Stephen Covey, in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, introduces this topic in the following way. With apologies, he invites us to visualize ourselves at our own funeral(s). One by one, our family members, our work colleagues, our friends and neighbors come forward to speak their piece about us. What do we hope to hear?
Does that picture make you uncomfortable? Then perhaps you could go back to the February 26th post here. What do you want your biographers to say about you in fifty years? [That I’m still alive, Bill.]
How diligent are Earth scientists (and colleagues) at this thought exercise? At keeping the end in mind when we start out? Back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Melvin N. A. Peterson, who at the time was the first Chief Scientist of NOAA, used to say about a lot of what he saw going on… “Having lost sight of their objective, they redoubled their efforts.”
Let’s face it. Mel’s observation fits us more accurately than we’d like to admit. We’re probably no better or worse than the rest of the population. And we’re immersed in a culture that gives very little time for such reflection.
On his website, Covey poses Habit 2 this way:
“So, what do you want to be when you grow up? That question may appear a little trite, but think about it for a moment. Are you–right now–who you want to be, what you dreamed you’d be, doing what you always wanted to do? Be honest. Sometimes people find themselves achieving victories that are empty–successes that have come at the expense of things that were far more valuable to them. If your ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step you take gets you to the wrong place faster.”
“Habit 2 is based on imagination–the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes. It is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and a physical (second) creation. The physical creation follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint. If you don’t make a conscious effort to visualize who you are and what you want in life, then you empower other people and circumstances to shape you and your life by default. It’s about connecting again with your own uniqueness and then defining the personal, moral, and ethical guidelines within which you can most happily express and fulfill yourself. Begin with the End in Mind means to begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen.
One of the best ways to incorporate Habit 2 into your life is to develop a Personal Mission Statement. It focuses on what you want to be and do. It is your plan for success. It reaffirms who you are, puts your goals in focus, and moves your ideas into the real world. Your mission statement makes you the leader of your own life. You create your own destiny and secure the future you envision.”
You’ll note that Covey is agnostic here. He’s not demanding that the goals we set meet any criteria. He’s just saying that whatever our goals – whether they’re written down or (more likely) simply rattling around in our heads – will most probably shape how far we go, and in what direction.
For you and me, what does such a personal mission statement look like? Many of us are tempted to set our professional goal or goals in terms of our discipline. If we’re researchers, we’re looking for breakthroughs. But maybe, over time, when the breakthroughs fail to come, we set the bar a little lower. Number of publications. In journals with a high impact rating. Or any journal. Tenure. At a great university. Or any university. A comfortable life.
Lately, when we survey the climate-change discussion going on around us, it seems one additional life goal many of us choose is to be right. We’ve picked up sides…and we want to be on the winning side. But the climate-change arena is unlike a basketball game, where the rules have been set by others, and we simply play. In this debate, as each side tries to win, it’s also trying to establish its own preferred scoring system. [The general public doesn’t seem to be cheering us on here…]
Maybe, being right, and winning, are highly overrated. Perhaps we could do better. Let’s recall that Francis Bacon quote enjoined by Jerome Ravetz and repeated here:
“Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all — that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things, but for the benefit and use of life, and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.”
Perhaps, like Bacon, we might frame the end we have in mind for our science, or engineering – or our emergency management, or political office, or journalism, or teaching (insert your occupation or profession) – as the benefit and use of life.
Your biographers will sing your praises…and you’ll like what you hear at your funeral.