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Replace external motivations with a purposeful life.
12 min read
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Michael O'Brien seemed to have his life resolved in the summer of 2001. The 33-year-old was married to the love of his life and had two beautiful little daughters. He had worked until becoming the marketing director of a flagship product of the US division of a Japanese pharmaceutical company. After leaving a spectacular national sales meeting, O'Brien felt there was something strong pushing his career forward.
And after years away from his favorite sport (cycling, which he had left to concentrate on his career and start a family), he had recently resumed his passion. Although he was not at all excited about the idea that the meeting was in the middle of the New Mexico desert, in July, he was a person who saw the glass half full and decided to take his bike while the others carried their golf clubs. “I told myself that on my list of pending life I was riding a bicycle in the 50 states of the country,” says O'Brien.
During that July morning, while riding his bicycle, he turned a small bend and entered directly into the path of an approaching Ford Explorer, having crossed the central lane at 65 kilometers per hour. “He's going to see me, he's going to move” he remembers thinking O'Brien. And this happened to: “Oh my God! It does not move!”
O'Brien knocked against the Explorer's grille, turned and slammed into the windshield. The next thing you remember is being surrounded by paramedics. When he was told that they were waiting for a helicopter to transfer him to the hospital, his first reaction was: “I'm going to be late for the meeting” followed by: “How is my bike?”
Michael O'Brien surrounded by paramedics after his bicycle accident. Credits: Michael O'Brien
Recalling the situation, O'Brien acknowledges that his effort to relieve tension was both an attempt to ignore reality. “This was a constant in my life,” he says. “Tell a joke, avoid the problem.” But there were a few other flaws in O'Brien's seemingly perfect exterior. Before discovering his life purpose as a coach, he would have to open those wounds.
Stumbling on the hamster's wheel
Having grown up in a middle class family in Rochester, New York, O'Brien saw his father work extensively as a salesman while his mother had to take night shifts as a nurse. His identity was formed through sports, which was also the basis of the relationship with his father.
“I wanted more from life than Rochester could offer me, but I didn't really know what,” he admits. His curiosity and pleasure in traveling thanks to cycling competitions gave him the necessary security to leave Rochester and go to James Madison University in Virginia, becoming the first of his family to have a university degree. From there he went to Washington DC to launch his career.
When he was offered a sales job at a pharmaceutical company, O'Brien thought it was the perfect position. “My dad is in sales and my mom is in health, so it made sense. I thought I was following the script perfectly: get on the hamster wheel and then climb to the top. ”
Four years later, he joined a new pharmaceutical company that wanted to settle in the United States. Together with his wife and one-year-old daughter, he moved to New Jersey where his new company's offices were.
On his first day, he was told that who was going to be his boss had resigned and that O'Brien would have to report directly to the vice president. The work was heavy and stressful, with high expectations and long work days. Soon, O'Brien began to show signs of repressed stress, from insomnia to losing his temper, but he decided to ignore them.
“I didn't know how to handle or relieve stress and I tried to separate my work from my life,” he says. “He was not the type of person who comes home to complain about how difficult work was. I thought my wife wouldn't want to hear it after having a hard day, too, with our two little ones. ”
In hindsight, O'Brien acknowledges that his old ideas about leadership and success didn't help much in fighting his stress. “I thought leaders should have all the answers. If I didn't know something, I questioned my value. ”
I was about to gain a lot of perspective in July 2001.
A dozen surgeries and 34 units of blood
Having taken him to an intensive care unit, O'Brien spent four days there, but he doesn't remember them. He had pieces of windshield on his face, wounds and bruises all over his body, and his femur, tibia and right shoulder were broken.
But the real threat against his life was his left femur, almost shattered, which sealed his femoral artery leading him to almost bleed. If I had been a few years older, or had been in worse physical condition, I would have died on the way to the hospital.
O'Brien received 34 units of blood and underwent multiple surgeries, including a bypass in his artery. While struggling to regain his health in the painful months that followed, the corporate winner who lived in him was frustrated by his lack of progress. And he felt deeply guilty.
“My job as a patriarch was to protect my family, and I had failed them,” he recalls thinking. While he was in the hospital bed, his internal critic went crazy: “why didn't you use the hotel gym, like everyone else?”
Fighting negativity and anxiety, O'Brien fought the slow process of his recovery. “I had a lucid moment during a particularly difficult therapy session in which I realized that I had to heal my mind in order to start healing my body.”
His last bad day
Little by little, O'Brien was changing his perspective on recovery and ended up understanding that the only thing he could control was the effort made, not the results. Each morning, he pushed his wheelchair to a quiet corner of the hospital and reflected on how he wanted to show himself that day, and listened to the “Violator” disc of Depeche Mode before going to his physical therapy.
He also began the arduous task of appointing the driver of the Ford Explorer, a distracted employee of a hotel who, ironically, was rushing to a meeting; as well as all the people in his life who did not react as he had expected.
“Since the accident, not every day has been good,” explains O'Brien. “But I realized that if I let go of my stress, I could live and lead differently, connecting better with others. I could be more creative at work, more grateful, resilient and vulnerable in the office. ”
O'Brien's recovery coincided with the aftermath of 9/11 , something that matched his desire to replace external motivations with a purposeful life. He thought about quitting his job to leave an NGO, until he realized that he could integrate his new priorities with his professional life.
After a long year of recovery, O'Brien returned to work with a new purpose, to which he spent the next 12 years. His change of perspective catapulted him into the directors' room, from where he handled hundreds of employees and a budget of $ 4 billion as vice president of sales and marketing, while still facing surgeries and recovery therapies.
When O'Brien shared his experience with other leaders and began advising them informally, he discovered his purpose: to help other managers succeed through their intentions, their resilience and their ability to connect with others. His mantra became “Don't let bad times turn into bad days.”
Finding your purpose in the corporate world
In 2014, O'Brien quit his job to devote himself fully to his new company, Peloton Executive Coaching. But the seeds of his new career were planted before the accident, along with his boss hired a coach. O'Brien had never heard of corporate coaching, and laughs as he remembers thinking, “Wow, you must be really bad if you need a coach.”
In 2014, O'Brien quit his job and founded Peloton Executive Coaching. Credits: Michael O'Brien.
But his first coach, David Kolb, made a lasting impression. “It was so refreshing,” says O'Brien. “I thought about life with a sense of spirituality, but I still had that attitude of 'doing things' to be able to say' Your work matters. You have to be better. ”
Kolb's influence was much more relevant than O'Brien noticed at the time. When he woke up in intensive care, his wife asked him who David was.
“While I was anesthetized, I told my wife to go get David,” O'Brien laughs. “So even there I had a little clue that maybe I could follow in his footsteps.”
O'Brien has helped hundreds of directors break down barriers and change their mentality with honesty, compassion and leadership. He wrote the book: “”, and gave a TEDx talk about his recovery and his change of perspective to an audience of 1,500 corporate leaders.
It helps its clients to write their own scripts, with the restrictions of their corporate environment. “Changing perspective can open possibilities in every aspect of life,” he says. “Sometimes we just need a little help to take that first step.”
O'Brien knows how scary that first step can be. During his recovery, his therapist felt his fear of getting back on the bicycle and gave him an ultimatum: You will not be able to return to therapy until you have gone for a ride on the bike. So O'Brien got his bike into the car and drove to a nearby industrial park. His first laps were unstable but stimulating, giving him the same sense of freedom he had discovered by doing it for the first time as a child.
Facing fear was part of O'Brien's physical recovery. Credits: Michael O'Brien
Within minutes of circling, he heard a truck approaching. Overcoming his fear, he closed his eyes, held his breath and waited for it to happen. When I opened my eyes, I saw the world from my therapist's perspective: a path full of possibilities.