“Time is shortening, but every day that I challenge this cancer and survive is a victory for me.”
Three time academy-award winning Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982)

I am coming up to the 25th year anniversary of my initial diagnosis with colon cancer, and my entering of the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney for a Hemicolectomy, which involved the surgical removal of the tumour and the surrounding parts of my descending colon. Since then, I have been through regular colonoscopies, and have often had more bits cut out, but I am still here, and intend to be so for a long time to come.

Author: Nephron (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Nephron (own work); CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

I believe that I have learned much about life in my nearly 70 years on this planet, and also that I still have much to learn, but this anniversary, and the fact that I am also trying to help two friends who are now embarking on this same journey, has had me thinking about what I had learned specifically as a result of my brush with cancer.

Here are 10 of my lessons learned while going through the medical procedures and treatment:

– Medicine is not an exact science, as I was originally given a 50/50 chance of living just one year. Doctors are well trained professionals but have much the same error rates as the rest of the population.

By TomTheHand; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikiemdia Commons

By TomTheHand; CC BY-SA 3.0 license

– Be prepared to ask your specialist what he would do in your situation, but only after establishing a relationship as equals rather than having just a doctor to patient discussion. I stopped chemotherapy after my serious one-on-one session with my surgeon.

– Fighting a life threatening disease is not a part time job. You must give it all your focus. If that means including some non-traditional help such as meditation, tai-chi and forward visualisation, embrace it. I did all three and more.

– People who keep telling you to “stay positive” are not morons; they just don’t know what else to say. Most people who have faced cancer tend to agree that this is one of the silliest things that anyone could have said to them. Even “be strong” makes more sense.

– People who treat you normally when you are sick are a greater comfort than those whose voices drop 25 decibels and 2 octaves, and who thus address you as a sick person. I used to hear people in the corridor chat normally with my wife, and then enter my hospital room and address me in a hushed sombre whisper. I have never understood why they thought that this would help.

– There is significant advantage in looking for the humour in situations when you feel that you are facing death, such as a friend who gave me the latest Wilbur Smith book at the time called “A Time to Die”. My wife and I giggled to tears.

Author: jimincairns; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Wilbur Smith; Author: jimincairns; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

– The medical system can only handle the high volume of disease through standard process management. Your responsibility is to ensure that the treadmill you are placed on makes sense for you, or else, if it is an option, you need to get off and manage it more personally.

– Laughter is a more powerful medicine that any drug. I had a wonderful nurse who, early on the day after my operation, forced me to get out of bed and start walking by threatening to take off down the corridor carrying the catheter bags that were attached to some sensitive parts of my anatomy.

– Not everything that happens is an omen. I kept waking up at 4.44 every morning in the hospital, and it bothered me until my wife reminded me that I wasn’t Chinese, so Asian numerology was really meaningless for me.

Here are another 10 key lessons about life in general that I learned as a result of my illness:

– You can’t bottle things up … unless you are a wine maker. Many people now understand that “lifestyle” can be a major contributor to illness. My diagnosis suggested that my having been a heavy smoker may have been an issue (this link to colon cancer has now been established), but at the time all I could say was that I never did the drawback on my cigarettes so strongly that it could have gotten down to the affected area.

Author: Dick Rochester; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Dick Rochester; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

– Stress relief is an important part of robust health. For me this involves having dogs. It is hard to stay stressed when you have a wagging tail in front of you, or a wet nose pressed up against your hand, just asking for a head, back or tummy to be stroked. Whatever works for you is worthwhile and is needed.

Author: Bev Sykes; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Bev Sykes; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

– Great friends (as compared to friends on Facebook) are a real comfort, but not all friendships last forever, and knowing when to move on is important. I had friends who couldn’t cope with my illness and therefore kept away, and some who kept me and my wife sane while I fought my way through it all. Remember that cancer not only affects you, but also affects all around you.

– The best reason for staying alive as long as you can is because there are people that you love too much to easily leave behind. This may not be enough reason to overcome a serious illness, but it is the best one that I can think of.

– You should work as hard as it feels right for you, rather than what feels right to someone else. Killing yourself for another’s glory or riches makes no sense, and being the richest person in the cemetery is not a meaningful objective.

– Mental and physical fitness is a key to survival, if for no other reason than it makes your recovery so much easier. You don’t have to be the world’s greatest triathlete, but being fit enough to live life fully is critical.

– 25 Calendar years are equivalent to just one year in real life … which is how fast it goes. My last 25 years have been incredibly full of change, wonder and excitement and we have packed a lot into that time, but looking back it feels like days have passed rather than years.

– The world has more than enough arseholes … there is no need to swell their ranks. Being tough when it is needed is acceptable behaviour, but forgetting that all people deserve your respect is unforgiveable.

– If you seriously dislike whatever you are doing in life, you must stop doing it immediately. (This doesn’t apply to such things as doing necessary household chores or paying taxes).

– You need to live every day as though it was your last … one day you will be right.

I always try to remember what was said by American actor Michael Landon (1936-1991) “I’m going to beat this cancer or die trying”.



“If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way”.
American humourist and writer Mark Twain (1835-1910).

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

A few people have pointed out to me that my learnings in 2013 were a fairly meagre list at just five lessons (see “My main personal lessons learned in 2013” posted December 16, 2013), so for those of you who are keen on volume or who are metric-centric, here are five more.

1. Doing something new that excites you can add 10 years to your lifespan … As we get older the tendency is to start to set tight boundaries on our lives. Older people tend to downsize to smaller cars and smaller homes, limit their friends, limit their outings and set shorter horizons. I have no doubt that this is exactly the reverse of what one should do. I have over the last few months started working with a young start-up that is stretching my knowledge, my experience and my timetables, and it is one of the most interesting and exciting assignments that I could have accepted as a late sexagenarian. I am having so much fun, and doing so many new things that I have now decided that I will live to 96, rather than 86 as I had originally planned.

2. DNA can be scary … growing up with older brothers and sisters can be a mixed bag. While an older brother will work hard to maintain his position of superiority over you at all times, often painfully physically and emotionally for the younger sibling, an older sister can be a wonderful source of caring and comfort. My older brother (12 years ahead) and sister (10 years ahead) have always treated me as their “little brother”, despite my advancing years. This has been a great source of amusement to my own children and to any friends and colleagues who have met them. I had an opportunity to visit them recently in Australia and the problem for me is that, looking at my brother at 80 gave me an opportunity to see how I might look, think and act in 10 years. I hope like hell that in this case nurture is stronger than nature.

Author: Yikrazuul; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Yikrazuul; via Wikimedia Commons

3. Ageing is only external … I have to admit that I cannot in any way think of myself as being on the way to turning 70 next year, despite the issues with my joints, back and thinning hair. I have realised that you only really age in other people’s eyes rather than through your own, as I know many people in their 30s and 40s who also have issues with joints, backs and hair challenges, so these cannot be true indications. When I had my bout with cancer 25 years ago, a psychologist that I worked with had me establish both my ideal age, which was 36, and the age of my death which I set at 86. I set my demise to happen during a trekking trip in the Himalayas when a mountain ledge gives way underfoot. My wife has decided that either she tries to grab me and follows me over the edge, or she is actually the one who pushes me over, depending on her mood at any given time. I have already revised the latter age as it doesn’t seem so far away anymore, and anyway it just means my keeping away from Tibet in 2033, but I stick firmly to my internal age of 36 despite what the mirror shows me.

4. Money may not buy happiness, but it does buy choices … I have long said that just having an objective to make money is the wrong way to live one’s life, as I have always believed that having enough money to do what one wants to do should be a by-product of hard work at something that you are passionate about. I have been very fortunate in my life that I have been able to work in an industry that always excited me and for companies that gave me the opportunities to work in roles that were interesting and rewarding, both emotionally and financially. I have realised that you don’t need a lot of money, but that life is definitely a lot easier if you have enough to be able to make choices about elements of life that are most important to you. It enables you to decide who you should work for, where you should live and how to spend your time.

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

5. Know when to move on … In business, no matter how much fun you are having nor how much value you feel you are adding, there comes a time when you need to move on to make way for new blood with new ideas and new perspectives. I have long believed that it is wrong to stay in the same senior role for more than about 5-6 years whether this is an operational role such as a CEO, or an advisory role as a board member. I have seen executives who have hung in there for longer periods who, after about 5 years, tend to start recycling their strategies. Good managers build their successors and move on to do other things that will revitalise their energy and initiatives. After 6 years I recently stepped off the board of a company that I have seen grow from a tiny struggling start-up to a successful player in its space, and which has now sold itself to a larger company. The timing was perfect for me as I felt that it was the right time for a change for both of us. I will now take up a role as an executive coach to their senior executives and external advisor to the board.

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

“Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can – there will always come a time when you will be grateful you did.”
American Opera conductor Sarah Caldwell (1924-2006).


I recently had the honour of delivering the address at the 20th annual “IT Old Timers” lunch in Sydney, Australia.

It was suggested by the organisers that one of the topics I should cover in my speech was what I had learned from some of the great companies that I had worked for in my 40+ year career in the IT industry.

In preparing my presentation it became very clear to me that we really needed to think about redefining the definition of what actually constituted a great company to include some measure of longevity, as most of these so-called great companies that I had worked for had long ago faded into oblivion.

Companies where I worked, that had led the IT industry during their heyday, included Digital Equipment (DEC), Data General, Wang (where I was a VAR) and Sun Microsystems who were all bright shooting stars that eventually had dramatic flameouts, and which either completely disappeared into the pages of IT history or were absorbed into larger companies who then also managed to build their own demise. One such example is Digital Equipment which was absorbed by Compaq which was then absorbed by Hewlett Packard.

Author: StenSoft; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: StenSoft; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, they all taught me lessons that have stayed with me, and all of them had an impact on my belief systems and my management style. Here are just three of the key ones:

Never turn your back on your competition no matter how big your lead … I learned this lesson early in my career at International Harvester which, while not being an IT company, was where I started my IT career. IH dominated the global farm equipment and heavy truck market for decades and who, despite the very visible arrival of Japanese competitors, chose to disregard the seriousness of their competitive intent. These Japanese competitors arrived in the market with better technology, better products and better pricing yet IH believed that the IH dealer network and customers would remain loyal under any and all circumstances. They didn’t, and IH didn’t survive. The same was true with DEC who could not accept that PCs were a serious threat that would cannibalise the market position held by minicomputers. Ken Olsen, DEC founder and CEO, was famously quoted as saying “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home”.

Author:   B.Borys; CC BY-SA 2.0 DE license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: B.Borys; CC BY-SA 2.0 DE license; via Wikimedia Commons

President and CEO of Remington Products Victor Kiam (1926-2001) summed it up well when he said “In business, the competition will bite you if you keep running, but if you stand still, they will swallow you.”

Complex organisational structures ultimately confuse everyone … I learned very early on in my career to dislike complex organisational structures particularly matrix organisations (see “Stupid management ideas” posted August 29, 2011). Giving people multiple upward reporting lines tends to confuse responsibilities and loyalties, adds to administrative overheads, and slows down decision making. DEC added unnecessary complexity internally with its profusion of product lines, and also managed to confuse its market with differing and sometimes competing but similar products from each of them. For example, a university could basically buy the same products from the Laboratory, Education or Commercial groups sometimes at different prices, depending on which part of the company wanted the business the most at that time, or even just depending on the whim of the salesmen. I am always nervous when I see any company overcomplicate its organisational structure, which is sadly something I have been seeing happening increasingly in SAP, one of my few surviving employers.

Author: Chery (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Chery (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

As the father of lateral thinking Edward de Bono said “Dealing with complexity is an inefficient and unnecessary waste of time, attention and mental energy. There is never any justification for things being complex when they could be simple.”

You don’t have to be big or complex to become bureaucratic … One of the reasons that I left DEC in 1984, was that I had become disillusioned with the bureaucracy. When I had joined DEC in 1977 it was a fast moving, dynamic organisation with little internal political intrigue. As the organisation grew, and the matrix flourished and spread it became more political and more siloed, hence becoming slower and more cumbersome. When I then joined Data General it was about one quarter the size of DEC with revenues of less than $1B, and had not yet managed to fall in love with the madness of a matrix organisation. Sadly, DG didn’t need a matrix to slow it down, as Edson de Castro, founder and CEO, made every decision from his office in Westborough, Massachusetts. For example, a country CEO could not take a decision to offer even a 10% discount on a major competitive sale, most often against an incumbent DEC, without direct approval from the DG Global CEO. We could spend weeks waiting for an approval from de Castro, which made the prospective customer doubt whether we were even serious about winning their business, and regularly lost us the deal.

Author: Nina Paley; permission: http://mimiandeunice.com/about/; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Nina Paley; permission: http://mimiandeunice.com/about/; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Brazilian politician Jaime Lerner summed it up well when he said “Bureaucracy is like a fungus that contaminates everything.”

What I realised, while going through this exercise of reviewing my past to prepare my speech to the IT old-timers, is that every company that we work for has the opportunity to teach us important lessons while we are there, and that for me, even with a few wrong steps in my career, it was all worthwhile. I have also come to understand that my 45 years, so far, in the IT industry have been much more defined by the people that I worked with than by whatever company or its products we were fascinated with at the time. (see “My son is in typewriters” posted July 8, 2010).

Great companies come and go and great products come and go, but ultimately having great people is the only true sustainable competitive advantage.