Neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi found himself diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 35 with months remaining in his residency. As he and his wife sat across from his oncologist, she asked him to think though his values so he could make the most of the uncertain amount of time he had left to live.
While I hope none of us will ever have to have that conversation under those circumstances, all of us live with the same questions and wrestle with expanding and contracting timelines – some which seem more certain than others. I’m convinced that our focus on legacy, impact, and leadership development shouldn’t wait until the last decade of our careers.
Both of my daughters will graduate high school in the next 4 years. That time will pass faster than I can imagine. Today, I scheduled a client engagement for 2019. Yesterday, I had a brief, unexpected, and deeply significant conversation with a young woman at church trying to discern her next career move. Tonight I have a group call with 5 millennial women who applied to participate in a 2-year program called EDGE Mentoring.
The common thread that binds these events are people willing to learn and grow and a relationship that gives me an opportunity to listen to them and occasionally speak into their lives. There are many leaders with more experience and knowledge than me. I will certainly make mistakes and let folks down. And yet. This is the time I’ve been given. These are the people around me who have invited me to intersect with their journey. Will I listen to them? Will I be present to their process of transformation?
What about you? What is it that only you can do with the people in your sphere of influence?
Kalanithi wanted to make the greatest difference he could make in the world, which is why he chose neurosurgery and writing. Neither were easy. Both were the culmination of a lifetime of effort. Neither finished quite the way he hoped. And yet. Kalanithi’s life has impacted mine though his eloquent writing. You are reading these words, and you have influence on people all around you in some way.
Don’t wait to develop the leaders around you. It’s not about fear or a dire diagnosis. You have been given this day surrounded by these people and opportunities. Use it well.
I’ll leave you with a poem I love by Mary Oliver from her book New and Selected Poems, Beacon Press, 1992:
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?