My wakeup call came when I was lying helpless on an airport floor.
Feet shuffled around me. A bystander asked if I was alright, to which I responded, “I’m fine, I’m just resting,” refusing to admit the truth of the matter. I was 37 years old and had literally run myself into the ground.
You might be wondering what got me there. Well, it was a combination of things. I was at the helm of a growing company, working around the clock, consistently stressed, and putting my health low on the priority list.
During this non-stop working lifestyle, I began to experience lower back pain that gradually worsened, but I told myself that I didn’t have the time to take care of it. The pain intensified over the stretch of a couple of weeks to where I began having trouble getting out of bed in the morning and sitting at my desk for a prolonged period. Eventually, it hurt to move, period.
I was en route home to Chicago from Dallas when the final straw broke the camel’s back (in this case, I was the camel). I could barely walk as I exited the cab and entered the airport. Once inside, I used the wall as a safety net. I eventually psyched myself up enough to push off the wall and hobble onward to the security checkpoint, resembling what I imagine was the Tinman running out of oil.
It was at that moment, mid-stride, that my back gave out, and I collapsed to the ground. I laid flat out on the floor unable to move for what felt like minutes. I tried to roll over and help myself up but couldn’t find the strength; finally, someone from the security staff came by to assist. Next thing, I was on a stretcher in an ambulance on my way to the emergency room. I stared with wide eyes at the ambulance ceiling, thinking “WTF am I doing to myself?”
I was treated at the hospital for an inflamed herniated disk that was pushing against my sciatic nerve. The next day I was released, and I continued my journey home to Chicago, this time with a new outlook on my work, my life, and my health. I needed to make a change or face the consequences: death, most likely.
Change didn’t happen overnight. Instead, I took small steps that built on one another over time to produce an even better outcome than if I tried to completely overhaul everything at once. I started with a meditation practice after reading “The Relaxation Response” by Dr. Herbert Benson. Meditation allowed me to clear my mind, and with a clearer, healthier mind so too became my body. I had a newfound attitude around the mind-body connection and where my health fit in it.
As my relationship with my health changed, and I became more in tune with my mind and body, I began to explore other outlets. I decided to incorporate group boxing classes into my routine. Group classes held me accountable and forced me to show up — I competed with no one but myself. As I felt myself getting stronger, I began to reflect on my diet and discovered ways to make that better, too. I committed to improving my diet so that I could in turn exercise more effectively.
Next, I moved into strength training. Controlled, focused weight lifting had an enormous effect on my overall strength, my core, and posterior chain — areas that I especially needed to work on after a back injury. I also began to measure my sleep. I looked at how my sleep affected my work and learned to optimize it, ultimately allowing me to perform at my best day-in and day-out.
As you might imagine, as I took more time for myself and my health, I began to feel better physically, emotionally, and mentally. My life grew more satisfying, and I became a better, more productive entrepreneur.
I have since switched roles from entrepreneur to investor, but I still interact with countless entrepreneurs daily. And, I’ve seen plenty of them run themselves into the ground, just as I did. For this reason, I’ve made it a personal mission to help other entrepreneurs and business people get back on track to prioritizing their health. It’s my goal to shift the conversation from the glamorization of overworking to the enormous benefits of taking time for personal wellness.
In fact, last year I launched the Chicago Wellness Challenge, a 6-week wellness program that calls on leaders and entrepreneurs to engage, learn, and start moving towards their wellness goals. And this spring, the Challenge is back for round two! (If you’re interested in participating, register via the website.)
As I reflect on my wellness journey, and that airport moment, as embarrassing as it was, I can’t help but feel grateful for it. It was the wakeup call I needed. It not only changed my life for the better, but it also became a vehicle for helping to change the lives of others, too. Not to mention, the mental image of it still gives me a good laugh from time to time (what the hell was I thinking?!). It’s sad, funny, and all too true.