Last week I was asked to give a speech at a Bank of America Event. After several written versions, I had the final one in hand, and gave the speech on a cool rainy afternoon. I thought that it would be perfect for a blog post. So here it is in it entirety (edited by Grammar Glamour)
I tend to be one of those people where more is more – the more that I have going on, the more productive I tend to be. When there is a lull in any part of my life, all of the pieces including work, social and family are somehow affected. I find that I bring more to each aspect when they are all in motion. Over the course of any given day, I rush from one meeting to the next, or often in my case, one job to the next, juggling my coffee, my gym bag, my purse, and somehow making it to my final destination before feeling like I am going to collapse. I am sure that many of you can relate to this multi-tasking induced exhaustion.
It is a challenge to go through everyday like this, and there are days when the only things that feel balanced are the two bags hanging off my arms as I jet off to work each morning. Still, I thrive off of the energy and simply readjust the priorities if I ever feel that I’m truly losing my balance. This wasn’t always the case and I’m thankful I now have this perspective. Several years ago, dire circumstances forced me to reconsider my own priorities, and think long and hard about what really matters.
On July 21, 2006 – close to three years ago – I was navigating those balanced two bags back and forth between two jobs. Former colleagues at the Harvard Business School asked me if I could come over and teach a fitness class during lunch. Fitness was something that I did in a previous life, and I figured that I could make this happen. I’d teach the noon class, grab a quick bite with my boyfriend after class, and then hurry back to work. It would be a long lunch break with the fitness class included, but it was summer and a Friday afternoon.
On our way to lunch following the class, I started to feel ill. I stumbled, thought that I said a few words about not feeling well, and grabbed some bushes to stop myself from falling. In a matter of seconds, I went from laughing with Hector, my boyfriend, and Erika, a long time friend of mine, to being unable to communicate at all or think clearly. Imagine someone turned a switch in your head that stopped you from speaking. Gone. Off. Finished. That is what happened to me – and that is how I can best describe what my stroke felt like. As surreal and confusing as it was, I remember everything form that day.
Hector asked me his name, my name, what day it was. Nothing came out of my mouth, as I could not respond. Instead, I just watched him, trying to figure out what to do with the situation. He drove me to the hospital and after I was admitted, the doctors administered a series of tests. Almost an hour from the initial onset of the stroke, I received the news… I had a 1.5 centimeter blood clot in my head. It stopped blood from flowing to areas of my temporal lobe, which is associated with speech. After four days in the hospital, a cardiologist found an atrial septal defect (or an ASD), which is a hole between the left and right atria in the heart – which had been there since birth. He concluded that this was most likely the cause of the stroke. And several hours later I was sent home with another title to add to my list of roles … a stroke patient. Several months later, I underwent open-heart surgery to close the hole in my heart that caused the stroke.
I scheduled the surgery during a quiet time at work. I knew that work would be less demanding in December and I would have more time to focus on getting well following the surgery, instead of worrying about what was occurring in the office. For four months, I busied myself planning every second of each day. I focused on my work, my doctors’ appointments, my fitness…everything and anything that I could to avoid coming to terms with the sheer reality of the looming open heart surgery that would take me out of the day-to-day routine that I had become so accustomed to. In my typical more is more method, I became completely and utterly frenzied during those months.
The frenzy suddenly stopped on December 12, 2006 for the surgery – and then switched to neutral for the two months that followed. I really had no choice but to slow down my pace. No, nothing was wrong with my heart as far as stress went, but still, I underwent open-heart surgery, and I needed rest. I am not sure if you have ever had the luxury of taking 2 months away from your life as you know it… but it forced me to refocus and regroup my priorities. Two months away from work, away from the daily routine of early morning fitness classes, ignoring e-mail messages at 6:30 in the morning, not thinking about what I was going to cook for dinner or who I needed to make plans with felt incredibly liberating. While these things are important, I came to realize that life went on without immediately attending to these items that had always seemed so pressing. In fact, life improved by letting some of these things slide. The emails could wait until later in the day, or even tomorrow. If I didn’t have time to plan dinner, it was easy enough to get take out or have a bowl of cereal instead of stressing myself out. Even work went on without my constant attention, proving that while I took pride in my job, I could still do it well without always putting it first. Putting myself and Hector first freed me up to approach everything else with a calmer, happier attitude. This realization enabled me to better balance my personal and professional life once I was healthy enough to pick up the pace. While it didn’t happen overnight, it did happen, but unfortunately, it took a stroke and open-heart surgery for me to come to this realization.
Following the stroke and surgery, many of my friends and colleagues remarked on the change in my attitude and demeanor, and the shift in my priorities – people started to describe me as more direct, more calm, and more at ease with life in general. Since I had experienced first hand that life was short, I learned to drop the baggage that often gets picked up as you go on living day to day. Time is short, and each minute is important. I needed to make the most of each one and capitalize on the time that I had.
Having a stroke at any age is devastating. Having a stroke at 33 with no risk factors – except for that problematic hole – was mind numbing. In fact, to this day, I am not sure that I have fully accepted what happened, let alone the severity of what could have happened, on that July day in 2006. That aside, I have gained perspective on life and learned about prioritizing, and setting realistic attainable goals.
You might not have time to do everything, and you might not have time to do everything well. What is most important is that YOU become a priority in your own life. Of course, work is a priority and it is something that gives people a sense of self and worth. Speaking for myself, I love what I do. Years ago, I promised myself that the second I am no longer satisfied with my work, I will start to explore other options. While it might seem terribly cliché, life is short and you really do not know what is going to happen or when it might happen to you. When I was in the hospital following my stroke, and certainly in the months, weeks, and days leading up to my open heart surgery, I found myself questioning some of the decisions that I had made in my life, wondering if they were the right ones. I happily discovered that I did not have any regrets, and I am fortunate enough to have learned to live in the present and appreciate what I have at such a young age. So much of living is about the balance of work, family and friends. I think that we all have those days when work takes up more time than we might like, or perhaps family or friends are taking up all of the time, and we know in the back of our minds that we need to get back to work – but it is all about give and take. You need to be able to find and make time for yourself, so that the other critical elements in your life will fall into place without any one part, especially your health, seriously suffering.
I am obviously going to advocate for a healthy lifestyle – it is something that I led before the stroke and surgery, and something that is even more of a priority in my life now. I realized that even as healthy as I was, I could not control certain factors of my life – such as a congenital heart defect. You can take this same story and relate it to work, finances and / or family. There are just so many things that are beyond your control, and you truly have no way of knowing what is going to happen 10 minutes from now, 10 hours from now, or 10 days from now, let alone 10 years from now. But you can ensure that whatever does end up happening, you are prepared – both mentally and physically.
What I mean is that it is important for you to have other outlets in your life that allow you to regroup. For me, exercise and overall fitness was and is my sanity. It takes me out of the daily grind and forces me to do something for me. I do not bring a BlackBerry with me, because I am not exercising at 6 am for anyone but myself – I will take my phone when I go running, but only for safety purposes due to my stroke.
It is truly about balance. I know that I continue to come back to that term – but now, more than ever, as we’re bombarded by emails on our laptops and Blackberrys, and surrounded by bleak news about the current economic situation and global events, it is entirely too easy to become consumed in the day to day and simply forget about yourself. It is not worth it. Trust me. When I was lying on the gurney being wheeled off to my surgery, I was not thinking about the e-mails that I sent the days before, the change in my job description that I worked for several years to achieve, or even the hesitation I felt as I left the office knowing that I would not be back for two months. No. I thought about my parents, Hector, my grandmother, my sister, my nephews, and how lucky I was to have them all with me. I seriously had planned for the worst-case scenario – which was not waking up. But, no matter what the outcome, somehow I knew that everything would be all right because I took this extra time before my surgery to be with my family.
At the end of the day, it is not about who can respond to an email the fastest or stay at the office the longest. In fact, I know many people who work long hours, but are far less productive than those who come in, do their work, leave around 6 pm and go home to be with their friends, their family, or simply their yoga instructor. Let me tell you, the latter group is definitely the happiest and no doubt the healthiest.
Trust your instincts on this. Trust yourself, put yourself first, and learn to live YOUR life and live it well. There’s no room for regrets when you only have one chance to get it right.
-Lily Underwood Burns, June 30, 2009 Bank of America LEAD Speech