Creative Education
2011. Vol.2, No.3, 313-315
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ce.2011.23043
The Value of a Personal Mission Statement for University
Barbara K. Searight1, H. Russell Searight2
1School of Education, Lake Superior State University, Sault Sainte Marie, USA;
2Lake Superior State University, Sault Sainte Marie, USA.
Received July 11th, 2011; revised July 28th, 2011; accepted August 1st, 2011.
Despite the developmental significance of emerging adulthood as a time for critical self reflection and clarifica-
tion of values, college and university education rarely includes self-assessment in curricula. Stephen Covey’s
book “The Seven Habits o f Hi g h l y Effective People” is a description of the importance of formulating a personal
mission and critically reflecting on personal priorities. As part of a course in organizational psychology, students
read about mission statements, their importance, and completed an accompanying workbook/journal. A key
component of this exercise was for students to develop a personal mission statement. Students reported that they
found this activity to be very helpful—particularly regarding values clarification and how they were actually us-
ing their time. Students commented that because of the fast pace of their lives, they rarely had time to engage in
this type of reflection and were appreciative of the structure provided by the reading, journal, and opportunity to
discuss their goals and values.
Keywords: Personal Development, Higher Education, Character Education
Psychologists and professionals in higher education recog-
nize that the traditional college years are a distinct develop-
mental period. Arnett (2000) has labeled the period from ap-
proximately 18 to 25 years as “emerging adulthood.” This is a
time of instability as young adults manage the demands of edu-
cation while simultaneously attempting to formulate goals for
their personal and professional lives. This period is character-
ized by frequent changes in place of residence, multiple close
relationships, short-term jobs, and financial dependence (Arnett,
2000). Increasingly, as families become more geographically
distant and the role of formal religion declines, young adults
often receive little assistance in reflecting up on personal values
and the components of a meaningful life. As part of an upper
level undergraduate college course, “Personnel Psychology”,
the instructor included a structured approach to articulating
values and priorities by assigning Stephen Covey’s “Seven
Habits of Highly Effective People” and an accompanying work-
book and journal. This assignment had two objectives: to ex-
pose students to a tool often employed in staff training while
simultaneously addressing important developmental issues of
young adults.
Developmental Tasks of Young Adulthood
Erick Erickson (1968) and later, James Marcia (2002), de-
scribe the identity statuses characterizing young adults. Most of
Marcia’s (2002) research was developed with college students.
Both Erickson, conceptually, and Marcia (2002), through re-
search, indicated that to establish a secure sense of identity,
young adults must go through a moratorium (Berger, 2008). A
moratorium is a period of active exploration around educational
and occupational goals, religion and spirituality, and ultimately,
developing a coherent set of values. Erickson argued that unless
someone went through a period of active self-exploration, their
resulting identity would be incomplete. One common pattern
that appears to be increasingly prevalent among college stu-
dents today is an identity status termed, “foreclosure.” The
foreclosure pattern involves uncritically taking on values and
aspirations of others—typically one’s parents—and automati-
cally using these as a personal guide for career and relationship
issues. In another problematic pattern, young adults make no
decisions about important issues such as career choice and sim-
ply “drift” through life living day to day.
In order to develop meaningful personal lifetime goals as
well as shorter-term personal priorities, young adults must de-
velop their reflective capabilities. Another theorist, William
Perry, emphasizes that during the college years, young adults
go through a three phase process (Arnett, 2004, 2010; Perry,
1999). At the outset of their college experiences, young adults
are dualists. This dualistic phase is characterized by a view that
there are right and wrong answers and correct and incorrect
ways of living. Dualists also believe that authorities such as
college professors have the correct answer. Dualism is followed
by a period of disillusionment. During this next phase, multi-
plicity, students come to appreciate that there indeed are multi-
ple ways of interpreting the same event and that values are not
“good or bad” but simply “are”. This stage is disconcerting
since it provides little direction for articulating values or beliefs.
Since all perspectives are equally valid, how can one choose a
set of beliefs to guide one’s behavior and be confident that it is
a correct one? While the anxiety and associated confusion may
spur some young adults to resolve this ambiguity, others may
become cynically nihilistic—a state similar to Eriksson’s (1968)
identity diffusion. Finally, Perry states that by the time they
graduate from college or university, young adults recognize that
some principles may be more or less applicable. Initially, there
is no framework to reach any firm resolution (Perry, 1999).
However, with time, young adults develop a framework which
may involve weighing the pros and cons of different perspec-
tives and eventually committing to principles in the context of
one's own life. The result is an endpoint that Perry termed,
commitment. The committed adult has a secure mission and
well articulated value system to guide their choices and actions.
There is a sense of security with this framework-particularly if
one has gone through a period of self-exploration.
Developing a Personal Mission Statement
In urging readers to “begin with the end in mind, “Covey
(2004) uses the hypothetical experience of attending his own
funeral and listening to his eulogy as presented by one of his
children. In developing a mission statement, the focus should
be on how the person would want to have contributed by the
end of their life. However, an effective mission statement is
also a type of internal compass. It should be broad enough to
capture key values but specific enough to guide important life
decisions. Issues such as choosing a university, a major field of
study, continuing or ending a relationship, becoming a parent,
or changing jobs can be made with greater security and confi-
dence if they are guided by core principles.
As noted above, a useful exercise to begin reflection on a
mission statement is to encourage students to imagine that they
are attending their own funeral. They are asked to imagine their
own eulogy and whether it reflects the values and goals that
they wish to embody. Additionally, students are asked to con-
sider the multiple roles they occupy such as spouse/intimate
partner, child of their parents, friend, and community member.
in addition to their vocation, students are encouraged to con-
sider they legacy that they would like to leave in each of these
positions. For those students who find this task challenging, a
few characteristics (“respected, trusted, dependable, loyal,
committed to excellence, etc”.) often will help students articu-
late their own values.
As part of the course, the instructor presented formal infor-
mation about the content and importance of a personal mission
statement. To assist students, they were presented with three
radically different mission statements by distinct personalities:
Gandhi, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster, and the heavy metal
band, Metallica.
Gandhi’s mission statement and values are as follows:
Let the first act every morning be to make the following
result for the day:
I shall not fear anyone on earth.
I shall fear only God
I shall not bear ill will toward anyone.
I shall not submit to injustice from anyone.
I shall conquer untruth by truth.
And in resisting untruth, I shall put up with all suffering.
As a pronounced contrast and to engage students, the mission
statement of the Cookie Monster was also shared:
Rule the world
Get lots of cookies
Eat the cookies
Get more cookies
Eat those cookies too
In a further illustration of the diversity of mission statements,
students viewed the documentary, “Some Kind of Monster”
depicting the heavy metal band, Metallica, as they came to-
gether to make a new recording. Despite multiple conflicts
between members, the band was ultimately successful in pro-
ducing one their most acclaimed recordings, “St. Anger.” As
part of the process, one of the members generates a mission
statement for the band:
We come now to create our album of life…throughout our
individual and collective journeys- sometimes through pain and
conflict—we have discovered the true meaning of family. As we
accomplish ultimate togetherness, we become healers of our-
selves and the countless who embrace us and our message. We
have learned and we understand. Now we must share.
Covey (2004) points out that the day-to-day demands and
distractions of modern life—“the thick of thin things”—often
interfere with being able to access and implement a personal
mission statement. Covey also emphasizes that while our lives
are in constant flux, a congruent mission statement provides an
inner sense of stability amidst rapid social change.
Covey (2004) describes several other principles that are in-
troduced to students. The concept of being proactive is often
difficult for many young adults, who view their immediate life
circumstances being controlled by faculty, parents, or even,
romantic partners, to initially grasp. Covey’s (2004) principle
that there is a psychological “space” between external stimuli
and our behavioral response is often a powerful realization.
This internal experience is under personal control and can lead
to valued behavior reflecting one’s personal mission. In sum,
while students cannot control others’ actions, they can control
their own reactions.
Application of the Principles to the Classroom
Increasingly, university students enter higher education with
a strong career focus. Many of them, recognizing the competi-
tiveness of Western culture, believe that one needs to make a
decision about important life issues early and quickly. Critics
have argued that higher education, itself, is increasingly moving
away from the moratorium that Erickson recommends and also
towards education that has practical application (Saunders,
1982). Computer skills are increasingly emphasized over grap-
pling with philosophy or the symbolic meaning of a novel. One
unfortunate casualty of the move towards greater careerism is
that young adults often do not have any stimulus or framework
for developing a meaningful and consist e n t value system.
The original intent of the assignment was to have the stu-
dents experience the type of staff education and training pro-
vided by some large organizations as part of their human re-
sources program. In the first author’s previous experience as a
director of a nonprofit organization, managers were regularly
assigned a book that was the focus of discussion for multiple
meetings. Both because of the benefits of Covey’s framework
for working towards goals as well as to give the students a
“taste” of a tool used for management training, they were asked
to keep a workbook and log of their reading. Since the course
was in human resources and personnel training, this exercise
had the added benefit of providing the students with direct ex-
perience of staff training.
The workbook is a step-by-step process which includes
helping the reader to articulate and organize core values, con-
sider priorities, consider their interpersonal skills and being
proactive in relationships. Other exercises emphasized the im-
portance of having a balanced life which includes adequate
sleep, and physical activity, nutrition, and social support.
Students’ Response
Students completing the journal and book found the experi-
ence to be very helpful. For many students, this was their first
experience of systematically examining beliefs and values,
honestly appraising the quality of their relationships, and pri-
oritizing aspects of their lives. Students spontaneously reported
that they often had little time to reflect on these issues and that
having a reflective process of this type assigned as a course
requirement was a unique experience. They also indicated that
unless the development of a personal mission statement had
been class assignment with a grade attached, they would be
unlikely to engage in such a process. Students spontaneously
indicated that they had reconsidered their career goals as well
as intimate relationships in light of this educational activity.
Academic course content often neglects the reality that uni-
versity students are at a developmental stage in which they are
struggling with identity and self-definition. Attention to per-
sonal values and goals in the form of a personal mission state-
ment helps students in this process. Conceptually, encouraging
students to consider their lives from the perspective of their
death heightens awareness of their immediate personal respon-
sibility for their choices and accompanying actions. This type
of multi-week exercise can be incorporated into education and
social-behavioral science curricula. For future teachers, this
exercise helps them consider the personal qualities that make
for an effective educator as well as for living a meaningful,
value-driven life.
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