A Project Manager’s Game Plan for Dealing with Incurable Cancer

Segment Twenty-Five–  A Lasting Lesson in Memorable Pragmatism

It’s a stool. I wish I felt as useful.  It was a wedding present when my wife and I tied the knot in 1983.  That’s right…40 years ago.  One of Nancy’s fellow Frostburg Presbyterians, a gentleman named Al Ganyu built it and gave it to us on our wedding day.  There are very few wedding presents that made such an impact.  And from Al’s amazing gift, we can all learn something valuable about our contributions.

Al Ganyu was a shop teacher (high school woodworking shop) in the 1960’s and 70’s.  This was a regular student project.  He explained that it was a specific type of stool, common in Poland, called a (pronouncer ONLY) shah-medley.  He explained to my new bride and I that it was his favorite wedding present to give and he hoped that it would serve us well for years to come. 

This sturdy little stool is the only wedding present that we still have that we use every single day.  It’s been used for a host of different purposes.  We use it when we’re not tall enough to reach the top shelf.  It’s the dining table for dog Mocha’s bowl.  It props the door open from time to time.  It one of the most utilitarian objects that we own. 

When we first got it, I thought it was a little bizarre.  I was 25 years old, and didn’t see all of the practicality that had just entered our lives.  Forty years later, I would truly weep if it ever broke.  But it won’t.  Al Ganyu, shop teacher extraordinaire, built it. 

Uh, Carl?  How in the world does this tie into your Stage Four project?

It ties in directly and perfectly.  Shortly after my diagnosis, I was bedridden, weak and more than a little depressed.  I quickly figured out that one of the most depressing aspects of my life at the time was the fact that I couldn’t make any meaningful contributions to our family’s life.  I felt like a drag on the system.  Anyone who’s ever been under the care of (and reliant on) others, can empathize. 

That level of depression isn’t reserved for physical ailments.  A sense that one doesn’t contribute to society can hit virtually anyone at any time.  And how can you overcome it?  Take a page from Al Ganyu.

My wife suggested that I make a list.  It was not to be a list of my ailments and what I could not do, but a list of everything that I was still capable of.  It was to be a list of what I could do.  The list was not as robust as it would have been just a month or two earlier, but it was a list.  Nancy continued to push me to augment the list with more items.

Lesson Learned: It’s easy to take your simplest capabilities for granted.  Al Ganyu’s gift was his ability to get students to build these small, sturdy, wooden stools as a personal project.  I doubt that there are many students who were under his tutelage that have lost or given away their stools.  And if they did, they regret it.  This is never going to solve world hunger or climate change.  But it is an effort to create.  It is an act that adds, rather than subtracts.  It has meaning all by itself. 

As individuals (for ourselves) and as managers (for others), we need to identify one small thing that we can continue to do (even if largely incapacitated) that others will find meaningful and lasting.  Everyone has a gift.  The truly impactful among us will draw out those gifts from others and treasure them.

One other thing I’ve discovered over the past two years is that gifts often manifest themselves in places where we weren’t looking for them.  In the past couple of years, I’ve discovered and rediscovered aspects of life that make a difference.  Among them, I’ve…

  1. Built a dry stack stone wall,
  2. Rejoined the singing community,
  3. Painted a “Chew Mail Pouch” sign on the side of a shed,
  4. Broken bread with co-workers from virtually every phase of my life

None of these will go down as legacy-builders (although 10-thousand-year-old paleolithic stone walls are still standing today), but they represent things that resonate with others.  When I suggested that I wanted a big “Mail Pouch” sign on the side of the shed, I vetted the concept with my neighbor.  She was thrilled.  My mother, an antique dealer, had always thought that she’d love to own the barn siding with a Mail Pouch sign, using it to decorate a recreation room.  She never got around to it.  I like to think she knows that I picked up the gauntlet for her and took care of it on my own.

Our smallest gifts and abilities can shine not only in our world but in the worlds of others.  And the more we remind ourselves of what lights we can shine, the more we reaffirm our self-worth.

Lesson Learned: I’ve been a reasonably successful independent consultant for over 25 years.  It’s the longest I’ve held down any job.  On multiple occasions, peers and acquaintances have been in touch to ask how to follow in my footsteps and build an independent practice with Fortune 500 clients.  I share those insights freely with anyone who wants them.  Why?  Because I believe we should all be Al Ganyu.  If we give of what we know, and what they can use, we create a lasting stepstool on which they can stand, and be elevated.  Good for us.

If you really want to take a stab at being Al Ganyu, I found a website with the plans for something very similar. 


And if woodworking’s not your thing, take the time to think through your gifts—even if you’re not feeling very gifted. When you’re at your weakest, working for others can give you the strength it takes to carry us through to the next day.

Up next?    WIP – Work in Progress or Process?

If you want to review the previous elements of this e-book or blog, they’re all posted at www.carlpritchard.com/blog

If you have insights you’d like to share or comments or conversations, my e-mail is the best way to reach me at carl@carlpritchard.com.  I’ll always get back to you within 24 hours.  Always.  And if you think I missed the mark?  Check your spam folder.  Thanks for joining me on this journey.