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He Has Three Years to Live–Here’s Why This Harvard Professor Is Spending Them Teaching

"Happiness is rooted in purpose"

Nine months ago, doctors diagnosed Len Schlesinger with Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis–an incurable lung disease with an average survival time of three to five years.

A grim diagnosis for most, but not Len Schlesinger. Because, in a way, Len had already been here before.

Len had counseled hundreds of corporations through intense periods of change–drawing from his own experience in executive positions at prominent companies like Au Bon Pain and Bath & Body Works.

He'd taught courses on leadership and entrepreneurial management at Harvard Business School, where he helped students embrace uncertainty and thrive in an unpredictable economy.

He served as the 12th president of Babson College, during which he encouraged students to embody entrepreneurial thought and action as a way to make an impact on others.

So to Len, the diagnosis of an incurable lung disease was not the end. It was the beginning of something new. A new opportunity to celebrate his purpose and cherish the people he cared about the most.

I sat down with the Baker Foundation Professor at Harvard Business School to talk about his biggest decision of the last ten years: doing what he loves amidst harrowing uncertainty about his future.

You can read our full conversation below or watch it on our YouTube channel.


What was the biggest decision you made in the last ten years?

Well, I'm living through the biggest decision I've made in the last ten years. Nine months ago, I got a diagnosis of a progressive disease that's essentially incurable: idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). At its core, this disease represents a death sentence within three to five years. And the idiopathic part basically means we have no idea what's going on.

The reality was: I faced extraordinary levels of uncertainty with that diagnosis. Also, quite honestly, I didn’t expect this uncertainty to be resolved in any powerful way due to any advances in medical science. So, once I was given that diagnosis and the data around what I could expect in the future, the biggest level of uncertainty I had was, I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. 

I didn’t know if I was going to be on serious oxygen the next day and need a lung transplant in four months, or if I was going to be able to go for five, six, or seven years with a mild degradation of symptoms that would allow me to function the way I was doing beforehand. So it was that level of uncertainty, and all of the reading I was doing to research and understand the disease, that was the context that set the decision.

My decision, quite simply, was to continue to do the things that I loved. To focus on purpose. The purpose that I am able to address by continuing to be a faculty member at Harvard Business School, as an advisor to organizations that I care about deeply, and people that I care about deeply. I wanted to make significant incremental time available for engagement with faculty and family, whether they be on the West Coast or on the East Coast, and then strip my day of the things that I didn't necessarily enjoy or find personally productive.

It represented a radical reallocation of my time. What it also represented was an opportunity to use this data to reach out to friends and colleagues and to tell them exactly what was going on. After three days of doing this analysis, I wrote a memo that I sent to all of my employers, colleagues, and close family folks.

It basically said: this is what I have. Here's a hyperlink so you can read about it because I can't explain it. It's not good news. These are the decisions I've made about how to go forward. I'm delighted to talk to any of you who are interested in it, but all I'm really asking you to do is support me as I go through the process of enjoying whatever time I have left.

What process did you use to evaluate your options at the time?

The immediate options fell into three categories. The first option was to essentially reject the diagnosis and continue to search for someone who would tell me something that would make me happy. But the diagnosis essentially came from a surgical lung biopsy, so there was a pretty high probability that it was accurate.

The second option was to search through all the mumbo jumbo for what I call Dr. Google cures for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. The wonderful thing about this option is, if you type in cures for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, you’ll see pages and pages and pages of stupid shit that you can do. The results range from the Chinese herbalist who's got this to the functional doctor who claims to have solved the issue. I actually read through everything to see if there was anything that had any credibility whatsoever. So that was one whole stream of work.

The second whole stream of work was to do what a lot of people appear to do when they get this diagnosis: shut down. They've been given a death sentence, and they decide to die immediately. They go on disability insurance and they engage in a personal pity party, which, quite honestly, has lots of justification for it. But they essentially shut down. And again, if I look at the support groups that exist on social media, for a lot of the folks who've gotten this diagnosis, it really does read like that. Which is just like, oh my god, this is the worst thing that could possibly happen. So that was option number two, which was to essentially shut down.

The third option was to go beyond looking at the crazy things and to find other doctors who were further along on the research agenda. So, again, I read through all of the clinical trial information. And today, I’m pretty much up to speed on any clinical trials that exist, and I make informed decisions about whether or not I want to be involved. But none of it was leading to a holistic decision that would allow me to understand essentially, what I was going to do every day.

Who were the stakeholders in this decision and what role did they play?

Several years ago, when Arthur Brooks came to HBS, he and I taught a course in leadership and happiness. And to this day, he still continues to do a lot of work in that space. What we know about happiness is pretty clear: it's rooted largely in some form of faith, not necessarily religion, and family and purpose. So to be quite honest, at the end of the day, that's where I ended up.

I wanted to spend more time with my family. But my wife, who’s been married to me for 50 years, was the primary consultant in the process. We would go for walks and we would talk about the data. She would listen wonderfully as I went through the scenarios in my own head. And she would ask questions. She would never tell me what to do. She was amazing. And within three days of just walks and conversations, I was pretty much resolved that the best thing to do was to go on and live my life. My wife and my kids would be supportive of that.

And so the question was, how do I avoid having to spend all of my time explaining this to people rather than doing the stuff I love to do? So I wrote a memo. It’s stupid, but I loved it. In the context of three or four paragraphs, I could explain what happened, how I was going to act on it, and that I wanted their understanding and support. I told them that I'd be delighted to engage with any of them, but that all I really wanted was their understanding and support. And people have been great about it all.

I don't think there's anybody who's really tried to confront the way I've decided to live my life or to challenge my decision. People have been super supportive. They understand I have good days and bad days, and it really has been wonderful. Now, do I feel pretty good about this? From a health perspective, not all the time. And from a health care perspective, the number of doctors I have to talk to in a healthcare system that purports to be a system, but isn't, is reasonably overwhelming. And I sit back and say, I'm not short of any money, I'm not short of any context, and it's still difficult to do. I decided I wasn’t going to spend all my time being pissed off about doctors.

So I'm doing my work. I am more celebratory. It's really quite funny. Now, if I have a really good class, it's a big deal now. I'll get in my car on the way home and I'll talk to my wife or a friend, and I'll tell them all about this class. The highs are much higher than they've ever been, and the lows aren't so bad.

It sounds like the decision you made brought you peace.

Literally, it doesn't require any substantive revisiting because there's no reduction of uncertainty. So in a world where I cannot impact the level of certainty in the universe, by any action on my part, all I can do is figure out how to live a good life.

What advice do you have for a manager or business leader trying to make it through every day life?

Well, if you're trying to make it through every day, you do have some of the dimensions of the issue I'm talking about. You are facing uncertainty. And what you can't do is let uncertainty paralyze you at the core.

I've studied effective entrepreneurs in a variety of different settings, and have written about it in the past. The core of the entrepreneurial method, which is a method that sits alongside the scientific method and really does characterize a different way of thinking about the world, is that when you're confronted by bad news or uncertainty, you take some small steps and see what happens.

So it really is about adopting the experimental method as the core of your managerial work, rather than sitting around sucking your thumb bemoaning what happened yesterday.

I’m sure there’s a lesson in there about appreciating each day.

I do have to admit that early on when I was teaching the happiness courses, I thought all of the stuff on gratitude and the exercises were just a load of crap. But now I know they’re not.

The ability to truly practice gratitude no matter where you are, no matter what's going on, is at the core of not leading a miserable life. If you're a practicing manager, your problems are not earth shattering. You'll be up tomorrow to solve them again.

And if you fail, you'll be able to do something else. So the ability to appreciate some dimension of reality and all the other things around you is very much at the core of not leading a miserable life.

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