Define Your Mission in 4 Steps

I came to business school to buy time so I could figure out the next step in my career. It did not fully dawn on me until the summer preceding my first semester that I had absolutely no plan for how to determine that next step. Further, I realized there was a more important question that needed to be answered first – How can I figure out what I want out of my career, and the right next step, if I haven’t yet figured out what I want out of my life? What is my mission? That was a daunting question that I had never attempted to face down before. That needed to change. I spent the next three months exploring a variety of resources to assemble a toolkit so I could at least create a rough draft, somewhere I could start. And I’ve spent the next 16 months refining, iterating, and adding to that toolkit. The result is the below framework, a 4 step process for defining your mission.


Step 1: Look Back

To birth the new, we must kill off the old. Before looking forward, it is critical to understand what makes us who we are today. Which events, people, places, values, etc. have had the biggest impact in shaping ourselves? The goal of step 1 is to be fully at peace with our past experience and present state.

Critical caveats:

  • You must be honest with yourself. For me, meditation and journaling help get a level or two beneath the surface.
  • You need the thoughts to come out unedited. You must unblock. If you feel stuck in initial attempts at mindfulness practices, I strongly recommend reading and working through The Artist’s Way. As a side benefit, Julia Cameron’s work also includes a number of exercises that will help you learn more about yourself.

Recommended exercises:

  • List what you are passionate about. (e.g., Behavioral economics)
  • List your role models, and what is inspirational about them. (e.g., My Dad, for his entrepreneurial spirit, grit, and positive attitude)
  • List the questions/criteria that help you filter for coworkers, friends and romantic relationships
  • Examine your past relationships, romantic and platonic, for key learnings.
  • List the skeletons hidden in your closet. What happened? How do you feel about it today?


Step 2: Look Forward

To generate possibility, set limits. Now is the time to look forward. The right boundaries / guidance will enable us to do so with ‘thoughtful abandon’. The goal of step 2 is to create a rough draft of the plan for the future.

Critical caveat:

  • Philosophy can provide a framework for how you want to live your life going forward. The Conquest of Happiness or The Story of Philosophy can be tremendously helpful here.

Recommended exercises:

  • List out critical life experiments to learn more about yourself. (e.g., lead an executive team of 4 to delight a community of 100+ members)
  • The Obituary Exercise – for your current path, and your aspiration path.
  • Describe your ideal speaker (via Search Inside Yourself). I am attending a talk as part of a large audience. Everybody in the audience, including me, is deeply touched by what the speaker is saying. That speaker is my future self, twenty years from now. What is the speaker saying and how is it touching and inspiring me? What about the speaker makes me look up to him / her?
  • Describe your ideal future (via Search Inside Yourself). If everything in my life, starting from today, meets or exceeds my most optimistic expectations, what will my life be in five years? Who are you and what are you doing? How do you feel? What do people say about you?


Step 3: Experiment and Learn

Now that you have your rough draft, it is time to get data. You need to make sure that what looks right on paper feels right in actual, tangible experience. The goal of step 3 is to test-drive your best guess, to see how it feels for you, so you can see what fits and what doesn’t.

Recommended exercises:

  • Get some dirt under your fingernails. Prototype your rough draft. Volunteer, intern, etc. For example, my best guess was that I wanted to work for a mission that I care about, that this would be more meaningful than my past generalist work. And so over the summer, I worked for Headspace, a meditation startup. The key learning from the summer was that working on the mission was not enough; I needed to see evidence of the impact of our work (e.g., user feedback).
  • Seek out and talk to people who have already walked down your desired path. What are the trade-offs? What pain do they continue to face? Everyone struggles, and some of us are fortunate to choose the struggles we will likely face.


Step 4: Recalibrate

Finally, you will want to create your own feedback loop. This process is about experimentation and iteration to figure out what you want. The goal of step 4 is to create your own process for taking the data from step 3 and feeding it back into your rough draft, so you can continue to hone and improve your best guess over time. For example, I revisit my exercises from steps 1 and 2 every month or so, to check in and see if the answers still feel true given my recent life experiences. As necessary, I will select specific experiments that need to happen ASAP to learn more about elements that feel vague or uncertain.

Critical caveat:

A helpful mindset for understanding what changes need to be made, based on the data collected, is that of emotional charge. This concept is explored in depth in The Dark Side of The Light Chasers. If you read over a past answer and get no emotional charge, you are likely still in the same place. If reading over a past answer stirs significant emotion within you, that is likely a signal to pause, dig deeper, and potentially make some updates.


This was reprinted and modified from:

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