Bill Clinton has a personal vendetta against me. OK, that may be overstating things a bit. But still, the 42nd President of the United States does have an annoying habit of interfering with my plans.
The year was 2001. Having just completed my freshman year of university, I was keen to do a bit of adventuring. My brother Dan and his wife Ioanna were working in Hong Kong at the time and had just given birth to their first kid, Gabriel. The chance to visit my newborn nephew seemed like a great excuse to travel, so I packed my bags and hopped a flight for the Far East.
When I wasn’t hanging with Gabe the Babe, I was out and about, touring around the sprawling megalopolis. One afternoon, Dan returned home from work and relieved me from my babysitting duties. He suggested I check out a small antique market a short walk from the apartment.
Changing my t-shirt that Gabriel had once again covered in vomit, I stepped out into the oppressive heat. I didn’t get far. Although access to the antique market was literally across the street, getting there proved trickier than expected.
A wall of beefy men in black suits and sunglasses barred entry, their granite features and clear “I-know-how-to-kill-you-with-my-pinkie” vibe making me sweat even more. Weighing the pros and cons between getting into the market and having my arms torn off, I opted to give the scary men a wide berth.
I was disappointed by the unexpected detour, but made the most of it with a visit to a nearby shrine. Unfortunately, the peace and serenity I felt inside the sacred space was quickly replaced with mild paranoia as I exited the building and saw that the men in black were back and had now cordoned off the entire street I was on.
For a fleeting moment I wondered if it was possible that I was actually a rogue government agent with amnesia like Jason Bourne or Wolverine, and that these men were here to take me down. And that I would need to brawl my way through the streets of Hong Kong like a scene from a Jackie Chan movie, using deadly martial arts I didn’t know I had.
Nope. Just Bill Clinton.
The former Commander in Chief strolled out of a side street as his black-suited security detail kept a close eye on the small crowd that had gathered. The official story was that Billy Boy was in town for an economic forum. I prefer to think he was there with the express intent of disrupting my Hong Kong sightseeing. Stymied again, I left the scene in search of an alternate route back to the apartment.
Fast-forward five years.
By this point, I had graduated university and was working for a large international development charity. During the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto, I took the bus downtown to attend the event. It was a jam-packed day filled with inspiring and depressing stories in equal measure.
Too jam-packed, I discovered, when I realized how late it was and that I’d need to hightail it out of there if I hoped to catch my bus. I headed for the nearest exit and got a move on. Once again, I didn’t get far. Rounding the corner of the building, I skidded to a halt, the entire sidewalk jammed up with a large crowd.
With no time to spare, I considered worming my way through the sea of people, until I noticed that the way forward was blocked off completely. By several men. Wearing black suits. Who looked like they could kill me with their pinkies. The conference centre doors swung open and there he was: Bill “I’ve Got The Need to Impede” Clinton.
Half a decade later, the former US president was still out to get me.
Rolling with the punches
Whether it’s a stomach bug, a string of red lights or a saxophone-playing head of state messing with your schedule, life has a way of throwing monkey wrenches into even the best-laid plans. That’s why being able to roll with the punches is so important.
That was certainly true throughout my cancer journey. After I left Princess Margaret Hospital following my initial month of treatment, I was beaten up and had even less hair than what I went in with (which wasn’t much).
The first round of chemo had worked, hammering the rogue army of cancerous white blood cells into remission. However, it also took a serious toll on the rest of my body. I stepped outside and breathed in fresh air for the first time in over a month. Immediately, my super-chapped lips split and bled everywhere.
My friends Rob and Julie took me out for a celebratory lunch where I scarfed down so many fajitas, you’d think I was trying to gain back the 20 pounds I had lost in the hospital — and do it all in one sitting. I was hungry. High doses of steroids and six weeks of hospital food will do that to you.
After lunch, we headed toward the pharmacy to fill a prescription. Rather than go all the way to the crosswalk, we opted to make a break for it and jaywalk. I stepped into the street and started to run. Well, I attempted to run. With muscles completely wasted from the chemo, my legs buckled underneath me and it took everything I had to remain upright. Cars sped towards me as I staggered to the other side, begging my legs to work.
It was an important reminder that I was going to have to adapt to a new reality. Things were different now. With my liver already overloaded with all the toxic chemicals the doctors were pouring into me, I couldn’t go out for beer with the boys. My weakened immune system meant I couldn’t go to crowded movie theatres and had to do my grocery shopping at odd hours. I had to adjust my schedule around my medications, making sure drug A was taken on an empty stomach and drug B with a full one. And yes, sprinting across a busy Toronto street was no longer realistic.
As I adapted to life as a cancer patient, I also quickly realized that my journey from diagnosis to recovery was going to be a zig-zaggy one. I had a treatment plan, but frequent setbacks forced me to constantly modify it. My blood counts would sometimes crash and we would need to postpone some of my chemotherapy. A viral infection would knock me off course on more than one occasion. An adverse response to a particular drug meant the doctors would have to adjust my meds.
So often, success hinges on your ability to pivot and reimagine the path forward when the unexpected knocks you off course.
Indeed, the more responsive and open you are to changing directions — be it finding a back alley shortcut in Hong Kong or taking a later bus home — the better equipped you’ll be to handle life’s curve balls. Below are a few ideas to get you started.
#1. Nurture a flexible attitude
Plans change, things happen, projects get derailed. Acknowledge that setbacks are inevitable so you won’t be too discouraged when they do happen.
#2. Be ready with a Plan B
Plan ahead so you can adapt to unexpected changes. Put away extra money to deal with an unpredictable car breakdown or health issue. Don’t put all your eggs in a single investment basket. Bring five ideas to the table in case your first four get nixed.
#3. Be open
Keep an open mind. There are a hundred ways to get from A to B so don’t be rigid about your plans. Listen to other people’s opinions, ask questions and explore your options. You may have a clear vision of what your engagement photos should look like, but your photographer may have an even better idea.
#4. Let go
Adapting to a new reality means letting go of the past. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of nostalgia and reminiscing. But when that devolves into whining and fixating on how things used to be, then you probably need to give your head a shake and get back to the business at hand.
#5. Find opportunity in obstacles
Embrace change as an opportunity for growth. That big client backing out is an opportunity to introduce fresh ideas to your strategy. That broken leg is an opportunity to catch up on reading. Losing your job is an opportunity to re-evaluate your career goals. Fail your way to success by embracing snafus as learning opportunities.
More stories from the Overcoming Obstacles Handbook
Lessons learned from leukemia
More life lessons
Cancer reminded me that life is the greatest teacher of all. The following stories share obstacle-busting lessons from some of life’s other awesome and absurd moments — from sleeping in a barn to multiple run-ins with Bill Clinton’s bodyguards to nearly driving a car off a cliff.