Honored to have been invited to share my reflections on life’s twists and turns with my Stanford Graduate School of Business classmates at our 15th reunion on May 5, 2018. A video of the speech from that day appears below the text.
Seventeen years ago, before I knew anyone in this room, I sat down to answer a question many of you were simultaneously pondering in various cubicles and coffee shops around the globe: “What matters most to you, and why?” This famous (at least in MBA circles!) and thought-provoking application question that required us to travel deeply not within our resumes but instead within our hearts, to articulate that which truly lit us up, inspired us, made us who we all were. And who we all still are. Because, I believe, that as we grow up and grow older, as we encounter the unexpected blips along our journeys that inevitably will greet us, challenge us, inspire us and shape us, we become more, not less, of who we have always known ourselves to be.
When I received an invitation to speak here today, I reread the email a few times over, humbled and honored to have this opportunity, and yet — truth — unsure I had really earned it. You see, I knew I was coming back here today in a very different place than I expected to be when we graduated. I don’t just mean the job stuff, although admittedly that’s something I’m still figuring out, but rather, to some degree, the bigger picture that is my life. Two and a half years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer, introducing a vulnerability into my life that I had never before known. I’m not exactly the “me” I expected to be at our 15 year reunion. And, yet, in so many ways, more me than I have before been, and certainly more me than any of you has ever seen, because the past few years have gifted me many moments that inspired me to reflect on whether I’m living my life in a way that is aligned with what matters to me most.
So back to that email. I said YES before I had the chance to overthink my way to no, although I did briefly worry that given I had posted a few of my musings and previous speeches on social media, I might not have enough “new material” to work with. How silly that fear proved to be, particularly for a speech about life’s twists and turns.
If I’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s that we never know what tomorrow may bring. Less than a week after I said yes to this speech, my oncologist felt a new lump, setting off a dizzying couple of months that are still a bit of a blur. The lump turned into a biopsy and, soonafter, another diagnosis. A subsequent PET scan “lit up” in my hip, and after a painful bone biopsy in early April, that too was confirmed to be cancer. In other words, since our last reunion, I have been diagnosed with breast cancer not once, not twice, but three times. Two and a half years ago in my right breast. Two months ago — mere days after I agreed to speak today — in the same spot, and last month in my left hip. That last discovery felt like an especially big blow, because once breast cancer is found outside of the breast, the vocabulary changes. Stage IV. Metastatic. Incurable. These are words that are still, 3 weeks later, impossibly difficult to wrap my head around. But I’ve also come to realize, in the short time since they started percolating around in my head, they’re just words. Words that doctors told me were unlikely to become my reality, but that also, importantly. say nothing definitive about my destiny. Because the truth about my cancer, and about so many other things in all of our lives, is that none of us knows what the future holds.
I did my best to avoid the situation I’m in now. With my mom’s history of breast cancer, I began annual screenings at 32, knowing that although nothing was fully preventable, I could certainly do my best to make sure we caught it early. And I was led to believe we had. I had the best doctors overseeing an aggressive arsenal of weapons: I chose a double mastectomy, completed a potent chemo regiment, and began a hormone therapy I was expected to take daily for 10 years. The likelihood of it spreading was low, but improbable is not impossible, and as all of us once learned in D&D, population data is just that. For any individual, the reality is more black and white. Binary. There would either be a recurrence or there would not. 100% or zero. Not any number in between.
But before you begin to feel sorry for what may seem like a lot of bad luck, let me also point out that even in this unfortunate scenario, there has been good luck, too. Quite a bit of it actually. The biology of my cancer and the location of the metastasis means I have the luxury of not one but many possible medicines with proven efficacy. Twelve years of dance classes have gifted me with an incredible relationship with my body, and I’d first mentioned a subtle hip pain one and a half years ago, so we have a history of scans that show that what is unfortunately cancer is fortunately slow growing — so much so that doctors at two top cancer institutions ruled out any concern for nearly sixteen months because my scans had shown no change. And that’s just the disease part. I have not gone to a single appointment by myself — from day one, it’s been my body, but my family’s cancer — and I feel incredibly lucky to feel the immense love and support I have received from countless friends — including many of you — throughout this ordeal.
And therein lies the reality of life. We get to choose what feels unlucky or lucky. What we mourn and what we celebrate. We don’t always get to choose what happens to us, of course, and we are all going to be handed cards we do not want, but nonetheless have to play. But how we play them — how we react — is always our choice. We always get to choose whether we accept something. Whether we move forward. Whether we find a way to still smile. Or whether we don’t. My choice right now isn’t to not have cancer — that’s not a card I get to play anymore. Instead, I get to choose to live with it, to not only embrace life despite it, but perhaps to embrace life more because of it. This breast cancer thing is me having a very unlucky break after 40 very lucky years. We don’t question the good luck in our lives. I mean, really, how many of you, when you were among the 9% of applicants admitted to our class, even if you felt lucky, how many of you questioned why you were? And since we don’t question the good luck in our lives, I don’t believe we should question the bad luck, either.
There are those moments in life that leave us forever changed and navigating a new normal, one which isn’t necessarily worse but it is inevitably different. My guess is that, by now, most of you have had a moment like that, if not many, in which life has tossed you a curveball or two. Or more. Despite all of our best modeling, spreadsheeting, networking, planning and optimizing, life has happened. The “what” is unique to each of us — for me it’s been cancer, for others perhaps other physical or mental illness, loss of a loved one, financial hardship, career instability or something else — but whatever the “what” is, it divides our lives into a clear before and after, and we can never unknow the vulnerability that development has introduced. And that vulnerability can be incredibly painful.
It can also be a tremendous gift. When we share our deepest vulnerabilities, we are able to connect with one another in the deepest possible way. We all, more than anything, want to be truly seen. Heard. Understood. And ultimately loved. Not for anything we do, or accomplish, or build on our resumes, but rather for who we are, how we care, how we show up, and how we live.
One of my closest friends has this beautiful way of never letting me feel alone. Whenever I tell her something that scares me, share a truth I haven’t shared, a feeling I haven’t acknowledged… whatever it is, her answer is always “we’ve got this.” Not “you’ve got this” but “WE’ve”. That simple shift to “we” — to saying I’m not in it alone, without even having to say it, bc that’s what “we” means.
I stand before you proof that we never know what’s going on in someone else’s life unless we ask. We never know how healthy someone else is simply by how they look. We never know unless we choose not only to ask but also to really listen. Not only to respond, but also to reveal, from the depths of our souls, our truest answers to the questions we are asked. We can’t be heard if we don’t let ourselves share. We can’t be seen if we don’t bring our truest selves when we show up.
Life is going to continue to hand us moments. We will inevitably label some good, and some bad. Embrace them all. Hug them into your hearts. Let yourself feel every emotion that they bring. And then find the courage to share what you’ve learned and why it matters. One person. One hug. One hand held at a time. Because that is how we truly connect.
I encourage you to spend this reunion weekend not only talking to your closest friends but also connecting with some new folks, with classmates you didn’t really know before returning here today. Take the time to really connect in a way that reminds you of the greatness that sits beside you. Learn what matters most to one another, and, perhaps, because we can never remind ourselves too much, take the time to reconnect with what matters most to you, too.
And as for what matters most to me? Here’s an excerpt from the first paragraph of my essay:
The ability to connect with people, to engage in meaningful interactions that transcend time and place matters more to me than anything else. Developing lasting relationships is occasionally effortless. More often, however, it is admittedly difficult. Influencing many individuals to form a cohesive community is an even greater challenge, but the reward makes the task extremely worthwhile.
Never could I have imagined, in writing that essay, of the unexpected twists and turns that would connect then and now, that would ultimately earn me an invitation to open my heart to you all today. And, yet, as I reflected on what I wrote all those years ago, it feels especially fitting to share them at our reunion, within our community, in the hope they inspire you to connect in the way that matters most to you. Because that matters most to me, too.