How My Near-Death Experience Sparked The Biggest Career Change Of My Life

How My Near-Death Experience Sparked The Biggest Career Change Of My Life

When life hangs by a thread, we realize what really matters most.

The ER doctor was white as a ghost. “I just took a look at your MRI,” he said. “There’s a good chance you’ll be dead this time tomorrow.”

My ears were ringing. My heart pounded. I’d heard the words he’d just spoken, but they didn’t seem to compute. I didn’t feel like I was on the brink of death. I’d just gone cycling last weekend.

“To be honest,” said the doctor, “I don’t even know how you walked in here today. I don’t know how you’re talking to me right now.”

I wouldn’t have even visited the ER, I told him, if it hadn’t been for the fact that I’d suddenly felt out-of-breath after climbing our home’s staircase that afternoon. And that wasn’t the first time I’d lost my breath during a seemingly simple everyday activity. I knew something wasn’t right — so I called my family doctor, who, to my surprise, told me to high-tail it to the ER.

Even then, until the moment the doctor delivered his diagnosis, I’d had no idea how grave my situation was.

“You have a massive bilateral pulmonary embolism,” the ER doc explained. “There are big blood clots in your lungs’ arteries. We’re scrambling a team of doctors to decide if you can withstand the treatment you need.”

Over the next five days, the brilliant ICU team at John Muir Medical Center saved my life by breaking down the blood clots with a protein called tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) applied via thrombolysis therapy. Essentially, they put a catheter in an artery in my groin, threaded it to my lungs, then pumped in tPA to bust up the clots.

My wife Marianne was with me every step of the way. And, as often happens when we face mortality, her presence got me thinking about the things that really matter most to me: my family, my faith, and my love of helping people.

For more than 25 years, I’d had a great career in international finance, including a stint as the CFO of Microsoft North America. I was fortunate to have a generous income, a beautiful home in San Francisco’s Bay Area, and the respect of senior execs at some of America’s top companies.

But as I lay there in that ICU bed, holding my wife’s hand, I realized more than ever how fragile and short life is—and how little money and material things really matter.

I turned to Marianne and said, “You know that career change I’ve been talking about all these years? It’s time.” She smiled, nodded, and said, “I know. I support you.”

As soon as I got out of the hospital, I spent the next year retraining myself. I got certified as an executive coach and facilitator. I also got certifications in personality and leadership assessments. I started spreading the word that I was about to make a major career change. I put up my website. I interviewed successful executive coaches to learn the keys to their success.

Then I had to learn how to market myself and sell my services. For the first six months, I worked nights and weekends to rebrand myself from CFO to executive coach. I let everyone in my network know about my new business. The result was a lot of encouraging words but very little income. We were fortunate to have rainy-day savings to get us through the transition.

Little by little, my business began to gain traction.

Three and a half years later, I get to help others build the muscle to achieve their aspirations, every day. For me, it doesn’t get better than that. My wife says she can tell I’m happier with my work than I’ve ever been.

As I look back on my journey, I realize I’ve learned three core truths from surviving pulmonary embolism (PE) and changing careers:

1. Life is too short and precious to spend it chasing money. It’s more fulfilling to focus on the people and values you cherish. At the moments when life and death hang in the balance, you realize they’re all that truly matters.

2. When you realize it’s time for a change, look for the intersection between what you’re good at, what you love doing, and what adds value to society. When you find that intersection, you’ll discover work that will feel like living, not working.

3. There’s a time and a season for everything. Recognize there may be some schools you need to pass through to prepare for new phases of life. Some of these will be formal schools, some will be learning on the job, and some will simply be the school of hard knocks. I’ve come to believe all experience is good experience.

Oddly enough, the doctors and I never figured out exactly what caused my PE. Often, a PE starts with clots in the legs as a result of too little activity, but mine didn’t. With some genetic testing, I learned I have factor V Leiden, a genetic mutation that can increase the chance of clots in the legs and lungs.

Somehow it got triggered. And I’m glad it did.

Sign Up For My Articles

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form

Related Posts

How Overloaded Executives Can Make Time for What Matters Most

The price of cutting ourselves short can be very high, but the good news is that we don’t have to live that way forever, even if that’s our usual habit.

Read More

What to Do When Your Boss is the Devil Himself

Although it might be natural to want to get away from a nasty boss, in my experience the best course of action is something very different.

Read More

Six Keys to Life-Changing Feedback

Even though it is not always easy, when you offer and receive feedback with genuine intent, it can be a life-changing gift.

Read More

What Craig the IT Guy Taught Me About Life, Death, and Work-Life Balance

Virtually all my clients say that they want improved work-life balance. Here are four tips from the WW work-life balance initiative I led at Microsoft.

Read More

Values Are The Key to Making Tough Choices

I find that many of my clients figuratively navigate dangerous terrain all the time. In these situations, our values serve as our best compass.

Read More

How Top Execs Solve Their Toughest Leadership Challenges

Leaders want counsel from someone who understands where they’re coming from, and who has the skill to push them to create real shift in their thinking.

Read More

The One Simple Phrase That Ensures You Get the Results You Expect

Leaders don't always get the results they expect, but here's how to do it through a simple phrase.

Read More

The Four Keys to Earning Your Team’s Trust

Some leaders try to exert their influence through their authority, but great leaders create true followership by continually earning their people’s trust.

Read More

The True Meaning of Courage Isn’t What You Think

True courage is not the absence of fear, a mindset, or even an emotion. It's a principle of action.

Read More

Four Simple Ways to Awaken Your Focus and Concentration at Work

Here are four ways to increase your leadership effectiveness at work by cultivating the skill of consciousness.

Read More

You're Not an Imposter

If you’re struggling with self-doubt, the first step is to tame your monkey mind.

Read More

What to Do When a Rising Star's Team Can't Stand Him

To learn to play well with others, this corporate tyrant had to gain a “view from the balcony.”

Read More

Three Simple Steps for Making the Right Call Under Fire

To know how to respond in high-stress situations, you've got to start by getting into flow – just like a professional athlete.

Read More

Knowledge Is Good – But It’s the Enemy of Great

How openness to being wrong serves as a force multiplier for the smartest leaders

Read More

To Become More Successful, Open Your Eyes to True Success

There are levels of winning beyond just winning.

Read More

Leadership Doesn’t Happen by Accident—It’s a Choice

The difference between being a leader and being a victim starts with mindset.

Read More

How A ‘Work Persona’ Undercuts Your Long-Term Success

Your genuine self is more effective than your fake self. Learning to dial into your talents and values is the surest way to speed up your career growth.

Read More

How My Personality Almost Wrecked My Career (And How I Fixed It)

The behaviors that limit us are often rooted in the same traits that've made us successful.

Read More

Authenticity at Work: Is There Such a Thing as “Too Real?”

Choosing authenticity at work can be a risky move. Here’s how to know when it’s right.

Read More

Three Reasons You’re Not Getting Promoted (And How To Fix Them)

Conquer your career derailers and get back on track.

Read More

What I Learned From (Almost) Getting Fired As CFO Of Microsoft North America

Yesterday’s recipe for success isn’t enough to master today’s challenges.

Read More

The Unexpected Combination For Mastering Executive Presence

Confidence alone will only take you so far. To get to the top, you need humility too.

Read More

C-Suite Exec: How To Become Your Company’s Moral Compass

Contrary to what execs might expect, adopting a work persona limits their ability to serve as the moral compasses their companies often so desperately need.

Read More

Your Team Doesn’t Deliver? Here’s the Reason Why.

Practice this simple two-step technique to start getting the results you expect.

Read More

The 4 Things I’d Tell My Younger Self About Self-Aware Leadership

Or, Why My Team Used To Hate My Guts — And How I Won Them Back 

Read More

What COVID-19 Taught Me About Freedom, Crisis, and Myself

How to Stay At Your Best During A Pandemic 

Read More

How To Stop Failing At Scaling — And Start Winning At Delegating

The 4 Keys to Effective Delegation

Read More

My Top 5 Practices for Leadership During Global Crisis (Or Anytime)

25 Years Condensed Into 5 Incisive Practices 

Read More

I’ve Been Complicit In Systemic Racism. Here’s What I’m Doing To Change.

4 Actions Whites Can Take Today to Start Dismantling Systemic Racism

Read More

Stalled Career? You May Be Overestimating Your Self-Perspective

Use Performance Journaling to Gain “Executive Presence” 

Read More

If Money Is Your Main Motive, You Probably Won’t Get Promoted

Find Your Promotion “Sweet Spot” In Three Steps

Read More

Secretly Wishing for a Different Career? How To Turn Your Passion Into Reality

Managing Your Own Value Polarities Can Make That Dream Job Possible

Read More

What’s Love Got To Do With The Workplace?

How (And Why) Great Leaders Practice Love In The Workplace

Read More

Start The Year With This Mind-Opening Leadership Exercise

The Annual 3-Step Self-Awareness Checkup

Read More

Why True Leaders Never Blame Others (Or Circumstances)

Read More

Why You May Be A Worse Leader Than You Think

It’s Time To Address Your Blind Spots 

Read More


Executive Coaching

Team Coaching

John assesses teams through qualitative and quantitative measures, then helps you build the path to high performance.

Build your Team
Executive Coaching

Executive Coaching

John's coaching draws on more than 25 years in senior leadership roles at Microsoft, Novartis, and Kodak.

Maximize Your Potential
Leadership Assessments

Leadership Assessments

As a Certified Practitioner of the Leadership Circle, John utilizes best-in-class tools to assess and develop you and your team.

Learn More