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How a heart attack, stroke and near-fatal crash made me more efficient and creative at work

After all this happened in one year, I also discovered that my relationships became more meaningful.

Piron Guillaume/Unsplash
Piron Guillaume/Unsplash

I was at a professional pinnacle, enjoying success in sales and ending my run in the title role of Candide, when the first heart attack came. It was a “widow-maker” — complete blockage of a crucial artery. I barely survived.

Months later, a car swerved into oncoming traffic and slammed directly into mine, totalling it. The airbag malfunctioned, exploding instead of deploying, which caused further injuries.

Later that same year, I had a stroke. Doctors weren’t sure why, but they believe it may have been a result of medicines I was on for my heart.

After a year of recovery, I began to rebuild my career. And I discovered something amazing: I was now much more efficient and creative in how I got tasks done.

No one should have to go through any of these experiences to learn to work in better ways. Here are the keys to making this transformation yourself. 

Building new pathways

When people hear what I went through, they often invoke the idea of learning to accept the things you cannot control. And certainly, that’s important. 

But I learned what turned out, for me, to be an even bigger lesson: how to find new ways to get to the same place.

After that year was over, as I returned to work and to singing, I was committed to taking the best care of myself that I could. I got into cooking healthy meals. I changed my exercise routine and monitored my heart rate. I committed to getting enough sleep, limiting stress, and, perhaps toughest of all, not overworking — a particular challenge in sales, where commissions rule.

So the challenge became how I could create this new healthy lifestyle without sacrificing professional success. Rather than simply assuming that I’d have to give up professional opportunities, I asked myself a question: How can I get just as much done at work in less time?

When you force yourself to consider this question, you find solutions that increase your efficiency. 

Trading the controlling push for the creative path

I discovered that most of my work had been built as a constant push. My goals had always been to make 100 calls a day, read the same pitch, and try to push prospects through the sales funnel. It was basically a numbers play.

But that system was filled with stress, shoving food into my mouth at my desk, staying late and arriving early. It would no longer work.

So I developed a new system — one based on relationships. I knew that my years as a classical singer had taught me a lot about communication and collaboration, so I used those skills to change and improve how I communicated and collaborated. (I wrote about this in my first book, How to Talk to Humans, and discuss it further in my upcoming book, Bring Your Best Self to Work.) I also explored new technologies to see how they could help revolutionize the way I do my job.

I discovered a treasure of new ideas and possibilities. Soon, this new system I created was working better for me than anything I had done before. I was outperforming peers in less time.

What differentiated me was no longer working “hard,” as in spending too many hours at the office. Instead, the differentiator became my creative side.

It’s no wonder that an Adobe/Forrester Research study found “More creative companies enjoy greater market share and competitive leadership,” and are more than 3.5 times more likely to achieve substantial revenue growth.

These days, I still try to stick to routine. I eat the same thing for breakfast every day, and generally keep the same schedule. I take a handful of pills, exercise daily, and keep to a healthy diet. (My doctor is thrilled.)

Of course, it isn’t always that simple. Things happen, and fortunately I’ve learned that I can have my schedule thrown off for a bit and then quickly get back to my equilibrium. I use breathing techniques (including part of the Feldenkrais Method) and let go of stress.

Five years after my heart attack, I had a second. But this time, I was in such good health and so in touch with my body that I recognized the symptoms, went to the hospital early on, and it was barely an inconvenience. I was back at work within a couple of days, fortunately.

As a result of everything I’ve been through, I appreciate each day. I’ve learned to understand the importance of steps, and not just outcomes. My connections with people are better, deeper and more meaningful. And I’m living my best — and most creative — life.

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