Thursday, March 1, 2018

Mission Critical

I feel extremely lucky that, at least for now, both my parents are of sound mind and body and physically and financially able to visit us in Alaska several times per year. When a blizzard threatened to delay their return to New York City earlier this week, I joked with my mom that it was time for her to retire.

We were drinking vodka gimlets on the couch (I don’t often drink after work, but my folks are a big fan of cocktail hour and I love joining them for it). My mom’s failure to retire wasn’t for lack of trying.

She’s spent her whole career as a physician working in public health and recently took her state pension to supposedly cut back on work. But she keeps taking trips abroad, working on new grants, and accepting new responsibilities.

“I realized something,” she said to me, about the slow creep of hours upon hours of work back into her life.  “I don’t have a career. I have a mission. And you can’t retire from a mission.” 

I had a general idea of what her mission was, but when I asked her to describe it, she said this: “to improve the health care that disadvantaged people receive and make health care good for people without any choices.”

I wanted to go to medical school like my mother. I idolized her career and her drive. But I didn’t have the tenacity or patience to fight through the math and science classes required to get there, so I went to law school instead. And in doing that I fell into my own sort of “mission,” which has only crystalized for me in the past couple of years.

I guess if I were to describe my “mission” in a one sentence, it would be to promote America’s constitutional democracy by devoting my career to the public sector and by spending my free time advocating for genuine social justice and equality.

Writing a personal mission statement feels hokey and self-help-y, but it’s actually kind of useful because it forms a framework for hard decisions, personal conduct, and how we spend the very limited and ever-diminishing time we have in our days on earth. 

Unregulated emotion, defensiveness, assumptions, and distractions all interfere with our sense of purpose and our ability to execute on that purpose. For me, at least, putting that purpose into a single sentence creates a good template to re-center and govern my own conduct and reactions when I am feeling defeated and demoralized.


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