Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Sense of Mission

Richard N. Bolles is justifiably well-known for, What Color is Your Parachute?, his perennial guide for job seekers. It’s a shame, though, that he isn’t equally well-known for another book, The Three Boxes of Life. Where Parachute is about the how of finding a job, Three Boxes is about the why.

One of the most important lessons every skilled craftsperson must learn is just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The greatest works of art are exercises in restraint not excess. With the possible exception of tabloid celebrities, the greatest careers and lives exemplify the power of purpose and restraint.

Among the many mind-opening ways of living life by design, not accident, in The Three Boxes of Life, Bolles explains how a sense of mission can inform the thousand and one choices you’ll make in the course of a career and a life:

“There yet remains however, one still deeper answer to the issue of MEANING OR MISSION. That is to find, beyond meaning, some ultimate goal or mission for your life, that drives you on with the kind of sacrificial, burning passion. It is the kind of mission that drove Pasteur, Schweitzer, Einstein and many lesser names. It is the kind of drive that — in any or every profession — distinguishes some men and women from the rest of ‘the common herd.’”

The fact that so many businesses responded to the fad of creating a mission statement with platitudes and generalities doesn’t diminish the value of a genuine sense of mission.

Don’t be put off by the lofty overtones of the word, “mission.” While there certainly may be occasions when much is at stake, our mission is no more or less than being able to answer questions like, “Why are you doing this? What do you hope to accomplish?”

Artisan publishing isn’t a shortcut, or a way to get back at a publishing industry that failed to recognize your genius. Like the work of all skilled craftspeople, artisan publishing is a patient, laborious path. It’s not enough to have the skill, the aptitude, or even the inclination to publish your own material. You need to know why, both for your particular project and for you as an individual, the way of the artisan is worth all the time and trouble it will cost you.

A journey of 1000 miles may well begin with a single step, but your chances of completing the roughly 2,000,000 steps that comprise the journey are poor if you don’t know why you’re doing it. There are many poor reasons—one of the worst being because everyone else is doing it—and only a few good ones. The difference is that poor reasons wear away when the going gets tough but good ones will see you through to the end.

No true craftsperson undertakes a work lightly — not because their work has mystical significance but because the hallmark of skill is to act deliberately. In order to act deliberately you need to know why you’re acting: you need to have a sense of mission. Otherwise, you’ll provide yet another confirmation of the old aphorism that if you’re aiming at nothing you’ll hit it.

Image: Simon Howden /

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