The Importance of a Personal Mission Statement

There’s a quote that goes something like “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  A few years back, I was deep into an internet rabbit hole avoiding my real work, when one suddenly did.

It was in the form of a TEDx Talk, by the film producer Adam Leipzig, and it was much more interesting than the task I was supposed to be doing, so I watched the whole thing.  In five minutes, he assured us that anyone could discover their life’s purpose by asking themselves five things:

  1. Who am I?
  2. What do I do?
  3. Who am I doing it for?
  4. What do those people want or need?
  5. And how were they changed as a result…


I doubted this but played along for the remaining 4 minutes of his talk because, as I mentioned, I was supposed to be working.  Leipzig went through this list of questions with his audience and asked us all to just shout out our answers as he did. My husband Ben, was in the room, and he decided to join me because he was supposed to be washing dishes.

And it worked.

The best part was that it didn’t require any heavy lifting or personal exploration other than shouting out the first things that came to mind when you look yourself in the eye and ask these questions.

Who are you?

Just say your name.  That’s enough. You are enough.  While there are many deep, reflective responses to this question, your name really can just say it all. I am Heather.  Easy.

What do I do?

Well, I do a lot of things, and most likely, so do you.  I’m a teacher, I like to garden, I do things to take care of my family, I read and I write.  To help us narrow this down, Leipzig asks us to think about the one thing that we, ourselves, would be uniquely qualified to teach others.  Okay, easy. I love plants and people ask me questions when their succulents are struggling. In one word, shout out this one thing you do best.

Who am I doing it for?

This one was trickier.  I think I do a lot of what I do for others, but I also get a lot out of it myself.  Whom directly did I serve, then? How about you? Who do you do your one thing for primarily?

What do those people want or need?

There is something that you bring to this world that only a few can.  It is something that this place needs and it would be a shame if you were not here to do so.

And how were they changed as a result…

At the end of the five minutes, we each had a personal mission statement.

I help things grow.

Ben fixes things.

Okay, so nothing earth-shattering, but these simple sentences resonated so strongly with both of us.  I help things grow. Ben fixes things. As complex as we both knew each other to be, what we actually did, in one way or another with our time here on Earth, could be summed up in these sentences.

This revelation has given us a quick response to that question you get asked at parties… “so, what do you do?”  I help things grow and Ben fixes things.

More than that, it’s become a mantra in our lives whenever we are making decisions. There are many choices of how to spend our time, and sometimes it’s hard to say no, but this becomes easier when I ask myself if what I’m about to take on allows me to live out my personal mission.  If it does, then most likely, it will be a valuable use of my time. If it doesn’t, then perhaps there’s an opportunity for someone else to live out their personal mission.


Why We Mate: An Adaptive Challenge

Why We Mate:  An Adaptive Challenge

Humans have been hooking up a long time.

Like most animals, the need to keep our DNA here on Earth after we are gone drives us to seek out partners and procreate. Unlike most animals on the Discovery Channel, however, you may have noticed that we do it a bit differently. Positions and mating rituals aside, humans are part of a very small percentage (about 3% of all animals) that exhibit long-term pair-bonding.

Evolutionary biologist, psychologists and anthropologists have all put some serious efforts into researching why, despite our biological proclivities towards random couplings, long-term monogamous mating is the mode in most human cultures and societies.


Depending on the research, there are several different theories that point out how the evolutionary benefits of a long-term partner outweigh the cost of not spreading your love around.   One theory is that having a main squeeze for life better allows us to solve adaptive problems.  Adaptive problems are those that may be recurring over time that might be difficult to identify and navigate and greatly influence your chances for survival.  In early humans, this might have looked like the means of procuring food or surviving extreme temperatures. These are problems that may require collaboration that are best solved by the passing down or sharing of knowledge over time, which makes long-term mating a great strategy over the years.

Our modern-day problems may look very different to our ancestors’, but being part of a two-person team can still provide these benefits, both in the short-term for the two individuals involved, and generationally over time.  This only works, however, if you are able to recognize and strategize when adaptive problems arise.

In his seminal work on leadership, Professor Ronald Heifetz of the Harvard Kennedy School identifies most challenges in life as either technical or adaptive problems.  Technical problems are those that can be solved by knowledge or experts, while adaptive problems are those that require new learning.  In our own lives, we face a variety of each of these daily. A strange rash on our arm may require a visit to a doctor to diagnose (technical problem), but learning that the rash is due to a food allergy, which requires us to explore our diet, identify the culprit, and change our eating habits requires new learning and an adaptive solution.  

As a couple, we may not always realize that we are approaching a shared challenge with these two different mindsets for solutions.  A typical argument in my household involves our dirty kitchen. My partner views this as a technical problem. His solution is to hire a housekeeper.  I see this as a more adaptive problem, in that the overall division of housework seems inequitable. Both views deserve discussion, but not necessarily the same discussion or same solution.  

Technical problems are easier to identify, easier to fix, and generally easier to implement solutions for.  They do not, however, lend themselves to adaptive solutions, which provide the biggest benefit in (and reason for) long-term relationships over time.  While adaptive solutions may take longer, and require overall changes of roles or perceptions, it’s here that we can cash in on the evolutionary value of our partnerships.  

Take a look at your top three “challenges” in your partnerships.  Do you fight about money, housework, parenting styles? Choose one to explore together (over a glass of wine or in a low-stress setting).  What triggers and snags come up regularly for this shared challenge? For example, if you choose to explore your problem of different parenting styles, do you see this come up most around extended family, school work, or screen time? See if you can divide them up into two columns: technical challenges versus adaptive challenges.  Chances are, each of these will probably have aspects that fall into each. In your technical challenges, see if you can identify either a source of information or an “expert” that can help address these. Then, take a look at the specific adaptive problems you’ve identified. Here is where growth can happen.

Adaptive challenges will not be solved tonight.  Finish that wine and plan some time to really explore these in the future, but first, identify what new learning would be most helpful to know moving forward.  Do you need to explore your own thoughts or your partner’s feelings or experiences a little deeper around this topic?  Are there pieces of information, such as books, blogs or input from some other source that might be helpful? Do you need to examine (or re-examine) priorities before moving towards a collaborative solution first?  Gather ideas and input (both individually and together) and commit to coming back to this with fresh eyes. This could happen during a set time (such as your State of the Union planning) or over time, as the issues come up.  Regardless of when, you’ll be much better prepared for the “how” to address these type of adaptive challenges once you recognize them for what they are and seek out the resources needed to address them.


The Danger of Putting Pen to Paper

I talk too much.

As a kid, I never shut up. As an adult, I use the rare moments of silence to relive the stupid things that have tumbled out of my mouth at work, at parties, in line for coffee…it’s a long list.

I have a lot of admiration for friends and colleagues that think of the perfect thing they should have said hours later. I long for that kind of regret. Words have power. In human speech though, power is often diminished, rather than amplified, by volume. A thoughtful, concise point carries more poignancy than a big dump of words. Written down, this point can hit a target in such a way as to trigger action.

Here’s where things get dangerous.

Writing things down changes a thought into a plan and leaves an inky line of accountability. A starting line. A place that demarcates the before and the after. When you write it down, you bring an idea into being. You birth it right there on the paper and give it life. At this point, you have to decide to keep it alive or let it die.

For this reason, regardless of what apps or files you usually use to jot things down in your phone or computer, when it comes to the most important things in life, you need a practice of putting pen to paper. When setting a goal in life or creating an intention, there is no better first step than ink on page. Here are a few tips for making that happen:

Use a great pen. This seems petty, but the weight and scratch of a quality pen in your hand will help to move itself across a page. It makes you want to pick it up and use it to write your own fate. It also separates what you are about to put down from all the other grocery lists and return address scrawlings of day-to-day life. Good pens can cost as little as $20 and can transform the role of writing into chronicling.

Create a space for short-term vs. long-term ideas. Writing things down turns a dream into a goal. Some of these will be small things, but others will be solid one-liners that help direct your future. A journal or planner might be a place you jot down your daily thoughts and plans, but the front page or back page can be reserved for personal statements or words to live by.

Review your own writing. Hearing yourself talk about a dream, you might think yourself crazy, impractical or struggle to take yourself seriously. Reading what you’ve written down seems plausible and exciting. If your dream is particularly outlandish, it makes you sound brave, which makes you feel brave. Come back to what you’ve written regularly. Cross it of when you accomplish it, add new ideas as they come. This makes you the author of your own dream.

Writing things down changes them from a thought to a deed. The action of picking up a pen and putting it to paper is a verb for your subject. It will survive as living evidence, on display, intractable, known.

Try it and see.

The Unhelpfulness of “Happily Ever After”

The fairy tales end with two people falling in love and walking off to begin their new lives together.  

This narrative arc is repeated in modern-day rom-coms and most other literature for public consumption.  Despite the obstacles, adventures, tragic events or humourous mix-ups we’ve followed along their path to that first kiss, the curtain seems to drop just afterward, leaving us to assume all went well until they died many years later.  This is extremely unhelpful.

There are millions of different “how we met” stories, but so very few “how we stayed in love all our lives” stories.  Falling in love is easy, but staying in love is harder- that’s why it’s so helpful to have examples, and somewhat surprising that more of them don’t exist.

Continue reading “The Unhelpfulness of “Happily Ever After””

Agile in Love: The Value of the Retrospective

There’s a lot of reasons why we don’t run a marriage like a business (can you imagine the overtime pay?!), but there are a couple of great ideas worth bringing home from the office.

Photo credit: Luigi Mengato

Almost every well-managed business in any industry will take the time to review and reflect on the work from the previous year(s). Perhaps it’s around tax season or at the end of the fiscal year, or when working with shareholders or advisory groups. The idea of the retrospective comes from the need to decide what impact past decisions have had on the overall outcome of events and garner any insight from that process to help shape future decisions. It also gives an organization a chance to celebrate what’s gone well and identify areas that need addressing.

Continue reading “Agile in Love: The Value of the Retrospective”