If your vision for your life is vague, the business won’t know what it needs to do to support it.
This sounds obvious. And yet the world is full of companies that don’t support the goals of the owners. Because they didn’t think about it. Or they didn’t know any better. Or they had presuppositions about what a business was supposed to be about.
Take a venture backed startup. Venture capitalists invest in companies because they want them to be worth a billion dollars someday. That’s how they get a return on their investment for their LPs (the investors in a venture fund).
Building a business that can be worth a billion dollars is not for the feint of heart. The CEOs of those companies are in a race against time. They aren’t optimizing for profitability, but for maximum growth and scale. The investment dollars they raise are rocket fuel to help them accomplish that goal. But with that money comes the expectation that you will dead-on sprint to 10x the business in a rapid period of time.
For some entrepreneurs this is what they want. They love the pressure. They love the idea of making a huge dent in the universe.
But for many entrepreneurs, when you drill down you discover the life they want is simply to have enough money to put their kids through college, take some vacations, have a nice house, perhaps a second home, and generally enjoy life. They don’t want to be Elon Musk.
A venture backed business is a great way to build a billion dollar company. But there are much easier ways to create wealth. A lawn care business that uses the tools and frameworks we’ll cover in this site is a much more likely path to accomplishing that vision for the entrepreneur.
This isn’t to say that a venture backed business is a bad one. But it is to say that it might be.
It all depends on your vision for your life.
You should assume that your business is going to occupy the next 10 years of your life. That’s a long time. You want to be pretty sure that those 10 years won’t be in vain. You want to make sure at the end of those 10 years you’ve built something that accomplishes your life vision, or a meaningful chunk of it.
And to do that you have to define it. Explicitly.
Your Life as a Story
10 years or so ago I read a book by Donald Miller that transformed how I thought about my life. He argued that you can construct a life in a deliberate way, by thinking about it in the context of a story:
“If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers. You wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on to think about the story you’d seen. The truth is, you wouldn't remember that movie a week later, except you’d feel robbed and want your money back. Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo. But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to be meaningful. The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won't make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.”
Since I read that book I’ve tried my best to deliberately craft stories. And to have a business that supports the creation of those stories.
When it came time to build my first consulting business, I told my partners my goal, above all, was to make sure I didn’t miss my kid’s early childhood. I could always start a company. But if we made a ton of money and I didn’t know my kids it wouldn’t matter. I would be a failure.
I love working with startups. But I didn’t want to enter into the meat grinder of building one myself. I had seen that movie a couple of times as a senior executive, once in a startup that got acquired and once in a startup that crashed and burned.
It was a lot of fun. But man was it intense. There is absolutely no way I would have been able to create the life I wanted as the founder of a startup. And so I made a conscious decision to build a different type of business.
Again - there is nothing wrong with startups. The smartest, most interesting people I’ve ever worked with were startup people. I still invest in startups. But I knew it would not be consistent with my vision for my life. It’s not a prescription - for many people it’s the perfect thing to build. It’s your life vision, after all.
So what’s the story you want to create?
Creating your eulogy.
Donald Miller has also written about creating a eulogy for yourself as a mechanism for understanding the life you want. Michael Gerber argued for the same exercise.
It’s a powerful tool. It forces you to think forward to the end of your life. Forces you to ask yourself what the people who knew you the best would say about you, once it was too late to do anything about it.
What stories would they tell about you? What would they say you accomplished? What kind of person did you become? What did you value? How would you be remembered? How did you transform their lives?
A big chunk of these will likely be about the type of person you were, not a list of your accomplishments. That’s okay. In fact, a business is one of the best ways to develop one’s character. It’s where you learn how to interact with other people, how to deal with pressure and constraints, how to pursue goals that take a long time to materialize. Your office is your dojo to practice life.
So what type of person do you want to be? Your business will ideally help support you in those goals.
As an example, this is my current eulogy:
Sean Johnson was a loving family man, husband to Michelle, and the founder of Intentionally, LLC, a personal holding company. He helped over 100,000 people build more intentional businesses and intentional lives through coaching and other programs. He was the cofounder of Manifold, a billion dollar holding company, and was known for helping organizations be more innovative.
Sean wrote over a dozen books on how to live a good life. He inspired thousands of people to take concrete steps to order their lives to maximize their productivity and joy.
In his retirement he started a bookstore and men’s clothing business, and was materially involved in his local community.
His friends and colleagues described him as intentional, funny, caring and reliable. He routinely brought people together to build connections and create lasting memories.
Your eulogy will evolve over time. Just like you do. That’s totally fine. It’s worth revisiting it once a year or so, making course corrections as necessary. But it’s a great way to focus on what you want out of your life - by beginning with the end in mind.
Decide what you don’t want
There’s a story about how Michelangelo, the famous painter and sculptor, created the statue of David. He was asked how he managed to create such a difficult piece. He replied:
"It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.”
It can sometimes be difficult to articulate what you do want in your life. It can be easier to start with what you know you don’t want.
Think about experiences you’ve had that you no longer want to have. Think about jobs you’ve done in the past that you disliked. Think about ways you’ve spent your time that take energy from you or create unnecessary stress.
Financial stress has always been a key source of anxiety for me. I grew up with a single mother until I was a teenager, and I remember vividly the hours she would spend balancing her budget trying to make sure there was enough money. She ultimately remarried a brilliant man and together they built a compelling life. They don’t worry about money anymore.
But to this day, if I were to name my biggest fears they revolve around money. Every customer will leave. I won’t find another one. My wife will leave me as a result and I’ll live under a bridge.
It sounds silly. I know. But it feels real more often than I’d like to admit.
Those decisions all have implications on the type of business one builds. There are no wrong answers here. But knowing what you will hate helps you avoid going into businesses that will ultimately be unfulfilling.
For example, there are aspects of real estate investing that have always sounded compelling to me. But the heavy reliance on leverage means it’s a no go for me. My business needs to be high margin, cash flow pretty consistently, not require tremendous capital to get off the ground, and have sufficient processes and repeatability that I can train talent relatively quickly on delivery. Those are all downstream implications of the things I don’t want in my life.
Decide what you do want
Getting clear on what you don’t want makes it easier to define what you do want. Having carved away the parts of the statue that aren’t your life, you can now focus on the parts that are.
Some questions that can help:
- What would you do if you no longer had to worry about money? How would you spend your time? A lot of people think they’d just sit on the beach drinking margaritas. And that can be useful after you sell your business, for a time. But most people find it’s ultimately unfulfilling. Pretty quickly, they have a desire to do something more. Ideally your business isn’t just a vehicle to give you money. Ideally it gives you joy and fulfillment as you’re building it.
- What “sparks joy”? This now famous line from Marie Kondo was originally applied to the stuff in your life. But it can be just as applicable (if not more so) to how your life is ordered generally. Ask yourself what activities fill you up, leave you recharged, energized. What gives you a sense of deep fulfillment?
It’s imperative that you be honest with yourself here. Many times people create goals that they think they should want. They feel sheepish admitting what they really want, and try to create goals that sound more selfless. What they inevitably find is that those goals fail to keep them sufficiently motivated. They didn’t come from deep within their bones, and as such they don’t provide sufficient kindling to keep the fire going when things get hard.
Your Life Vision is deeply personal to you. Turn off the part of your brain that asks yourself what others will think about your vision. What matters is that it would ultimately fulfill your life, not whether others would approve.
It’s also important to watch out for limiting beliefs. There are a couple reasons people fail to achieve their goals. One is they don’t have the requisite skills. But just as common is they have limiting beliefs. These can be particularly insidious, because if you really believe something that is false, you can’t see it because you believe it to be true. These can be hard to unwind without a conscious effort to recognize them.
One thing that can be helpful is asking trusted friends or advisors to help you find blind spots - gaps in your logic, presuppositions you have about what you can and can’t do, etc. \
It can also be helpful to develop an awareness of the stories you tell yourself. As you go through you day, you have a voice chattering in your head constantly. This voice is a part of you, but it is not you. But you’re so close to it you probably just accept what it says implicitly. This can be a bad thing, because it might be making judgments about yourself that simply aren’t right. You might uncover some of your limiting beliefs by simply recognizing when you tell yourself something can’t be done and learning to question it rather than accepting it.
As you go through this brainstorming exercise, don’t ask yourself right now if what you want is even possible. Right now give yourself the freedom to dream. Be brave. This is your life vision, and you don’t want to water it down. The world might try to do that to you, but you don’t want to prematurely do it to yourself. So ask big questions. Don’t impose limitations on yourself.
For me, time with my wife and kids became a major theme. I only have a few more years with my kids in the house. And while 10 years ago I thought they’d be pretty self-sufficient, I’ve since learned that they still need help navigating the thorny issues that come with teenage life.
I also wrote down that I want to prioritize friend relationships and my local community. The internet has made it possible for me to develop friendships with brilliant people all over the world, which I’m immensely grateful for. But I’ve not made similar investments into my own community. I realized I want the next phase of my life to feel smaller and more intimate in scope. While my clients and customers will continue to be all over the world, I want to invest in a close network of local friends and initiatives I care about.
As a final example, I wrote down that I want an unhurried cadence to my days. I realized that I spend most of my life in a state of hurry. I don’t believe hurry is the same as busy. Busy implies that I have a bunch of things to do. That will probably always be the case. Hurry is a psychological state. I believe it’s possible for one to have a relatively open calendar and yet be hurried. I also believe it’s possible for someone to have a bunch of things to do but be calm and peaceful. I would like to cultivate the latter in my life.
Again - there are no right or wrong answers here. All that matters is that your answers speak to you in your bones. You want these things to be things that get you excited about your life. And again it’s important to realize your choices will have implications on the type of business you end up building. If you have young kids and want to be home with them, your business probably shouldn’t require a ton of travel, for example.
Create your personal vision statement.
The last step is to review your eulogy and your two lists, and try to codify and summarize them into a vision statement for yourself. This serves as a shorthand for you - a single concise statement that you can use to reorient yourself whenever you feel lost. It also is a great way to explain to people what you’re trying to accomplish in the world.
My vision statement is to “inspire people to build intentional businesses and lead intentional lives.”
You want your statement to resonate deep inside you. You want it to be something that is energizing. You want to think to yourself, “YES. This is it.”
It should be specific to you. Avoid over-genericizing it. Think of people you know - could the statement be just as applicable to their lives as it is to yours? If so, it might be too generic.
It can be helpful to run it by a couple of people you trust. Do they immediately grasp why you chose that as your statement? If so there’s a good chance you’re on the right track.
At the same time, it’s possible your exercise of getting clarity on what you want out of your life led to some surprising results. Perhaps you’ve been living a life based on what you thought others wanted. Perhaps you’re seeing clearly for the first time what you truly want. If that’s the case, the feedback of your peers might be laced with confusion and questions.
Remind yourself that this is your vision, not theirs. While you can certainly care about the opinions of those who are close to you, you don’t need their permission. (The one exception to this would be a spouse if you have one. You’re building a life together, so their opinion absolutely matters.)
The Stoic philosopher Seneca said, “"It's not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it."
That waste is a function of not being clear on what we want. My hope is that doing the life vision exercise helps you get clarity on what you want. Doing so will make everything else that follows much more likely to be fulfilling.
Now you can start to design a business that serves you.