What's Your Why? Get Clear on Your Personal Mission to Get Ahead

Knowing your WHY, the reason you do what you do, is one of the best ways to live intentionally, inspire others, and build resilience – all of which are critical if we want to succeed in today’s world of work.

Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, writes, “When we discover our WHY, we are better able to find the clarity and confidence to choose the careers, organizations, communities, and relationships that are most likely to inspire us.”

My favorite way to clarify and define your why is through a mission statement. A mission statement is a simple statement of personal purpose written in a way that is highly meaningful to you, feels important, and circumstances cannot take it away from you.

Why write a mission statement?

At the intersection of our values and purpose, a mission statement helps us to get clear about our own priorities. At times when we feel pulled in different directions or have multiple opportunities in front of us, we can rely on our mission statement to help us recognize what direction, or opportunities, to say yes or no to. Which path to take suddenly becomes much clearer, because we know why we’re doing what we’re doing.

In addition to establishing clarity for ourselves, writing a mission statement helps us communicate our goals and dreams to others. Sinek explains that many people (and organizations) communicate their WHAT (their skills, product, or offerings), followed by their HOW, often forgetting to explain their WHY. When we flip this order around and instead begin by communicating why we do what we do we are able to inspire others. This is critical for not only the job search as we aim to inspire others to hire us, but also as we lead and aspire to influence others within our organizations or industries. A mission statement helps us concisely communicate that WHY up front.

Finally, our mission statement also serves as a compass in a storm, as remembering our sense of purpose through our mission statement helps us persevere when we face challenges and obstacles.

How do I write a mission statement?

Your mission statement should be broad enough that it feels important and that multiple strategies exist that will enable you to fulfill it. In other words, avoid creating a statement that is too broad (not motivating) and too narrow (too limiting).

Let’s look an example:

My mission is to improve the wellbeing of today’s youth. This is too broad.

My mission is to improve the wellbeing of college students through financial advising. This is too narrow because there is only one specific avenue, financial advising, that accomplishes the mission.

My mission is to improve financial literacy among first-generation and low-income college students. This statement is meaningful, feels important, and cannot be taken away based on external circumstances (there are a lot of different methods to improve financial literacy that could be tried).

How do I get started?

There are a couple of exercises that can help you get the juices flowing as you draft your mission statement.

Exercise 1

First, create a list of 50 things that have brought you great joy in the past and 50 ongoing activities that continue to bring you great joy in the present. Include academic experiences, trips you’ve taken, sports you’ve played, volunteering experiences, hobbies, books you’ve read, etc. Don’t overthink it – spend about 5-10 minutes max on this!

From this list you just made, identify the items that felt, or still feel, the most meaningful to you. Then group these items that you found meaningful into related categories. You might see categories forming that involve helping others in a particular way (i.e. with their health or with talent development), or helping people in certain situations (i.e. living in poverty or suffering from a mental illness).

Use this list to look for your mission, because it likely already exists. In fact, you’ve likely been making many life decisions based on this hidden mission (where to go to school, what to get involved in, etc.).

Exercise 2

Survey 3-5 family members, friends, and/or colleagues to ask them what makes you uniquely you. Pick a diverse group of people whom you trust. Consider asking a few of the following questions:

  • What do you think I’m really good at?
  • When do you feel like I shine?
  • What do you come to me for that you don’t go to others for? List 2-3 things.
  • What do you want me to know about myself?
  • What would you like to see me be recognized for?

Once you’ve done so, outline similarities or patterns that you see among the responses. You will begin to see what it is that you naturally do that already makes an impact.

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Looking for more info about defining your WHY? Watch Sinek’s TED Talk or check out some of his other resources online (including his WHY Discover online course).

Then take a stab at drafting your mission statement. Put your mission statement on your phone or a post-it note where you’ll see it regularly to remind yourself of your WHY at times when you need it most. Need someone to hold you accountable? Send me a draft of your mission – I’d love to support you!