days to lock in and self-reflect. Protect this time! Commit to making it a priority.
- Invite a close friend, family member, spouse, or significant other to join you in this process. It helps to have someone you are close with to act as a sounding board for one another.
- Choose an environment that inspires you, calms you, and provides minimal distractions.
- Commit to finishing. If you’re someone who struggles with follow through, ask a close friend to keep you accountable to completing.
- Don’t rush through it. Challenge yourself to think deeply and answer honestly. You’d only be cheating yourself.
2. Connect to your higher beliefs
- Your vision statement should be more than just words. It’s an honest declaration of the person you will be and what you believe. So take some time for deep connection to whatever higher belief, if any, you have. If this involves the act of praying, then pray. Meditating, then meditate. Seek truth and clarity to guide you through this process.
3. Begin with a list
- Grab your computer or notebook. Actually transcribing the thoughts floating around in your head is an important part of the process. It brings about a whole new level of reflection, accountability, and insight.
- List #1: What do you value? What is most important and worthy to you in life? List everything that comes to mind.
- Ex: Spending time with people you love, living a healthy lifestyle, being intellectually challenged
- List #2: What are your morals? If you had to establish your family’s standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do, what would it be?
- Ex: Always tell the truth, treat others with respect, have integrity
- List #3: What would you like to accomplish in life? What are your goals, dreams, and aspirations?
- Ex: Publish a book, get your MBA, travel
- List #4: What do you feel your individual purpose is? What makes you feel most alive/gives you the most energy? What do you believe you were created to do?
- Ex: Revolutionizing health care, mentoring troubled teens, raising children
- If you’re in a relationship and are doing this exercise together, create a joint list, after your individual lists, and discuss and agree on the values, morals, accomplishments, and purpose you want to establish as a unit.
4. Write out your statement
- Take the themes from your previous lists and wrap them together into a few sentences that proclaim who you are (what you believe and value) and what you are purposed to do.
- When thinking about who you are, think of it in light of the person you want to be in all aspects of life. Don’t get caught up in who you are now or the ways you may feel you fall short. This is your aspirational statement so focus on who you want to be.
- Don’t make it overly specific. It is not intended to be prescriptive or tied to a particular company or exact job title.
- Aim for succinct/short wording. Keep it to one paragraph.
- Continue to refine over time. Don’t worry about making it perfect the first time.
5. Share it and incorporate feedback
- Talk to a mentor, a family member, or close friend who knows you well and who you have a high level of trust with.
- Ask for their feedback and then revise it as necessary.
- Repeat this cycle as many times as needed.
6. Maintain and reference it
- Store it and/or display it somewhere you will see often. Keep it on your phone, print it and frame it, tape it to your mirror, or attach it to your desk.
- Read it often. This is a powerful tool and reference point that reminds you of who you are and aids you in making those big life decisions.
- Speak it out loud to yourself. There is power in hearing the truth of who you are, from your own mouth. Be proud of it; take ownership of it.
- Revise as necessary over time. Update and/or adapt as needed or so inspired.
To read my personal vision statement, visit my website at madetolive.org.