Finishing a stint as an enforcement attorney at the S.E.C, I joined the ranks one of Manhattan's legal giants, Debevoise & Plimpton -- amazingly bright, cultured, driven people. On my first day, I was summoned to the office of the senior securities partner. We had a public offering to pull off in Korea, but instead of the normal six months, we had 18 days. On day 19, the Korean laws would change, barring our client from being able to raise the few hundred million it wanted. There was no wiggle room.
Two weeks into a whirlwind of overnight drafting sessions, unending conference calls, sporadic clothing changes and a veritable IV of hot and sour soup, chocolate, pizza and double espresso, my insides began to fall apart. My immune system collapsed from the stress and a pain somewhere in my abdomen emerged. At first it was nagging. But, within 24 hours, it was so excruciating, I could barely stand. In fact, most of the time I sat hunched over in a chair, bathed in the sweat of the effort of trying to keep up appearances. There were hundreds of millions on the line, though; we had a deadline and I was the new guy. There was no way I could give in. Whatever was eating me up inside would have to wait. Deadline day finally came. We'd made it. Now it was time to figure out what the hell was wrong with me.
I tumbled into a cab home, poured myself out the 11th floor elevator and into my bed. Honestly, things get a bit foggy here. I don't how long I slept for or whether the next call I made was that same day or the next morning. All I know is I thought I was going to die. "Mom," I said, "something's really wrong."
I made my way downstairs and grabbed another cab to my doctor. He saw me right away. Upon examining me, his face went white. "Your fever is through the roof and there is a very large mass inside of you," he said. "It wasn't there when you had your physical last month. Whatever it is has grown very, very quickly." He took me by the hand and walked me to the next suite over, where an infectious disease guy joined the team. Within minutes, I was admitted to the hospital.
I was rushed into a battery of tests. "It looks to be an abscess, a baseball size bundle of infection that is lodged between your bladder, prostate and intestine. We're not sure how it happened, but it looks like you perforated your intestine and the contents may have leaked out and caused the infection." With my immune system on zero and my stress through the roof, I just didn't have anything left to fight it.
Immediate surgery was needed, but the team couldn't agree on the best approach. Going in through the front might leave me impotent, incontinent and without control over my bowels. Going in through the back end (you get the picture) would give a cleaner shot at the abscess, but locating the right spot to re-puncture the intestine and remove the abscess was dicey. Of course, there was a silver lining.
I was at one of the best teaching hospitals in the country and mine was, apparently, quite a rare case. An educational gift horse. The line of young med students hoping to wrangle the ultrasound wand to get a better look at my mass grew ever longer. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, I just didn't think this is how my journey would begin.
The team finally chose their course and, thankfully, the surgery was a success. It was also a wake-up call. In staying the course as a lawyer, I had not only continued to invest nearly every waking hour in my career, but I'd also stopped doing everything else I loved. I'd rarely see friends. Exercise and healthy eating were things of the past. Playing music, writing and just plain enjoying life had all fallen away, along with my health.
While I wouldn't have minded the income and prestige of big firm partnership, I realized that's not what drives me, and I had absolutely no interest in living the life of a law firm partner. I didn't want the very thing I was killing myself to get! But knowing that so many others did made me feel incredibly guilty about the prospect of giving it all up.
I began to realize that the questions I was asking myself were not really my own, but rather, the questions I knew my family, friends and society would ask of me were I to announce a dramatic change of course. This awakening gave me the freedom to begin to ask different questions. My own questions.
Rather than asking how I could ever justify throwing away everything I've put into my legal career, I asked, "How can I justify limiting the next 40 years of my working life by what has happened in the last eight?" I learned that getting the right answers is, very often, a matter of first figuring out the right questions. Reframing my future in this way opened up opportunities I never dreamed of.
This was my YOLO moment. Actually, the first of many.
It took the better part of a year to finally leave the law firm and begin to explore on a deeper level what I'm really here to do. In the years since, I've worked as a $12-an-hour personal trainer, launched, built and sold two successful fitness and lifestyle companies, published two award-winning books with major publishers, built a speaking and consulting career, become a successful blogger and launched a number of online ventures.
I've had the opportunity to step into my love of serving, teaching and creating in the way that not only allows me to love what I do, but also earn enough to live well and give well. And I've built my reinvention around the ability to be present in the lives of my wife and daughter.
Through it all, I've also come to realize something. Your YOLO moment isn't what really matters. It's what you DO with that moment that holds the potential to leave both you and the world around you changed.
Jonathan Fields is a dad, husband, author, speaker and serial entrepreneur. His latest book, "Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt Into Fuel For Brilliance," was named the No. 1 personal development book of 2011 by 800-CEO-Read. Fields writes on entrepreneurship and living well at JonathanFields.com and runs educational ventures, Good Life Project and Tribal Author.
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