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Thanks, Cancer!

We were in Southern California for the kids’ spring break a few years back, and I got the call from my sister Karyn that our dad had been taken in for emergency surgery.

He had been having severe stomach pains that we would later learn were caused by a tumor that had grown so large that it blocked up his small intestine. I can picture it vividly. Not the intestines, but the scene in front of me while Karyn filled me in. I was standing near Legoland’s Police and Fire Academy attraction, which is like a ride/competition combo where you move this fire truck across a course, racing against other teams.

Photo credit: Legoland
Look kids, cancer! Photo credit: Legoland

There was that theme park ambient noise, that chorus of laughter and other assorted good times, and all the smiling kids – including all three of mine. The juxtaposition of theme park sights and sounds with the heart dropping news being delivered into my ear almost caused me to freak the fuck out. But I took big breaths, held back the tears as I filled my wife Adriana in on the details and the cloud of unknown, and we finished out our day at Legoland, knowing it would be hours before dad was out of surgery and we would know anything further.

 

my family
Photo credit: Andrei Lieders

This picture of my family was taken the next morning in Los Angeles. The Hollywood sign is somewhere out of frame in the background. We took a bunch of shots of our smiling crew and the sign, but this was the clear winner. Just the Eberles, being the Eberles. It’s one of my favorite photos ever and was actually our holiday card photo that year, even though it was taken while there was this huge unknown looming as we waited for more information from back east.

Minutes after this picture was taken I hopped on a siblings-and-mom conference call where my mom told my sisters and I that there was a tumor that had grown so big that it totally blocked dad’s small intestine. They were able to unblock and repair his intestine, but the web of cancer that was left tangled in there did not look good. It was the call. “This doesn’t look good. Can you get here?”

Gutted. Right there in front of the Hollywood sign.

 

The ‘here’ that mom referred to was Geneva, NY, a small town between Rochester and Syracuse, home of Hobart & William Smith colleges, and of my parents. I didn’t grow up there, but had visited countless times so it felt like home. And home is where I headed. My sisters and I quickly figured out a plan for the next few weeks and I hopped on a plane. LAX to ATL to ROC.  I skipped the last two days of vacation, leaving Adriana and the kids (and our car) to finish up vacation and make it back to Palo Alto without me.

I made it to Rochester on Monday, and drove my rental car far too fast from the airport to get to the hospital and to my dad. And that’s where I spent most of that week. At the hospital. I spent a lot of time with my dad, gave my mom some deserved breaks, and learned what we could at the time from the doctors. Side note – when they ask you what meal to bring for your dad the first time he’s having solid food after major intestinal surgery, do NOT choose the chicken fingers. Sorry dad. Though on the bright side, we knew very quickly that things were flowing quite well.

But this isn’t about cancer.

Life intersects with work pretty darn directly when something like this goes down. I had been set to be on PTO two days that week, but missed work the rest of the week. There was a lot of downtime at the hospital, so I was able to generally keep up on email and take calls here and there. And the teams I was working with were very understanding and supportive in keeping things rolling with my partners. But I was not at 100%.

The following week I was back in SF, trying to get my head into work while looking down the barrel of my dad dying. I had left Rochester not really knowing how much time we had left with dad, and not sure how the weeks and months ahead would look.

My boss was in town from NYC, and we went to Peet’s coffee to catch up. We were only a few minutes into the conversation when he asked a question that echoed in my head:

‘Do you think you’ll need to take more time?’

To be fair, his first question had been about how my dad was doing. And I do think he was sincere in asking. But my answer was that we really didn’t know. The surgery had been successful in unblocking things, but we did not know exactly what type of cancer had wrapped itself all up in my dad’s business. We were in limbo and I was scared.

(No suspense intended; we’d later find out that my dad has a pretty rare kind of cancer, with carcinoid tumors in multiple locations. It is in the same family of neuroendocrine cancer that killed Steve Jobs. Dad is still very much with us today, having done several rounds of surgical and chemical battle with his cancer these past few years. To say he is a fighter would be a dramatic understatement.)

But back to my manager’s question.

Do I think I’ll need more time?

Yeah, dude. If he dies I might need a day or two for the funeral. Also fuck you.

Do I think I’ll need more time?

Really? I took 3 days off, worked half the time, and nothing dropped.

Of course I didn’t say either of those things. No regrets there. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was neither combative nor defensive. I was sad about my dad being sick. Tired from a week spent largely in an uncomfortable hospital chair and on planes. And now I was trying to process who would ask something like that.

But it was in that moment, sitting with this guy at Peet’s, that I knew it was time to make a change. Not because of one question from my empathy-impaired boss, but because of the bow his question had tied around the whole situation.

And that’s actually what this piece is about – moments of clarity in your career. It just happened that my dad’s cancer helped me get to one of those moments.

Truth be told…

I had been in the job a little under a year. I was an individual contributor sales VP. Truth be told, I wasn’t great at that job. I had made some strides with some partners, but I naturally gravitated towards account management, marketing, and operations vs. drumming up new business. Not the best thing for a salesperson.

And the environment was not fantastic. The person who hired me had been reorged to a different role and I was left reporting to his boss who was based across the country at company HQ in NYC. And there was also a not-so-fun dynamic with a very talented and very political sales leader back in NYC. Some junior high type stuff.

Oh, and I wasn’t passionate about what we were selling. It was a solid product, with a stellar team behind it, but it didn’t get me out of bed in the morning.

Spending days in a hospital room with my dad, not knowing what the future looked like for him, was a punch directly in the nose for me. Life is too short, and it is precious.

That conversation at that Peet’s was part two of the one-two punch I needed to wake up and make a move. It was time to find a new job.

I’ve written and rewritten the above a few times now. But it is all part of the story and needs to be told. The interpersonal stuff happens and nobody talks about it. It is not the only thing, but it is a thing. So for the small number of you who will know who those above referenced individuals are, that’s not the point. And if you are one of those individuals, no hard feelings? I wasn’t great at the job, you were not great to me, life goes on.

When I talk about that job I typically refer to it as “a sales job that I was not that good at.” That’s the takeaway, be honest with yourself about what you are good at.

Being good at your job is about the intersection of your strengths, your passions, and the environment.

Once I took that one-two punch in the nose, the decision was actually easy. The role didn’t play to my strengths, I was not passionate about what the company was doing, and there were some pretty lousy environmental factors.

So what’s my advice?

You should regularly evaluate your job against these three areas. If you have all three, awesome. It won’t always be that way. I’d say that two out of three ain’t bad, but zero out of three is a huge problem.

As organizations evolve, and you evolve in your career, there will be ebbs and flows in all three of these areas. And that’s a good thing. You learn a ton when there are bumps in the road. But if a bump has become more of a detour, time to take action. And action doesn’t always mean quitting! In some ways my example here is an easy one. Zero out of three? Time to move on. But if you’ve got some strong component parts, see if you can’t find a way to fix what’s broken and/or re-focus on what’s not.

Do I regret taking that job?

No way. Not for one second.

I developed empathy for people in senior sales roles that I otherwise would not have. And I learned a ton. And I met a bunch of great people, including my partners at Facebook, who endorsed me when I applied to work at Facebook. So I guess I wasn’t THAT bad at the job. 😉

So back to cancer

Cancer, you suck. You come out of nowhere and take life away from people, and take those people away from so many others. But sometimes you fire warning shots. You scare us. You offer perspective, if we can get out of our own heads long enough to listen. And for that, cancer, I thank you. But make no mistake, you’re still a total douche.

Chris Eberle

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