Vision, Principles, and Your Life Plan

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

– American Declaration of Independence

“When we allow freedom to ring—when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.’”

– Martin Luther King,  “I Have a Dream . . .”  1963

You’re taking courses. You’re balancing your education with other obligations such as work or raising a family. Your education is part of the construction of your future. But is your life plan based on principles or vision?

Both, hopefully. For example, the choice to study health sciences might be based on the principles that it’s good to serve your community and that it’s wise to seek a career with good chances of employment. It might also be based on a vision of yourself as a healer, living a comfortable life while dedicating your energies to reducing suffering in the world. Understanding the balance of principles and vision in your own mind might hold surprising benefits for the success of your endeavors.

The first of the above two quotations, from the Declaration of Independence, is a statement of principles. It lays out a group of fundamental laws in clear, logical, abstract terms. Sadly, in direct contrast with its shining ideals, this statement of principles was followed by generations of slavery, ethnic genocide, and gross economic injustice.

The second quotation, from King’s famous speech, is a statement of vision. It describes a different world, a world in which the principles listed in the Declaration are fleshed out by means of the imagination. The social context of this second quotation, written nearly two hundred years later, was not much better, but this statement of vision catalyzed a wave of nonviolent activism that was spectacularly successful at instigating the positive social change that the Declaration’s principles had anticipated.

For the human race to save itself from itself we need both principles and vision. The Civil Rights Movement, a response to systemic racism in American society, repeatedly harkened back to the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence. King even referred to the Declaration as a promissory note, the inheritance of every American to come, but that, even in the sixties’, was still likened to a bounced check. Without vision, principles are dead.

Here are some of the key differences between principles and vision:

  1. Principles emerge from the reasoning capacity while vision comes from the imagination.
  2. Principles can be organized into ideological systems whereas visions cannot.
  3. Principles can be defined and used in legal defenses—hard to do with visions.
  4. Principles are rules to be followed while visions are beautiful goals to move toward.
  5. Principles are abstract whereas visions use concrete imagery to picture those principles in action.

Think about the principles on which you base your life decisions. It might be helpful to look at your life plan itself and then to try to put into words the principles that underlie your goals. Even better, write them down and revise them until they represent the most succinct and clear version of your principles that you can muster. (Examples of principles might be that it’s necessary to be financially independent, that climate change must be reversed, that life is sacred, that honesty is always the best policy, or that we must defend the weak.)

Now draw a picture. (You don’t have to know how to draw.) Brainstorm a vision of the life you want (not what you think you should want). Add notes. Make roadmaps. Look up graphics that represent what you really want out of life. Now relate this vision back to your principles to see if they jibe. If your principles and vision don’t match, maybe you need to examine yourself a little more deeply; the mismatch may come from a temptation to follow the herd instead of being honest about your own beliefs and desires.

Despite the cheesy nature of many self-help programs that encourage visualization, there’s been a measurable success rate for developing visions that bring your principles to life and give you a definite direction. Not surprisingly, knowing more clearly where you want to be actually helps you get there. But visions without principles are doomed to fail for lack of foundation. You need both.

Think of your vision as what your principles will look like once they’re put into action. Being inspired by the beauty of that vision will help you make it come about.