Beyond the Blur Syndrome


How to take charge of your life--with a personal mission statement

After thirty years of medicine, my main regret is the time I spent spinning in a blur of unfocused busyness. Despite high ideals, my true priorities often came in last at the finish line. One typical day forced me to refocus.

Diary of a decisive day

I dragged my reluctant body out of bed near the crack of dawn after a short night pierced by two (or was it three?) phone calls from the intensive care unit. At breakfast one of our three sons seemed troubled about something--but my wife, Ruth Ann, would have to figure him out after devotions, because I was due in the OR at eight. And I had to go by the ICU first to see if my orders born in wee-hour semi-conscious fog landed near their target.

My morning in the OR was punctuated by:

*delays due to endless morass of paperwork;

*nail-biting relatives of Aunt Nellie, insistent on one last kiss before her operation, who got stuck in a traffic jam;

*a new "low bid" instrument that vaguely resembled what I routinely use somehow still did the job;

*my nurse left at dawn with her family for a beach vacation.

But I strained to remain cheerful--people expect that of a Christian doctor. At noon I took off my surgeon's cap and jogged up to "administration" and slumped into a posh leather chair for an elegant sandwich with the CEO. As president of the medical staff, I was his communication bridge to the other physicians. But telephone interruptions thwarted any attempt to enjoy my fancy sandwich. Does my nurse always get this many calls? Didn't she just have a vacation--last year?

Weaving through traffic toward the office I was pleased to be only twenty minutes late. Considering everything, I almost felt early. But that afternoon was an emotionally draining roller coaster of patients with heartbreak and ecstasy, separated only by a few seconds to dictate notes and by the thin walls between examining rooms. Then the dull routine stuff--return phone calls, "throw away" the mail, autograph checks for bills, hope the mailperson will bring enough for Friday's payroll.

Arriving home, the manager of our Christmas tree farm stood by with a list of questions and the sobering news that a new bug was munching our gorgeous trees. After a hurried but delicious family dinner, I flopped on the couch in front of the TV and slept through the news. Feeling fresh, I fantasized some relaxation, but my wife reminded me of my church council meeting at 7:30 P.M.

During the meeting I genuinely endeavored to be a creative leader but kept tripping on the gnawing feeling that in that environment I was operating with an incomplete data base, and was pressed into too many shoot-from-the-hip diagnoses and therapies.

At eleven I snuck into the house. My dear wife, exhausted by mothering as well as fathering our four children, had gone to bed. She quickly awakened for "our time" together for the day. We wrestled with the must-make-now decisions and the latest scoop on the kids. After she mentioned several of my social obligations, I flipped back, "I just can't make it."

In one of those ordinary moments that one remembers for a lifetime, she rolled toward me and whispered, "I want to share with you something that I've observed and I don't think you realize about yourself. Despite your busy practice, being president of the medical staff, running the tree farm, being church chairman--not to mention just a twist of fathering and being my husband, you still make absolutely every occasion you really want to make!"

Unbelievable! My own helpmate saying that! I'd regularly missed many things I would have enjoyed. Half offended and half exhausted, I lay there in stunned silence.

After my bride resumed her snoozing, I stayed awake. Frustrated, but becoming introspective. Reflecting.

I'd met many of my goals. I was busy--a surgeon's universal mark of success. A beautiful blonde nurse had become my wife. We had four great kids who regularly popped my buttons. We had family devotions every school-day morning and my primped family was regularly at church Sunday morning, though often with the aisle seat waiting for dad, who would slip in late after rounds. Being a real serious Christian father and having a lifestyle of sharing my faith stood on top on my life of things to do. But still, Ruth Ann's words tumbled over and over in my brain like clothes in a dryer. In reality, my highest priorities usually crossed the finish line last, after everything I really had to get done.

It was time to ask the hard question: Why are the most important things, like being a good father and husband and sharing my faith, the things I do last? What can I do to take charge of my own life?

Success--or victim of success?

At first I thought this "blur syndrome" was something unique to me--too many entanglements to be clearly focused on my highest priorities. But other Christian physicians I asked said they often felt the same way--overburdened, with not enough time to do what they really wanted to do. Not in control.

My solution for the "blur syndrome" came from Stephen Covey's best-selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, where I learned how mission statements enhanced the effectiveness of a major hotel chain's employees in fulfilling the mission of their employer. Having sampled the services in that hotel chain, I knew they were superb. Although mission statements are standard fare in organizations, the idea of a highly personalized one for each Christian intrigued me. I wondered, How much more effective would the average Christian physician be if each one paused to create a concise mission statement of true action priorities in life?

Why bother?

Writing a personal mission statement compresses all our training, instincts and sense of God's leading into a concise summary of our purpose and intentions on this earth. A follow-up strategic plan then spells out the specific incremental incarnation of our mission statement. Together they serve as our blueprint for life. And all our activities should be compared to the blueprint before construction begins.

You may wonder, is all this organizing of oneself really biblical? Shouldn't we just depend on the Lord to guide us each day?

Yes, but I also believe all Christians should be quick to adopt planning as a tool to increase the effectiveness of our Christian service, because God Himself is the greatest of all planners. He planned for our salvation with His heart-wrenching decision to sacrifice His only Son, revealing His plan through prophets many centuries in advance. Now He's in Heaven preparing a place for us, something we're all depending on.

From multi-national conglomerates to Ma and Pa corner stores, businesses have mission statements, written or unwritten. Colleges, hospitals, and other organizations working together toward a common objective spend valuable staff time and resources developing their mission statement and strategic plan. Even football teams use game plans. Why not people too? Physicians? Why not me? You?

To quote Stephen Covey, "The process (of developing a mission statement) is as important as the product, since it forces you to think through your priorities and align your behavior with your beliefs." Seems like a natural for Christian physicians. But you may ask: Why bother? I'm serving God now. How could it help me? Is this just another time-consuming exercise presented as a cure all for my life? Another gimmick? Could it actually make my situation worse?

I doubt it.

How to move an elephant

Habit two in Covey's book states that we should begin (any venture) with the end in mind. Too often I begin an activity without a specific target or end-point, and my agendas become scripted by outside guidance systems--the zillions of distractions tugging at all of us from all sides, both worthy and unworthy. I need an anchor, something to keep me from being whip-sawed by external guidance and assist me in making decisions about discretionary activities--including my time, money and other resources. Sadly, most physicians I meet never take the time to stop and think through who they want to be, or set their goals and priorities in an organized manner. Chaos leads to frustration. Then we resemble the exasperated man I once saw in a photo, trying to push a huge, reluctant elephant. Like a massive elephant, our lifestyles become too unwieldy to control from the rear. We need to go up front, take charge and lead the way.

You may ask: Is it necessary to actually act on our priorities? Isn't it enough to just be a good person? Galatians 5:22 tells us, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control"(NIV). The Greek word for goodness used here is "chrestotes," and refers not only to being good, but goodness in deeds--taking action! All of us crave this kind of goodness, but somehow there are still "hard eggs" lurking in the dark recesses of our lives we just can't crack. Our sense of priorities and direction can be the last thing on our agenda and the most difficult to get our arms around.

Taking advantage of our priority "opportunities," such as sharing our faith, may require adaptations and changes, and that won't just happen. We'll have to plan our strategy. Humanly speaking, improving ourselves may seem insurmountable, and it may be, but Philippians 4:13 reminds us of the key to life changes: "I can do everything through Him who gives me strength" (NIV).

The first step is to form a joint venture, you and the Holy Spirit. According to J. Oswald Sanders in his book The Holy Spirit and His Gifts (The Zondervan Corp.,1970), this is how it happens:

"I have in my hand a piece of lead. I hold it over a pool of water, and relax my grip. The lead is drawn irresistibly earthwards and sinks to the bottom of the pool. It has been mastered by the law of gravitation. I take the same piece of lead, attach it to a piece of wood and drop it into the pool. Now it floats. No change has taken place in the nature or tendency of the lead, nor has the law of gravitation ceased to function, but through its union with the wood, it has been mastered by a stronger law, the law governing floating bodies, and has been emancipated from the downward pull of gravitation."

Our overburdened lifestyles urge constant flailing at the surf to avoid drowning. Following God's specific plan for us becomes our "piece of wood" and life preserver, releasing our arms and energy to do His will. But we must then exercise our free will to be obedient, and a personal mission statement can expedite the planning and organizing of our lives to facilitate our obedience.

Perfection is not the target. Direction is the goal: to take charge of your life's God-given vision and values, and keep your life's meaning in sharp focus.

Creating your mission statement

Imagine your own funeral! You're lying in your casket, listening to people's comments about you: what you've meant to them and what they think you've accomplished. Remember, at such moments even persons of the cloth are given to embellishment. Now, think of what you would like those close to you--your spouse, children, neighbors, patients and co-workers--to say about you. Listing what you would hope to hear in their eulogies indirectly reveals the person you would like to be.

If we're candid, we know what we really are, so by subtracting what we are from what we would like to be, voila! Our opportunities to improve. Our mission statement.

We should address every area in our lives where we make critical choices: ministry, leisure time, financial priorities, parenting plans, practice issues, you name it. We isolate the toughest areas of our lives to crack and then design them to be the way we want them to be--with God in charge.

Our new personal mission statement will express our true philosophical underpinnings; our strategic plan should specifically outline how we will accomplish our mission--our realistic goals, those we're actually willing to go for! Since we're all different, our mission statements and strategic plans will all be unique.

My mission statement is: Robert Brandt exists to glorify God and make disciples. And I will continually pursue opportunities to improve--personally, professionally, as husband and father, and within my associated organizations. I will choose to expend my time and resources in environments with that potential. I desire to be a person who "connects" with creative approaches, promoting positive changes with measurable impact.

In order to fulfill this mission, my strategic plan is, in God's strength, gained during daily contact with Him, to: develop a lifestyle of posturing my conversations toward sharing my faith in Jesus Christ (I Peter 3:15); usually be discipling someone or, if not, actively searching for God's choice for a "Timothy" (II Timothy 2:2); be an advocate of the sick and underprivileged (Matt 25:43).

It will make a difference

My mission statement has impacted my life in some very specific and practical ways. Under scrutiny I found my activity often out of sync with my new life plan. In one instance I discovered myself attempting for years to be a change agent in an environment which seemed unchangeable short of providential intervention, while fertile fields nearby remained unplanted.

In another instance I was offered a potential opportunity to serve. My knee-jerk reaction was uncertain (not another job!) until I recalled my mission statement and strategic plan. I realized it was a perfect match and, with total peace, immediately made myself available.

One caveat. Don't allow this technique, designed to serve as a compass on the stormy sea of life, to become the source of another guilt trip. The phone lines to the Christian physician guilt trip travel agency are already jammed, and don't need any more calls. Unrealistic or insincere aspirations could backfire and lead to depression. Be real, be patient, be gradual, update your strategic plan annually, but be persistent in your quest to serve the Lord more effectively. Despite my best intentions, slip-ups always lurk nearby, but John 1:9 is my extended term warranty.

Be proactive, get organized, begin with the end in mind. Develop your own personal mission statement and strategic plan. Carry it tucked in your wallet or purse with all your valuables; it's your life's game plan. With it as an integral part of your life, you'll be equipped with a pre-set internal guidance system you can trust when facing difficult choices.

Remember, you're already doing what you really want to do. In terms of taking charge of your life, the crucial question is: Are you wanting to do what you really want to do when viewed from an eternal perspective? Developing your personal mission statement could be the key to finding out.