Almost Dying Taught This CEO The Meaning Of Resilience

Three years ago, John Sperzel was diagnosed with a rare and progressively fatal condition. He survived—and learned the secrets to overcoming adversity, both in business and in life.

If you look up resilience in the dictionary, it is defined as, “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” In essence, it is our ability to recover from adversity. Whether it’s a setback, an illness, a loss, or just sheer pain, resiliency is a critical skill to possess in life. You can be humming along in life or business or sport or leisure, and all of a sudden you get completely blindsided. It’s how you deal with and respond to the situation that is going to determine your success—or not.

While attitude is all about choice, adversity is different in the sense that sometimes it just chooses you. Adversity comes in different forms and—like pain—it is a universal concept, but the unique experience of pain is going to be different for each person. One thing is clear about both pain and adversity, try as you might, when it comes looking for you, it’s not something you can dodge. In my case, I got diagnosed with giant cell myocarditis, a disorder that has been diagnosed approximately 300 times in medical history, most of those during autopsy. How can you possibly prepare for something like that?

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in life is that it’s not what happens to you, it’s who you choose to become as a result of what happens to you that ultimately defines who you are—and dictates the level of success you’ll achieve in life.

We watch how people behave in a crisis and it’s totally different than how they might react in a less stressful situation. And that was clearly the case with me. I was in the lab talking to one of the nurses after I had survived, and he said, “What you physically put yourself through was unheard of, but the psychological impact must have been overwhelming. Didn’t you just want to lay down and die?” And I said, “I never let it get overwhelming. I refused to allow negative thoughts to enter my brain.”

Well, of course negative thoughts did try to creep in once in a while (I’m only human), but when they did—I shut them out. When you’re there in the hospital, laying on your back for twenty-four hours a day, day after day, week after week, they’re going to creep in, but I had to be mentally tough enough to shut them out. Hard work, perseverance and grit are what made me successful in sports. It’s what has made me successful in business. And it’s what got me through that crisis in the hospital—sheer determination and raw grit and will.

Ultimately, adversity revealed that I’m a fighter beyond even what I believed. It revealed this indomitable will, a will that absolutely saved my life. “The will to live,” as they call it, is actually a real thing. People in the hospital told me regularly that it mattered, and now—whenever I am in the hospital and I have the opportunity to visit with patients—the one thing I tell them is that you have to fight and never give up.

In business, we often fight to reach our quarterly or annual targets. In sports, we typically fight to outscore our opponent. In each case, there is a finite amount of time. You know that you have a week remaining in the quarter, or two minutes left in the game. But when you’re fighting for your life, or fighting AND waiting for a life-saving organ transplant, you don’t know how long it will take—or if it will ever come. It is a fight against time for which there is no clock. You have to keep fighting and fighting and fighting. And you don’t know if it’s a day, a week, a month or many months. For most people, it’s really difficult to sustain that level of fight in the face of so much uncertainty. But when the will to live kicks in, and you are willing to give it everything you have—and I mean everything—you can pretty much conquer anything. And knowing it can save your life, just imagine what it can do for you on a day-to-day basis!

When people have an expectation that life is supposed to be easy, they’re absolutely taken down to their core when adversity hits. I’d far rather give adversity it’s fair place in the equation, as part of what triggers you to be living the best possible life that only you can lead.

The Three Steps to Resilience

I’ve come to believe there are three steps in the process of building resilience:

1. Acknowledge the reality of the current situation.

I was diagnosed with one of the world’s rarest and deadliest disorders, needed a heart transplant, and had almost no chance of survival. I’m very good at acknowledging the reality of a situation, so when it came to my medical situation, it was somewhat easy. I knew I was in the fight of my life. I knew I needed a heart transplant. I knew it was going to be a tough battle, physically and mentally. I could easily acknowledge the reality of my situation. But whatever the situation, without this step, resilience is impossible.

2. Accept uncertainty and confront your fear. 

Accepting uncertainty and confronting your fear is the part of the equation that I’m truthfully not the best at. Personally, as it relates to my health journey, I skipped right past this step. I wasn’t worried about the uncertainty. I wasn’t worried about fear. I had a positive attitude and I was determined to survive. My will to live overrode the process, and I simply didn’t allow any negativity or doubt enter my mind. You’d be surprised how hard you’re willing to fight when your life is really and truly—I mean, literally—on the line.

I recognize this was an extreme example, but even in non-life- or-death situations I tend to skip right by this stage, and—as a leader—this is something I have to be very aware of. People move through different stages at different paces. Because I’m not good at showing—or even feeling—fear, sometimes when it’s not part of the equation from my perspective, I don’t remember to take time to acknowledge that those around me might be scared and might need support, even if I don’t feel that way. I tend to move straight into step three, and assume others are right there with me, which can come across to my team and my family as a little cold and impersonal.

I did a color wheel personality profile test a while back, and it spoke to this area directly: “You naturally think through your options before taking a position. And when you take a position, you tend to be decisive and direct with an informal down-to-earth communication style. You may be inclined to address others in concrete terms, without regard for their feelings. It’s for this reason you’re quite often the one who is called upon to make the tough calls and make sure people comply.”

I think that’s so dead on. My girlfriend, Rhonda, tells me that sometimes in a crisis, it seems like I don’t care about people’s feelings. I know that. And it’s not because I don’t care about them—to me, it’s just better not to confuse the facts with emotion. And in relationships, that’s admittedly not always the best way, but in terms of solving a crisis, it’s very effective.

Now, when I find myself in this type of situation, I’m working on saying, before I move into decisive action, “This is a crisis. We need to act fast. Feelings might get hurt along the way when we’re in action mode, and I might not notice because I am so focused on the solution. But what I can promise is that when the crisis is over, we’ll debrief, talk about how everyone felt, and go through any collateral damage that may have inadvertently and unintentionally happened in the haste of getting us out of crisis mode. Even stopping long enough to utilize this soundbyte has been a learning process for me, and doesn’t come all that naturally.

3. Focus on the solution and take action.

I didn’t know exactly what my path toward survival would entail but I knew that staying totally focused—I’m talking laser focused—could be the difference between living and dying.

The global Covid-19 pandemic was an unbelievable exercise in resilience for so many people. At my company, we had to acknowledge the reality of our situation—our sales people could no longer enter hospitals, and our service/support people could only enter hospitals to provide emergency equipment service or repairs. We had to accept the uncertainty and confront our fears presented by the unknown. And then we had to move into action and focus on a solution. The realities of our situation forced us to rethink well-established ways of doing business and required us to find really creative ways to support our existing customers—and win new ones. Members of our sales team are now taking customers all the way from an introductory phone call to selling them an instrument that costs tens of thousands of dollars by video conference. And then having to send someone in to install the equipment in a matter of weeks, versus what often took months before, because our customers are also in unprecedented circumstances. They’re also dealing with tremendous uncertainty, and as a result they’re actually willing to do things that they might not have ever done. And it’s working. It’s a win-win for everyone.

We All Need Reminders

I wear this blue silicone bracelet on my wrist, one of those free promotional swag items they hand out at conferences (you know the kind, like the LIVESTRONG bracelet Lance Armstrong made famous). This particular one was from the vice president of an investment bank, who handed me a couple of bags of them when I arrived and casually said, “Oh, by the way, I had something made and we’re giving them out today.” For the people at the conference who knew my story, they thought it rocked, and for those who didn’t they asked a lot of questions. Although I know him very well, I didn’t ask him to make the bracelets, he just did so of his own accord. It read “NEVER GIVE UP.”

The year after my heart transplant, Rhonda and I were in Hawaii and we decided to hike a dormant volcano called Koko Head Crater. It’s not a huge volcano, but it’s super steep. Because of that, climbing it is considered the glute workout from hell. While I don’t know exactly how high it is, I certainly can attest to the fact that everyone agrees it’s a good thing when you’re done and you find yourself thinking Thank God I’m finished with that when it’s over. It has an old military railroad track that goes straight up, and the railroad ties are a little bit of a stretch to go from one to the other, even for really fit people.

In my prime, I probably would have run up Koko Head, but when I couldn’t feel my legs from the knees down and I was still recovering from a heart transplant, I wasn’t about to try running up this StairMaster from hell. I wasn’t in top shape at the time, and halfway up I found myself feeling tired and thinking that this might actually be a little more than I bargained for. It was tougher than I thought, and at the halfway point I started thinking to myself, I’ve got a pretty good view from here and it might be too risky to keep climbing. Maybe I’ll just turn around and enjoy the view and hike back down. And on this day, at just that moment, I happened to look down at my wrist and the writing on my blue bracelet was facing out. The words NEVER GIVE UP were practically shouting at me from my wrist. It gave me the extra push I needed to forge on, and when I got to the top I was so glad I made it, because the view from the top was way better than the one from halfway up.

I wear that bracelet every day as a reminder that no matter what the odds, and no matter how bleak things look, you can’t quit. And the concept of never giving up is an important message for everyone. Sometimes we all need a little reminder.

Excerpted from Courage: Powerful Lessons in Leadership, Strength and the Will to Succeed (Merack Publishing, March 2021) 

John Sperzel is the president and CEO of T2 Biosystems As a healthcare executive, he has built and led high-performance teams at all levels around the world, and acquired companies in the United States, Europe, Asia and Latin America. Following his heart transplant in 2017, Sperzel returned to his role as a public company CEO and continues to pursue his lifelong passion to advance life-saving technologies.