A wet, but determined runner following a riverbank path in the rain. The simple goal is to be as fit as possible by 30th June. My surgeon Sarah has told me to get ready for a major operation coming my way, so every day starts with a lengthy walk or run along the beautiful Karawirra Parri (River Torrens). This story is about a journey of discovery, healing and the parallels with my work in executive development and culture change.
David my doctor had broken the cancer diagnosis to me gently and in a very Australian way; “I think we might be in a bit of trouble here mate”. At that point, all I knew was that oesophageal cancer has a 20%, five-year survival rate. I was in the Shock and Denial stage of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous cycle of cancer acceptance (Shock, Anger, Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance). Shock felt more like a floating reality, where I didn’t quite grasp what was on the line.
For each diagnostic scan, I managed to make myself oblivious to the binary nature of what was on the line. A good result meant we could climb the ladder to the next, curative stage of treatment, but the wrong one would mean sliding down a very big, slippery snake to face palliative care. My remarkable wife Melissa, who had nursed cancer patients in her first career was painfully aware. However, I was oblivious and pointedly refused to go back to Google, or even ask her about the prognosis – Denial.
Part of my work is to help executives face into the challenge of leading change, so it was sobering and instructive to experience Denial, which manifested itself as periodic, yearning flashes of an alternative reality. “This really can’t be happening. It’s a dream, and in a moment, reality will kick in”. Cliched I know, but that’s exactly how I experienced it. It was fascinating to stand outside of myself and watch my brain trying to con itself that ‘all was well’. Most of the time, I was grounded in what was happening. Denial only occasionally interrupted a sense that ‘my goose was well and truly cooked’. I was conscious that I hadn’t done the Anger stage that is meant to come between Shock and Denial.
An aspect of my coaching work is to encourage clients to reframe challenges, to tell themselves a better story, and this might have helped me frame the story I had from the get-go. My story went something like this; “I may be 15 years younger than most people who are hit with this, but it is totally random, and it happened to me. Giving it meaning and pitying myself, dwelling on the unfairness of it all is pointless. It just is”.
That mindset has held me in good stead and allowed me to navigate my journey positively in so many ways. The immediate effect was that I came to terms with and accepted death very quickly and easily, and actually without fear. This surprised me and paradoxically, troubled me. The jolt immediately following my awareness of accepting death, was a realisation that the people I would be leaving behind, may not be as fatalistic me. I have tried hard to place them at the centre of how I have been showing up along my journey, very aware it was actually our whole family, not just me who had cancer.
So back to the figure running along the riverbank. It actually didn’t feel like a chore, as it gave me agency. I wasn’t a passive observer, so became a key part of the team managing my treatment, by priming my body for successful chemo and radiotherapy and the subsequent operation. There is compelling evidence that the best antidote to the side-effects of these treatments isn’t rest, but exercise, so my goal was to do an hour a day, come rain or shine.
Each day was like a mountain I was climbing, doggedly, in pursuit of this fitness goal. Head down, eyes following the pathway in front of me, intent on beating my previous best time, driven along by AC/DC playing in my AirPods. (Had I subconsciously chosen Hell’s Bells and Highway to Hell??)
Then one day I looked up, and everything changed. I’m not sure what triggered it, but for the first time I truly saw the river, noticed the trees around me, the sky beyond the trees and the rising sun flickering through them. It was like a black and white picture had become colour. I stopped my music, and over the next few moments I came to hear and feel the gurgling of the stream, the dull roar of the distant weir, the amazing smell of the sandalwood trees and the sweet song of the colourful parakeets around me. A soundtrack to life that was making an almost deafening collective noise I had been editing out just a few seconds before.
My body was powerfully hit by a combination of senses, and what surrounded me felt delicious, 3 dimensional and liberating. Those words don’t quite do it justice, but in an instant, my self-talk went from “I can face death if that’s what the universe has served me” to “Shit, life’s great, and I’m really not ready to die! I want to grow old with Melissa and hold my grandchildren”
I suddenly felt more alive than I ever had. It was the same experience I suspect we all get when we see a nice sunset and are motivated to take a snap. But this was a turbo version. It physically moved me and continues to do so whenever I access it.
So why is this a Blog post?
I realised my experience has many connections to the work of culture change and leadership that we do at CulturAlchemy. This is what Ekhart Tolle calls the “Power of Now”. Experiencing ‘the here and now’ fully, instead of ruminating over the past or the future. This is all that mindfulness is, and countless studies have shown practices such as meditation and the awareness I was exercising, significantly reduce stress, deepen the ability to think systemically and even boost the immune system. There is also fascinating work by Dr Fiona Kerr and Lekki Maze on the positive neurological impacts on the brain of simply looking up.
Then there’s a parallel to our work with senior leaders. The ‘ticket to play’ for Enterprise Leaders is to be able to stand back and see the whole, in order to be able to identify patterns in the complexity of the system; rather than following linear, cause and effect thinking in the comfort zone. The irony that I had to accept death for me to realise how much I wanted to live, isn’t lost on me. But how often do we go through our lives numbed into following the path in front of us. The one leading to our short-term goals. What would it take to stop and look up? What would that mean for how to live one’s life?
I also offer this as a reflection at a time when many of us are doing it tough in lockdown or embracing new ways of working. It may seem counter-intuitive but lifting our head from the rocky road in front of us and looking up may be the very best tonic, especially when we’re feeling mentally smashed.
What happened next?
The operation was successful, and those 20% survival odds have considerably lengthened; even if I can’t call myself a cancer survivor just yet! I still get down to the river early every morning, and I have to admit, with varying levels of success at where to direct my attention. Sometimes I still find myself focused on beating my previous best time, or getting caught in what happened yesterday, or what I need to do later. The difference now is, I notice when it’s happening and make the choice to ‘look up’. Not just at the trees but at the sky, and on days with an early start, the moon and stars – and it still has the same effect as that first time.
A parting observation: when you look up you can make the world look up. I find it impossible not to greet everyone I meet on the path (usually looking downwards) with a broad grin and a “G’Day”. It never fails to jolt people out of their groove to return the greeting, often with their own smile. So you can pass on a gift to others; sharing the Power of Now.