Many years ago, my family discovered a small journal that my grandfather had written in 1915, 2 years before he left for World War I. It contained a short essay titled simply, "My Guide." Here's a paragraph from it:

To respect those I love, my country, and above all myself. To be as honest and as fair with my fellow man as I know how, and to expect them to be honest and fair with me in return. To keep my future clear of debt by saving as well as by earning, and to guard my health of body and peace of mind as my most precious stock in trade. To use my strengths and skills to the best of my abilities, and to share the rewards of my success with my community.

I was impressed that my grandfather, who would go on to become a successful businessman and patriarch of a large family, had thought about his life's philosophy at age 22. But I didn't think much more about my grandfather's words until years later when I met another person who would prove to be very influential in my life.

Jim Rohn was a public speaker and author of self-help books, known throughout the world as a "business philosopher." I had the pleasure of attending a number of his talks and workshops and listened to his audio books until the tapes fell apart. His words have influenced many of my decisions (the best ones) over the past 20 years. I count him as one of my mentors. Sadly, he died at the end of 2009.

Rohn taught that most of personal success boils down to a handful of basics. The cornerstone of Rohn's message was that you must put time and effort into thinking about your goals, priorities, and personal philosophy, because these things set your compass for later career and job satisfaction. One of his oft-cited pieces of advice is, "Your personal philosophy is the greatest determining factor in how your life works out." He proved it with a dramatic transformation; he wrote this as a broke and unhappy young man.

In this month's Tooling Up column, I'll describe how your unique philosophy is important to the career success and job satisfaction you will experience and give you some tools to start writing that philosophy.

Your deepest priorities


(Kelly Krause, AAAS)

When I first heard Rohn speak about the importance of setting your course in life by connecting to your deepest priorities, I thought it was interesting -- but I had no idea how much power lay behind this priority-setting exercise. Much of my early career was spent in frustration -- too much time spent worrying about my next step and a lot of floundering whenever I faced an important career decision.

What I was missing was a core mission to refer back to, something to guide my decisions by tying them to my aspirations. I discovered that you gain inner strength when you define your deepest priorities. By writing them down, I was able to distinguish them from distractions that didn't contribute to fulfilling my life's mission. And my decisions gained force from the fact that they arose from my deepest priorities.

Clarifying your personal philosophy will help you in a similar way: If you know your life's goals, aspirations, and priorities and have a strong sense of what you stand for, these tenets will guide your career (and life) decisions. If you don't have a sense of your overall direction, you will get lost somewhere along the way. When Alice told the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland that she was lost, its answer was that if she didn't know where she wanted to go, she could head in any direction because it doesn't matter.

What Rohn taught me is that direction determines destination and that it takes some reflection to find that major direction inside of you. "I find it fascinating that most people plan their vacations with better care than they do their lives. Perhaps that is because escape is easier than change," Rohn said. Don't try to escape: Put to paper your core strengths, beliefs, and goals and get to know yourself better.

Writing about your life's mission

Rohn isn't alone in his deep respect for the importance of personal philosophy in guiding career decisions. Stephen R. Covey, in his "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" series, emphasizes that to be effective you must first align your career objectives with your deepest beliefs. A few years ago I coordinated a career-development meeting at a large scientific congress and was lucky enough (on a shoestring budget) to recruit Covey's training organization to give a talk on writing a personal mission statement. In that presentation, the speaker listed a few of the characteristics that Covey believes are most important when writing a short and succinct personal statement. Covey lays them out better than I could:

- It comes from your deep inner life and represents the best in you.

- It expresses your unique gifts and contributions.

- It transcends the little things and is based on broader quality of life themes.

- It integrates all your physical, spiritual, social, and mental needs.

- It centers on your principles and values.

- It encompasses all the roles you play in your life -- not just your career.

- It is written for you, privately, and not for the approval of others.

Everyone is going to come up with something different when putting such thoughts down on paper. There aren't any rules. And because they're all very personal, I'm not going to show you mine. But I can give you some things to think about as you consider what is truly important to you.

Once you've written down your answers, allow yourself time to reflect on each of them. Revise until it feels right. Your "personal mission statement" should touch your heartstrings each time you read it. It should resonate deeply. If it doesn't yet, keep digging.

1) Who am I? Don't think too much; just write something that seems right and true, then revise and refine over time. When I wrote my answer, I realized that I was totally different from the person others thought I was. You aren't the sum of elements of personality; you are something much deeper. Who are you?

2) What do I stand for? This is about learning to connect your core values to your daily decisions. What core issues concern you the most? On what issues -- personal, social, political -- do you wish to stand and be counted? There should be nothing small or job-oriented in your answer; this is big-picture stuff.

3) What are your strengths of character? Your special skills and qualities? Your strengths here do not include "expert in CHO cell culture media." Instead, look for strengths that need to be tapped in to on a regular basis for you to be happy in your work -- creativity, curiosity, integrity, and so on.

4) What are my most important life goals? It's not really necessary to state that you want to be a billionaire, unless that is a deep objective. To my grandfather, who grew up in a different era, just being a "saver" and not being "mortgaged by debt" was a significant goal. Perhaps you have an intense desire to better the lives of others, to give back to your community, or to leave your mark on whatever you end up doing.

5) What would the full development of your potential look like? Human beings wither when they are placed in a situation that does not allow them to at least make progress toward fulfilling their potential. What do you need to be doing to make progress toward your goals? Because most of us aren't independently wealthy, we need to find a way to spend time in satisfying ways. Think carefully about the core elements of the work you want to do.

Frustrated by circumstances?

If you are early in your career, or if you are frustrated by your current position, you may not recognize the long-term benefits of aligning your career with your inner self. But I can guarantee you it is there!

"You can't change your destination overnight, but you can change your direction," Rohn said during my first workshop with him. So take a step back and go through the process of writing your mission statement. A useful change of direction will result.

Photo (top): Mike Tungate

A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, Dave Jensen is the founder and managing director of CareerTrax Inc., a biotechnology and pharmaceutical consulting firm in Sedona, Arizona.

A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1000007