Every rose has its thorns

The deeper I go into the nature of things, the more I see paradox.

Where there is light, there is darkness. Where there is good, there is bad. There’s a reason that the Yin/Yang symbol has withstood the test of time. It’s a map of reality. I’m learning there is no such thing as Good or Bad, really. It’s perspectival, in that one man’s food is another man’s poison (I think that’s how the Bible puts it), or one being’s poop is another being’s fertilizer, if you like. It’s also a blend, in that everything good has within it something bad, and everything bad has a redeeming aspect within.

As deep as I can dig, this seems to be always true. There is nothing purely good, or purely evil. Purely light, or dark.

I have done things that, depending on who you are, may make you think I’m a downright bad person. Probably many people I happened upon in college, during the throes of my drinking days. We won’t go into specifics on this post, but suffice it to say I didn’t much care about other people, except in as much as they could help me get what I wanted. I sometimes do that even now, but people who know me now can (I hope) attest that at least I’m not PURELY an asshole. Most people who know me now, I think, think I’m quite a good person. This would no doubt shock some people in my earlier lives.

Depending on which part of me you are familiar with, you think I’m mostly good or mostly bad, but either way it’s nuanced. Which brings me to today.

Today I was confronted with how one of the things I like most about myself, the aspect of my personality which has gotten me so much, which I’ve always found so positive, also has a dark side.

And it’s because of that dark side that, after publishing a post every weekday for some time now, I’ve decided to ratchet down the pace of this blog to 2x/week.

One of the things I know about myself is that I keep my word. When I say I’m going to do something, I do it. End of story. It took a lot of work to develop that relationship, a lot of trying to keep my word, failing, confronting that failure, trying again, pushing past whatever is in the way, succeeding, trying again, etc., but for the last 10 years or so I’ve been enjoying a relationship with my word which is essentially iron clad. When I tell myself that I’m going to do something, then I will move heaven and earth to do it. It’s even more effective when I tell someone else, because then there’s the social pressure of letting them down as well. Can’t chance looking bad in someone’s eyes, so better hustle and get it done.

This is probably the single biggest character trait responsible for whatever success I’ve had in business. Once I say I’m going to do something, it doesn’t matter what life looks like, that thing gets done. I’ve tried to pass that trait down to our employees because it’s been so valuable to me, and for the most part I think we do a great job, and our business has flourished on our collective commitment to DWYSYWD (do what you said you would do). From my experience, developing a habit of giving and keeping your word is among the most powerful things you can do for your career and life, hands down.

It’s from this framework of unquestioning DWYSYWD that I started writing a month ago. I didn’t really know if there was a point to the writing, as I had nothing to accomplish by being open online. I didn’t have a goal, and in fact resisted the idea of a goal out of principle. I just liked to write, and something deep inside me made me feel like now was the time, after 10+ years, to finally get back on the horse. So there was really no outside reason for me to write so much, but it didn’t matter. I had told myself I was going to write every day, so everything else beyond that was immaterial. I would simply write every day, and life could work its way around that fact.

And, as per usual, I did. Every damn day, including many inconvenient days waking up earlier than 4 in the morning. And now I have a bunch of writing, some of which might be ok, and more importantly than that I have gotten back into the swing of the writing, which in retrospect was probably the point.

But like everything, there’s a Yang to this Yin. There’s a downside. And for me, I have recently learned that one of the reasons I’m so black-and-white about my relationship with my word is tied up very deeply in my habit of measuring my self-worth based on my accomplishments (which I’ve written about here and here). As I’ve peeled back the layers of my thinking, I’ve seen that in the same way I valued myself by the success of my business, I also valued myself based on my ability to stick to my word. In the case of this blog that manifested in the belief that I was somehow unworthy if I missed a day.

Ah crap, I thought when I recognized it. That’s that same pattern again.

As effective as I know that framework to be as a means of getting shit done, I have over time become unwilling to consciously anchor my mental, emotional and spiritual well-being to my accomplishments. It’s not worth it, because I know the end of that story. You do and get a lot, but there is never, and can never be, enough accomplishment to satisfy that craving. So you chase gold stars your whole life and die feeling unworthy. No thanks. Self worth can only come from inside, not from any amount of gold stars (even though America would have you believe otherwise).

So, as I’ve started doing when I notice my mental machinery in action, I am letting go. I still very much like writing, and imagine I’ll continue to do it a lot. I still very much like that it’s normal for me to keep my commitments to others and myself, and I imagine I’ll continue to do that as well. But it’s become unavoidable to me that the framework of “I will write every day,” while effective, has become toxic for me at this point in my journey.

So I’m letting go.

What does this mean? Well, due to my nature to overachieve I’m already writing weeks ahead of the present date, so I’ll let those run their course coming out every Tuesday and Thursday, instead of every day. Or maybe Monday and Wednesday. Who knows. And we’ll try the 2x/week pacing and see if it works. Or maybe three times per week, or one. We’ll see. I can feel a weight being lifted in writing that.

I’ll continue writing, and my hope is I find myself in a spot where I do so not because I’m committed through a structure that has become a proxy for my sense of self, but because writing is simply an expressive action that I am called to do.

That’s why I started writing a month ago, after 10 years letting the habit languish. To express things, not to get somewhere. And I think that’s where the work I’m meant to do–maybe even the words I’m meant to write–will come from as well. There’s no end to a life built on achieving, despite what media tells us. There is always someone with more.

As Thomas Merton put it, “the life of riches, ambition, pleasure, is in reality an intolerable servitude in which one lives for what is always out of reach.” I want off that treadmill, and that means giving my writing space to become something organic (again), even at the risk of “success.”

My word is my bond, I’ve always thought. And I’ve always been proud of that. But I’ve seen that my word can become my prison as well, every bit as much as the mental patterns through which I interpret the world.

More than any amount of success, I want to be free.

So henceforth, look for a post around twice a week from me. I’m guessing subscribers’ inboxes will be better for it anyway.

A few ways I’m living more sustainably

I’m trying to live more sustainably by doing the little things.

It started by recycling more conscientiously (it’s way more complex than I thought), getting rid of my Keurig (pourovers taste better and give me 5 minutes of zen in the morning), and composting (first our own bin, now a service). From there, probably the biggest change was going somewhat vegetarian (turns out one of the most impactful things an individual can do to combat climate change is have a plant based diet), which has been a source of continuous conversation in my life considering my previous carnivorous nature.

Long way of saying, there’s a lot you can do to live more sustainably. I’m trying, but I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface.

More recently, I’ve also tried to bring awareness to our corporate footprint. VNN helped the RiverView Center (our landlord) launch a dual-stream recycling initiative, which while awesome is unfortunately still part of the leading 5-10% of commercial real estate in Grand Rapids which offer recycling of any kind.

This statistic floored me, but it seems to check out. I was pretty discouraged by the lack of effort around corporate sustainability after this. However, it turns out it may not be as bleak as I’d feared. It appears that companies are trying, but they suck at marketing their efforts so you have to know where to look.

For example, both Starbucks and Panera will give you a ceramic mug for your coffee if you drink it in store–the former even offering a discount. But neither will offer it unless you ask. (Contrast that with McDonalds, who won’t even let you use your own mug, forcing you to take their disposable cup and transfer in your car, which defeats the purpose.) I only learned about this because an older gentleman returned his cup while I was ordering, and I asked. Again, crazy that they don’t even mention this, but now that I know I ask all the time.

These little things add up, so where it seems like I can help, I’m trying to.

Let me know if you know of any other easy ways to live more sustainably. I’m always looking to grow.

In other good news, I learned that one of the most sustainable buildings in the entire country is in Grand Rapids. If you get a chance, give the guys at Catalyst Partners & M Retail Solutions a high five. They’re still unique, but they’re doing it.

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth

“You must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you.”

Joseph Campbell

I got off the plane, vibrating.

On my way back from retreat in California, I had spent the flight between SFO and MSP immersed in Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, a Netflix special with Bill Moyer that, while comically underwhelming in production value, contains a truly remarkable presentation of content. It was that content that had me buzzing.

For most of my life I’d had this vague hunch that, since most religions seemed to rhyme with one another (that is, contain much of the same content, even through their differences), that even though the individual tribes fought one another to the death more often than not, and even though any religious person would disagree with the assessment, there ought to be some core truth that guided them all. It seemed to me inevitable, or at least likely, that each religion started with the same truth, but then over history man got in the way and bastardized that truth to suit his various ends, distinguishing each religion from the others in the process. From my Western viewpoint, this assessment was I’m sure helped along by my understanding of the Abrahamic Tradition, the accepted belief among Christianity, Islam and Judiasm that each stemmed from the same guy: Abraham.

So it seemed to me at the time that there had to be a core truth that had in effect caused each religion, some piece of wisdom so important that religions were founded to pass it down over generations, but that each religion had forgotten or obscured it over time in their own way, so caught up they were in their own “rightness.”

Then I watched that Netflix special and Joseph Campbell opened the doors to that core truth for me for the first time (or at least the first time I was ready to hear it, as I’ve found is the way of wisdom). There was in fact a core truth, a core message that was present throughout all the major wisdom traditions and religions. This truth was beyond words, so there was no way for him to state it directly and instead he resorted to pointing at it from a number of perspectives, so that while it wasn’t made explicit, you got the gist of it.

The essence of that core truth, such that I can explain it now, was the overwhelming importance of presence to the moment. Of letting go of all the mental constructs we create over and over again, and coming back to the awe-someness of the fact that we exist, and that anything exists. The various traditions, according to Campbell, were all gesturing in their own way at the importance of letting go of your interpretation of reality, or what reality should be, some solid thing created out of all your thinking, and instead connecting with what actually is. And then living there, in, and as, the Universe, rather than trapped inside the noise of your mental constructs (I want to say “as a part of the Universe” to help it go down easier, but that wouldn’t be accurate). The practical way to do this being to stop thinking, planning, scheming, remembering, and everything else, to simply let go of it all. To live without reference points.

He did a much better job than I of explaining it, obviously, but having just come off a profound retreat in a monastery in the mountains, what I remember thinking getting off that plane was, “holy shit man, I get it.”

I walked through the airport in a pink cloud of having gotten it. Me, Ryan Vaughn, had somehow stumbled on the secret that all these millions of people were missing. And it was so simple! What a feeling.

I stayed in that space for a good hour before it dawned on me that I had lost it long before. I’d sacrificed presence to the awe-someness of each moment through the very act of understanding the significance of that presence. I understood it (thanks to Joseph Campbell then, but again and again through so many teachers since then), but the price for that understanding was everything.

So I gave up my understanding, for the first of hopefully millions of times, at a urinal in MSP, and returned to the moment. To the amazing reality of the universe, of you, of me, and of now. Yes, even the now that happens in the restroom.

These days, I endeavor not to understand. I try to remember that I haven’t learned anything. And anytime I think I do, or I have, I know I’ve lost the way.

Focus on the road, not the wall

Running a venture-backed startup before profitability is like flying a plane you can’t steer toward a thick, steel wall. The only option is to throttle up faster and faster, accelerating to take off with enough distance to clear the wall (reach profitability), or somehow find a way to move the wall backward before you hit it (raise follow-on financing).

There is precedent to this wacky situation, out of which has come best practice.

Professional NASCAR drivers are trained to focus solely on the road, because history has shown that if they allow themselves to look at the wall, they’re likely to hit it.

It’s so difficult when running a startup from a balance sheet to not fixate on that wall, but Jeff Gordon might tell you your life depends on it.

How to cure the grumps

Laura called me out the other day, asking me if I was grumpy.

It was second or third thing in the morning, on a weekend, and I was making breakfast per her request. I vividly remember my completely normal reaction.

The defensiveness bubbled up, immediate, visceral, hot.

I wasn’t grumpy. What the hell was she talking about? And even if I was, it was justified. I’d had to change my morning routine to deal with a sick kid, I hadn’t gotten anything done that I was supposed to, and…

This whole inner monologue took less than a second to get me worked up, but at about that point I noticed what my brain was doing. In stepping back I saw the machinery, and realized I had a choice.

“Yeah, I think I am grumpy,” I admitted. It was the hardest thing to do.

“Okay,” Laura said, giving me a side-eye and going back to what she was doing, which I noticed was juggling both of our boys so that I could cook in peace.

When I put eggs and bacon on the table, I realized that I wasn’t grumpy anymore. I couldn’t tell when the feeling had passed.

We went to the zoo that day with friends. I still remember Laura and I watching the kids getting their faces painted.


I think it was when I woke up to ethereal piano notes drifting across the forest and, after climbing from my sleeping bag and crunching up the bark covered path to the main field, strolled to the group of six people practicing capoeira as the dawn sunlight filtered through the redwoods.

Or maybe it was when I screamed at the top of my lungs, joining a mob of 50 or 60 people named things like Nacho Supreme and Chupa Chup in urgently imploring a person named Sunset to “let’s go,” as she brought the full weight of her army of groupies to bear in a life or death game of Rock Paper Scissors Rockstar.

It could have been when I was lying down at the end of a day, my head propped up on a pillow shared with Nacho Supreme in a tea yurt itself shared by dozens of prone people while a live band dressed somewhere between traditional Native American and traditional Hippie pranced around us singing (we were all fully clothed).

But really, the most incredible part was the rules:

Rule #1: No technology
Rule #2: No names
Rule #3: No “work talk”
Rule #4: No time

These created a structure ensuring that, whether you were competing in nose jousting, writing fiction on a typewriter overlooking a river, or doing standup for the first time on stage, whatever you were doing, you were 100% there. No expectations on who you were supposed to be, nothing to do, nowhere to go. Just here, just now, just us.

Laura (Nacho Supreme, who did standup on stage) and I (Skittles, who learned Capoeira, at least a little) call this magical place deep in the redwoods of Mendocino, California, “Camp.” Others call it Camp Grounded. We went for my 30th birthday in 2015, and had the honor of meeting its amazing founder, Fidget Wigglesworth, AKA Levi Felix, along with so many incredible people who we will only ever know as Honey Bear, or Chief.

In those 72 hours without time, I lost myself for the first time in a long time, in the pure joy of being. As Fidget said: “We’re all fucked. We’re all going to be fine. We’re all in this together.”

Laura and I were devastated to learn in the years following that Fidget was battling brain cancer, and later that he had passed away at 32 years old. I was 32 then as well. I was heartbroken that the world lost such an amazing human being, but will forever be grateful for the magic that he gifted to all of us.

I imagine he’d be smiling now, underneath that great big bushy non-ironic mustache, to learn that Camp Grounded has been rebooted.

Maybe I’ll see some of you there. Although neither of us will know it.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in business

I never went to business school. My business education was a startup accelerator called Momentum.

Patterned after TechStars, Momentum gave entrepreneurs a $20,000 investment and placed them in a 12-week bootcamp, which was intended as a crash course in everything needed to start a tech business and raise venture capital. As a part of that bootcamp, every Thursday night all the entrepreneurs would gather around for a “fireside chat”, where we would have the opportunity to listen to a business leader tell their story. Out of 12 of those chats, one moment sticks with me to this day.

We’ll call the business leader Bob, although that’s not his real name. Bob was the type of guy who flies a helicopter to work, and so obviously had a different perspective on life and business than I had. Bob was incredibly successful, but also went out of his way to be accessible in that conversation, which I really appreciated.

Someone asked him: “If there was one lesson you’d hope that these entrepreneurs would learn in starting their businesses, what would it be?”

Bob thought about it for a moment. He took a beat longer than normal as, we had learned that evening, was his way.

“I’ve worked with companies all over the spectrum,” he said at last. “From Fortune 100 companies to pro sports teams to two-person startups. And across all those companies, there’s only one thing that all of them have in common.

“Nobody knows what the hell they’re doing,” he said.

“The difference between successful companies and unsuccessful companies, is that with the successful companies you can’t tell.”

Do you give when asked?

If a person asks you for money, do you give?

My friend asked me this question, and had to admit that normally I don’t. I thought that was normal, so only felt a little guilty in my response.

Sometimes, however, I’ll give generously. I explained to my friend that sometimes I’m asked for change, and I’ll give $20 or $50 at a time.

It makes me feel good every time I do it.

The conversation ended there, but my behavior stuck with me.

I’m not sure that’s what I should be aiming for when interacting with someone less fortunate than myself. In that situation, why is my feeling good a measure of success?

Why I quit Twitter, and why I’m back after 2.5 years

I’m back on Twitter for the first time since August of 2017.

I don’t remember the exact moment I left, in fact I imagine it had been brewing for some time. In essence it had to do with finding tangible connections between my thoughts and feelings, and what I was reading on social media (I’ve been off all the “social sauce” since about that time, not just Twitter).

Laura noticed it first. Around 2012 I remember lamenting a missed opportunity to her, something I could do instead of banging my head against the wall of building VNN, as I was surfing through my Twitter feed lying in bed. Another Tuesday for us, as VNN was hard work at the time. She ignored the subject of my comment, and said “you have to stop reading that shit.”

With distance, it was easy for her to see the impact that reading about someone else’s accomplishments (so helpfully curated at the time on my feed) had on my feelings of self-worth, and she graciously called me on it. I remember being righteously indignant at the time; it would take more time for me to come around.

The realization evolved organically into a sort of vague connection between my use of social media and an existential sense of inadequacy, which I was compelled to address through working myself even harder to get the next gold star. It was helping my business (I was certainly productive), but destroying me. And over time, as I got more accustomed to watching my thought patterns, I began to see clearly a causal relationship that looked something like this:

  1. Read about someone else doing something cool =>
  2. feeling of dread in my chest =>
  3. thoughts diminishing my self worth because I didn’t do that cool thing first

I’ve heard it said that “you see your competitors through their press releases, while you see yourself naked in the mirror.” It’s always an unhappy comparison, and at the time I viewed the whole world as competition.

From there, it was like buying a Volkswagon. Once I noticed that pattern, couldn’t stop seeing it. It got to the point at which every time I would check Twitter, whatever mood I was in would persist until I saw something awesome that my mind convinced itself I should have done, and then I’d feel like shit.

Getting off social media was hard, and not entirely because it is addicting. Besides that, in the startup and business world, there’s a lot of practical value in maintaining a broad and deep network, and social media is, by far, the easiest way to manage that. But, like any addiction once you realize it’s causing problems but before you decide to stop, it gets worse, and worse, like an elevator that only goes down, until eventually I quit cold turkey. The process of quitting social was actually pretty similar to that by which I quit drinking, back in 2007.

I didn’t see the pictures of my nephews during my time away, and I didn’t know much of what was going on in the world, but I found a sense of peace that had eluded me before. My tendency to measure my self worth by my accomplishments relative to others didn’t go away entirely, but at the very least it wasn’t triggered every day by a deluge of people humble-bragging.

That sounds awesome to me still, as I write this a day after rejoining the Twittersphere (is it still called that?). So why the hell am I back?

Well, that sense of peace, that space where the noise of the world used to be, gave me an opportunity to do the serious internal work of first solidifying my awareness of, and then slowly letting go of (or maybe even rewiring), my internal thought patterns. I’ve had the opportunity to spend significant time in contemplation and reflection, an opportunity that regrettably not everyone gets, and in doing so there’s been a fundamental change in the perspective through which I view the world. My sense of self has decoupled from my thoughts, and therefore my self-worth decoupled from value judgements about my relative accomplishments. So far as I can see, this realization is both foundational and irreversible, even though sometimes I forget in the moment.

I still catch my thoughts getting hooked by cool stuff other people are doing, but it’s easier for me to now dissociate with those thoughts, let them be just the random noise that they are, and move on. My thoughts have become, in most cases, pretty much irrelevant noise to me, much less capable of inflicting the kind of turmoil they once did.

So the danger that social media once posed for me has been neutered, or in any case lessened significantly, which has changed the calculus for me around participating. The bad aspects which once tipped the scale have decreased to the point at which the good shines through, not only in the human connections that I can build with family and friends, but also in the opportunity to help others; I look around me every day and see people caught in their heads, the victims of their own chaotic, self-focused thinking, and I know first hand how profoundly that can suck.

I’ve enjoyed my time on the mountaintop, away from digital society, and it’s helped me grow immensely. But all that time I was up there, I was sacrificing my one and only opportunity to connect with the other 8 billion humans in the world. From where I stood in 2017, that was a fair trade. But upon gaining that equanimity I sought, or at least some version of it, I feel better prepared to engage, and, hopefully, help.

I’ve missed you all, and I look forward to seeing what you’ve been up to.

Seeing the wave

“We need to talk,” my Controller said. A controller never does that when it’s good news.

He had knocked on the doorjam and waited by my open office door for me to give a signal. When he spoke I felt a rush of dread wash over me. A tangible feeling of all the times we’d almost run out of cash, cresting over me in a wave of heat and adrenaline. My heart beat in my ears. My face flushed.

In the wave were all the people who were counting on us, our investors and employees. In it were all my secret doubts as to my own sufficiency in managing the business. My core belief in the imperativeness of saving every penny, juxtaposed with the burn rate we’d been keeping up at the instruction of the board. I couldn’t believe how much of a failure I was that I had let it get to this point. I knew better. And now everyone would know how misplaced their faith was in us.

Whoa, it occurred to me as I considered the wave. That’s intense. And a bit over the top. Does this happen to me every time he wants to talk?

And then as quick as it came, it was over. Upon seeing the reaction clearly for what it was, a skill I’d been cultivating through meditation for about 6 months at the time, the wave dissipated on its own.

I invited him in, and we discussed how we didn’t have enough cash. And we made the decisions we had to make.