Should we be mission-minded, or mission mindFUL?
One of my favorite meditation teachers, Pema Chodron, has a simple but profound line in her book Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, that I have highlighted, written on a post-it note, mumbled to myself in the car while driving, and try to remind myself to come back to as often as I can:
“The process is the main thing, not the fruition.”
She’s talking here, of course, specifically about the practice of mindfulness (or insight) meditation. Somewhat counterintuitively, she teaches that meditation is much more effective when you practice without the intent of actually getting anywhere or achieving a specific outcome. Essentially, when you meditate for the sake of meditating, the ripple effect of being more aware, more present, and more compassionate in everyday life happens on its own. It’s not how long, or how intently, you’re able to sit that defines your progress. It’s what you’re able to see, feel, understand, or explore, simply because you sat at all, that’s really where the beauty lies.
I’ll admit that this is a pretty heavy concept to fully grasp, especially as it might apply to life outside of the meditative realm. It might seem absurd to think about pursuing any task in life—training for a marathon, working on a marketing project, trying to fix social injustice, washing the dishes—without pouring all of your energy into the tactical and practical steps that are needed to achieve the outcome you’re looking for. After all, the name of the game is efficiency and effectiveness, right?
But also, maybe not.
If you live in a data-driven world, which, let’s be honest, is where we’ve all been conditioned to take up residence these days, then our habitual approach to accomplishing our goals is to “keep our eyes on the prize.” We monitor and measure, tinker and tweak, evaluate and judge, all while holding up our predefined and expected result as the fullest indication of whether or not we succeed.
We have, in very nonprofit-y terms, been taught to be mission-minded above all else.
This all seems well and good, as I think we can all agree that having a mission is important—especially in our work lives—or else we’d all be toiling aimlessly without a North Star to guide us.
But adhering so rigidly to this mission-minded approach, where we tend to plan out every little step to reach our goals before we even begin, has one major, existential flaw:
IT LEAVES US NO ROOM TO BREATHE AND APPRECIATE THE JOURNEY ITSELF,
OR WHAT SURPRISES WE MIGHT UNCOVER ALONG THE WAY, INDEPENDENT OF THE OUTCOME.
So here’s where I pose the thousand-dollar question:
WHAT IF instead of being mission-minded, we were mission mindFUL?
What if, like in meditation practice, we approached our work and our everyday lives with a reverence for the experience itself—not putting all of our eggs in the habitual baskets of expectation or accomplishment, but instead, opening ourselves to take notice of what’s happening on the journey toward our greater good? And what if that noticing, or the process, as Chodron writes, ends up being even more valuable than the outcome?
I’m a writer by trade and professional background, so I don’t take this rearrangement of words and concepts lightly. To even explain it to myself, I needed to do a little bit of logical defining (with a nod to Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster.com) to break this notion down into more digestible chunks, and see if my hypothesis even made sense. So here goes:
Mission: any important task, duty, or goal that is assigned, allotted, or self-imposed
Minded: a state of being inclined or disposed to think and work in a particular way (such as in single-minded, or even open-minded) with an expectation of achievement or outcome
Mindful: a state of focusing one’s awareness and attention on the present moment without expectation of a particular outcome
If we put these terms together, we get some pretty interesting compound definitions:
Mission-minded: a state of being inclined or disposed to think or work in a particular way in order to undertake an important task, duty, or goal, with an expectation of achievement or outcome
This definition skips ahead to the end result without consideration for the journey. Singular direction. Must go. Achieve objective. Almost like a missile, which does not account for, nor adjust to, changing conditions or realizations along the way.
Mission-mindful: a state of focusing one’s awareness and attention on the present moment while pursuing an important task, duty, or goal, without expectation of a particular outcome
This definition shifts our focus from the end result to the journey. Noticing what’s arising. Asking questions. What do we see or understand now that we didn’t before? Has something changed? Have we changed? And in doing so, regardless of the original goal, what good has this journey allowed us to do along the way?
In modern psychology, this definition of mindfulness is sometimes called “beginner’s mind,” which essentially describes the mental state of coming at a problem or situation with complete openness to whatever you discover, rather than an “expert view” that may subconsciously narrow your field of vision or possibility.
Even Steve Jobs, who many have called rigid and unforgiving in his pursuit of innovation, took this approach to his work, and “learned to trust intuition and curiosity…over analysis and preconceptions.”
If Steve could learn to be mission-mindful instead of mission-minded, certainly we can, too.
None of this discussion or exploration is meant to propose that we should abandon our goals altogether and wander aimlessly from one experience to the next, or lose sight of creating the change that’s most important for us to see in the world. As I mentioned earlier, having a mission and a sense of purpose are integral to who we are as humans.
But I am proposing that instead of holding on so rigidly to expectations of a specific outcome for our missions, we try to approach them with a greater sense of openness and awareness; to lean into each step and each moment with curiosity; to welcome unexpected detours as opportunities rather than obstacles; to celebrate what we learn, not just what we accomplish; and to recognize that in the end, if we are fully attuned to the process, there’s a damn good chance that the fruition will take care of itself.