(Excerpt from a live interview, captured in this podcast, and edited for print.)
When we drive cars we think we’re in control. We don’t take stock of our lives, our impact, and what we want to say to our families if we’re about to die. But when we’re in an airplane, and there’s a little turbulence, we all have this flash of…does my life matter, who do I want to say goodbye to, who should I call?
Maybe the good part about flying is that sense of self-awareness, but how do we maintain that awareness and keep asking ourselves the important questions without the fear? What if we had quarterly or even annual off-sites with ourselves around what matters most — am I on track? What do I want to say to my loved ones? Maybe that would help us say it now and not wait. Maybe we take that anxiety that we feel when there is turbulence on a plane and, without the fear, act on it when we’re not on a plane. So maybe that’s the lesson…Take action. Tell your loved ones. And make sure you’re living the life that you want to live right now.
The phone call that changed everything for me, was about to come.
When I first got pregnant it was super exciting. I assumed I would work up until I went into labor, have a short maternity leave, and go back to work. Like most first-time parents, probably, I had no idea what to really expect. I thought that even though I was working really long hours that Silicon Valley demanded, if I could just have a little flexibility, I could manage being a new working mom.
I was working for a telecommunications company which sold voice-over IP and DSL. So it’s all about flexible work. But we had cycled through a couple CEOs and the current CEO didn’t believe in telecommuting even though we were selling telecommuting.
We were living in San Francisco and I was commuting down to the South Bay. I had come in with an agreement when I took the job that I would work from home Fridays as even without kids it was easily three hours on the road each day. But one Friday when the CEO was walking around, he said you know what, the parking lot is too empty. Everyone needs to come in from now on. And I thought wow this is really not going to work. (That was the first shoe to drop.)
To prepare for my maternity leave, I was working twice as hard, doubling up on the work so I wouldn’t be leaving people in a lurch. My sister called and said, “Hey, it is mom’s 60th birthday and since that is kind of a golden-ish birthday, let’s all surprise her and fly in.” My brother was a pilot in Toledo, Ohio, so he could easily fly in. But for me, I was pregnant, and working so hard. I had all these goals that I had to get done before I had the baby. I wanted to celebrate, but I didn’t know how I was going to make it work. Then I thought about my brother and all he had been through during his life, and I decided that if he could make it work, then so could I.
You see, we grew up in a beautiful small town in Minnesota. My brother Will was born first – definitely the golden child. My sister was born four years later and she has middle child syndrome — and she will even possibly admit that to you — and I’m the baby.
When my brother went off to college, he came back during a break and was very sick. I think I was 12 or 13 at the time. We first thought it was the flu but I actually have this vivid memory of him lying on the couch and being so sick that he was spitting into a cup. I remember being mad at him–like, stop it, that’s so gross (appropriate for a 12 year, I think?).
But he wasn’t getting better, so my mom took him for tests. Then they called her on the phone. The doctor told my mom over the phone that he had Leukemia. Who calls you on the phone and tells you your son has a disease that 90 percent of people die from (back then)? At least that’s what my 12-year old brain remembers.
The memories I have of him in the hospital centered on him being in this contraption called a Laminar Airflow Room. It’s basically a bubble and you had to put your arm through a plastic wall to hold his hand. You couldn’t touch him because they were taking his white blood count down to nothing and then hoping that it would build back up without cancer.
I also remember there was a picture of a fancy car on the wall. My dad had this idea that since life was short — we were going to buy an inspirational car. So, he did it. He drove the car to the hospital parking lot and my brother looked out the window and would imagine himself driving that car someday. My dad was definitely into positive psychology, although I’m not sure that was very popular back then (midwestern culture was decidedly practical, in my experience).
My brother said he always believed he would make it, even though it wasn’t rational. If you looked at the data he should have been very pessimistic. These were early days for Leukemia treatments (bone marrow transplants were still experimental). I think he was the only person who we saw walk out of his ward in the hospital. They would not call his cancer as “cured”, ever. They would only call it cancer-free. And so doctors would talk about how many years in remission. So we hit one year remission, two years in remission. And when we hit five years in remission we had a party. The thing that came out of this all was a very tight sense of family.
So as we graduated from Leukemia into my sister and me going to college and getting married, I would say we knew that life was not a guarantee. My brother, after his Leukemia, he wanted to live life large ’cause he knew he was very lucky. So he became a skydiver and a base jumper. He wasn’t courting death — he always did it safely. But he knew that life could be short.
[Archival tape of Will in Norway]
My name is Will Forshay, we’ve come halfway around the world to Lysebotn, Norway. Today is base jumping day. We’re gonna jump 2,800 feet at 120 MPH straight down towards the beautiful water. I can’t wait!
My brother knew that he had to marry the thing that he loved most with his day job. He took his love of flying that he had from when he was a kid and basically said I’m going to become a pilot. He wasn’t just going to have fun on the weekends. He was a pilot for a company that no one had ever heard of–essentially like FedEx (but for machinery parts) — flying all over the country.
So with this tight sense of family, I made it to Minnesota for my mom’s 60th birthday. I think it was my fifth month of pregnancy, but actually I don’t really remember. The beauty of pregnancy brain. Leaving my mom’s party was fun because I knew I’d see everyone again soon when I had the baby.
I was about eight months pregnant when the call came. I was excited about the baby. I was positive. And I had gone home from work mid-day. I remember as I was driving home my husband called me–which he never does mid-day. He said casually, “What are you doing?” I was a little confused and just said, “I’m going to go home to take a nap.” He said, “Oh, okay great.” And, I thought, that’s it? He’s said, “Yeah, I think I might come home early.” He never comes home early. I should have known.
I go home and I take my nap. And then he comes and wakes me up from the nap and I can see that something’s wrong. And he says, “You need to call your dad.” And I could barely ask, “Who died?”
I was so mad at my husband that I had to wait every second to know who it was. And I was just going through the list of who it could be in my head…
So I called my dad and he tells me that Will was killed in a plane crash. I said, “Are you sure? I mean, are you really sure?” And he softly said, “Yes.”
I flew to the crash site in Toledo, Ohio. It had been icy and snowy. When we toured the crash, I remember one of the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) officers saying that we probably didn’t want to go any further because apparently we might still see some things that would upset us. It was this weird feeling of — you get to see more than I get to see? It’s my loved one.
Rationally, you know they’re trying to protect you — they’ve done this before. You’ve never done this before. You’re just kind of walking through a haze. There was a lot of scrutiny and a lot of officials (this was shortly after 9/11), and yet personally we were suffering, trying to figure out how to grapple with our new reality. The de-icers apparently hadn’t been turned on and that was the reason for the crash. It took us two years to learn that from the NTSB when they did their investigation.
At the time, I really didn’t feel a lot. I actually felt numb. I remember feeling more worried about my mom. I suffered for her and my dad because burying a child is not the way it’s supposed to be. When we were at his apartment cleaning out his things, I remember my mom crying and I remember my mom talking about my pregnancy. At some point she said, “I know you love your work and I don’t want you to stop working. I just want you to reconsider how you work because you’re about to have your first son and I just lost my first son.” I remember walking away from that weekend thinking that everything has changed. All my assumptions went out the door and I knew I had to redesign my life.
Once I had Alex, I dove into new motherhood–and then I slowly started processing the grief. It was an overwhelming time. Sometimes I would put it on a shelf, and then other times, I would just fall apart. When Will first died, I didn’t think anyone wanted to hear my pain so I really did keep it to myself. I had this preconceived notion of what’s socially acceptable to talk about as a new parent — and then only a few people got to hear my whole my big mess.
When I went back to work after maternity leave, I was looking for answers. How am I going to be a dedicated worker and be a parent in a way that I would have no regrets? I couldn’t find a path at that company so I started to talk to other moms. It was wonderful to have other new moms who were asking the same questions. We wanted to use our experience and our ideas and put them into play, but we wanted to do it in a way that allowed us to also feel connected to our kids. It was actually on my second maternity leave that I came up with the idea that I’m going to start my own company. It took some time for me to get past the grief and get into action mode.
My background was essentially in Human Resources. I was always focused on the intersection of how do people behave and then how does that fit within a company’s structure for making money. I saw a breakdown where women were not staying in the workforce at a high seniority level. These were women who had advanced degrees and amazing work experience–choosing not to work because they didn’t see a path forward, where they could do the work they loved and be the parent they wanted to be. It seemed like it was an absolutely fixable problem. I thought, “I want to solve for this.”
First, I tried to understand more about work. When I dug into the data, I started to see that my questions and my concerns were in the bell-curve of science. A lot of people were asking these questions and there were not a lot of solutions. We all are on the same page of wanting to do great work. But how we do it is the problem.
My first business was about experienced professionals who wanted to do flexible, project-based work. We had some early adopters, progressive companies that got the mission right away. They said, “We want top talent and we’re open to having that look different.” It could be project-based work. It could be part-time work. Today, I’m the founder and CEO of Forshay, a talent recruiting and consulting firm, and I started something called WorkLab, which is a design thinking accelerator about how we make work better using small design experiments. With a focus on how to structure work so that everyone thrives, we also provide diversity and inclusion consulting. I’m also on the advisory board of Stanford Clayman which is the gender research arm of Stanford.
When I built my first company, I thought this was a “working mom” problem. But when I heard from everyone out there, it was baby boomers, millennials, triathletes and people who are taking care of aging parents. This isn’t a working mom issue — this is a human-centered issue.
When I started to do research, I was trying to solve the question for myself as well as for others–which is, there’s a lot of destabilizing things that we can’t control. There’s only so many things we can control and way more that we can’t. So what can we control–and how do we stay focused on that?
Financial security is not the same as job security but we often conflate them. We think if we have a job then we are financially stable. Reality is there’s still a lot outside of our control with the right job. A lot of big companies have surprisingly gone away in an instant. Job security is somewhat of a myth — it never really existed even though we kind of think it did. Financial security could be–how do we solve problems in an economically rational way with multiple streams of revenue? For example, I might freelance for one company and I might have a part-time job with another company doing something different. How do I think about my income in a diverse way, similar to the way I think about my savings? We wouldn’t put all of our money in one stock, right? We should all have diverse portfolios. If we actually think about it in that way–it’s hopefully less scary. We also have to move our thinking from fear and scarcity to abundance and where our creative processing is. Let’s solve problems. Let’s ask questions and stay intentional. What do I need to do right now that ties to what I will need to do in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 years. If we go up a level–it’s the service, it’s the impact. Those are, maybe, the words to use to replace the word “job”. That, I think, will keep us nimble for the future of work and whatever it holds.
When I get on a plane, I do think about my brother. When I see the pilot, I see the life I wish he still had. We’re all going to lose someone, and probably most of us already have. I know my story is unusual because people don’t normally lose their loved ones in a plane crash. But at the same time, everyone’s going to go through this. I think about this for my kids. I don’t wish them any of these hard experiences that shaped me, but I know they will come on their own because that is life. I wish for people that life (and death) happen in a more linear way–the way expectations are. But the reality is– that’s often not going to happen. When we think of life like it “should” be, I think that’s the big miss.
We should design for messy, and tell ourselves it’s going to be chaos. We should ask ourselves — what am I going to put into the world? How am I going to be intentional? How do I stay fluid and responsive and open? I think the only thing that “should be” is love and taking care of others–everything else is a little bit of a wild ride.
Briana Breen’s voice: Will Forshay set a goal when he was 10 years old to earn his official BASE jump number. To get a BASE number, a person completes jumps from four categories of fixed objects: building, antenna, span, and Earth . . .The last two jumps on Will’s quest were captured by a documentary crew filming a reality show called, “DreamChasers.” For Will’s “Earth” jump, he and the crew traveled to Norway–where BASE jumping is legal.
On the day of the jump, they hike 2.5 hours uphill to the top of Kjerag mountain. Kjerag is a mecca for BASE jumpers because it has a cliff with a 3000 foot drop straight into the fjord below. When Will and the team reach the jump spot, the wind is too high. And so they wait. As the sun begins to set, they get the go-ahead. Dressed in a white jumpsuit, a camera strapped to his helmet, and a single parachute in his backpack, Will walks to the edge of the cliff. Below him is a deep inlet of water from the North Sea. His landing target is a small peninsula jutting from the mountain’s base into the fjord.
Will has traveled across the globe for what will be about 20 seconds of freefall at 120 MPH. If everything goes to plan, he’ll deploy his parachute around 1000 feet and sail gently to the ground . . .Will turns to a camera to offer final words.
[Archival tape of Will in Norway]
Will Forshay: Mom and Dad, Sisters, all the Baldwin friends, Centennial friends, Moundsview friends, jump friends . .4, 3, 2, 1, see ya! (music, sound of wind, sound of parachute opening) Woo hoo! Alright! Seems like about perfect. 3, 2, 1 (sound of him landing on ground and running to slow down).
Woman’s voice: That was beautiful!
Will Forshay: Thank you! It was beautiful. Just beautiful. There’s really very little way to explain.
Stepping off at 3000 feet over, looking across, down at the Fjord. I’ve waited over 20 years to do that big cliff and today was the day. What a good day! What a good day!
Briana Breen: Will did end up getting his BASE number. In 2001, he jumped from a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles (legally–with permits) and was officially awarded BASE number 702–as the 702nd person in the world recorded to have completed the jumps required.
This excerpt is from a podcast done by Briana Breen which you can listen to in full here: