The dictionary on my Mac defines mission as “a strongly felt aim, ambition, or calling.”
Implicit in this definition is the idea that we are talking about something other than simple self-interest. We are all motivated to take care of ourselves, but a mission implies something greater, an impulse to contribute to something larger than our individual existence.
A prerequisite for a mission is a surplus of resources, something more than what is needed for simple subsistence. If we are just scraping by, then no mission, no matter how keenly felt, will get much traction.
We may tell ourselves that there is not really any surplus available, but in fact, nothing resembling modern human society could exist for long without a surplus. If we were all busy every waking hour producing the bare necessities of existence for immediate consumption, then there would be no surplus to talk about. But in fact many of us do generally have surpluses of time, material, resources and/or capital, and so what we do with that extra bit is done by choice, at one level or another, and the missions that we pursue – both individually and collectively – help determine what choices we end up making.
For organizations, the type of mission pursued will often depend to some degree on the form that the enterprise takes.
A nonprofit organization (NPO) is typically formed exclusively for the purpose of pursuing a mission of one sort or another.
A benefit corporation (sometimes called a “B corp”) is a relatively new sort of for-profit entity. The exact definition varies somewhat from one state to another in the US, but in general it is a corporation with owners and profits, but also with a stated goal of delivering benefits to society, the community, workers and/or the environment.
Traditional C Corporations are often held to have a primary or even exclusive focus on delivering financial benefits to their shareholders (thus providing the impetus for defining Benefit Corporations to specifically have broader goals).
We should carefully consider the missions for all of the organizations that we interact with in one way or another.
Many capitalists today seem to think that making as much money as possible is their only mission, and that to succeed at this goal entitles them to a moral high ground as well as an economic one.
(In a similar vein, many consumers seem to be on a mission to buy as much as possible for as little as possible, feeling a comparable degree of rectitude for these endeavors.)
But whether you are trying to maximize your revenue, your market share, your growth rate or your profits, achieving your financial goals does not guarantee that you are also having a positive impact on society, and there are always multiple viable pathways for making money.
As Steve Jobs once famously said to John Sculley, when convincing him to leave Pepsi and become CEO at Apple:
Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?
Of course, if we're looking for a positive mission in the tech world of today, we might be better off considering the work of Jimmy Wales and Wikipedia in the nonprofit sector.
Wales understood the web’s egalitarian underpinning and the open source method’s ability to spur productivity on a grand scale. What separated him from many first-wave net entrepreneurs, though, was his idealism: He harnessed those forces in the service of social good. He recognized the incalculable value of offering the entire human store of knowledge to anyone, anywhere, at no cost, and he made it his job to get it done.
– Ted Greenwald, writing for Wired, in the article “How Jimmy Wales' Wikipedia Harnessed the Web as a Force for Good”
In terms of a sense of personal mission, one could certainly do worse than to follow the path described by Albert Einstein in his book, The World As I See It.
How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people – first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men [and women], living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving….