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Redefining success, finding focus, and living an authentic life: Sean Johnson's journey

Sean Johnson, a successful venture investor, serial entrepreneur, and Kellogg professor, shares the story of looking inward to live and work with intention.

Listen to the whole interview on YouTube.

Picture this: You built a successful venture studio, you work with great partners, and you’ve even had a few big exits. It’s a dream you’ve worked hard towards, and built up to something you’re truly proud of. 

But things aren't what you expected.

That’s exactly what happened to Sean Johnson after spending twelve years as a Founding Partner of Manifold. Managing the needs of a diverse portfolio of clients, in addition to the livelihoods of his 70+ employee company, weighed heavily on him. So he stepped away.

“I thought that I didn’t associate my identity with my work. But I did. Way more than I thought I did,” he says.

So Sean embarked on his new journey: one that asked him to look inward to find what truly makes him tick in service of defining a bigger purpose for his life. He went so far as booking a cabin in the woods in order to find solitude. Here are some of his key takeaways on finding focus and being present. And don’t worry, you don’t need to escape to a cabin to accomplish them:

Eschewing the need to “make a dent in the universe.”

First, there was a lot of unlearning. He talks about how for years he was wrapped up in this idea that he needed to “make a dent in the universe.” 

“It’s a narrative that I think serves a very tiny portion of the population. But I drank it like kool-aid,” he explains, “I was obsessed with the idea of being important and making an impact and leaving a legacy.” Sean said he had the realization that all the people in the world that fall outside of the “startup founder” bubble would never know the feeling of selling a successful company and experiencing that “deserving” feeling he was always chasing. 

And, he realized, they were just fine without it. “I think it’s a bad narrative for most people. I needed something that was bigger and more meaningful than that,” to guide his life.

So Sean then took up solitude as a practice. “The point is to do nothing. For example if you’re walking, you’re not walking to meet people, or reach a steps goal or something. You’re not trying to accomplish anything. You learn that you just exist. And that is okay.

Sean came to these epiphanies while practicing solitude. “You are not your job. You are not how your kids turn out. I’m just sitting there like, ‘who am I?’ What do I care about? What do I NOT care about?” he asked himself. “Solitude was a really useful way of quieting all the messages that I allowed myself to get bombarded with all the time.” He also said he thinks practicing solitude and then re-entering the world has made him better able to connect with people, and be present.

Ruthlessly eliminating “hurry” (even in the grocery store)

Sean’s next realization is profound, but a doozy. The good news is, you can practice it in the grocery store. “I’ve always had a statement of values, and I recently added a new one: Ruthlessly eliminate hurry. I can have a busy schedule without feeling hurried. Hurried is a condition of my soul.”

Sean explains that when he set out to “eliminate hurry,” he would go so far as to find the longest possible checkout line in the grocery store, or drive the speed limit (“that drove me nuts”). He also said he spent time noticing the pace he walked, or the speed at which he chopped vegetables when cooking, and compelled himself to slow down a beat.

Sean then identified the things that can trigger him to be hurried: normal things like caffeine, but also the mindless practice of shooting pop-a-shot in the basement of his home when he had a few minutes. 

As a way to cope, Sean institutes practices that help him to be intentional and present with his focus: 

  • He always sets his calendar to have the 25 and 50 minute meetings, rather than the back to back schedule of 30 and 60 minute meetings. 
  • Sean always takes a moment before every call to take a breath and ask himself how he can best serve this person on this call. “I try not to worry about the outcomes of calls anymore, because I can’t always control it.”
  • He sets his phone to be in in ‘do not disturb’ all day long. Only his kids and wife can get through. 
  • He uses Opal to block social media. “Part of my job is content creation, and there is a VERY direct correlation between posting and checking.”
  • He institutes a weekly review process where he evaluates his statement of values (more on that in a minute), he clears his inboxes, reviews his project lists, and his multi year visions for his life.
  • Sean also says after he and his wife put the kids to bed, they plug their phones in on a charger downstairs and leave them there. He explains that it forces him to read a book, or do something else besides scroll. 

“So I had to buy an alarm clock,” he says.

Defining your statement of values (and being accountable to it)

Sean said he spent time writing down a statement of intent in the form of the values that matter the most to him. Then, he institutes a weekly review session where he evaluates his 10 year goals, his overall vision of his life, and his statement of values. He clarifies that this isn’t a weekly standup with himself to evaluate the progress, but serves more as a grounding reminder of his “why.”

When reviewing his statement of values, Sean pushes himself for accountability. “Values ultimately evidence themselves in action,” he explains, “So if I don’t do things that evidence themselves in that value, I have to ask myself, ‘Do I actually have this value?’” He then takes time to list behaviors he engages in that support each of his stated values.

He said this review practice made him realize that there are times when he has a certain value, but he has done nothing recently to support that particular statement. Other times, he realizes it’s a value that needs to be modified and he coursecorrects. 

Ten year goals vs the “most vital task”

Regarding his longer term goals, Sean breaks down his objectives into a 10 year story arc, which he can then splice out into smaller goals he can accomplish one year at a time. From there, he breaks down the one year goals into quarterly objectives. “It’s a lot like planning for a business in that way,” he explains. 

He allocates a 2 hour calendar block every day to dedicate to what he has deemed to be his “most vital task,” or the most important thing he should be doing on any given day. In a world of distractions and scope creep, carving out the time to accomplish the one most important task helps him to feel productive for the rest of the day. “I feel like if the whole rest of the day goes to hell, it’s still a win if I accomplish this one task,” he explains. 

"There is no joy in accomplishing goals."

All of these processes were in service of a new way to view achievement in his life. As a result, Sean did a dramatic reset on how he approaches goal setting. He said he realized that, “People don’t get joy from accomplishing their goals. You get joy from setting the goal and noting your progress towards it.”

Sean said it occurs to him as he is building his new venture that he really enjoys the early days. With the benefit of hindsight, he is able to see all the ways he didn’t stop and reflect and enjoy the milestones as he was hitting them the first time around. 

“I set goals as a way to give a rudder, or direction, to my life. But I hold the achievement of the goal very loosely. The goal gives me forward momentum. When I read it, I get excited. It grounds me on why I’m doing what I’m doing. And then I get to note the intermediate milestones along the way.”

By getting down his goals, he is now free to focus on breaking down the steps in front of him. This, he explains, is what brings him joy in the day to day. 

“I realized I’m actually really happy when I’m just doing the work; anxiety goes away. I’ve gotten much better over the years about naming the most important thing I’m going to work on during the day and creating the right conditions to get into flow state, work on something I know is important, and then not allowing myself to worry about the larger stuff. Because I’ve taken the time to reflect, and I’ve taken the time to plan. So today is not the day to evaluate or worry about my plan, it’s time to just do the work.”

The surprising and profound epiphanies Sean discovered during his life shift allowed him to find focus in the quiet drumbeats of his life. He gained deeper meaning from the moments that he realized he wasn’t previously even paying attention to. Finding focus isn’t just about hacking your way to ultimate productivity: it’s about putting in the work to understand your true meaning when every other distraction is set aside. 

Watch the interview of our entire conversation in the video above, and be sure to read more about Sean’s journey and insights in his own words in his piece, “What I’m Doing Next,” on LinkedIn.

A very special thank you to Sean Johnson for sitting down and sharing his wisdom with us. You can learn about his new venture at hiremadison.com, or read more of his insights on LinkedIn.

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