“Shawn, you have Type 1 diabetes, you will need to take daily insulin injections for the rest of your life, and it will shorten your life expectancy.”
Sitting in my doctor’s office in Ottawa, hearing these words for the first time, I was speechless. I was 30 years old, engaged to be married, and working as the head of business development for a major international company. In short, life was going pretty well. And suddenly, there was this.
The rest of the news came hard and fast. Within a matter of minutes, I knew this diagnosis was going to change my life forever.
What I didn’t know in that moment was that it was also a gift.
As I would soon come to learn, this diagnosis was presenting me with the invaluable opportunity to re-evaluate what I wanted out of my time on this Earth. As I left the doctor’s office that day, the iconic words of Mary Oliver rang in my head: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
My burning desire to answer this question is what steered me to the Life Wheel, a powerful self-coaching tool that divides your life into eight spokes:
The Life Wheel explores each of these spokes in detail, and asks the question: What would a ‘perfect 10’ in each of these areas of your life look like?
One Saturday afternoon I headed to the public library and invested a few hours into creating my future vision.
I spent the next two-and-a-half hours reflecting on each of the eight spokes, and carefully writing out my answers. When I was finished, as I stood back and looked at my work, I thought: I can do this. This is doable. I can create my future on my own terms. I can live by design and not by default.
In the words of Peter Drucker: “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” And from that moment on, that’s what I decided to do.
I left my successful job in Ottawa, moved back to Toronto to be with my fiancée (now wife), and started creating the life that we wanted to live. Did I know, back then, exactly what the future would look like? Absolutely not! What I did have was a greater vision for my life, and the attitude I needed to make that vision a reality.
In the years since making that fateful decision, I’ve been asked: “Shawn, isn’t it a risk to be self-employed?” : “Shawn, where does your positive attitude come from?” and “Shawn, you are so lucky to not have to deal with corporate BS”
We live into the stories we tell ourselves.
The truth is, I have more than just my diagnosis to thank for instilling in me the desire to live each day to the fullest. I have been extremely fortunate to know some incredibly inspiring people over the course of my life.
One of those people was my mother – or, as she was affectionately known by family and friends ‘Momsy.’
If she was down to her last $5, my mom was the type of person who would give it to her kids. She was always thinking of others. She loved having fun and putting a smile on other people’s faces.
In the later years of her life, I watched, heartbroken, as my mother slowly slipped away due to Huntington’s disease. The same disease that took the life all of her siblings. The same disease each one of my siblings has a 50-50 chance of developing.
Like so many who are faced with this kind of loss – along with the understanding that they may fall victim to the same fate – I realized I had two options. I could feel sorry for myself, or I could recognize that each day is a gift. I chose the latter – or should I say, I choose the latter, over and over and over again. It isn’t always easy. But whenever I need a little inspiration, I think of Momsy, who passed away in 2007, but is with me every day.
Another person who had a major impact on my life outlook was my friend Tarek.
Every Tuesday, for years, Tarek and I would get together to play pickup hockey with a group of friends. Tarek was the kind of guy who would always find a way to make you laugh – but never at another person’s expense. After each game, he would channel his inner sports reporter and type up a hilarious recap of everything that went down on the ice. He called it “The Chesswood Howler”, named after the arena where we played. It was a highlight of everyone’s week, every week.
There are lots of other things I could tell you about Tarek, but one of my favourites is that he always wore these bright green hockey pants. While everyone else was sporting the default black, Tarek showed up like he was on the Minnesota Wild.
One day, seemingly out of the blue, Tarek was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. ‘Devastating’ doesn’t quite capture how it felt to hear this news. When he knew the end was coming, Tarek wanted to have one last outing with each of his friends. He and I went out for lunch, where we ate ribs and laughed together one last time. As we sat there, he looked straight into my eyes and said: “Shepheard, don’t ever change who you are and what you do. Promise me that. I learnt this lesson too late in life.”
Tarek passed away three month later. .. I think of him every time I am challenged to stay true to myself in this short and precious life – then, and every time I don my bright green hockey pants, purchased in honour of our dear friend.
There is one more person who comes to mind when I think of major influences on the way I live my life. Her name was Chelsea.
I met Chelsea when I was speaking at some business leadership events across North America. She was involved in the organizing of these events, and we got to know each very well. As our friendship grew, I learned more and more about her amazing story. Chelsea grew up in North Dakota, and her family didn’t have much. In spite of that, she always maintained this wonderful, go-getter attitude, and she started her own company in her mid-twenties. To say that we clicked would be an understatement.
One year, Chelsea invited my wife and me to come visit her and her husband at their home on the beach in Florida. The entire trip, Chelsea went to all lengths to ensure our time together was special. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to put a smile on your face. She was always thinking of others.
About eight months after that magical vacation, Chelsea was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. As she was undergoing chemotherapy, we would text back and forth. One day, she sent me a message saying she was thinking of starting her own foundation. She explained that she wanted to provide goodie bags to people in her same position, containing everything you might want or need during those long stretches at the hospital; things like lip balm for when your lips get dry, or oatmeal for when you get hungry. I knew Chelsea was an incredible person. But here she was, living with Stage 4 cancer and undergoing chemotherapy herself, and all she could do was think about everyone around her.
Chelsea started that foundation in her last couple months of life. Today, The Foye Belle Foundations is still going strong (foyebelle.org) Chelsea’s legacy will live on long after her 34 years, not only through the amazing work being done by her foundation, but simply in the way she made the people around her feel. I can’t think of anything more worthy of emulation.
So, these are the three individuals I think of every time someone asks me why live the way I do. Each in their own unique way, they taught me – and continue to teach me – of the importance of living every day as though it was your last. Hey, it’s a cliché for a reason.
In my work, I meet people all the time who are in careers they don’t like; who are living lives that don’t nourish or fulfill them. They have never asked themselves the big questions: What is my vision for the future? What do I really want out of my time on this Earth? What would a ‘perfect 10’ look like in every aspect of my life?
There is a cost to avoiding these questions. Without taking the time to sit down and reflect on what you really want, you risk staying in that same miserable job for years, continuing to buy into the lie that this is ‘just how it is.’ The number of people who believe this lie is, quite frankly, heartbreaking.
My goal, of course, is not for people to simply up and quit their jobs. My goal is for them to dream a little, to give themselves a chance to live the life they want. If I have learned anything from Momsy, and Tarek, and Chelsea, it’s that life is simply too short and too precious to do anything less.
If I need a daily reminder of how precious life is, I just need to glance down to the insulin pump that is attached to me that I literally can’t live without.
I can’t determine what it is you want from this life. Only you can know that. What I can do is help get you there – once you know what “there” is.