Wisdom From a Business Guru: Listen to Your Heart

Medically reviewed in October 2021

My friend Howard Stevenson likes to joke about the day he died years ago.

For several weeks beforehand, the iconic Harvard professor and entrepreneurship guru had sensed that something was wrong, but his doctor examined him and said he appeared fine. So did the other two doctors Howard consulted when the feeling persisted. Then, one sunny January day while walking across the Harvard Business School campus, Howard’s heart stopped and he crumpled to the ground.

He experienced what’s called “unattended cardiac arrest,” a form of heart attack that nearly always kills its victims. Lying there with a non-functioning heart, Howard was technically dead for nearly four minutes.

Ultimately, he survived due to an extraordinary series of events. A mobile defibrillator had recently been installed near where he fell. A colleague who just that day received his CPR certification was looking out the window as Howard collapsed and rushed out to help him. The ambulance that arrived was one of only two in Boston that carried a special clot-busting drug and an EMT trained to inject it directly into the heart. An excellent hospital was two miles away and its head of cardiac surgery was on duty when Howard was wheeled in. Not only did Howard survive, he woke from a medically induced coma three days later with no cognitive damage.

There are many lessons to be taken from Howard’s experience -- including the importance of having mobile defibrillators in all workplaces and public gathering spots, and the need for each of us to get CPR training. (Which reminds me to check if I need a refresher.) But maybe the most important lesson is to listen to your heart.

I mean this in two ways. First and most obvious, listen to the warning signals your body sends. Trust your instincts if something doesn’t feel right. Howard’s experience -- having three doctors give him a clean bill of health when, in fact, he had a major problem coming -- is an extreme case. But it’s not unusual for one doctor to miss something that another picks up, so long as the patient is listening closely enough to her body to know that something is, indeed, wrong.

For me, though, “listen to your heart” has a second meaning, one that’s connected not just to Howard’s medical experience but to who he is in my life. He’s been my teacher, mentor and dear friend for years, and after I nearly lost him, I wrote Howard’s Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life’s Work to capture his insights for people who haven’t had the good fortune to know him.

Ultimately, Howard’s Gift is about how we all can live a life of balance and meaning, so that if we die suddenly, we’ll have no regrets. If I were to suggest a single overarching theme for Howard’s concrete and compelling ideas, it would indeed be “Listen to your heart.” Give yourself permission to sit back and think deeply about all the facets of the life you want to build. Think about what will bring you satisfaction, not just material success. Turn that thinking into a vision—a clear picture in your mind that draws together your most highly valued beliefs, desires, goals and priorities into a holistic portrait of who you aspire to be.

This guidance is not what you might expect from a towering figure at Harvard Business School, a place better known for focusing on success than satisfaction. But Howard’s gift to me, and to all of us, is his insight on how to achieve both. The investment of time and effort involved in listening to yourself and listening to your heart -- in all senses of the phrase -- is pretty small. But the benefits to your health and your sense of personal well-being can be huge and last a lifetime.

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