How a 5 minute ignite talk helped me re-prioritize my life

A loss in my family and a shocking story reminding me of the value of time spent with loved ones and forced radical change to my schedule to invest in self-care

My trip started off with a silly mistake. I realised the night before flying out that I had soaked my passport in the wash the week before — I had just flown back from spending a month in NYC helping to set up our US operations. Luckily, after a night of stress and madness — the customs officers and passport scanning machines accepted my passport. Crisis-averted!

I was on my way to the US again but this time to Seattle for Mozcon (one of my favourite marketing conferences) and this year we managed to bring over 12 team members along from our Sydney office.

After settling in to the beautiful city of Seattle, I was on the way back from the watching my first game of NFL and I found out some incredibly sad news. My grandmother back home in Australia had passed away.

Knowing I was on a work trip and that I was probably very busy (like always) and being quite far away, my mum immediately followed up by saying she totally understood that she didn’t expect for me to fly back.

Reflecting on the situation, my immediate thought was “I can’t fly back, I am under a lot of pressure here in the US at the moment. I’m just too busy and it’s so far”. I came up with all the justifications I could think of as to why it made sense for me not to fly back.

  1. It was a significant investment for us flying out so many of us. With SEO being one of the primary topics we’d learn about at the conference and with organic traffic being the responsibility for my team it was important that I stay to learn the latest.
  2. we’d booked a 1 day consulting workshop with one of the top SEO agencies and it was the first engagement between my team and them and I wanted to make sure we extracted maximum value from the investment.
  3. it was the first week for our 2nd employee in our US office and I wanted to be available all week to help her have a smooth on-boarding, and had plans to travel to NYC straight after the conference for 2 weeks. I felt it was super important for her to have a smooth on-boarding, it would set the tone and make sure she was productive as quickly as possible.

So I carried on, and decided I wasn’t flying back to Australia to be there for the funeral. My family were supportive of my decision. Yet, I didn’t feel completely comfortable with it.

Day two of Mozcon wrapped up and that evening there was an event planned called Moz Ignite. For those not familiar with ignite talks, it’s an event where speakers are given 5 minutes to talk on a topic and the slides auto progress every 15 seconds. The one rule with Moz Ignite was that the topics could not be marketing related.

I learned about Hyperhidrosis (a condition where you sweat excessively) and how someone cooked meals for strangers into their home each night in exchange for a bottle of wine, but it was the talk by Michael Cottam on the topic ‘Is Your Family Time for Sale?’ that impacted changed me forever.

Michael spoke about being a workaholic and from that moment I could immediately relate. He was building a business called TheBigDay.com and spent long days and hours where he wasn’t able to spend time with his wife and son.

Then everything hit at once. He found someone to buy the company that he had built up over 8 years. This was great news for him, but in contrast he had also found out the terrible news that his wife had been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer — she passed away two months later.

Michael talked about how this impacted him. How he wished he had spent more time with her and less time working on his business.

Another tragic thing happened: the company he sold his business too went bankrupt and never paid him a dime. He was left with nothing in return for the business that had taken up so much of his time over the last 8 years and had to start again.

So you’re thinking how could things get any worse? Well, they did. His loving parents had stepped in to help him and his son get back on their two feet. Then the final tragedy happened…

5 years after his wife had passed, both of Michael’s parents both got shot and killed by a crazy neighbor and their home was burned down.

Michael was left alone — now just him and his son.

Michael was so incredibly brave telling this story and also the overarching message: cherish the time you have with your family and loved ones. Your family’s time is not for sale. You could lose them any moment and live in regret that you didn’t appreciate the time you had with them.

I was in complete shock, and so was the entire audience. Many of us were in tears. When Michael finished, everyone stood up from their chairs and gave a standing ovation.

Thank you Rand for capturing this moment (source)

I spoke with the person who was next to me and told her how rocked I was by the presentation. I spoke to her about my grandmother passing away and the fact that I had made the decision to stay in Seattle but I wanted to change that.

She said the best piece of advice she was ever given was that people only remember who didn’t go to the funeral, not who went.

From this moment, everything changed for me.

I went home and rang my fiancé — within moments I was distraught and crying endlessly. I told her how I wanted to go home. I talked about Michael’s talk and how much it impacted me. I immediately booked the tickets to fly back on the next plane the following day. It was literally the last moment possible, and assuming all my connecting flights were on time (SEA => LAX => SYD => PER) I would make it to the funeral 2 hours before.

I felt like I had ejected from everything in my life to just commit to the thing that I realised mattered most to me — being there for my family.

I thought now that I had made the decision, it would be easy. But it wasn’t. I got to the airport in Seattle and they couldn’t print my flight ticket. My credit card transaction was blocked by my bank because I hadn’t notified them I was overseas. I got on the call to them for 15 mins trying to sort it, but was stuck on hold. I had to get off the call, go through security and start the call again. I swiftly booked another ticket from SEA to LAX because I didn’t want to waste any time.

After 35 mins on hold and another 15 mins sorting my ticketing issue and literally when they notified passengers it was the last board I was ticketed for all my flights from LAX through to Perth. What a relief!

I made it to LAX. My flight to Sydney was delayed by 45 mins. On came the butterfly effect.

When I finally arrived in Sydney, after going through customs it was taking too long for my baggage to arrive to the baggage claim. I had 17 mins to make it to the domestic terminal to get my connecting flight to Perth.

I had to make the decision to abandon my bags. I spoke to two staff who said I couldn’t do it, but I refused to listen. I spoke to a Qantas airline staff member, told them of my situation and what I needed them to help me with. She organised a Level 2 security clearance so I could leave customs and took me through all the security check ins. After a stressful bus ride I made it with 2 minutes to spare. I can’t explain the relief in that moment.

Most importantly, I made it to my grandmother’s funeral. I was one of the pallbearers. I felt so honoured. I felt so lucky to be there to hear my dad’s words about his mum, my grandmother. She had incredible willpower and he reminded me and all of us that it’s something that he hopes we realise we have inside us all too. This passing message was so important to me and I will forever be changed having heard it.

After the weekend, I got back to my office. I had some changes I wanted to make to invest more in self-care and prioritise time with friends, family and my wife-to-be. (One of the advantages of flying almost 45 hours within 6 days is that you get a lot of time to be able to read. I read 2 books on Matrix Organisations and wanted to improve the way we operated our business globally)

I set in place some new boundaries for myself and also some clear things I wanted:

  • I want to travel with my fiancé wherever possible. (Had I not flown back from the US, I would have spent almost 2 consecutive months away from her travelling on business!)
  • I want to go synchronize best I can with her to sleep and wake up at the same time so we can spend more quality time together
  • I want to invest in self care
  • I want to structure my days so that I have time for deep work
  • I want to give myself time to reflect and make sense of my day so my mind is not frazzled

It was the first time I could truly remember where I had made decisions to put my health and wellbeing first ahead of the business. I felt really proud and empowered by this.

From here I…

  • Changed daily meetings to weekly, biweekly or eliminated them all together
  • Allocated time in my calendar to solve the big and important challenges
  • Started to end my days earlier. I was doing incredibly long hours and it wasn’t sustainable.
  • Delegated more tasks & responsibilities to my team
  • Started meditating a few times a week
  • Focused on eating healthier and exercising more

The changes have made dramatic improvements to my stress levels and my work has been much more impactful. Most importantly, my wife-to-be has noticed these changes and is noticeably happier seeing that I’m looking after myself more.

It took a sad life event and a shocking story for me to make these changes. Without investing the time in yourself, you won’t be sharing your best self with the people you love. So please, take the time to prioritise the important things in your life.

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