The power of the very next

In 2016 my son Jack had a headache. It was severe enough to prompt a kid that never called home because he was sick to do just that. I was nearby at work and made my way to the school to grab him and bring him home for some Advil and care from his mom.

I dropped him off and thought nothing of it. Went on with my day as usual. Picked up some dinner on my way home — Pho — and sat and ate a regular meal. After dinner Jack went up to his room to read and the rest of us finished dishes and started gearing down for the night. He came back down from his room a few minutes later and said that he was having a hard time reading, that the words weren’t making sense, then he blanked out. He said he was feeling sick so I raced him up to the bathroom only to have him enter a full seizure.

This is where my fundamental approach to life had to be altered.

A 911 call and an ambulance ride to our Children’s Hospital found us in uncharted waters. We found out that night that Jack had a growth behind his right ear but it was obscured by blood so we would have to wait for the body to naturally disperse the blood before we could see what we were really up against. After many tests and some very difficult phone calls home, Jack was admitted for an extended stay and we set upon our harrowing journey into this unknown.

The consequences were big with this one. There were monumental uncertainties that, no matter how many ways or times I would ask, there just weren’t answers that would completely satisfy my need to know. I found myself asking and asking and getting frustrated with the lack of clarity to help ease our minds. I would immediately jump to the bigger picture as this is what I was prone to do. In my mind I needed to see the path backwards. To start with what the problem was and work to a solution. This is what I’ve done my entire life as an entrepreneur — trying to solve a problem that, for the most part, was a made up hypothesis. So I used that approach with Jack and his angry brain.

This is where my fundamental approach to life had to be altered. There were so many uncontrollable outcomes that to focus on those high-level challenges would leave me a hobbled mess but I needed to help. To be there for Jack and his brother and his mother. So I watched what his doctors were doing and saying and started to emulate their diagnostic approach. They would do rounds to their patients and observe how their night unfolded. They would ask more questions than anyone I know, trying to probe, to understand what really happened over night that the monitors and data weren’t telling them. They would get multiple perspectives from everyone in the room, ideas, anything, and then they would choose the very next step to take. They wouldn’t focus on the unknowns and try to clear a path that made sense to them, they would slowly, methodically decide on the very next step in the treatment for their patients. Then they would leave (often to 1000 questions from me) until returning for their afternoon rounds where, at the end of the questions, would make a decision on what the very next step in treatment would be. And this continue for our first 3 week stay in the hospital.

Now, all along this path, our doctors and nurses would help us understand what was going on and they were real with us. Telling us almost the truth but making sure not to over simplify or hypothesize. They wouldn’t let themselves do what I was doing. Looking at best and worst case scenarios, they would simply tell me what they’ve observed and what that means. Every day was an exercise in patience and observation. Slow movements forward on some days, zero on others. It was painful but taught me a valuable life lesson and one that I still observe today.

Up to this point I was not a patient man. My expectations were that my teams aim for something, move quickly to get there, take action immediately and then move on. Sometimes what I perceived as a lack of visible forward motion meant that I caused a massive amount of angst among my team which, when in a leadership position, creates an unhealthy environment to be around. No one is able to get their work done if someone is constantly changing the game in mid-play.

What I realized from Jack’s doctors is that, in order for me to help and to remain sane, I needed to focus on the very next task at hand. This meant that I needed to stop thinking of the big picture — to stop trying to solve for something that hadn’t been identified yet — and start narrowing my scope to what was directly in front of me. What was the very next thing I needed to do for Jack. So I did. I stopped asking questions that no one had answers to and instead started asking what was happening next and what was I supposed to do to support my family. Once I did this that feeling of overwhelm vanished. I wasn’t constantly thinking in the future (which, at the time, was bleak), I was making sure Jack was receiving the right medications, that he was active in his routine, that he was eating properly, entertained properly and connecting with his family. At the same time, I was present for him, my wife and his brother. I kept everyone in our family up to date but made sure everyone was focused on the things that we could control and that we did know. Not the “what ifs” — although I did allow myself to venture there late at night as I slept in Jack’s hospital room. That was my time to try to understand why he was chosen for this. My pity parties didn’t bring him or my family down, it was just me and those were like little bouts of therapy in the dark, quiet hospital.

I practice what I learned back then still to this date. Taking an approach of what is the very next thing I can do has been the greatest (and hardest) lesson I’ve ever learned. It has led to an increase in my patience and a pragmatic approach to solving some of my largest personal and work problems.

There really is a learning lesson to be had in even the darkest of times and this was mine.