On a Deadline

“The critical question is not ‘How can I achieve?’ but ‘What can I contribute?’” – Peter Drucker

During our recent trip to Peru, my daughter and I hiked Machu Picchu. It was grueling––the kind of hike that gives you a tremendous sense of accomplishment at the finish. I expected it to be hard. I didn’t expect it to be scary. But as we approached the summit, it was.

We were on a path no more than four feet wide. No guardrail. Had I slipped—had my daughter slipped—had anyone stumbled, they would likely have plunged to their death, thousands of feet below. I was terrified. I suggested to our guide we turn back. But we were so close, I soldiered on.

Not looking. Clinging to the side of the mountain. Sitting down as much as possible to lower my center of gravity.

My preferred mode of defying death is to play it safe. I was surprised that not everyone did the same. Some walked along as if it were safe. Maybe because most of them were in their 20s and 30s and don’t yet realize they will die. I don’t know. But we cliff-huggers were in the minority. I’ve wondered since…what was the difference?

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Last year when Marshall Goldsmith and I did a workshop together, after hearing me talk through the Personal Disruption framework, he said to me, “Whitney, I learned something today. And that is that I have a constraint. My age. I am about to turn 70 years old. I am in good health, but my health may not last. I need to be done in five years, when I’m 75. I need to do whatever I want to do with my travel by then. Maybe I keep going, but I need to plan to not.”

This was emphatically underscored the past couple weeks by the untimely deaths of long-time friend Heather Petersen and Kobe Bryant, and the too early death of Clayton Christensen. After Clay’s funeral, a mutual friend who formerly worked with Clay, said to me, “Twenty years ago, when we were traveling around the world, if I had shown Clay this program, announcing that he had passed away at 67, he would have thought it was a joke.”

This brings me to my interview with Tom Rath. He’s sold ten million books, including StrengthsFinder 2.0, Amazon’s top selling non-fiction book of all time. Not bad for a man who, as a teenager learned that he had a very rare genetic disorder that shuts down the body’s most powerful tumor suppressing gene. He was warned of his susceptibility to all kinds of cancer, the ultimate result being that doctors didn’t think he would live beyond about 40. Instead of discouraging Tom, that news galvanized him. He was determined to live past 40 and do everything he could in the time that he had. He’s an under-the-radar person with a big message—how we can contribute?

Given my good physical health, I have never really thought about death in relation to myself. But recent events, including my conversation with Tom, have been a wake-up call. The good news is that I don’t believe that death is the end. It’s more like graduating from college and moving on to a new learning experience—in which I take great comfort. But there is a deadline on this planet. So, I’ve set one for myself. It’s quite aggressive. I’m giving myself ten years to get done what I want to do––to contribute as I can.

Do you have a deadline?

Whatever it is, I hope you’ll be inspired by Tom’s work.

My best,

P.S. Those of you interested in receiving a signed copy of Tom’s book Life’s Great Question, go to the show notes and leave a comment: “How can I contribute today?” If you’d like to answer the question, you can, but you’ll be eligible simply by asking the question. Thanks to Tom for making signed copies available.

P.P.S. I have received many wonderful notes re: Clayton’s life and work over the past few weeks––I will be compiling them and sending them along to his family.

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