Intention vs In-Tension: Your Map for Aligning with Purpose


ellen-leanseThis is a guest post by Ellen Leanse, a former Apple and Google executive, current Stanford instructor, and a Vocatio board adviser. 

So much complexity in life: noise, decisions, uncertainty, input and opinions from all sorts of sources. A world that can seems every day more confusing to navigate.

And there, in the center of it all: you.

If that’s what it feels like, you’re not alone. We all want things to make sense: that we can figure out this wild, confusing adventure called life. After all, many people around us make it look easy. Shouldn’t it feel easy for us, too?

I’ve asked that question a lot. I asked it early in my career, despite praise and encouragement. I asked as I navigated life’s twists and turns. And, wow, did I ask as my sons went through college and faced their own uncertainties. How could they be sure they’d succeed? If they followed the rules would things finally make sense? Was there a formula they could count on to get from Point A to Point B, with Point B actually being a place they wanted to be?

I didn’t have an answer.

Yet I believed we each were here with a purpose, and that aligning with it would lead to something good. Still, I saw how life realities could pull us away from purpose. That had happened to me.

But I didn’t have the tools or frameworks to understand my path. I wondered: what was my purpose? How could I find it, and bring more happiness and meaning to my life?

And could I figure out a way to make the journey easier for my kids and others like them?

With a lot of thought, questioning, and pencil-to-paper ideating, I found a tool.  A map, so to speak. I call it the Intention Map, and it’s a path to aligning with purpose.

Imagine you, on the day you arrived in this life.



Your brain started changing from the day you were born, organizing itself to make sense of the world around you so you could navigate it as you grew toward independence.

As you grew, your brain took everything it had perceived so far and built upon that, preparing for the next steps based on the steps you’d already experienced.

Yet underneath those experiences was something more: a purpose, a reason for being here. That reason wasn’t something your brain likely perceived. More likely, it was something like a voice inside you, a compass of sorts. It said you mattered. You were here to make a difference. What that difference was may not have felt clear. Yet inside, you knew you had some sort of intention to pursue between the time you arrive and the time you go.


In those early years of life you did what your brain does best: you learned. Guided by your natural development, you soaked up information from your environment and the people in it. Your brain created maps of what you’d need to survive for the rest of your life. Day by day, you learned to follow those maps.


Thing is, what you learned pointed you to your role in the outside world, and that’s likely something different than your core inborn intention.

But the learning and all of the reinforcement it earned you set the course you followed as you moved forward in life.


Now, this is normal stuff: part of human development. We have to learn. We have to master our surroundings and the skills it takes to live in them. And as time goes on we move more and more toward the path we’re taught to follow.

Yet we still carry that intention inside.

That’s why I call that new line – the one we learn to follow – our “in tension” line.


Maybe you know this line. You’ve mastered the “if-thens,” the Point As to Point Bs along this line. Step-by-step you’ve moved along to get where you are now.

I want to be clear here: “tension” can be a powerful thing. In the physical world it’s a form of energy. It has the power to move things, to propel them forward.

But left to itself, this “in tension” line can have a force of its own. Over time, the tension can grow…pulling us from our core intention in ways we feel, but don’t always understand.

We may feel disoriented or lost. Like we’re the only ones struggling when others around us, intent on their paths, are going great.

Or we may be told we’re doing great: that the path we’re on will lead us to where we want to go. But we look at others who have stayed on that path and wonder if it’s where we really want to go.

But you look at how that line’s working for other people out there and maybe you have some doubts.

Because as the name implies, the tension can keep on growing. And the place the in tension line is heading can seem to keep moving, always “almost” there…but always a bit out of reach.

So here’s a new way of thinking about it. And even thinking about this line gives you new ways to master it.

First, know you can step off “in tension” anytime. All you need is awareness. WHY are you doing what you’re doing? How does it align with you, your commitments, your purpose? Knowing the WHY here changes much about the experience, even when you’re “in tension.”

First, look backward on the line: the things you’ve learned, the messages you’ve received, the things you’ve been told you had to do to make your life a success.

Then, think about that in the context of where you are today: your dreams, your longings, your commitments. Imagine your lines. Think about the gap between where you are, where you’re heading, and where part of you says you want to be.

That’s all. Only be aware.

But come back to that awareness, and maybe even this map, when you feel the tension growing.

And remember you can do something about the line. It may not whip you right back into alignment with your intention – for most, that’s a lifetime’s work – but it may help you from getting farther from it.


Taking charge of the line doesn’t have to be dramatic. You don’t have to quit your job or go vagabond. In fact, a whiplash reaction might keep the line in control of you, not you in control of the line.

It simply means being aware of the natural progression of tension if we stay on the line without mastering why we’re on it and how we’re going to use the tension to our advantage.

Taking charge of its trajectory can actually be pretty simple, especially earlier in life.

You simply “run parallel” for a while. You set a period of time when you know you’re on that “in tension” line, but you know WHY you’re there, and that changes a lot.


You think. You plan. You pay off loans and save money. You look at decisions with an awareness of “in tension” vs. “intention.” You get curious and listen for whispers of what you’re really here for.

You look at work as a way to power your alignment with intention, not something that pulls you more and more toward “in tension.”

Maybe that idea helps you understand how to make the most of you work, and even why to. Maybe it suggests some self-discipline, some accepting of current realities and limitations in service to the longer-term path.

Maybe it connects you to something that calls you more deeply as purpose. Maybe it gets you really curious about what that purpose might be.

As you run parallel, you think about this.

This is a mindfulness practice. “Mindfulness” is one of those words we all hear but don’t necessarily understand. Basically, it means shifting from “life is running me” to “I am running life” on a moment-by-moment, thought-by-thought basis. Little-by-little too. It’s a practice.

It’s about moving from an unconscious mode where life happens to us to a conscious one where this moment, this experience, is part of our higher plan.

Which leads to a common question: “What, then, IS my intention? My purpose in life?”

Turns out human intention is pretty simple. It comes down to simple things like being helpful, solving problems, mastering a skill, creating beauty, being part of something bigger.

It’s not necessarily the big shiny stuff we might admire in the world around us. Sometimes, those things are actually artifacts of the in tension line.

Certainly the “things” we’re told will make for a good life: those things have nothing to do with intention. And a lot to do with…you guessed it, being in tension.

So I don’t have any good answers for you about what that true purpose or intention really is.

But it’s likely whispering to you all the time.

You’ll get glimmers of it when you slow down and really listen, and pay close attention to what makes you happy. That may be as simple as thanking your barrista to going out and doing something that cares for the world. Peace you feel in nature, pride you feel in doing something good for someone or serving a just cause: these feelings point to our sense of purpose.

There’s no one answer. But when we get off of the in tension line and pay attention to what we know inside, we may get a hint of what matters to us most.

The noise, the confusion, the unending questions: that’s all part of reality and the tension it can create.

But inside you there’s a signal …one truer than any noise, that says you are here for a reason, and that your life’s work is to find and attain it.

Trust that signal more than anything about the noise.

As you move forward on your path, do so knowing there’s an intention you are here to experience, small or large as it may be.

Use the Intention Map to plot your own course, minding the turning points and changes that align you with purpose. You can create a way to bring your paths together. The challenge – and the satisfaction – lie in your awareness of your course. I hope this map helps you see where you are, where you are going, and what you want to align with during the time you’re here.



ellen-leanseEllen Leanse has worked with more than 40 tech companies, including Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, NeXT, Oracle, Samsung, and Intuit. An Apple employee from 1981-1990, Ellen served on the Macintosh launch team and created Apple’s first online connections, making computer industry history in 1985. Her work with Google (2008 – 2010) helped fuel Google’s success across global enterprise, educational, and government markets. 

Ellen created one of the first applications to launch on the Facebook platform (2007) and has built and sold two entrepreneurial ventures focused on design. She is a TEDx speaker and has worked with entrepreneurs and innovation hubs on six continents. 

Today she teaches innovation and design thinking at Stanford, coaches executives and startup teams, and writes on innovation, diversity, and mindfulness. She has been named one of tech’s Top Five Marketers and a Silicon Valley Woman of Influence.



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