Crucibles, Cancer, and iPhones

Last week was one of the worst of my life. On Tuesday, while overlooking the Pacific Ocean on one of those days that explain why everyone wants to move to Southern California, an oral surgeon speaking through my wife’s iPhone explained to us that the pathology report showed she has squamous cell cancer on the underside of her tongue.

It was one of those moments when everything stopped. Even as the oral surgeon kept talking, and his voice was amplified on the speakerphone, nothing he would ever say would add any more information: cancer at the margins. It was cancer and it had spread past the biopsy he took.

Two days later, I was on the phone with a friend who was telling me she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, my iPhone showed another number coming in. That call, from a friend who was in almost daily contact with Warren Bennis, could mean only thing: my long-time mentor and friend was dead. He confirmed that fact a moment later. I sat outside my house in Los Angeles, staring into the same blue sky that I saw on Tuesday.

So one lesson of the week is: if it looks like you’re having one of those weeks, don’t talk on an iPhone.

This is the part where I say something profound, to bring all of this into resolve, to encourage us to seize the day, to live with purpose and passion, to become our noble obsession, blah, blah, blah. The truth is that crucibles, as Warren Bennis often said, start off as just horrible experiences. There is no higher meaning. It’s a tsunami of emotion and experience, when your expectations crash into the ocean, replaced with swirling what-if scenarios.

Warren had a way of teaching me in front of others, in a way that only he and I knew that he had set me straight. About two years ago, we looked like we were recreating a scene from Masterpiece Theatre at USC’s Marshall School of Business. He sat in one ridiculously comfortable chair, and me in another, in front of an audience of business students and alumni. We had agreed to ask each other questions, and then open it up to questions from the audience.

It was a heady experience until one of the students asked what we can do now to prepare for a crucible. I went first (always a mistake when Warren was around) and said that we can build a great tribe of mutual collaboration and respect, because the data is clear that personal connections make the difference in how people do in bad situations.

Warren looked down for a moment, and then said that there’s no preparing for a crucible. It’s just not how they work. They take you over and redefine you. You don’t seize the day. You are seized by the day.

Less than a week after Harte got the news about cancer, we sat in the office of a remarkable ENT oncologist, along with Harte’s father, and the chief-of-surgery at Cedars-Sinai. The surgeon explained that the cancer was stage one, but it had spread quite far on her tongue. The surgery to remove it, he said, would take ten hours. She’ll be in the hospital for seven to ten days, three of which would be in the ICU. In answer to the question of how much tongue he’d remove, he said enthusiastically, “less than a quarter.” They’d transplant some tissue from her forearm, along with the blood vessel, into the location. After “a few” months, her speech would return to “virtually normal,” thanks to the considerable speech therapy she’d have.

As we started to leave, he added that she’d get through this in large part because she has so much support. Because, like I had told a group of students and alumni years earlier, Harte had built a tribe who love her and support her.

And as we walked out, I remember thinking: Warren was right. There’s no preparing for this. I am supported, but unprepared. Harte and I are in the crucible.

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