What I Learned about Living from Nearly Dying (Year 2)

Three years ago at age 45, I suffered what should have been a fatal, massive heart attack while lifting weights early in the morning. An amazing string of miracles kept me around. Each year, I share the insights gained from this wonderful experience. Shocking as it sounds, I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.

Before we get to the insights, here is a short background on what happened. Early Wednesday, November 27, 2013, I was doing bench press when I felt a serious pain in the middle of my chest. Since I had no shortness of breath or radiating arm pain, I did another set then switched to legs thinking I had strained a pec muscle. Things got worse, so I self-medicated with aspirin and drove myself to the ER, a few miles away. After calmly asking for an EKG to rule out any heart issues, I spent about 90 minutes in the ER awaiting a diagnosis.

Turns out a piece of plaque had broken off, traveled through my left main artery (called the “widow maker”), and became stuck creating a 100% blockage. The first miracle was my heart didn’t explode while I was doing bench press. Eventually, a senior cardiac surgeon arrived and decided to immediately go up my leg to find what was wrong. Miracles #2 and #3 are that he was the one on call that day — I found out later that many of his colleagues would not have attempted to do this since it was so risky — and that the surgery actually worked. I didn’t find out about either of these until months later.

Start to finish from first pain to wheeling out of the surgery was about three hours. That’s only the start. The first post-recovery phase I experienced is what I refer to as the “denial” phase as in it was all only a bad dream. How could an otherwise reasonably health 45-year old have a heart attack? Once I accepted it actually happened (a few weeks), I moved to the “irrational exuberance” phase. This is sort of like winning the lottery or nearly being run over by a bus. It lasted several months until it dawned on me that my life wasn’t going to change (meaning I was headed back to previous circumstances), unless I proactively made change happen. That’s when the “I don’t want to blow my second chance at life” third phase started. Fortunately for me, I am still experiencing the third phase.

Recovery shrunk the amount of time, energy, and emotion I could devote to work. The episode also gave me a different perspective on life, and drove me to restructure my law practice in January 2015. Enough about what happened, here’s what I learned in year two from all this.

1. You cannot do it all.

For all of us Type-A, visionary personalities, this was a bitter pill for me to swallow. However, it is undeniably true. After many hours of self reflection and reading at least 10 times The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, it finally sunk in that success and meaning lie in obsessive focus on the few things that matter as opposed to focusing on achieving many things. This led me to getting clear on my purpose in life as well as the priorities needed to achieve that purpose, and developing a willingness to say “no” to anything not connected to my “One Thing.” I also developed a much more efficient process for getting work done to free up more time for my “One Thing.” See my previous post on task and project management.

2. Living your life on “house money” provides a great perspective.

Like other survivors, I shouldn’t be here. Every day is a bonus for me, but like you, I am still moving toward my end. Initially, I used this viewpoint to develop a better strategy for handling adversity: whatever situation I was facing couldn’t possibly be as bad as the alternative. I still lean on that perspective occasionally. However, I have progressed to looking at life with an urgency to not blow this blessed and lucky second chance. That focuses me on my “One Thing” to the exclusion of the many distractions we each face daily. If I could go back in time, this is the one lesson I wish I would have embraced much younger.

3. You are only as good as your team.

Before this happened, I would do my job and the job of low performing employees. I failed to effectively set and communicate performance expectations to peers and team members. I also didn’t like holding people accountable even where performance expectations were set but not met. Looking back, I put the desire to be liked ahead of team performance. In September 2014, I attended a presentation by Rand Stagen, where he cautioned “a leader gets the organization that he/she deserves.” That was yet another wake up call for me leading me to set a clear, written vision for our law firm along with performance expectations and consequences for not performing. People were either attracted to the vision or repelled by it. After several painful months, we restructured the business and successfully re-launched in January 2015 as a technology and intellectual property law firm with a cohesive vision. Freed from billable hour requirements, my chief priority is helping our leadership team and others in the business succeed. My success is tied to their success. I even found the time to start a charity.

I hope you found something useful in this article. I’ve been very open about my experience with the goal of providing someone the benefit of the insights I gained without having to go through a near-death experience.