Like most weekday mornings, I was in a big hurry to leave the house and get to the office, so when my wife approached me with our infant son cradled in her arms and shook her head negatively, I was frustrated that the start to my week would be disrupted by a need to visit the pediatrician which, I was certain, would only result in a recommendation that we take Nicholas home and give him a few more days to recuperate. I had told myself that, while his fever had persisted for several days now, he was fine.
He was not fine.
Nicholas had cancer- leukemia- and he was only seven months old.
And so began our journey together as a young family, battling cancer. I can say now looking back that the living hell that we endured as we lived in the hospital for 188 consecutive days and watched our baby boy suffer from exposure to toxic chemotherapy and struggle for his own life, changed me forever. This was, in its own right, my “transformational experience.”
Up until then, I’d always just considered myself bulletproof. I was sure that I wasn’t the smartest guy in the room, but I was equally sure that no one would work harder.
Social time could wait. Relationships could wait. Family could wait.
I was on a mission and Harvard Business School was my ticket to the big leagues. I was prepared to work and I’d put all else aside while I pursued my personal goals and ambitions. This approach had worked for me so far, so I was sticking with it.
But Nicholas couldn’t wait for me. He needed me now and this time it was my own “plan” that would have to wait. As the severity of Nicholas’ case became evident and I came to terms with what was now before me, I finally woke up. It was as if the world’s largest alarm clock were now buzzing in my ear, waking me from my 31 year slumber.
Get up; your real “life plan” is waiting.
What will your alarm clock be? I sincerely hope for you that it’s nothing like mine was, but I fear that for many of you, it could take something as drastic as my experience to wake you too. Worse yet, you’ll sleep right through it.
You’re smart, aggressive and hard working. You’re in such hot pursuit that you might sleep right through the important part of life.
I’ll quote a recent piece by your Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen here when I sum up my first goal for you:
“Don’t under invest in your family and over invest in your career”
This type of doubling down is destructive.
When I sat with the cadre of doctors to learn about my son’s illness and the treatment plan that they proposed, I hadn’t yet realized what I’d soon come to learn about how little we can actually control in our lives.
This was a tough one for me. I was proactive and felt that I could control my own destiny. To think anything else seemed wrong to me: Type A’s make their own luck and their own way in the world.
I learned that this wasn’t true when the potential solution to my son’s disease was well beyond my comprehension level. I had to learn that my best efforts as a problem solver were immaterial under the circumstances.
No amount of logic I could apply would make a difference.
Putting my trust and faith in my fellow man was now my only hope and the best that I could offer at this point was love and tireless support for my sick child and wife. Putting all of my efforts into this became my singular focus.
I learned to trust in others to a level that I’d never before thought that I could. After all, when you’re forced to trust others with the life of your child, you’re changed for good.
I doubt that you’ll learn this lesson in any classroom, but the point here is an important one and thus my second goal for you is to accept that adversity will strike often through no fault of your own. Your only recourse may often be trust, faith, and love and although your rational mind might reject this as the only solution, the hard truth is that it will sometimes be just that.
Consider some ways to enhance these “skills”, as they’ll be some of the most important ones you’ll call upon in your most desperate of times.
It was only two or three nights into our journey with Nicholas when I looked at my wife and said: “I know why this happened to us” and I can vividly remember her puzzled look and response. I had surmised that the reason why we were placed in this situation was because, through some divine intervention, there existed now an opportunity for me to use my skills and abilities to make a difference for children and families fighting cancer. Many of these families we personally witnessed fighting, and sometimes losing, their battle with this catastrophic disease. The Harvard Business School’s mission might be to educate leaders who make a difference in society, but I sure hadn’t expected that my family’s experiences after business school would be the catalyst for my own recognition of the need to fulfill this mission.
Invariably, we will find ways to make the work that we do seem noble and contributory to society’s well being. And don’t get me wrong, I do truly believe that as business leaders, we absolutely have a justification for this. Being responsible for over 6,000 associates employed by my Company today, I have a very serious duty and I make it a point to remind myself daily of the self-imposed mandate that I have to provide fulfillment and satisfaction to so many and to further allow them to support their own families. This is very real and very important.
But we should give back in other ways too and my third goal for you is that you recognize early your need to use your skills, abilities and ambition to directly impact others in a positive way. Be sure that the goal is pure – help people and organizations outside of your own businesses, where you’ll know that you’re doing it just to make things better for others.
My own realization of this obligation led to the founding of One Mission, a 501(c) (3) nonprofit dedicated to enhancing the lives of pediatric cancer patients and their families, shortly after my son’s completion of treatment. The many hundreds of thousands of dollars that One Mission has raised have made a difference to so many children and families fighting cancer and I cannot begin to tell you how good it feels to help others in need by using the skills and talents that I developed by spending so many earlier years focusing on my own personal ambitions.
I hope for you that you are today or soon will be experiencing this most important feeling of accomplishment.
You owe it to yourself and society is waiting.
If you’d like to learn more about One Mission, please visit our website at onemission.org. You’ll soon be receiving some information from me explaining how you can help children and their families who are currently battling this devastating disease by supporting one of our largest fundraisers of the year, The One Mission Kid’s Cancer Buzz-Off to benefit Children’s Hospital Boston.