How to Make Dreams Real

Harvard Business School, Section F, October 2012

Harvard Business School, Section F, October 2012

By Ryan Allis

In a human lifetime, at least under current circumstances, we might each have 50 or 60 productive years. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, concludes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in any particular field. If you do the math, that means five years, if it’s your full time job. If there are other factors in your life that consume significant amounts of your time and energy, ten years might be a more accurate estimate.

So you will probably only have the chance to do about five or six things really well in life. If you plan to have kids and want to be a good parent, you can subtract one “thing done well” for each child, which will leave many of us with perhaps three or four other things we can hope to truly do well in our lives if we’re intentional about it. Choosing which three or four things you’re going to do really well in life is critically important to your success and your ability to leverage your mind, your contacts, your relationships, and your capital to make the world a better place.

Similarly, it takes about ten years to build a great company. But the greatest companies are not those built in ten years, they are those built over 100 years. At Connect, we’re building a company in San Francisco that we plan to be around and thriving 100 years from now (just like Evernote). We’ve realized that the biggest impact in the world comes when you dedicate yourself fully to a cause for decades and put everything you have into it. You can pretty much do anything if you dedicate yourself to it.

So what to dedicate yourself to is a really important question to take time to think about!

The Common Denominator Among Driven Entrepreneurs: Written Goals

You can do anything in life, but you can’t do everything. If you focus you can get much further. What to focus your life on, then, is the key question.

One common denominator I find among entrepreneurs who are truly driven is that they have committed their dreams and goals to writing and consciously created for themselves a purpose-driven life.

Goals are of course the things that we strive to achieve in the future. They give our lives a sense of purpose, direction, and definable progress. If we don’t have goals, oftentimes we’re left wondering, “What’s the point? Why are we here? What are we doing?”

Goals are not just career milestones. Goals can be related to family, to health, to travel, to adventure, to finances, and to relationships. In this section, I want to share how I do “life planning” and the importance of documenting your goals, dreams, and aspirations.

I’ve been following a methodology like this since I was 16 in 2000 when my mom gave me the classic 1937 book Think & Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. It’s really good if you haven’t read it yet. It’s pretty much the bible for the passionate and driven entrepreneur–at least in the USA.

Print Your Goals Out & Frame Them

Every single one of the most successful people I’ve met all have a process to write down their goals and print them out on at least an annual basis.

We all have goals, dreams, and aspirations. But how many of us write them down? Committing your dreams to paper can have a powerful effect. A study conducted by Gail Matthews, Ph.D., at the Dominican University, found that individuals with written goals achieved approximately 50% more of their goals than those without written goals. The study also showed that those who made a public “commitment” to their goals and were held accountable to those goals by a trusted friend were significantly more likely to succeed.

While some people do write down their goals, very few go a step further and print out their goals and frame them. Written goals are great, but written goals that are printed out, framed, and hung on the wall of your bedroom, your office, or your study are even better. In my experience, people who write down their goals, print them, and frame them are the most effective people in the world at accomplishing ambitious missions. Those of us alive today have so many extraordinary opportunities to create our own lives and transform our world. But if we’re not clear about what we want to achieve, it’s often hard to take advantage of those opportunities.

Clarity of Purpose

Dream no small dreams, for they have no power to move the hearts of men.
– Goethe

To create Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill studied hundreds of successful figures throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries and created a set of success maxims that enabled anyone to learn the effective principles for achieving anything they set their mind to. The fundamental lesson I took away from this book was the importance of clear intentionality. “There is one quality one must possess to win,” Hill writes, “and that is definiteness of purpose, the knowledge of what one wants, and a burning desire to possess it.”

When you write down a goal, an intention, or a vision, something amazing happens. In that very act, you start pulling it toward you. There’s nothing mysterious or metaphysical about it—it’s simply a matter of focus. Scientific studies have shown that when you write something down, your brain starts thinking about it. Your subconscious ponders the object of your intention, even when your conscious mind is not actively processing that information. That’s why so many “eureka” or “aha” moments happen in the shower or coming straight out of a dream. Your subconscious brain has been busy processing how you can achieve that which you set your mind to. But that processing can only occur if you have clearly told your subconscious what to focus on.

When you write something down, you activate your subconscious and you start focusing your energies, particularly if you review your goals and objectives regularly—on an annual basis, or a bimonthly basis, or even better, every time you walk into your room and see that framed sheet of paper hanging on the wall. You will find that the simple act of focusing will act as an attractor, bringing toward you the people, the relationships, the knowledge, and the money that you need to achieve your goals.

As you think about your goals and dreams, there is a deeper question that may come to the surface: Do you know your life-purpose?

Your life purpose is the guiding sense of what you are here for, the theme that connects your important goals and values and gives your life a sense of direction. If you can’t yet express your life purpose, that’s okay. In fact, most people can’t. But I have found that people who can express their life purpose succinctly in less than twenty seconds are some of the most powerful and most internally aligned people I’ve ever met.

Here are some questions that could help you to clarify your life-purpose:

  • What are you most passionate about in your life? Regardless of whether you’re 10, 50, or 90, what are you most passionate about?
  • What change do you want to make in this world?
  • At the end of your life, whether that’s tomorrow or 100 years from now, what do you want to be remembered for?

Take ten minutes to think about and answer those three questions. Then summarize those three answers into something you can comfortably say in 20 seconds.

The Biggest Goal I (Almost) Achieved

Reach high, for stars lie hidden in you. Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal.
– Rabindranath Tagore

I’ve been following an annual goal setting process described above since 2000. And I’ve seen some pretty amazing results. One of the first goals I wrote down, after being inspired by Hill’s book, was this: “I intend to build a company to a million dollars in sales by the age of 21.”

I wrote this goal down, printed it out, and signed it. I was almost 17 at the time, so I was giving myself about four years. At the time, I was earning approximately $3,000 per year from some freelance website building projects, each of which paid a few hundred dollars. I was attending school, playing baseball, running track and cross country, and involved in all kinds of other time-consuming activities. I set that goal having no idea how I would achieve it.

Once that seed was planted, however, I found myself focusing my time, resources, and the people in my life on figuring out how to make it a reality. I ended up starting a company, iContact, at the age of 18, during my first year at UNC.

Did I reach my goal of building a million dollar company by the age of 21? No. I missed the goal by 18 days. I turned 21 on August 14, 2005 and iContact hit $1 million in annual sales on September 1, 2005. But I can tell you without a doubt that if I had not written down that goal four-and-a-half years before, there is no way I would have figured out how to focus my efforts to build a company that only missed the goal by two-and-a-half weeks.

I don’t achieve all my goals, and I don’t expect to. As they often say at Google, “We’d rather have 60% of the impossible than 95% of the possible.” Personally, I believe that if you achieve more than 50% of your goals, your goals aren’t ambitious enough. So, set them higher! As they say, if you shoot for the moon you land on the tree tops, but if you shoot for the tree tops you land in the mud.

The Annual Process I Use to Set Goals

Let me share the 10-step process I use for writing down and reviewing goals at the end of each December.

Ryan's goals

  1. Create the Document. Create a document in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or the word processor or text editor of your choice, and write four headings: “one year,” “three years,” “ten years,” and “lifetime.”
  2. Write it Down. Write down a handful of goals under each heading.Five or seven for each heading is plenty. Try to make your goals as specific and measurable as possible. Once you’ve completed this process, which might take you an hour or two, you may want to share them with a friend and get some feedback.
  3. Print two copies. As soon as you’re ready (ideally, within the same day or maybe the next day), go ahead and take the step that very few people take: hit the print button.
  4. Sign them. Create an area at the bottom with an X and a line that says, “I, _____ (name), agree to do my best to achieve these goals,” and then sign it. It’s simply an informal, unenforceable contract with yourself, but I actually think it makes them so much more effective.
  5. Frame them. You can buy cheap wooden frames for just a few dollars in a drugstore.
  6. Hang it up. Hang one copy at school or at work—wherever you are going to be spending significant amounts of time during the day. Hang the other in your bedroom. This way you’ll see them as soon as you wake up and begin your day and last thing before you go to sleep at night.
  7. Find an accountability partner. Ask a close friend, colleague, or significant other to hold you accountable for actually making them real. Make an agreement to update your partner regularly on your progress. In the Dominican University study, this simple step increased the effectiveness of the goal-setting process by 33%.
  8. Do an annual review. I like to take the last five days of the year (December 26-31) as a time of review and meditation. Spend a few hours during that period reading the goals you have set for yourself in the prior year and asking: did I make it, did I not make it, or did I not make it at all? I use a simple 3-color system to mark my achievement status. If I achieved it, it’s green. If I got half-way there or better, it’s yellow. And if I didn’t even get halfway there, it’s red. Your aim should be not to get them all green, and I’ll tell you why in just a minute.
  9. Update annually. Update the goal sheet for next year reprint it and resign it. I like to keep the old one in the frame and put the new one in front. That way, over the course of a decade, you would accumulate ten successive annual goal sheets with your grades and marks.
  10. Make it public. There’s nothing like making a public declaration to increase your sense of accountability. During my annual review, I post my goals to my blog with the color codes and performance grades, as well as my goals for the next year. I find this an effective way to hold myself accountable to do what I say I’m going to do.

My Current Goals

Here are some of the goals I set for myself back in June 2012 during a company retreat with the Connect team.

  1. Launch This one I’ve already achieved: our Alpha product is live.
  2. Find a technical cofounder. We’re still looking for the right person to complete our team.
  3. Be nominated to the World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders Program. YGL is a program for individuals under 40 who have achieved certain things in business, service, or the arts. They come together in Davos, Switzerland to participate in the Annual World Economic Forum and create a community that wants to make a positive impact in the decades ahead.
  4. Share “All I Know” video project. I initiated this project to document the contents of my brain, so to speak—to download everything I’ve learned about life, entrepreneurship, and changing the world into media forms that could be shared with others. I created more than 1,000 slides in PowerPoint, recorded about 15 hours of video, and am now writing this book as a further means to share what I’ve learned in life so far.
  5. Get in great shape. Over the last three years, I’ve been able to go down from 209 pounds to 170 pounds by just learning a little bit about healthy eating and exercise. This year I’ve continued to really invest in this part of my life.
  6. Finish my first year at Harvard Business School. I’ll be checking this one off my list in May 2013.

Bucket Lists

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. – Helen Keller

Bucket lists allow you to capture your dreams—even the most far-fetched or impractical. They are different than goals or vision boards. I think of a bucket list as simply a list of experiences that I want to have at some point in my life. They are not as objective or quantifiable as goals, and they usually have a yes or no format—did you do it or did you not do it? I have done a number of the things on my list in the last few years, so I’ve checked them off. To me, my bucket list has been an important part of enabling me to make sure I balance my work life with things that are fun and enjoyable, as well as things that are ambitious.

I keep a bucket list on my website, along with my goals. My bucket list includes business ambitions, as well as places I’d like to travel, relationships I want to create, and personal experiences I want to have.

Here are a few of the business ambitions on my bucket list:

  1. Build a software company that makes a positive difference in the world (Connect).
  2. Build an investment fund that invests in companies using technology to create a better world (Connect Ventures).
  3. Be part of a generation that focuses our efforts, effectively, on the greatest opportunity of our lifetime, creating an environmentally sustainable world in which everyone has access to opportunity and basic human needs–one in which everyone can be a creator and innovator.
  4. Get a graduate degree from HBS or Harvard Kennedy School.
  5. Write a book on using business and entrepreneurship to create a better world.
  6. Work in public service, potentially in the U.S. government or somewhere else.
  7. Live on another continent, for a few months at least, either Asia, South America, or Africa.
  8. Build a company to more than $1 billion in sales.
  9. Create over a million jobs during my lifetime.

Here are some of my adventure or travel goals:

  1. Spend six months traveling the world and visit over 100 countries by age 50.
  2. Climb Mount Kilimanjaro to the top, Uhuru Peak.
  3. Drive on New Zealand’s beautiful Highway 6.
  4. Drive on the Carretera Austral in Chile.
  5. Hang Glide in Rio de Janeiro.

These are some of the personal experiences I’d like to have:

  1. Attend the Clinton Global Initiative conference, which is usually in September in New York City.
  2. Travel on Space Ship One, Virgin Galactic’s space shuttle that will be offering commercial space flights. Seeing the Earth from space would be an amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
  3. Meditate with Deepak Chopra. I’m a big believer in meditation. I don’t do it as much as I should, but every morning I try to take 15 minutes and would love to meditate with one of the great yogis out there.
  4. Be a guest on The Daily Show with John Stewart.
  5. See a Cirque Du Soleil Show. Now, I could do that tomorrow if I wanted to, but for some reason, I never have.
  6. Participate in a freestyle rap battle. I love to freestyle rap. That might not come across in my general demeanor, but if you ever meet me in person, which I hope you do, definitely ask me to freestyle rap.
  7. Join a hip-hop dance crew
  8. Speak in front of 50,000 people. I once gave a talk in front of 1,500 people in Chicago, and although it was lot of pressure—I really enjoyed doing it.
  9. Give a TED talk.
  10. Attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, a gathering of some of the most influential leaders in the corporate sector and in global policy who are working, in many cases, to make the world a better place.
  11. Perform improv on stage at Chicago’s Second City, the best improv theatre in the world.
  12. Play trampoline dodge ball. There’s a place called House of Air in San Francisco down by the Presidio where I plan to do this one day.
  13. Join the UN Foundation Board of Directors. This is a great nonprofit organization based out of D.C. that was set up in 1998 by Ted Turner with his $1 billion contribution.

From a personal relationships standpoint, these are some of my dreams:

  1. Be a great husband.
  2. Be a great father.
  3. Watch every Disney Pixar movie with my children.

Creating a Vision Board

When thoughts and goals become visualized, they are one big step closer to becoming actualized.

Writing down goals is critical, but the subconscious mind doesn’t just operate in words. Images are also a powerful way to plant the seeds of future achievements. If you talk to any elite athlete, for example, you’ll invariably find that they visualize what they’re going to do before they do it. Have you noticed how great basketball players, when they stand on the free-throw line, often mimic the motion of shooting the ball a few times before they actually take the shot? If you want to run 9.79 seconds in the 100-meter dash, you’re going to visualize yourself doing that over and over and over in your head before you actually attempt the feat.

I like to use Vision Boards to create powerful visual attractors for my goals. Vision boards are white poster board sheets covered with images that you print out or tear out from magazines or newspapers about what you want to make manifest in your future and in the world’s future.

I’ve been doing this exercise every few years since 2009. To create my vision board, I start with a list of categories—family, health, education, travel, and so on. I search in magazines and on the Internet to find a handful of images that represent the things I want to see in the future within each of these categories.

If you’re a little overweight and want to get in shape, maybe you put up a picture of someone whose body inspires you. Choose an image that is achievable for you—if you’re five-foot six and have a more compact body type, don’t use an image of a six-foot-plus basketball player! If you are single and looking for a long-term committed relationship and family, maybe put up a picture of some children. If you want to go to a great grad school, create a diploma with your name on it from the school of your choice. If you want to see the world, choose pictures of some of the places you intend to visit.

Once you have printed or torn out your images, cut them to size and paste them on your vision board. You don’t have to do this alone—creating vision boards is a great exercise to do with a partner, or some close friends, or a small company, or a division of a company. Sharing life stories, dreams, and hopes is a powerful way to bond a team, and revealing your goals to others creates a greater accountability for achieving them. As a manager or a leader, there’s no better way to intrinsically motivate a team member than by aligning your company’s success with their personal success—connecting the goals that you want to achieve with the goals they want to achieve.

Once you’re done, what’s next? Hang it in your bedroom, of course! I actually got mine framed, and I’ve taken it with me as I moved from Chapel Hill, to downtown Durham, to San Francisco, and to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here is the vision board that I created during an iContact company retreat in 2009:

Ryan's Vision Board

The Vision Board I Made in 2009

As you can see, I’ve included images related to many different aspects of my life. In the middle is a graduate diploma from Harvard University. That’s an ambitious goal for anyone, but even more so for me, as I left the University of North Carolina at the age of 19 to start iContact, never completing my undergraduate studies.

A Harvard graduate degree is quite a stretch for a college dropout. But in 2009 I set myself a goal to achieve one—either an MBA from Harvard Business school or a degree in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School. And since I set that goal, created that diploma, and pasted it in the middle of my vision board, I figured out how to satisfy Harvard’s requirement for an undergraduate degree by doing well enough on the GMAT, getting great recommendations, and having enough professional experience to act as an equivalent for the degree. By focusing on a clear goal, I was able to bring together the people into my life needed to make it happen and was accepted into the HBS MBA program in 2012—something I didn’t even know was possible just three years earlier when I set the goal.

Harvard Business School, Section F, October 2012

Harvard Business School, Section F, October 2012

Also on my vision board, you see pictures of political leaders and social entrepreneurs who have inspired me. You see quotes that motivate me. You see organizations and institutions that I’ve wanted to someday affiliate myself with, like the Young Global Leaders organization.

Reflecting on this board, it makes me happy to see that what I envisioned three years ago is what I’m now doing. I’m attending business school; I’m writing my next book, and someday I intend to be in public service. I hope to create a world that fits the criteria I’ve listed on my vision board. Creating this vision board was an extremely powerful and fruitful exercise for me, and I’d encourage you to try it.

Questions for Reflection

What are the instances in your own life in which you’ve seen your own intention or someone else’s intention turn into something real, something physical?

When was the last time you wrote down your goals? Was it last week? Was it two years ago? Have you never written down your goals? Do you think that clarifying what you want to accomplish in your life will help you accomplish those things?

If you have written down your goals, what was the most ambitious goal you’ve ever set? Did you achieve that goal? Why or why not?

The Results of Twelve Years of Intentionality & Focus

Don’t read this chapter and do nothing. Take action. Create your framed goals tonight.

Since I began writing down and visualizing my goals and keeping a bucket list, more than a decade ago, I have been amazed at all the things that have become possible. I had the opportunity to build a great company, iContact, that achieved a phenomenal amount in less than a decade by building an amazing team. I was accepted to one of the best business schools in the world (Harvard Business School), and I’ve launched a new company that inspires and motivates me (

I achieved many of these things that I had set my mind to and had experiences I could never have predicted. I’ve had a chance to dance in rural villages in Uganda with school children. I’ve had the opportunity to hike in the mountains of Rwanda with mountain gorillas just feet away, to tour the ruins in Belize, to hike through much of Spain from Madrid to the Cantabrian Sea in the north, and to hike from the center of Mexico through the Copper Canyon down to San Blas. I’ve had a chance to meet President Obama and work on the UN Foundation Global Entrepreneur Council. Maybe some of this would have happened anyway. But just like interest compounding annually, experience, knowledge, and relationships compound annually. If you have a clear purpose and direction, you will be compounding the right people, resources, and information you need to get extraordinary results. You don’t have to put those goals and purpose out to the world, but if you do, you’ll have a much greater likelihood of someone coming along to help you reach whatever dreams you may have.

Joining The UN Foundation Global Entrepreneur Council

From October 2011 until February 2013 I was selected as an inaugural member of the UN Foundation Global Entrepreneur Council after getting to know UN Foundation Entrepreneur-in-Residence Elizabeth Gore at the Summit Series Aspen Conference in 2009. I was selected for the group based on my experience at iContact. We met as a group four times during the 18 months to advise the UN Foundation on technology and marketing.

This Council was a dream come true for me, as I had a chance to go to the Kakuma Refugee Camp near the South Sudan/Kenya boarder, meet luminaries like Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and present at the UN Foundation Board Meeting to Kofi Annan, Ted Turner, Muhammad Yunus, Narayana Murthy, and Queen Rania in October 2012. Anything truly is possible if you work hard and surround yourself with people who want to make a positive impact in the world.

The UN Foundation Board of Directors

The UN Foundation Board of Directors Along with the UN Foundation Global Entrepreneur Council in October 2012

Joining Technology for Obama as a National Co-Chairperson

In May 2012, I was contacted by Jim Green of Technology for Obama and asked to become National Co-Chairperson and visit the Chicago headquarters to help with their email marketing strategy during the 2012 Presidential Election. While I am independent politically, I am an entrepreneur who is passionate about clean energy and immigration policy and thought President Obama did a good job in his first term considering the economic situation in January 2009 when he started. So I jumped at the chance to help the campaign. I had the chance to meet President Obama in San Francisco and First Lady Michelle Obama at the Chicago Headquarters. It was truly a dream come true for me and reinforced my conviction that anything is possible.

At a Technology for Obama Meeting Held at Headquarters in May 2012

Technology for Obama Meeting Held at Headquarters in May 2012 with Marc Benioff and President Obama

Anything is possible that you set your mind to if you have the right motivations, work hard enough, and surround yourself with the right people! To begin your journey for the next ten years, take the time to write down your goals, create a vision board, create a bucket list, and align what you love and what you’re passionate about with what you get to do every single day.

My Life Purpose

“As you reflect on your deepest values, remember that life is short, youth is finite, and opportunities endless. Have you found the intersection of your passion and the potential for world-shaping positive impact?”  –Justin Rosenstein, Wisdom 2.0 Conference 2013

Here’s what I’ve come up with for my life purpose:

My life purpose is to create a sustainable world in which every human being has the ability to be a creator, the ability to innovate, and the opportunity to achieve anything they set their mind to.

I also have a longer, 60-second version that’s more specific. For me, “a sustainable world” means three things: Access to basic human needs; equal status and equal rights under internationally accepted and enforced law; and an environmentally sustainable world to live in.

Screen Shot 2013-04-15 at 9.31.00 PM

Let’s unpack the above purpose in more detail.

1. Access to basic human needs. If we go by the model of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which arranged human needs in a pyramid with the most basic survival needs at the bottom and our higher needs for self-actualization and even self-transcendence at the top, we’re talking about the lower levels of the pyramid. At the very bottom you have the most basic human needs, such as oxygen, food, and shelter, and then a little higher up the pyramid we could add basic education, medicine, electricity, and the Internet (which is more commonly being referred to now as the Cloud). In Maslow’s time the internet hadn’t even been invented, but these days it has become essential. According to Maslow’s core insight, these lower-level needs must be in place before a person’s energy and attention is free to move up the pyramid and be able to create and innovate.

2. Equal status and equal rights under international accepted and enforced law. This is actually not too different from the original dream of the framers of our Constitution, the founding fathers of our country who wrote that “All men are created equal.” Back in the late eighteenth century, when they wrote these words, they really meant that white male landowners were created equal. But over the past couple of centuries of American history, we’ve continually expanded the definition of universal equality.

In the 1950s and 60s, Martin Luther King shared his famous dream that all of his children would be seen as equal. And as much as we have progressed toward true equality in the U.S., there’s one final part of the dream that has not yet been realized: for everyone globally to have equality, at least of opportunity. That would mean a world in which everyone has at least their basic needs taken care of, so they can go and innovate and achieve and contribute back to society. I think that’s a world we can and should create in the decades ahead, and I think we’ll have a safer and more secure world when everyone has access to basic human needs.

3. An environmentally sustainable world to live in. I’m going to be talking a lot in the later parts of this book about carbon dioxide and the science behind climate change. I’m going to be talking about environment sustainability and ecology and some of the ecological and human systems that affect the world. If we don’t create an environmentally sustainable world to live in, our grandchildren, 100-150 years from now, are going to have a very difficult time simply surviving the way that we survive today.

Bringing this all together, my life purpose is to ensure every human being has access to food, water, shelter, education, medicine, electricity and the cloud; everyone has equal status and rights under internationally accepted law; and finally everyone has the right to an environmentally sustainable world to live in. This is the world that we don’t have today, the world we should have today, and the world we can create in the decades ahead.

Think deeply about your life-purpose or mission. If you are serious about what you come to, it should define how you live your life. As Seth Godin recently wrote in a powerful blog post on mission statements, “It’s easy to write something like this . . . but it’s incredibly difficult to live one, because it requires difficult choices and the willingness to own the outcome of your actions.”

biggest goal slide2

What Do You Want Your Epitaph to Say?

For me, I found that my motivation is being part of creating a better world. I think it’s important for you to take time to think about what drives you. There are many different motivating factors at work in your own self and many other people.

A great exercise to do to think about drive—the thing that’s going to give you the motivation to get through any challenge that’s ahead in building a business—is to think about what you want your epitaph to say. Let’s say that you die 20, 30, 50, 70 years from now—whenever it may be. What do you want the words on your tombstone to say?

When I went through this exercise, what I wrote down is that I would like my epitaph to say:

“A great man, husband and father, entrepreneur, leader, and humanitarian who led organizations and built technologies that advanced equality of opportunity globally.”

Once I went through that exercise and combined that with my life goals, with my vision board, with my bucket list, with my life purpose statement, I was able to really focus my time to be able to make this a reality.

I encourage you to go through an exercise like this.

Use the Company You Build to Pursue Your Life Purpose

I found my motivation, and now I’m working on building a company that directly aligns with my goals to make the world a better place. After we sold iContact in February of 2012 to Vocus, I spent couple of months continuing my final contract with the new acquire, and then I had a choice between moving out to California and starting a new company or working on investing in companies around the world.

I’ve been passionate about investing in companies in East Africa in particular for the last three years through my angel investment fund, Connect Ventures. My plan at the time was to live in New York for the summer, spend a lot of time in Africa, and find investment opportunities—potentially even work at a private equity fund to find companies to invest in.

But after going through the Singularity University executive ed program for four days in April 2012 in Mountain View, California I decided that I would begin building a new company called Connect. On day two of Singularity University I got the idea to create a map that would enable you to visualize your contacts coming from multiple different locations—from Facebook or LinkedIn or Google+ or Twitter or your iPhone or your Gmail address book.

What we’re doing at Connect is building a company that brings together all that  information and allows you to visualize your contacts on a map of the world. We’re primarily building the software for touch devices, particularly tablets and smartphones.

Our mission at Connect is to build a platform to organize human relationships for the touch generation, and in turn hopefully make the world more open and connected. It will probably take a good decade before we’re able to even begin to make a true dent in this motivating mission, but for me, it’s what I’m passionate about.

Regardless of the mission, find something you’re passionate about and build a business to pursue it relentlessly. By starting with the end in mind, you can ensure that what you’re planning for today and what you’re building for the next few years will enable you to create the opportunities that will allow you to fulfill your highest ambitions.

How Will People Describe You At Your Life Celebration?

At your funeral (or as I like to say, life celebration), how will those closest to you describe you? What will you have done? What will your accomplishments be and what will your plans and directions end up taking you toward? How will you be able to do anything you choose?

One day, your life will be over and you’ll look back on it and you’ll have an opportunity to think about the people you met, the memories you made, and the change you made in the world. I encourage you to take the time before you start your business and really think about the change you wish to make in the world. Once you figure that out, if building a company is one way that you can actually make that change a reality, then I encourage you to build a company that aligns what you love and what you do.

Go After More Than Money

As an entrepreneur building a business, you’re going to go through immensely challenging operational struggles and very difficult times. You’ll only find the strength from within to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds if your motivation is authentic, real, and deep. You can’t build a business just for the pursuit of money, because money alone will not give you enough motivation to get through the decade necessary to really build a company that can make a difference in the world.

Spend some time thinking and meditating on your raison d’être—your purpose of life, your reason for living – and figure out what constitutes the core motivations for what you do and the core motivations for who you are and who you will become. Know in advance who you want to become, and then you can begin to direct your life rather than letting outside factors control you. “Direct your life to your definite chief aim,” as Napoleon Hill said in his 1928 book, Think and Grow Rich.

Let who you are and what you believe come out in all that you create. And as you find this motivation, as you figure out what you’re passionate about, as you write down your goals and print them, as you write down your life purpose and you determine the change you seek and then start a company to make that real, your life will be transformed and your ability to be a powerful person who is internally aligned and can make a big difference in the world ahead will greatly amplify.


Matthews, Gail, Ph.D. “Goals Research Summary” Dominican University. Accessed 14 Apr. 2013.