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I Used to Run AT&T: Here’s Why I’m Giving Away Most of My Net Worth




What would you do if you learned that you might have only a few years to live? It’s a wild question, one I faced more than once. This question not only changed my outlook on life, but inspired me to try to help make the world a better place, especially for those in need.

I was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia in the 90s, during my tenure as CEO of Hughes Electronics. It was a relatively serious case, too, as it had gone undetected for quite a while. I enrolled in a promising clinical trial and hoped for the best, but I still had to confront the reality that cancer could kill me. I write all about this in my book Cancer With Hope.

No sooner had the grueling chemotherapy treatment ended, I developed a life-threatening blood infection—a side effect of the treatment. With my immune system weakened from the chemo, it was spreading quickly. I spent several tense days in the ICU not knowing if I’d make it through.

Fast forward to 2005. I had just retired from my position as chairman and CEO of AT&T when I was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. After surgery came months of radiation and then years of intense hormonal therapy. On top of that, I received a new diagnosis— Parsonage-Turner Syndrome (PTS)—an autoimmune disease that attacked my phrenic nerve, which controls the diaphragm, severely limiting my breathing. I battled the PTS and the prostate cancer simultaneously.

Dismal odds of survival confronted me at every turn. My doctors said my chances of making it hovered between 33-50 percent. That’s scary, right? I had no choice but to reflect on how to maximize the impact of whatever time I had left. I had already started by increasing my financial contributions to Johns Hopkins Medicine, where I’d received countless treatments, but I wanted to do more.

My wife Anne and I came to the realization: Instead of just giving a portion of our savings and investments, we would give most of it away. We would donate the bulk of our net worth to projects that advance medicine, help the disadvantaged, and make the world a better place.

Hope and purpose: The combo that makes all the difference

Hope is the key, both in battling illness and living a meaningful life. It adds to your quality of life and helped me as a cancer patient to fuel my determination and keep despair at bay. Many experts agree that hope plays a significant role in how cancer patients engage in their care, and potentially how they respond to treatment.

Now add purpose. When Anne and I felt the impact that helping others had on our lives, we felt a singular leading as to how we wanted to spend the rest of our time on Earth. We wanted to make an impact. Adversity is a natural part of life. While we can’t avoid life’s difficult moments, we can try to view them through a larger lens, focused on a larger purpose, one filled with meaning.



Don’t wait for time to run out. Do something extraordinary now.

We all have the desire to do something great, to help make a change. But, we often run out of time before we have the chance to do something about it. Life gets in the way and those dreams get pushed to the back burner. Illness changes that. It forces us to answer “what would you do?” question sooner than we might have ever expected.

This awakening changed the course of my life. My journey through darkness and recovering from multiple cancers has led me to an ever-expanding circle of giving to exciting programs. This is deeply rewarding and gives me the gift of perspective.

What I want to tell you is this. Even if you’re fortunate enough to go through life without facing frightening health issues, don’t put off doing something extraordinary. It is always the right time to be selfless. While our time is finite, there’s no limit to the benefits that you will reap by lending a hand.

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