Sharing knowledge with anyone who wants to learn

Mukul Pandya, Executive Director/Editor in Chief, Knowledge@Wharton

One of the most crushing experiences of my childhood in India inspired the birth of Knowledge@Wharton, the online business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. With more than 3.5 million subscribers reading its articles and listening to its podcasts, Knowledge@Wharton is now a global network of publications, with dedicated sections focusing on the U.S., India, China, Israel, the Middle East, Spain and Portugal.  From its inception, I was passionate about knowledge being made available via Knowledge@Wharton—for free—for anyone who wants to learn.

My grandmother: Manorama Bhatt

You cannot really understand my perspective on Knowledge@Wharton unless you understand Manorama Bhatt, my grandmother. Ma inspires me every day; I think about her a lot. I’m in awe of her determination, her kindness and gentleness. Ma and my grandfather Jayantkumar Bhatt raised me because my mother was ill when I was a baby. I am what I am because of them.

Ma was born in 1908 in a small town called Amreli in Gujarat in Western India. She married my grandfather when she was 10-years-old and he was 16, though they did not live together as a couple until later. She lived until she was 98. Ma’s dad was a school teacher, so she and her sister went to school every day, unlike most girls in India at that time. They were the only girls in a class filled with boys.

When Ma was in her early twenties, my grandfather received a scholarship from Bhavnagar state, one of 500 princely kingdoms in India during British rule, to do his PhD on the role of scepticism in the development of knowledge, at University College in London.

      ‘Maybe I can go with you to study as well?’ Ma suggested.

      ‘I’d love to take you,’ Dada said, ‘but my scholarship’s a pittance, we can’t afford it.’

      ‘What if I get one too?’ A look of steely determination crossed Ma’s face.

      ‘How are you going to get a scholarship?’ Dada wanted Ma to join him, but he knew their financial resources would not stretch far enough for them both to study in the UK.

      ‘I’ll go to the King’s palace and ask the Prime Minister to give me one.’ In Ma’s mind the matter was closed, she was on her way.

Ma asked her family if one of them would accompany her to the palace of the king of Bhavnagar, but they all said ‘no’. Finally, one of her uncles offered to go with her in the horse carriage to the end of the street. He said he would wait for her while she ventured inside. When they arrived at the Palace, Ma waved goodbye to her uncle then approached the gate, her heart racing.

   ‘I’m here to meet Sir Prabhashankar Pattani,’ Ma said to the security guard, looking directly into his eyes. Sir Pattani, who had funded the education of many Indian students at schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was at that time the Prime Minister or Diwan of Bhavnagar.

      ‘Do you have an appointment?’ the security guard said.

       ‘No, but I urgently need to see him.’ Ma was not leaving until she had accomplished her mission.

      ‘You need to go home now. You can’t see him.’ The security guard urged Ma to leave, but she refused to go. He raised his voice.

Sir Pattani was entertaining some visitors in the garden when he heard the ruckus at the gate.

He called out to the guard. ‘What’s going on?’

      ‘A young woman has come to see you. She doesn’t have an appointment, but insists she has to speak with you.’

      ‘Call her here.’ The Prime Minister excused himself from his conversation with two men.

The security guard told Ma to walk across the lawn to Sir Pattani.

      ‘Hello,’ he said. ‘What do you want?’

      ‘My husband has a scholarship to study in London,’ Ma said. ‘I’m here to ask you for one so I can go with him. I want to study too.’

      ‘Well young lady, let’s assume I give you a small scholarship,’ the Prime Minister teased. ‘What’s the guarantee you’ll use it to study? You might just have a good time. You could go shopping, have fun. You’re young.’

      ‘I know you go to London quite often for meetings and conferences,’ she said. ‘Next time you visit London why don’t you visit us. I’ll cook you an Indian meal. You can ask me how my studies are going and I’ll tell you.’

Sir Pattani was so impressed with Ma’s gumption, he gave her a few pounds. So my grandparents went to London. While Dada did his PhD, Ma studied early childhood education with Maria Montessori, who was famous for her innovative work in this field. When my grandfather finished his PhD, they returned to India, then my grandmother started a Montessori school in Bombay. By far my most treasured possession is a sepia photograph of Ma and Maria Montessori in the 1930s in London, which she gave me before she passed away. I feel enveloped in her love every time I look at it. It is a reminder of her grit and determination to pursue knowledge. It inspires me every day.

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When I was young, I could not decide what career to pursue. Ma took me to a family friend who was a senior banker in the Reserve Bank of India. He asked me what I would like to do.

      ‘I’d like to study economics,’ I said, ‘but I’m not sure where to study.’

Our friend smiled. ‘Economics is a good field to study.’

      ‘I’ve heard there are two places in the world that are very good to learn economics—The London School of Economics and The Wharton School in Philadelphia,‘ I said.

He furrowed his brow. ‘A place like Wharton is for people who are rich or extremely smart.’

      ‘I thought if there was any chance that I could study at one of these two schools it would be a wonderful thing to do,’ I added, ignoring his inference.

      ‘You should be more realistic, more modest in your expectations and ambitions,’ he advised. ‘Why don’t you find something within your grasp?’

Ma did not say anything, but she saw my crumpled shoulders. As we left his house, she turned to me, her eyes smiling.

      ‘He doesn’t know you. I know you, I know that if you decide you want to go to Wharton, you’ll get there someday.’ And the matter was closed, just as it was over 60 years ago when Ma decided to study in the UK.

After many twists and turns in my life, I ended up at Wharton. I proposed launching an online journal called Knowledge@Wharton and our team built it and launched it in 1999. A few years later I was made a senior fellow in Wharton’s management department. Through my years at Wharton, I have never forgotten what it feels like to be told that there are amazing educational institutions in the world, but they are not for me. I still remember what it feels like to be told that I was not good enough to go to one of them. This crushing experience from the past has fed my passion to share knowledge with anyone who wants to learn. It drives me every day.

The road to Wharton

I have been a journalist for almost 40 years. I started as a trainee journalist at the Times of India group in April 1979, initially working for India’s largest business daily, The Economic Times, and then for Business World, which at that time was the country’s second largest business magazine.

In late 1989 I travelled to Montreal to cover the World Energy Congress for Business World. While there I heard that George Taber, the editor of a new publication, Business for Central New Jersey, was looking to recruit journalists.

I called George the same day, discovering that he was the former business editor of Time magazine. George and the Vice President of Government Affairs for Time Inc., Don Wilson, had just started Business for Central New Jersey and they were running it with Time magazine standards. During our conversation George suggested that I write a trial story about City Savings Bank, which was the largest savings and loan bank in New Jersey at the time. It had recently announced its third quarter results—a $150M loss.

I had no idea what a savings and loan bank was or what the thrift industry was going through because of deregulation in the 1980s, but I happily accepted the opportunity.

Early the next morning I spoke to the Public Relations Manager at the bank. He gave me his version of what had gone wrong and why the company was in trouble, but I realised that I needed an external perspective. I called the local university, Rutgers, discovering a finance professor there who had followed the deregulation of the savings and loan industry. He knew why the bank had made so many bad loans. I think he realised within the first five minutes of our conversation that I was completely out of my depth on this topic.

      ‘Do you know what’s going on in the industry?’ he said.

      ‘No, I’ve just arrived from India,’ I admitted, anxious that he would prematurely end the call.

He ended up giving me a one-hour lecture on the thrift industry. I sat at the kitchen table straight after the call, writing the 1,000-word story without stopping for a break. The story was based on what I had heard from the bank, but mostly on the analysis of the Rutgers professor. The next day I gave the story to George.

      ‘I can’t believe this story was written by someone who’s been in the country for only two weeks,’ George said. 

Based on my story, George offered me a job as a staff writer. Before he could hire me, George had to sponsor me for an H1 visa, and then later for a Green Card. The following year he sent me to Wharton to do a business course for journalists. I was blown away by the vibrant discussion in the classroom. It was an incredible educational experience and so different from the formal lectures of my postgraduate course in India.

From then on, whenever I wrote stories for the magazine or freelance pieces for national publications like the New York Times or the Philadelphia Inquirer, I contacted the Wharton professors who taught the course for their views on business issues.  This continued for seven years, then in 1997 someone from Wharton contacted me, asking whether I would be interested in joining Wharton to set up a business magazine for the school. He said that at 80 years of age, Harvard Business Review was thriving, but Wharton lacked a comparable publication. 

Uncertain about what to do it felt like my heart was pulling me in one direction and my head in another. I tossed and turned in bed every night and stopped eating. My relationship with George went way beyond an editor/journalist one. George and his wife Jean treated Hema and me like family. It was hard for me to consider leaving without George’s permission and blessing. At the same time, I was excited about the possibility of creating a new publication for Wharton. I also remembered my grandmother’s words from years ago, and her prediction about going to Wharton some day.

Early one morning at this time George and I both pulled up in the parking lot at the same time. ‘I’ve not slept all night,’ George said. ‘I’ve been thinking about you. I think you should take the Wharton job. You should go because if you don’t, you’ll never know if it’s the right decision.’

So with George’s blessing I felt free to go to Wharton. It is rare in life to find a mentor who not only has a profound impact on you professionally—he taught me almost everything I know about journalism, writing and editing—but at the same time has such a loving heart. It is not often that a mentor cares about you so much that they are willing to let you leave to pursue another opportunity.

I started at Wharton in February 1998. Fortunately for me, I was not told what to do—I was asked what to do. That made all the difference. I didn’t know what type of publication to launch, so spent the first couple of months meeting with about 40 professors, asking them what style of magazine would best meet the school’s goals. I heard probably 10-15 different opinions from the first 10-15 professors I met. However, one of them, Jitendra Singh, a professor in the Management department, asked a pivotal question. ‘How are you going to position this publication relative to Harvard Business Review?’ he said.

This question made me realise that what we needed was something we could describe in one sentence as being unique, but I still didn’t know what that was. One day soon after, when the dot com boom was at its peak, I heard a speech by Jim Cramer, a stock analyst who founded an online publication, The Street.Com. He was speaking at a media conference. ‘I’ve torn up my subscription to Business Week,’ Jim said. ‘Why would I pay for a print magazine when I can read it free online? Printing and mailing comprise 70 per cent of the production cost of a publication.’ My spine tingled, an idea hatched in my mind as he spoke about the extraordinary possibilities awaiting online publishers.

Cramer went on to talk about the fact that online publications can have global distribution and provide the editors with instant feedback on which articles their readers prefer. Print publications do not know the readership of individual stories and their advertisers do not know how many people see their ads. But online advertisers can measure every click on every advertisement.

That is when the light bulb exploded in my head. It was one of those truly life-changing insights that happen so rarely. ‘Why doesn’t Wharton become the first top-tier business school to have an online-only business journal,’ I thought. ‘Let’s forget about print, let’s launch an online-only journal.’

I wrote a 14-page proposal late into the evening and was so excited that I ended up staring at the bedroom ceiling all night instead of sleeping. The next morning I went to work well before sunrise to show it my colleagues. While many of them were supportive, some were initially not convinced that an online-only publication was the way to go. After all, I had been hired to launch a print publication. While I was trying to figure out how to make the case for the online journal, one colleague gave me invaluable advice. ‘You know,’ he said. ‘At Wharton, things occur when enough professors want it to happen, so since you’re meeting with professors anyway, why don’t you ask them what they think of an online journal?’

So that is what I did. During the next couple of months, a groundswell of support built for a business portal and soon there was a consensus that this was what we should do. Bob Mittelstaedt, who at that time was the Vice Dean of External Affairs and Executive Education, supported the idea and offered the resources to build the portal. That is how the school came to embrace the idea of Knowledge@Wharton.

I went through several twists and turns along the way, one of them being forecasting uptake. We thought that in Year 1 we would secure at best 3,000 subscribers and in Year 2 possibly 6,000. The truth is that these were all guesstimates—I had no idea of the likely uptake of our publication.

We launched Knowledge@Wharton on 27 May 1999. Of course, all my projections were completely wrong. Although the publication was free, subscribers had to sign up to read it and in the first 48 hours, we had 800 registered users in 33 countries. We reached the 3,000-subscriber target at the end of the first three weeks, finishing our first year with 33,000 subscribers. The following year we added another 66,000, and it kept growing from there. Now we have some 3.5 million users around the world.

Listening and learning

One of the most valuable lessons I learned in the early days of Knowledge@Wharton was the importance of listening. Having grown up in the world of print journalism, I had become used to believing that an editor’s judgement is the proxy for what readers are interested in. I felt that if the editor found something interesting, then readers would want to read it. In the print world, there is no direct way to accurately test this belief and there is no way to measure which stories appeal most to readers. I found to my surprise and delight that online journalism changes this model completely—any editorial decision you make can be tested immediately through reader feedback. It is instant, precise and sometimes brutal.

This point was driven home to me with a particular story. It was late one Tuesday night. I was on deadline and one story short. Suddenly I remembered that Stuart Friedman, a Wharton professor, had emailed me a piece on work-life balance that was sitting in my bottom drawer. When I received the story I had glanced at it but put it away, thinking the topic was too motherhood for our readers. Too apple pie. Wondering what new under the sun there was to say about it apart from the fact that it is important to live a more balanced life, I had set it aside. I had thought there were much more important topics to write about. But now I was stuck. Deciding to take a risk, I retrieved the article from the drawer, quickly edited it, gave it a headline and we published it.

The next morning, I caught an early morning flight to Boston for a meeting, so didn’t get a chance to check readership of the latest edition. The analysts I met in Boston greeted me with extraordinary enthusiasm for 8am on a Wednesday.

      ‘Your story on work-life balance was fantastic,’ a young male analyst said.

The others joined in, all trying to talk at once.

An older analyst cut across everyone. ‘We’ve sent it to our manager to let him know we all need more work-life balance than we’re getting.’

As the excited chatter about the article continued, I was stunned by this reaction. In my mind, it was one of the more predictable stories, but I was wrong. When I got back to Philadelphia and looked at the web traffic for the edition, this story was the most popular by a factor of two or three. I realised the reason for its popularity was because everyone, no matter how successful, is constantly grappling with this issue of how to manage workload pressures and do a good job, but balance it with family responsibilities, commitments and leisure activities. Everyone is looking for a solution to this issue.

The most important lesson for me was that one of the blessings of online journalism is that it helps you to maintain your humility, stopping your editorial ego from becoming too big. It gives every editor the opportunity to learn about what readers are interested in. From that standpoint, I realised that one of the most important functions of Knowledge@Wharton is not what Wharton can tell the world about business, but what the world can tell Wharton about what is relevant. After that experience, my colleagues and I constantly tried to listen to our audience to understand the topics of most interest to them and to learn from them. We then tailored our editorial content to help them learn what they wanted to learn.

Reaching new audiences

In 2002 a Wharton alumnus Felipe Vergara came to see me. He was from Columbia but working in New York as a consultant at that time.

      ‘What you are doing is tremendous,’ Felipe said, ‘explaining the implications of Wharton’s research for professionals and business people, analysing current business issues and publishing interviews with CEOs.

     ‘Thank you.’ It was always fascinating to hear why different people valued the publication.

     ‘You realise there’s nothing like this available in Spanish or Portuguese. ‘Would you be interested in producing Knowledge@Wharton in Spanish?’

         ‘Sure, I think it’s interesting to consider and I would be happy to take the idea to the school for approval,’ I replied, ‘but we’ll need a partner who can co-invest with us.’

      ‘Okay. Leave it with me,’ Felipe said, sliding his laptop into its leather bag then pushing the chair back.

He returned six months later, accompanied by Javier Sagi-Vela, an executive from Banco Santander, one of the largest banks in Spain. It had a large banking business across Latin America and Portugal. The bank agreed to partner with us to publish a Spanish edition and so did the Spanish university network, Universia. We launched the new edition in Madrid in early 2003. Pat Harker, who was Wharton’s Dean at that time, travelled to Madrid to launch the portal with Emilio Botin, Santander’s CEO. As soon as the Dean returned to Philadelphia from the Madrid event he met with our Fundraising Director.

      ‘Let’s do this in Chinese next.’ His enthusiasm was contagious. Jeff Sheehan, who was the Associate Dean for International Affairs, swung into action the same day and over time he along with colleagues from Wharton External Affairs were able to raise the funds we needed to publish Knowledge@Wharton in Chinese.

We started building the site in 2004, launching it in simplified and traditional Chinese in Shanghai in March 2005. Once the Chinese site was up and running, I was keen to do something similar in India. We decided to announce our intention to launch an Indian site at a Wharton forum in Mumbai in early 2006.

As we prepared for this announcement, I heard the heartbreaking news that Ma was critically ill. I went to India to stay with her at the hospital and was happy to be able to spend precious time with her in the few weeks before she left us. Sadly, the day before we announced our plans for the Indian site, she passed away. My efforts to share knowledge at Wharton were a matter of great pride to Ma. She was particularly happy that we were planning to launch Knowledge@Wharton in India.

We went on to launch the Indian site in November 2006, followed by one in Arabic in 2010 and an Israeli site in 2012. That is how Knowledge@Wharton evolved into a global network of different sites with the common goal of making knowledge free for anyone who wants to learn.

We wanted to share our learnings with other business schools and universities, so they too could share with their audiences the knowledge created by their professors. Our first partner in this program was Emory University in Atlanta Georgia—we helped the Emory team set up Knowledge@Emory. We later assisted WP Carey School at Arizona State University to launch Knowledge@WPCarey, Singapore National University to set up Knowledge@SMU and the Australian School of Business in Sydney to launch Knowledge@ASB. It gave me great joy to see knowledge being spread around the world in this way.

Sharing knowledge with high school students

On our fifth anniversary, Knowledge@Wharton’s Advisory Board held its annual meeting. As always, we had a lively discussion as we explored ways of growing Knowledge@Wharton by launching in new countries and languages. During the meeting Terry Suppers, an executive from GE Capital, one of our corporate sponsors, raised his hand to speak. ‘Why are you thinking of growth just in terms of new countries and new languages?’ he said. ‘Have you thought of creating something for high school students?’

You could hear a pin drop in the seminar room.

I loved the idea the first time I heard it, but in the following years it was challenging to raise funds to finance the project. In early 2008, we believed we had the resources we needed, so the team planned for a launch in 2009. My colleagues Robbie Shell and Diana Drake worked  hard to build the prototype with substantial help from our IT Director Sanjay Modi. However, history got in the way with the massive financial crisis of September 2008 and our funding partner went out of existence. We were left without financial support, but we did not give up. The team built a prototype to show to potential partners. Then in 2010, Faquiry Diaz Cala, a Wharton alumnus based in Miami, and Boris Hirmas, his business partner, came forward to support the creation of Knowledge@Wharton High School. Mauro Guillen, Director of the Lauder Institute at Wharton, also helped enormously in various ways, including finding some ways to get funding. With their support, and also that of Wharton’s Undergraduate Division, we finally got our plans for the high school edition back on track.

We launched Knowledge@Wharton High School in March 2011 and with 250,000 registered users, today it is the fastest growing node of the network. I never imagined it would become so popular. What is most fascinating about Knowledge@Wharton High School is that it allows us to participate in education as well as publishing. We have a stock market competition that started with five high schools in Philadelphia and in 2018 had more than 700 teams competing in it. It has grown from a local to a regional then national and now international competition in the space of a few years.

The University of Pennsylvania alumnus who came up with the design for the stock market competition also helped us to connect with a network of PhD students who developed 400 lesson plans for high school teachers to use to teach business, finance, marketing and management. In the process of trying to figure how to promote the lesson plans and encourage teachers to use them, we decided to launch a seminar for high school teachers based on Wharton’s course for business journalists that George sent me to in 1991. We searched for a partner who could help us to develop it—and we were lucky to partner with PWC. The Knowledge@Wharton High School seminars for high school educators started with 150 teachers in Philadelphia, soon expanded to San Francisco and then to Chicago and ran for five years. Over the course of the program, 1,200 high school teachers participated in it. The teachers appreciated the way the program exposed them to exciting new models of teaching business. They also loved the opportunity it gave them to build new networks among their peers. My colleagues Diana Drake and Kara Dunn, supported by our entire team, were primarily responsible for this program’s success.

The Knowledge@Wharton High School team also hosts summer camps for high school students in collaboration with the Indian student publication, BrainGain Magazine. The Global Young Leaders’ Academy started a few years ago with 30 students. This year, thanks to the hard work of my colleagues, we’ll probably have 200 students participating in it.

Launching new channels

A few years ago, the Wharton School partnered with Sirius XM, the largest satellite radio operation in the US, which has over 30 million listeners. Wharton created its own radio channel—Sirius XM 111 Powered by The Wharton School. Wharton provides 25 per cent of the content for the channel, which amounts to two hours of content each day.  The station has grown rapidly—we interview 25 to 30 guests every week for the radio show and many of the interviews are converted into podcasts that we share via Knowledge@Wharton. Collaboration between Knowledge@Wharton and the radio station has driven dramatic growth of the network since its launch.

Everything was coming together well and I felt that Knowledge@Wharton would continue to grow, go onwards and upwards, but as usual I was wrong. On 17 May 2016, I met with an Indian journalist who was a former army officer. He wanted to write an article for Knowledge@Wharton about corruption in India’s defence industry. Of course, I was fascinated by his topic and had lunch with him at Penne Restaurant to discuss it. After lunch I returned to my office to speak with a colleague. During our conversation I was conscious of a gradually increasing pain in my abdomen, but tried to ignore it, thinking it would go away. When the meeting ended, I was supposed to head over to Huntsman Hall to see a professor about a report on business ethics. But the pain became so unbearable I collapsed to the floor. I crawled into a colleague’s office, asked him to cancel my appointment with the professor and then call the emergency medical personnel and an ambulance.

Illness is a great teacher

The doctors at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital discovered that I had acute haemorrhaging pancreatitis—a gallstone was stuck in my pancreatic duct. In other words, my pancreas was imploding. I was intubated and put into a medically induced coma for several days. After 17 days in hospital, I begged to leave to attend the high school graduation of our only daughter, Tara. I loved seeing Tara graduate, but a fever spiked two days later, so I was taken to St Francis Hospital, close to home. A cyst the size of a soccer ball had formed around my pancreas. I could hardly stand or lie down; every breath was a struggle. A helicopter airlifted me back to intensive care at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. Later a doctor told me that he thought there was an 80 per cent chance I would not survive. I stayed in intensive care for days, then spent two weeks in the surgical ward, followed by more than a month in a rehabilitation centre to build up my physical condition. In all, I spent some three months in hospital and rehabilitation, from mid-March to mid-August.

While at one level my illness was an ordeal, at another level it was a magnificent learning experience. There are at least three lessons I learned.

The founder’s illusion

When you come up with an idea like Knowledge@Wharton, watch it grow over a 20-year period and see it take on a life of its own, it is easy to develop the ‘Founder’s Illusion’—the belief that the founder’s presence is, if not indispensable, then at least essential, to the continuation of the project. But that belief is an illusion. I realised this vividly when I returned to Wharton after seven months of medical leave.  During my absence, Knowledge@Wharton continued without missing a beat, thanks to my talented and hardworking colleagues, especially Steve Guglielmi, the Editorial Director and other editors and writers. It was ‘business as usual’ for the team. That is exactly as it should be.

At a meeting in January 2017, a few days after I returned to work, a Wharton professor looked at me quizzically when I told him of my illness. ‘I didn’t realise you weren’t here,’ he said, a broad smile lighting up his face. He could have paid me no higher compliment.

Learning to celebrate your own impermanence can initially be humbling, but ultimately it is liberating. This experience taught me that the Knowledge@Wharton team is the right team, doing the right job, in the right way. It helped me learn that I could disappear without warning and yet Knowledge@Wharton and its mission will endure.

What you pay attention to in life is an act of choice

During my illness I had absolutely no control over what was happening to my body. It was on autopilot, my most basic bodily functions occurred independently of me, resulting in several embarrassing accidents. In trying to reduce my anxiety about these events, a surgeon quipped, ‘It’s like a bomb’s gone off inside you.’ If I had focused on what was happening to me physically, I would probably have plummeted into a deep depression. However, I realised that what you pay attention to in life is an act of choice. And so I consciously chose to ignore what was going on in my body, instead focusing on how much love I was privileged to have in my life.

My wife Hema and daughter Tara visited me in the hospital every day and my mother called from India each morning. Mike Gibbons, Wharton’s Deputy Dean, was incredibly supportive, regularly visiting and calling me in the hospital. My colleagues constantly sent flowers, books and cards. One colleague sent a get-well card every two weeks for months and months. I had known her for a year but had never realised she had so much compassion. Complete strangers—doctors and nurses—looked after my every need at all hours of the day and night. I felt like there was a constant stream of love and care flowing towards me. So instead of worrying about what was happening to me physically—over which I had no control—I focused my attention on the love, kindness and compassion in my life. That pulled me through.

I remember reading somewhere that in life pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. I realised through my illness that this is completely true. There were weeks and weeks when I was in unbelievable pain, but I was not suffering. I would never have learned this precious distinction between pain and suffering if it were not for my illness.

Focus on what’s most important

When you are 20 per cent away from the edge, it is a good opportunity to think about what is most important in life; what is most meaningful and what matters most. I had seven months to think about this. During this time I read a book by Ajahn Brahm, a former British physics teacher who is now a Buddhist monk based in Perth, Australia. He tells a story about a young doctor whose first patient, a young mother, died. After sharing the tragic news with her family, he decided to quit medicine. The young doctor went to the monk and told him that he was planning to give up his profession. 

     ‘It’s fine if that’s really what you want to do,’ the monk said. ‘But tell me one thing. Why did you become a doctor?’

      ‘To cure my patients,’ the young doctor insisted.

      ‘That’s one thing you need to change,’ the monk said. ‘You don’t become a doctor to cure your patients. You become a doctor to care for your patients. Change one letter in what you’re saying—change the u to an a.’

A huge burden lifted from the doctor’s mind when he made that mental shift. When he thought his job was to cure patients it was all about him, but when he decided his role was to care for his patients, it was all about his patients. Once he started approaching every patient with the mindset, ‘How can I care for them?’ his passion for medicine returned.

This idea of caring applies not only to doctors, but to all of us. For me, the most important thing along with caring for my family and colleagues, is to care for our readers, our audience. And the importance of caring for everyone around us, acting out of love, not out of fear, not out of greed. That is what matters most in life. My illness has been an amazing teacher because without it I would never have learned these lessons. I think Ma would probably have agreed.

If you would like Share your life story to write your life story for you email: gabriella@shareyourlifestory.com.au or call Gabriella on 0408 256 381.