1 Big Idea to Think About

  • Life is filled with uncertainty and pain for everyone, but we can choose to find joy in the small moments that make up our life.

1 Way You Can Apply This

  • Find one moment today that makes you say, “I am alive, I am here, and I am grateful.”

1 Question to Ask

  • What did I learn from listening to the conversation with Sam and what do I need to do next?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • Living an essential life before cancer and after cancer (2:08)
  • The great power in routine (6:03)
  • A “living” Essentialism (12:00)
  • The bravery it takes to say yes (13:12)
  • Living without a future (18:42)
  • Life will offer you a chance to be joyful tomorrow if you’ll take it (22:17)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown: 

I particularly like this idea that actually, by leaving them, that part of the problem is resolved automatically, and that you wouldn’t know that. And you didn’t know that when you were out there chasing the leaves. 

 

Sam Bridgstock: 

Yeah. 

 

Greg McKeown: 

You couldn’t learn that wisdom about it. And it was only by prioritizing what you know matters most and seeing what happens to the rest that you discover, oh, that partially takes care of itself.

And I think about that in my own life sometimes. Well, when I’m working with other leaders and other organizations. It’s like hypothetical. What happens if they, how would we set, we remember it for a second. I’ve described it before as a reverse pilot. So a normal pilot is where you try something new, you add something new and you see what happens, and you see what happens in the marketplace. You see what happens in your life, but a reverse pilot is to not do a thing and see what happens. What is the actual consequence if you haven’t done it for a day or for a week, or for a month? 

And the idea that to me, it’s like, in the end, you’ve conducted this reverse pilot, well, what happens if I’m not chasing it all the time? What,  happens then? And, sometimes, in a busyness and a reaction to every email and so on, we don’t actually learn what the consequences are. So we’re just guessing. And we’re, again, coming back to a theme you started before we’re acting out of fear. 

You said a moment ago, you think about essentialism before cancer and after cancer differently. And then I think you’ve shared mostly about before cancer. 

 

Sam Bridgstock: 

I actually, in one way, don’t think it has. I think what has changed is the barrier. The challenges of doing it well have gotten higher. 

 

Greg McKeown: 

So, the stakes have increased. 

 

Sam Bridgstock: 

Yeah, and I think the opposition to doing things with as many people as I love, friends, family, has become harder, you know.

For me, you know, there’ll be other people listening who have gone through cancer or, or maybe other physical, you know, surgeries and health issues that, that sap at them. And for me, you know, last year my most visited place was St. James’s Hospital. I went there over 30 times in the year and stayed overnight for 15 of them.

And so for me, every day now, I’d say I have less energy. You can, I’m on pills that can make me sleepy, can make me anxious, make me depressed. I have pain from surgery. I struggle to sleep at night, so I very rarely sleep through. I’m, I think, a little bit slower of mind because you’re drugged up, and so things take longer to do, so I’m more likely to re-read work emails before I send them, so you’re not as productive.

And even now, you know, 40 minutes in, my back is hurting in this position. So if I go places, sometimes it’s harder to stand. I find it hard to stand up. I find it hard to shake hands. It causes pain on my right side. So you’ve got all these challenges that before weren’t there, but you still want to love and, you know, cherish and have this order of what’s most important, but you’ve got less time, less sleep, less mental capacity.

So I don’t think for me, the key things that I want to focus on have changed or I’ve come up with a fancy new solution. But maybe for anyone out there who’s listening, I want to just acknowledge it becomes incredibly insanely hard. And that, you know, when you’re ill, a lot of people want to have time with you that maybe you don’t know that well.

And when I got my first diagnosis, the consultant said what you’ll find is many people close to you will drift, and many people who are strangers will actually step in and want to speak to you, want to give you solutions, want to, you know, almost enjoy, not enjoy the drama, but be part of the drama.

And so I think there’s an extra pull for me where people want to talk to you about your cancer, and there may be people that you don’t know that well, and they, I have people that ask to meet up, to go on walks, to discuss remedies and all of those are competing with my normal priorities that I’m doing with less time and less capacity.

And so I think the guilt has been ever, ever brighter because you’re saying no to more people. And on the good days, I have to make the most of them. And, that can be quite a difficult thing where I know I’m, I, you know, I’m going to be frank. I know I’m not as good a brother or friend since I’ve had cancer. I have less capacity to do that beyond keeping hold of my job and still serving my church, and I have five kids that you know I love and a wife that I adore.

So, my energy is already being used to survive with those amidst loads of hospital visits. And then you’ve got all these other people who mean well, but I have to kind of manage. And that’s been an interesting experience because at first, I think I almost jumped into the river. Every message, every kind of request for a walk or a run or a conversation, almost.

And it’s not like, and I, and I’ve loved meeting people and hearing their thoughts and appreciated their kindness, but it wasn’t sustainable. And actually it created a lot of stress in me. I noticed in the first few months of having terminal cancer that I was, there’d be times when, you know, just the door kept knocking, and I couldn’t function.

You know, it’s easy when you have very difficult circumstances, it might not be cancer, it might be you’ve just lost your job, or your marriage is in a really bad way, or your kids have made terrible choices, it’s very easy, I think, to say, you know, I’ll, I’ll give up on things, or I’ll change my routine, or, and I actually found there’s a great power to keeping routine, to keeping the key friendships going, to not stopping because it’s difficult, there’s a great power in just saying, “No these things are most important, and I will push on with them even if I’m even with that knowledge that maybe I’m a bit incapacitated to do them as well as in the past. Rather than saying I’ll stop everything. Because some people said to me almost, I mean they’re not said to be an essentialist you should now you should Give up work, give up your church service. You should just spend every minute with your children of every day. Cause you, cause you’re going to die soon, Sam. Now, that’s logical advice from one level. You know, if, obviously, if you’re a centralist, you, you make this drastic choice, and you sit there every day and have every moment for them. Well, I’ve noticed my children respond well when I’m normal.

So if I go to work, they feel they can keep going with their university or college or school because we’re all grieving that I’m going to die, and our family dynamic will change forever. But if I stay at home crying and say, why don’t we all give up and we’ll all stay home crying? Well, I wouldn’t have had a child who just finished a four-year intense degree at Oxford. I wouldn’t have a child who just finished a degree at Manchester whilst working part time. And going often, you know, to America with his wife to help her, you know, acclimatize to being here when she misses her family. I wouldn’t have a child who’s just finished their second year of med school, a child who’s just finished the GCSEs, and my youngest daughter who’s absolutely acing it at high school and become a great dancer and very expressive in music.

And I’m thinking if I just said essentialism looks like we hold on to each other in this bubble, and we don’t leave the house, and we don’t look outwards, we don’t serve other people, we don’t try. I think that’s, I don’t think that is what essentialism is. I think essentialism is these are the people and the things that mean most to me, but it doesn’t mean kind of stopping and holding on to them because actually, I found for me to have the courage to do normal things has allowed my children to fly.

I mean, if I’d held on to them and said, I’m protecting you from pain, and I’ve only got so many months and years left, I’m going to hold you physically and emotionally and otherwise in this kind of blanket here and we’ll, we’ll have every day having lunch together. Well, they would have drowned in my sorrow and pity, and they would be not achieving things.

And I know that when the difficult moment comes when I’m not there, I know their bravery is already refined. They’ve learned to be brave, and they’ve learned that grief and everyone listening now will have something in their life they grieve over. It will be that their mum died when they were six, or that their parents got divorced and they didn’t want them to, or a child died or got an illness, whatever it is.

And somehow, we have to find a way of living life in a joyful way now, whilst carrying all that crap, all that rubbish, all that stuff that makes you feel heavy, rather than saying, I’ve got all this heaviness, I’ll stop, and almost in an essentialist way, hold onto it all tight, and in doing so, suffocate it.

 

Greg McKeown: 

I think you’re describing a sort of counterfeit essentialism, that somebody could, in the name of it, go, “Well, if the focus is the idea, then, and these are the relationships that matter most, then we have to act in this very extreme way.” And what occurred to me as you were talking is, if you had done that, quit everything, stayed at home, been there, done, let’s say something like the unnatural thing.

It’s like, in a way, it would have been like asking everybody and everyone to start dying. You know, like it could be done out of a sense of, “Well, this is the only thing that matters.” You know, you are the only people that matter to me, so I have to spend every second of every day doing this.

But, but really you’d have been trying to force other people into  your, sort of your own reality and timeframe rather than the long, life that you want them to live of adventure and fulfilling their, the measure of their creation and so on. So I think that is a, it’s, there’s something very profound in this for me about something like a living essentialism versus a dying essentialism.

 

Sam Bridgstock: 

You know, coming full circle to the beginning, it’s actually being brave to say yes. No, when, maybe when I was younger, I said no as a natural response. And, for me, that might be something which, for you, you wouldn’t blink about. But, you know, two years ago, when I was on certain drugs, I found certain situations very stressful socially.

And there was a time I went to my in-laws for dinner, and there was like a big family gathering. And I had this real feeling of panic, and I can’t remember what drugs I was on at the time, but they were obviously impacting me, but it wasn’t just that. I think it was the grief. I was coming up to a scan, which makes me feel very stressed.

And I left. I left and walked out, and walked home. And me and Anna had a very frank discussion after. And her kind of comeback was, “There will be a time when you won’t be here. Don’t leave me now.”

But actually, there was enormous fear of being in a room where people at that time talked about the holidays the life.

I felt like because I was gonna die, I no longer belonged to her family. That might sound like a very negative thing. I didn’t expect to feel that. I felt the same with my own family, not just hers at times. I think that’s a very toxic approach to having cancer. And it’s, if I have it, I fight it. But it was something that came from nowhere, like that field, which is if you’re, because you’re going to die, you’re no longer really part of this. And so, you should separate now. 

And what I learned from that experience was, is actually, it’d be easy to say no to loads of things. And that might be a meal out with friends when I feel sick, or physically sick, or a meal out with friends when I’m getting a scan in two days and I actually can’t think straight.

Might be walking with someone. You feel such rubbish company because you’re really sad, and I’ve always liked being someone who makes people laugh I’ve always liked being someone who could tell a funny story and laugh at myself. 

 

Greg McKeown: 

Mm-hmm

  

Sam Bridgstock: 

Your carrying great heaviness means you feel vulnerable, but I’ve learned that If those people mean everything to you, there’s a power in saying yes to them, even though you’re not, in your own mind, it might not be true, but you aren’t bringing them as much. You’re not as good a company. You may be a bit quieter, you may be sad, you may not be to throw off a heaviness. And I’ve tried since that day when I walked home. to say yes to things, you know, that go on around us here at home and friends and social things. And they will not know that many times that took great bravery because for them, it was just a social setting.

 

Greg McKeown: 

Right. 

 

Sam Bridgstock:

And for me, it might be going somewhere knowing that people are going to ask me how my health is. I don’t want to talk about it some days. Some days, you want to. And so I think, I think for anyone who’s listening when you’re in pain or you’re suffering, it takes bravery to go to work. It takes bravery, to do things with your children and your friends, but by doing that, there’s a wholeness, there’s a joy.

And so many times it’s not the negative thing you fear and actually you go for a walk and you do that and the heaviness lifts. Or you go and you feel a sense of belonging, not a sense of isolation. 

So, I think if there’s one thing I’ve learned differently in the last few years, it’s, of course, I’m not saying I can say yes to every person who messages me about my cancer and wants to discuss remedies and spend time with me. People I’ve never spent time with. I have to kind of have an essentialist approach to have finite time, but the power of saying yes to the people that I do love, and I want them to know before I died, I chose them. And maybe they’ll never know how hard that was because I didn’t feel I was offering what I did before.

 

Greg McKeown:

No, I love everything you’re saying. And one of the themes, not only in what you’re saying, but one of the things that I as I’ve been on this journey with you, but like, tried to listen and understand and just sort of be there rather than, “Oh, here’s some advice or here’s what you need to do.”

You know, as I’ve tried to live this with you, one of the many profound lessons for me, but one of the, it’s one of the awful lessons in it is this, is this, sense for you at times of living without a future, you know? When I think about, you know, back in Mount Pleasant Farm, when I think about, you know, lying on top of the hay bales and just looking up at the stars and just talking about our lives and just imagining and envisioning it, it was always, not always, but so often about the future and a sense of a long future.

And I think this has been one of the, I mean, this is, for me, one of the most painful things, so painful, I can’t really even find the words for it. But the idea that there is a future in which I will live and you won’t and that I will have to go on for, you know, maybe decades. It’s all so unthinkable to me and it’s all, it’s all just suffering.

That’s how it all feels to me. But you’ve had to live with that in a completely different way. And it’s that sense of other people talk of the future. They might not have much time left. Do we, none of us, who knows how long we have left. We just assume we do, but you don’t have that luxury anymore.

You can’t just imagine, “Well, maybe I’ll do that later. Maybe we’ll do that in decades. Maybe this will be here.”

You’ve had to try and live by what’s important without a sense of, well, 10 years from now, we’ll do this. So even five years from now, you know, how have you managed to foster meaning and purpose, what’s essential when you have this unknown amount of time and a sense of a futureless sense sometimes?

 

Sam Bridgstock: 

I think that has been one of the hardest things. I never realized that so much of our, our optimism and joy comes from thinking about the future. the next holiday, when we’ll retire, what the next job might look like, well, will we move house next year? All those things, their possibilities, and often they don’t come off.

But in our mind, the ability to dream is a very strong thing, and for some people, it’s literally the next holiday. You know, go to Spain in a few weeks, and get a tan and have a rest, and some it’s to go and play golf every few weeks. And I think, um, you know, one of the things I found hard even this summer is people have invited us to things.

And I’m like, I’ve been told I will not live beyond 12 months as of January, at some point I’m going to dip, and I’m in more pain, and I’m like, “Will I, will I be going to that?”

And that’s a really, really insanely difficult thing to manage internally because no one else is thinking that. Everyone’s thinking, “Oh, this is great, it’s somebody’s party, or it’s, or it’s a really nice social gathering, or we’re all gonna, we’re all going on holiday.”

My family are all going on holiday at the end of August and I’m like, end of August is too late. You know, it’s a very, very, very negative thing to carry, and I’ve noticed that it’s destroyed lots of peace for me. 

Let’s flip it on the other side. I’ve had that feeling for three and a half years, and I’ve been to many of those things and had great joy.

And so I think, I think for all of us, wherever we are, however bleak now may look, or uncertain it may look, is I’m telling you, life will offer you a chance to be joyful tomorrow if you take it. And that may be waking up and, you know, looking at the sky and it’s still blue and beautiful or, you know, might be seeing a friend, it might be, I don’t know, a lovely meal with a, or a child, and maybe laughter with someone that you’ve missed or a friend.

And every day those moments come for me, and it’s so, it’s this kind of, and mine’s a kind of an exaggerated thing, everyone, everyone knows eventually they’re going to have to face this separation from their loved ones and die. And we all don’t, we just put it out of the way, it’s too painful, we put it off.

But actually, we all know it’s coming at some point, and in a way, we only have today. And I often have this thing where I get up in the morning, I go and let my chickens out, so I walk across the garden, and I’m, you know, at the moment it’s so green, it’s lush, and beautiful, and it looks, the clouds are amazing, and I’m, I wake up, and I have this thing where even though I might feel in some pain, I’m like, I’m still here.

Everything’s still working. I’m still here. And it’s like, this is amazing. I am still alive, and I can still see all this beauty. I’ve still got amazing kids and a wife, and I am still part of this world, which though has many negative things, which I love. I think that’s the only way of living.

I don’t know if you saw the guy, Rob Burrows, who died. The Leeds Rhinos, who’s, has he had motor neuron disease? I think he had. And he, you know, one of his last things was, last statements was, he recorded before he died was, every moment is precious. And he lived like that and has influenced millions and raised all this money.

And I thought, “You know, what a profound lesson from someone who knew his time was up, and he made it count.” 

He did amazing things. And actually he looked very different. He, you know, he shrunk in size and he was a rugby player and then he becomes this, this like shrunken person and can’t speak. And yet somehow managed to extract from life joy and inspired everybody around him. 

And I think, you know, in a way, people like that are heroic, and we need them. And in some small way, I’d like to be able to do that for my kids and my friends. It doesn’t mean there are not days where the tug of, you know, negativity is insane.

Some of that is just because you’re not well, and you’re on pills or whatever, but I think there’s that choice there. Maybe that’s the way to end the choice of the essentialist is to choose joy with the people that you love most and to not think that tomorrow’s uncertainty kind of dilutes that for today or destroys it for today.

 

Greg McKeown: 

It’s a beautiful period or exclamation mark on our conversation. Sam, I love you. I’ve told you that many times. You are doing what you’re hoping. You’re, you know, there’s a volume of inspiration over these last few years and, and I know, sometimes you can sense that you can feel that and sometimes, you know, it’s harder to, but this is just one more manifestation of it. Today, in this conversation. And for my part, I hope it’s not the last conversation we have on here because, well, you texted me before this, before we started today saying, what did you say? I’m appallingly unprepared or something like that. And then I hear these insights and these thoughts and you’ve made it effortless and, you know, and it’s been so focused and so lucid and so inspiring.

So thank you for saying yes, finally to this. 

 

Sam Bridgstock: 

And it was only my essentialism that meant I said no before. 

 

Greg McKeown: 

That’s, it’s just so…

 

Sam Bridgstock: 

Not my fear, or maybe a bit of both. 

 

Greg McKeown: 

Sam, thanks for being on the podcast. 

 

Sam Bridgstock:

Cheers. 

 

Greg McKeown:

For everyone who’s listening to this, we just want you to, just want you to think. You know, what did you hear? What was the message of this conversation? And so what? Why does that matter for you right now? What is the news for you? And then, now what? What are you going to do about it? Because these are, you know, these are the best of life’s lessons from one of the best of life’s people offering insights learned the hard way, learned in the crucible of life. And in one sense, we can all learn it cheaply now, quickly, and align our lives with what we’ve heard. 

So there we go. What? So what? And now what? 

Thank you. Really, thank you for listening. I’ll see you next time.