BY CHRIS PALMER —
Creating a Fulfilling and Meaningful Life as I Face Mortality —
We must search for what we want to become. None of us has an immutable essence. One way to shape who we become—a way to rewire our brain’s circuits and neurons to forge a bolder, more intentional, and more purposeful life—is to write a personal mission statement and deeply reflect on it. It’s never too late to bring more intentionality—more purpose, character, and meaning—into your life.
You benefit from struggling to write your personal mission statement as opposed to simply tossing ideas around in your head. You are contemplating the kind of life you want to design, create, and live, and then writing clear and inspiring answers to such big questions as, What is my best life? Where do I belong? What are my values? What deeply matters to me? What do I believe in? What is my purpose?
I have one chance at life, so I must have an accurate map and compass to help me lead a life of purpose, joy, and meaning, and with the fewest possible regrets.
The purpose of my personal mission statement, below, is to be that map and compass—my true north. I will be the best person I can be, so I can die feeling at peace and with few regrets.
My Personal Mission Statement
As I approach the end of my days on this earth, I appreciate I’ve had a good life and have much for which to be grateful. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote, “Alas for those who never sing, but die with all their music in them!” I had the chance to “sing.” I worked hard and gave life my best shot. I recognize I’ve been lucky and privileged, enjoying unfair social advantages over others because I’m white and male.
I agree with whoever said that the purpose of life is a life of purpose. Living with purpose makes the world a better place and benefits others, while also helping me feel fulfilled. Therefore, I will embrace a purpose-driven life, not a comfort-driven life.
I will nurture new identities. Of course, I will still focus on my family and on my role as a husband, father, and grandfather, but I will also build my identity as an author, teacher, speaker, community member, volunteer, health advocate, aging advocate, and death and dying educator.
As I face mortality, I will find joy in designing the meaning and purpose of the last phase of my life. It is my responsibility to find my path and live my own unique life.
I will spend my time on what matters to me. I am what I spend my time on. In historian Will Durant’s formulation, I will become what I repeatedly do. Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become.” Author Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
As New York Times columnist David Brooks advocates in his book The Second Mountain, I will climb a “second mountain” that focuses on what matters. He distinguishes “eulogy virtues” from “resume virtues.” To move from “resume virtues” to “eulogy virtues” is to move from activities focused on the self to activities focused on others.
I will work for the greater good. I will give my life meaning and fulfillment by contributing to matters larger than the self and more enduring than my life. William James said, “The great use of life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.”
I will give my life significance by devoting myself to challenging and worthy tasks. As a result, I will have something worth living for—what the Japanese call ikigai (“reason for being”), linked to finding meaning and being optimistic.
I will adopt a growth mindset and seek an abundance of growth experiences. Growth experiences give my life significance and meaning and are the keys to a fulfilled life and a life of learning. T.S. Eliot wrote, “Old men ought to be explorers.”
If I’m living well, I will always be doing something hard. Philosopher and activist Bertrand Russell said, “When striving ceases, so does life.” And Nietzsche believed that embracing difficulty is essential for a fulfilling life. He famously asserted, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Poet Goethe said, “If you want to make life easy, make it hard.”
In Adams Grant’s formulation, I will be a “giver,” not a “taker.” I will benefit and help other people. I will strive to make the world a better place. I will be benevolent, farsighted, and generous.
I will create a meaningful legacy that will survive me and be my gift to the future I will not see. I want “my memory be for a blessing”—a beautiful Jewish expression. I want to leave more than just money. I hope to ripple into the future, just as my parents have rippled through me. (Rippling is psychiatrist Irvin Yalom’s word for passing on parts of ourselves to others. Yalom says it helps to reduce the dread of death.)
I will undertake activities that strengthen my relationships with others, especially with family, friends, and neighbors. I will nurture camaraderie and goodwill. As author Ken Blanchard puts it, I will “catch people doing things right” rather than focusing on mistakes and errors.
I will cut out all nonessentials from my life and everything of little consequence. I will minimize my use of social media, which can be toxic and dystopian. I will practice “digital minimalism” as described in Professor Cal Newport’s same name book. I will have time for high-quality activities, including reading books, writing books, having conversations with friends, and learning to dance and play tennis. I will be “indistractable” (author Nir Eyal’s word).
I will pursue a reverse bucket list. Every year, I will jettison obligations, possessions, and relationships that don’t advance my life goals.
I acknowledge that I am a beginner in many areas of life. I will relish the role of being a student and lifelong learner.Scientist and author Isaac Asimov said, “The day you stop learning is the day you begin decaying.”
I will appreciate the distinction between “doing” and “being.” I will relish the chance to watch a bird, admire a flower, and enjoy the moment.
Chris Palmer is an author, speaker, wildlife filmmaker, and professor. He is currently writing a book on death and dying, is a hospice volunteer, and runs an “aging well” group for the Bethesda Metro Area Village in Maryland. His new book, Finding Meaning and Success: Living A Fulfilled and Productive Life, provides a roadmap for creating your own personal mission statement and more. It is available on Amazon.com.