How to decrease the cost of "purpose"

A radically holistic take on a powerful tool for conscious leadership

Welcome Entrepreneurs. I’m so glad you’re here.

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Now then…

I’ve been known to say that a lot of my work with founders comes down to developing consciousness around two things: Purpose and Fear. And in all my work with founders around the first half of that equation, I find that nearly everyone approaches it through the same framework. It’s almost as if the word purpose and this framework were synonyms. The framework is this:

Purpose is an end, far off into the future, and its function is to drive the present into alignment with that purpose, a means to that end.

But this is a very specific type of purpose, and not illustrative of the whole. Purpose is a more versatile tool than that. And to illustrate, today I’d like to offer up an alternative.

Hope you enjoy.

Present-focused purpose

Last issue I wrote about the importance of having a clear sense of purpose. I’ve seen over and over again how doing the work to clarify what you want, and then orienting toward that vision increases your odds of achieving your goals, whatever they might be.

Most often, when people think about purpose, they automatically imagine something far into the future. Something they have to sacrifice their present — through working hard, sucking it up, paying dues, etc. — to attain. 

But that’s not the only way, and often not even the best way, to live a purposeful life. 

Today I want to unpack the two polarities of purpose: 

  1. A future end to which you subordinate the present

  2. A present end to which you subordinate the future

And I want to suggest that, rather than skewing hard to either end, it’s possible to find your own goldilocks zone somewhere between them.

The limitations of purpose

I was recently a part of a T-group with a half dozen founders of high growth companies, in which we were each instructed to introduce ourselves using two items -- one representing something that we wanted to lean into and one representing something we wanted to let go of. 

When it was my turn, I held up a limited edition, KITH branded G-Shock in white and blue and told the group it represented what I wanted to let go of. I explained how I bought the watch off StockX for more than it was worth. How I used to run a company, and how, each time we hit a revenue milestone, or raised money, or celebrated a significant achievement, I’d buy a watch. 

Why I wanted to let go of this, I explained, was that when I opened the drawer where I kept the watches, nearly a dozen of them, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the moments they were meant to commemorate. I’d been so fixated on the goals in front of me, the purpose I was chasing in the future, that I’d forgotten what it was I spent all that money to remind myself of.

In my experience, this is a common way of relating to purpose. You figure out the impact you want to make in the future, and then paint that picture in your mind to generate the creative tension necessary to close the gap between your present and future. This is an incredibly effective way of building things. Careers, businesses, lives. Here’s the end we want to create, so therefore here’s what we should do now. Activity in pursuit of a purpose far into the future is telic (a fun word I just learned), meaning it has an end. You engage in the activity to produce an outcome. The outcome, the ending, is the point. The process is the means to that end.

For most of (early) life this makes all the sense in the world, which is why future-orientedness has become synonymous with the idea of purpose. The problem is that, in the best case, you get that future. But then it becomes the present, the goalposts move, and all that you’ve sacrificed for is subordinated to yet another future. And around and around you go on the hedonic treadmill, chasing ends all the way until the only possible end of ends. 

The possibility of a intentionally-designed present

But this isn’t the only way purpose can work. Purpose can also be present-oriented and can subordinate the future to its service. 

When I finished explaining the symbolism of the watch, I showed the group a 9/12” sketch pad. It was filled with a dozen drawings of shapes or hands or candy bars or whatever I’d been looking at. I’m an average artist at best, and there was no logical justification for my spending valuable time sketching. I couldn’t have made a buck off these sketches if I’d wanted to.

I wanted to lean into this unproductive sketching, I explained, simply because I liked doing it. I liked the feeling when I got a line just right, or when a landscape actually looked like a landscape. I liked seeing images come to life on a page. I didn’t show the group any of my drawings when I told them that that sketchbook was what I wanted more of in my life. The results weren’t the point. I didn’t draw to have a drawing, but for the process of creating itself. For me, sketching is atelic (an activity without an end).

Our consumerist culture doesn’t talk about it often or well, but purpose, one of the most effective ways to consciously orient your life, can be focused on the process (aka the present) as well. 

Not that it should, but it can. 

Present-oriented purpose in action

Since most of us were never trained to focus on the present, it can take a bit to orient this way. What does present-oriented purpose look like anyway? How might it work? 

In much the same way as we use the traditional concept of purpose, present-oriented purpose starts by choosing something you want. Only instead of choosing something in the future, you choose something in the present. A way of life that you enjoy, now, and that you’d like to experience more of in your life. 

When I began considering a present-oriented purpose for my own life, I started with the idea that I wanted to be more present. After 10+ years chasing results, I decided that nothing was more important to me than fully inhabiting each moment. That I wanted to notice and experience my life as it happened rather than “getting shit done” and accumulating meaningless keepsakes. That was my purpose. To be fully awake to my life. That’s where it starts, in the present. 

Then I figured out which future would serve that present. I did an inventory of the times I felt most alive, the most awake to my life, and unearthed three insights about myself: I felt most awake when I was helping good people with things that mattered, when I was writing about things that mattered, and when I was with the people that mattered most to me. So it became clear that the future I wanted to create would be one in which I got to spend most of my time doing those things. And by building toward that future, I would maximize my chances of achieving the purpose I wanted: being awake to my life in the present moment. And in the next present moment, and the next.

But what about impact?

As William James observed, “the greatest use of a life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.” Knowing that I wanted above all to be awake to my life in the present, I wondered, “did that mean I had to sacrifice making an impact?”  

No. Even the impact you want to make on the world can be anchored in the present. It can be, as startup coach and author Jerry Colonna says, “good work, done well, for the right reasons.”

Part of me still finds appealing an audacious, future-oriented purpose like “build the largest executive coaching firm in the world,” but I know that that would set me up for a lifetime of sacrifice toward an end always over the horizon. I’m not willing to make that trade anymore. Instead, to simultaneously enable the presence I want in each moment and my desire to spend my life on something that will outlast me, I created this: 

“To help founders grow into extraordinary leaders and build life-giving companies, by becoming the fullest version of themselves.”  

Fast forward a little over a year from the conception of that purpose, and I just spent all day today, and yesterday, and all last week, splitting my time between coaching founders on things that matter, writing about things that (I think) matter, and building forts with Laura and my boys. Each day I help founders grow into leaders by growing more fully into themselves, and allow tomorrow to handle itself. I find that’s enough. Good work, done well, for the right reasons. I still sometimes get sucked into my phone, or stress about an upcoming deadline or conversation, but less now than ever before. And I’ve never felt more alive. 

It’s not black and white

Like most important things in life there’s not a right answer here. But purpose of any sort is an incredibly valuable tool to galvanize behavior toward a conscious end, rather than spending our lives in inertia. I’ve seen no better tool to create a well-lived life. But as you orient toward your own purpose, don’t take it as a given that you need to aim at some massive thing far off into the future, and channel your life to its service. 

Your purpose can serve the present, too. 

An exercise to try

It’s so easy to lose touch with our lives in the present. To reconnect with yours, and to dive deeper into what a present-oriented purpose might look like for you, I invite you to try the following 15-minute exercise. 


  • Spend two minutes journaling an answer to each of the following questions: 

    • What are the 1-3 moments in which you felt the most alive? 

    • When in the last week did you feel the most joy?  The last month?

    • What did you most love to do as a kid?

  • After the above, spend 10 minutes journaling an answer to this question: 

    • Imagine you had only 24 hours to live. Tell the story of how you’d like to spend that day. 

      • With whom would you want to spend it? 

      • Doing what?

(HT: Julie Mosow, Cameron Zargar and Foster for editing!)

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Who is Ryan Vaughn? 

I’m an executive coach for startup founders, a role in which I get to help high-performing founders expand into extraordinary leaders. I’m a 3x Founder/CEO who’s raised $20m+ in VC and built a market-changing company, as well as two other companies that taught me things. I’m an avid writer, meditator, reader, athlete, father, husband, amateur physicist, student of leadership, and adventurer. I’m also none of those things. But I am glad that you’re here.  If that’s not enough, here’s a more detailed bio.


One: Adam’s Return (Richard Rohr)

I just finished this month’s book for my long-running book club, called Adam’s Return. It’s a remarkable analysis of the male experience in contemporary life, focusing specifically on the lack of widespread initiation experiences and the resulting difficulty many men have in orienting themselves to their lives and the world in a way that feels whole.

Robert Bly brought this connection to my consciousness with his amazing book, Iron John, which explores this topic through the Grimm’s fairy tale of the same name, but Rohr makes the topic a bit more practical.

To give you a taste:

The general assumption underlying all initiatory rites is that unless a young male is shown real power through a community of wise elders, he will always seek false power and likely will spend much of his life seeking prestige, perks, and possessions.


Two: The Redemption of Justin Bieber (GQ)

I never thought I’d say this, but I saw myself in Justin Bieber the other day. A young man who got everything he wanted, and found himself at “this old castle. Just like the most beautiful estate. With the trimmed hedges that are completely immaculate.” He gestures, shapes the hedges with his hands, like he can still see them, perfectly vividly, today. “It’s over this beautiful body of water. And I was there. And I was alone. And I was sad inside.”

It reminds me of Jim Carrey’s famous statement: “I hope everybody could get rich and famous and get everything they ever wanted, so they can see it’s not the answer.” And it reminds me, tragically, of Tony Hsieh. And it reminds me, recently, of John Mulaney. Each of these stories underscoring Rohr & Bly’s point.

This feature was insightful, poignant, and deep. And yep, I’m talking about the Biebs.


Three: MindMed takes psychedelics public (TheHustle)

Found a real gem on The Hustle, the investor deck from the first psychedelic company to go public on the Nasdaq, MindMed (MNMD). From the article: “MindMed’s product pipeline reads like a shopping list for 5 nights at Burning Man: LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin.”

I’ve said before that I’m grateful to psychedelics for my own inner work, and I find I’m intensely curious about their potential in the world of supervised mental health. This is coming, and this investor deck paints a really clear picture of what it might look like:


Four: Two rules for strategy decisions (HBR)

Rahul Vohra, the CEO of the email client Superhuman, introduced me to this gem from the HBR archives, in which LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman shares his two guiding principles for making strategy decisions.

The first is simply “go faster.” But the second, his “Single Decisive Reason” principle, is profound:

When there’s a complex list of pros and cons driving a potentially expensive action, seek a single decisive reason to go for it — not a blended reason. If you come up with a list of many reasons to do something, Nassim Taleb once wrote, you are trying to convince yourself — if there isn’t one clear reason, don’t do it.


Five: The Discomfort of Growth (Alice Walker)

Found this via James Clear’s newsletter, but man it hit me.

"Some periods of our growth are so confusing that we don’t even recognize that growth is happening. We may feel hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical, or we may feel depressed. It would never occur to us, unless we stumbled on a book or a person who explained to us, that we were in fact in the process of change, of actually becoming larger than we were before.

Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant.

But what is most unpleasant is the not knowing what is happening. Those long periods when something inside ourselves seems to be waiting, holding its breath, unsure about what the next step should be... for it is in those periods that we realize that we are being prepared for the next phase of our life and that, in all probability, a new level of the personality is about to be revealed."



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