Unlocking the Power of a Mission in Your Life and Work

The British rowing team set the goal of winning Gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. 

So, in the years leading up to the event, they had a simple filter for every decision that came their way: 

“Will this make the boat go faster?” 

If the choice was between pizza or pasta, they would ask: “which will make the boat go faster?” 

Or, if they were deciding whether to do an early morning workout or stay out late, they asked: 

“What will make the boat go faster?” 

Despite being huge underdogs (they hadn’t won gold in the men’s eight event since 2012), they destroyed their competition and won the race. Their story provides a glimpse into the power of having a clear mission to work towards. It gives you a filter for making the big decisions and helps you to say no to the unimportant. 

As Dr Steven Covey states:

“You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage – pleasantly, smilingly, unapologetically – to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.” 

When you’re working towards a clear mission that you’re excited about, you can easily subordinate all of your lesser desires. 

And it doesn’t require willpower or restricting yourself. 

You’re just chasing something bigger. 

This might be what AngelList Founder Naval Ravikant meant when he said:

“The universe is rigged in such a way that if you just want one thing and you focus on that, you will get it. But everything else, you gotta let go.”

For most of us, our energy output looks like the diagram below: 

We’ve committed ourselves to too many different projects and find ourselves overstretched, investing tiny bits of effort in multiple different directions, but not getting very far in any. 

However, we become truly effective when we choose a small number of priorities to go deep on, dedicate ourselves to them, and sacrifice the alternatives – no matter how appealing they may be. 

Magician Raymond Teller (from Penn and Teller) suggests: 

“Sometimes, magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”

So if you want to create magic in the world and impact the lives of others, it’s vital to create a compelling mission for the next 1-3 years of your working life. 

One clear priority around which to organise the best of your energy and capabilities. 

This should excite and scare you at the same time. 

It should flow naturally out of your values, purpose, and vision, and energise you as you move in the direction of its attainment. 

With a clear mission, your energy output starts to look like this:

Now that we’ve looked at some of the benefits of having a mission, let’s look at a simple framework for choosing the right one to focus on.

Make Your Mission: Happy, Smart, & Useful 

According to Derek Sivers, for long term plans to be sustainable, they have to pass three criteria: 

(1.) Happy, in the sense that it should bring you joy and energy as you work towards achieving it;

(2.) Smart, in that it should be good for you in the long run and;

(3.) Useful in that it should be valuable to others. 

When a long term plan doesn’t work, it’s usually because we’ve neglected one of these elements. 

To illustrate this, let’s look at three examples. 

Firstly, happy and smart (but not useful) plans are often created by those in the “lifestyle design” industry. 

They prioritise creating passive income, so they can sit on a beach and sip margaritas, while the money flows in effortlessly. People who only take happy and smart into the equation forget that human beings are an intensely social species. 

We’re hardwired to connect and serve, with research showing that we receive a myriad of unseen emotional benefits when we help others.

So we’d be wise to acknowledge this and find ways to serve others through our work.

Secondly, a happy and useful (but not smart) mission might involve a coach who invests heavily in training to become the best coach she can be. 

Then, after qualifying, spends all of her time helping her friends at no cost. Although it makes her happy and is useful to others, it’s not smart (i.e., good for her) in the long run because she will soon find herself broke.

Thirdly, a long term plan that is smart and useful which neglects happiness is also not a sustainable strategy. 

As Jack Kornfield puts it: 

“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” 

Those who are “other-focused” have a tendency to fall into this category. 

An example might be an entrepreneur who wants to help others improve their lives. 

What he really loves doing though is organising events, coaching, and writing. But he neglects this because he thinks that to make a bigger impact in the world, he should start a nonprofit. So he starts the nonprofit without considering what the day-to-day of this actually involves. 

Now, most of his time is spent applying for funding, managing a team, and checking the work of others – none of which he enjoys or finds intrinsically motivating. 

So, when thinking about the mission you want to pursue, it’s vital to ask:

  1. Will the pursuit of this make me happy?
  2. Will it be good for me in the long run? 
  3. Is it useful to others?

Reflection Questions

1.) What do you need to say no to, so that you can invest more fully into what matters most?

2.) What’s your version of the “will this make the boat go faster” question?

3.) What mission can you create that would be happy, smart (i.e. good for you), and useful?

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Niall McKeever

Writer and Founder of The Weekend University. Passionate about making great ideas more accessible.

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