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No Barriers Podcast Episode 58: Harnessing Positivity with Jim Kwok



What does it mean to live a good life? Jim Kwok has been reflecting on this simple but important question since his colorectal cancer diagnosis 3 years ago. After 41 rounds of chemotherapy, surgeries, and 28 rounds of radiation, Jim is stage 4 and is told it is non-curable. He has recently ceased all treatment and now focuses his energy on making the most of his remaining time.

He has had a largely successful career and is still actively working as a Managing Director at JP Morgan. He lives with his loving wife of 28 years, spends time with his two children, and remains active in his local running and tennis community.

Jim now says “I am determined to live out my time a certain way – resolute that cancer doesn’t get more than its fair share.”

The Alchemy series is generously sponsored by Wells Fargo and Prudential.

» Hear an extended version of our interview with Jim here.


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Episode Transcript

Jim: I can't believe how lucky a life I've had. I've been surrounded by an amazing family, friends. I've seen some of the best parts of humanity the last three years, and they give me a really strong sense of peace. And that peace, I think it makes me feel really powerful and not fearful about what lays ahead.

Erik: It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. And that unexplored terrain, between those dark places we find ourselves in in the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call no barriers.

Jeff: Welcome to another installment of our No Barriers Alchemy Podcast Series, where we explore this extraordinary moment in our lives. Special thanks to Wells Fargo and Prudential for their generous support of the series. What does it mean to live a good life? Jim Kwok has been reflecting on this simple, but important question, since his colorectal cancer diagnosis three years ago. And after 41 rounds of chemotherapy, surgeries, and 28 rounds of radiation, Jim is stage four and is told it's now incurable. He ceased all treatment one and a half months ago and now focuses all of his energy on making the most of his remaining time. He's had a largely successful career and is still actively working as managing director at JP Morgan. He lives with his loving wife of 28 years, spends time with his two children, and remains active in his local running and tennis community. Jim now says, "I am determined to live out my time a certain way," resolute that cancer doesn't get more than its fair share. You all are going to enjoy this one.

Erik: Thank you, Jim, for joining us. I went to school with you at Hong Kong International School, believe it or not. My dad was working for Pfizer pharmaceuticals and he was over in Hong Kong. And you were just like a tiny bit older than me. And I was in the class with your brother and he reintroduced us. I wanted to interview you on the podcast because you've been sending me these beautiful messages that you've been sending out to friends about your cancer situation. And I thought they were just really profound and you have a great perspective on life and you can help our audience in so many ways because people are kind of struggling to figure out what a good life means. So I'm really excited to spend some time with you this morning. Thanks for joining us.

Jim: Well, I'm really happy and happy to be with you today, and thank you for having me.

Erik: Yeah. And so earlier, we were talking about your morning routines. Just tell us that.

Jim: I've become an early riser. I love the quiet of the morning. I love hearing the birds and I love just having my coffee and just sitting there and looking out the window and drinking my coffee, reflecting a lot, doing a little bit of reading. Sometimes I do some of my writing at that time as well. And it's usually when my body feels about as good as it's going to feel for the day.

Jeff: Well, you need to continue to paint this picture for us, I think, just a little bit, if you could. So there was this overlap in Hong Kong with you and Erik, and then you started this career path that had a pretty, I think, meteoric trajectory. You were a big dog for a long time, rising pretty high in the financial industry. Can you kind of get us up to that point before we get to the crescendo, and sort of build up that background of your career with your family as well?

Jim: So I grew up in Hong Kong. We grew up in Hong Kong. I lived there, I was born in the States, but we moved there when I was less than two years old. So I don't remember the first part of my life in the States. I remember it from Hong Kong and I was there from two years old until 10th grade. We moved back to the States when I was in 10th grade. So I finished high school in the middle of the country in Michigan. And then I ended up at Northwestern University and studied economics, and then started my career in finance for 10 years at Goldman Sachs in their money management area, and then for the last 23 years, I've worked at JP Morgan in their money management area.

Erik: So your life had a dramatic change because you were diagnosed with cancer and you went through a lot of chemo trying to heal. Tell us about that journey, when it started.

Jim: I was 52 years old and passed the age when you should get your routine colonoscopy. My wife was really bugging me to get the doctor's appointment and go in and get checked out. And I will say this, right, everything anyone probably knows about a colonoscopy who hasn't had one, I can think of 10,000 things I'd rather have them do to me than do that, right? I will do almost anything before you're going to do that to me. So I really was dragging my feet. Anyways, fast forward. I go in and I've got all the sophomoric and juvenile jokes with my friends that I'm texting as I'm pulling in, right, into my colonoscopy. I have it, it was really no big deal. And I wake up and I'm in the recovery room and my wife has joined me in the recovery room. And then, at that moment, it just became the most surreal thing. Like I'm in a conversation that was just like out of the movies, where the doctor said, "I'm sorry to tell you we've discovered a very large tumor in your colon." And your mind is just reeling because, "I'm not that guy. I'm not that guy. That doesn't happen to me." And they discovered it and they said they were going to do some biopsies and some testing. And I said, "Okay, so you'll confirm and you'll let me know if it's cancer." And she said, "Look, it's a really large tumor. We're going to do some biopsies just to know a little bit more, but I don't need to know anything more than to say you have a pretty advanced stage of cancer," which we had learned at the time was stage three. And then, all of a sudden, it's just a whirlwind of doctor's appointments that, thankfully, the doctor starts sending sending you. "You're going to go see an oncologist, a surgeon, and blah, blah, blah," and you just are on a conveyor belt and kind of going through it. And for about 12 hours, my mind was reeling. And it wasn't a lot longer than 12 hours, which was kind of interesting. But for 12 hours, I kept thinking, "But how? But why?" and, "How did I get here? This isn't me." And the probably surprising thing is it just wasn't longer than that.

Jeff: Did it almost feel like that introductory phase was denial like we all sort of hear about when you go through a pretty traumatic experience like that? You went through, it sounds like, several days of, "Wait, what?"

Jim: Yeah.

Jeff: And then, what happened right after that? Like when was the transition from denial to acceptance, and then take us further through that process?

Jim: One of the realizations I came to 12 hours later was, I don't know what this is all about. I don't know what this is all about, but for me, I remember sobbing and just thinking about what it would do to my wife and my kids.

Erik: You also, Jim, I mean, you've talked one time about getting the CT scan and how that injects contrast into your bloodstream so that they can see things, but sort of cancer has created a contrast. Talk about that clarity because I think that's fascinating.

Jim: In my view, cancer has really been a gift in my life. And that sounds so crazy and I wouldn't wish this on anybody, but the last three years, the contrast that I've had has allowed me to see just so clearly and vividly there's three things that kind of matter to me in life. The first is my friends and family. I just see very clearly the people in my life that really count. And sadly, there's a set up people that don't matter as much, but I just so clearly see the people in my life that matter a great deal to me. And then there's a set of things that matter to me in life, including my work. It matters a great deal to me and it's the fulfillment of my human potential. It's my canvas. You guys climb, which I think is just awesome. I don't climb, but in work, I'm testing my potential to see, can I do things that I didn't think I could do? And that's my canvas. And then the third thing was, as I've been on this journey for the last three years, just seeing how powerful positive humanity can be, and I want to be a better human. So cancer really taught me that. I wasn't that guy. I never thought about those things, but the last three years, having this darkness all around you, allows you to see the brightness. And those things came into a really, really sharp focus, and I would say pervade my thinking all the time. And that's what matters to me. I wouldn't be this guy were it not for cancer. And if you said to me, this will sound a little crazy, but, "Live a full life, live until you're 80, 90 years old," but not know these things as strongly as I do, or, "You're going to live three years and you're going to die of cancer," but know these things so clearly and so vividly and powerfully, I'd take the trade and live a shorter, higher quality life, than to live a long life and kind of be less clued in.

Erik: Yeah. I also feel, and again, it's just my observation that you have a lot of energy. Even though your body is getting beat down, there's something else in you that continues to have energy. And what's the source of that energy, Jim?

Jim: I think it's really two things, Erik. Life os just such an amazing gift. And I hope everyone who's listening to this just appreciates that life is such a gift for all of us and it's a privilege, and we just owe it to ourselves to give it the best ride that we can. There's an energy that derives from that, right? "I want to be better. I want to be better. I want to be a better father. I want to be a better husband. I want to be a better human." And there's energy that pulsates through that when you have a sense of urgency around that. The other part of where my energy comes from is a sense of peace. I can't believe how lucky a life I've had. I've been surrounded by an amazing family, friends. I've seen some of the best parts of humanity the last three years, and they give me a really strong sense of peace. And that peace, I think it makes me feel really powerful and not fearful about what lays ahead.

Erik: You talk about peace a lot in your posts and that seems to connect with the things that you can influence. How do you maintain that sense of control or influence in your life?

Jim: I'm not in control of what's happening to my physical body. I'm not in control of what's happening with this molecular riot that's going on in my body. I can't do anything about it. I am in control of my attitude, my outlook, and that's what I'm in control of, and that's the only thing I'm in control of. And I've said this also, cancer, if you let it, and where cancer really wins, is if it gets more than it should. It's going to get my body. If it gets my soul, my attitude, then it's getting more than it should, right? And I've told this to my wife and my kids, "You're going to be devastated when I die. You're going to fall down. You're going to cry, but you're going to get up. You are going to get up because if you stay down, then cancer is getting more than it should."

Jeff: I love it. There's this thing that we sort of nonchalantly throw out, "I can live with that," and you've sort of paraphrased that a little bit. Can you tell us about what that means?

Jim: I think that the whole wording of that is wrong, and a much better wording of that phrase, "I can live with that," is, "I can die with that." And if you just really think about it, it catches some people off guard for a second, but this idea of I can die with that should just stop you and make you think, do you have the right priorities? Are you acting in a way that you would be proud of your conduct? Are you making decisions that will last beyond you that will feel right? And when it comes time, when they tell you that's your time and you look back on it, are you going to feel okay about those decisions? So really, it's what you can die with. Because at that point, you can't go back. You can't do it again. When it's my moment and when I draw my last breath, am I going to be okay with the decisions I've made? Right? And I believe this. While I'm an imperfect person, I believe, on the whole, I've tried to do the best I can and as right as I can. And when you find me at the end, I hope you'll find me with a smile on my face because I can't believe I got to live life. And you'll find me with a tear in my eye of having to leave my family.

Erik: Were there things that you've done now that maybe you would have been scared or maybe reluctant to do when you think, "Okay, I have 30, 40 years ahead of me." I just am trying to put myself there. It seems like you might be quicker to hug people or... Are there certain things that you practice differently?

Jim: Act like you won't have a second chance, right? I may not talk to so and so again, and there's a certain set of things I want to say to them. This is the moment, this is now, and what am I waiting for? And I would say in the past, I would have been a lot more hesitant to express those kinds of things and do them. I haven't become like a daredevil. I haven't jumped out of an airplane or anything. So it's not anything necessarily physical that I've become more brave about, but it's probably just the idea of expressing myself more.

Erik: What is your definition, and I know this is a big question, but so what is your definition of a good life for people to think about?

Jim: Boy, that is a big question.

Erik: Sorry.

Jim: Yeah, no, that's great. That's great. When I think about a life fulfilled, I would just say, did I give more than I took? Did I realize my potential? Obviously you want to be as good a family man as you can with your wife and your kids. But I think even bigger than that, were you a decent human? And we all make mistakes, did you just try to do the very best you can? And if I look back on that and I feel like I can check those boxes, then that's going to be a life fulfilled.

Erik: Yeah. Yeah. And it seems like courage is a big part of it too. It seems like courage is sort of something weaving its way through all that stuff.

Jim: Courage is a byproduct, I guess. I haven't tried to think of myself to act courageously. I do think I have been courageous through this thing, but it's just been a byproduct of acting with a level of resolve. I have limited time. I have a purpose with what I want to do with my time. If people see that as courageous, then thank you. That's a really complimentary way to characterize it, but I'm just trying to do the best I can with the little time that I have left, and I didn't start out this thing to be necessarily courageous.

Jeff: Well I'm sure you know this, Jim, but I think a lot of people in your position turtle up and cower in the face of it-

Jim: Yeah.

Jeff: And you've done the opposite of that. I mean, I know that if you peel back the curtain, there was obviously plenty of times for you when you felt vulnerable and fearful and scared. But I mean, I feel like what you're doing, you say this duty-bound sort of forward scout approach, you have done something that is unique and powerful, and your legacy is cemented forever because of the words and the stories and the feelings and emotions and advice that you are continuing to share with people. And you're a gift. So it's an amazing journey that you're on and we're all better for hearing you tell it.

Jim: Well, I appreciate that very much, Jeff. Thank you.

Erik: Yeah. I mean, we are constantly, at No Barriers, are trying to talk about these elements of life, and one of them, we call outcome alchemy, this idea of when shit happens, do you turtle up, as you just said, Jeff, or do you think expansively? And so that's a big part of today for me, is thinking about how to think more expansively in life. So thanks, Jim.

Jim: It's my pleasure, my pleasure to be here. And like I said, we're living in a tough time right now and my hat's off to you guys because thinking about positivity and positive energy, and the better side of our human spirit and how we treat each other is just so important. We can do a hell of a lot better than what we're doing right now at this moment.

Erik: Agreed.

Jeff: No truer words have been spoken, man. I mean, it's a gift for us to be able to talk to people in an intellectual level and finding their way through life, but I think your topic and your transparency is unique in so many ways.

Erik: Yeah, what'd you take out of this, Jeff?

Jeff: Well, his lens and optic that he has is such a unique thing that all of us need to take heed of. There is no one who gets out of this alive, as has been written eloquently. We are all going to follow the same path, but, in a way, from what you could tell from Jim's tone and the way he spoke about his path, he sees it as a gift in a way to know. We've all been in those positions where it's like, well, if you could look into that crystal ball and you could say like, "This is the day I'm going to die, this is how I'm going to die," would you choose it? And I think most people that we pose that question to would say, "No, I don't want to know." Well, Jim didn't have a choice. Jim's like, "Here's the crystal ball. There's your day, your month, your period that you're going to go, and this is how you're going to go." And in knowing that, it has provided him this tapestry to be able to paint and embrace and squeeze and hold and love, and do all these things that it encourages people like me to just randomly go up to my kid and just squeeze him really tight. And he'll be like, "Dad, what are you doing?" But do that. Do that. So that's one thing. And then the other thing that really stood out was Jim saying it's not necessarily the quantity, it's the quality. I think I'm paraphrasing, but it was not how long, but just how strong, really, his days are. And I think that that's something that it's easy to just brush by, especially with all the negativity that's floating around right now, but don't forget that. Don't forget the power that comes with each day. And then, sorry, one more thing. There's just so much. Give back more than you took. And that's the cornerstone of servant leadership, which is so important to me, and being of service to people. And I wish people would consider what that looks like in their own lives on a micro and macro level. So Jim's a gift. Grateful to have had the time with him. So you're up. Where do you land?

Erik: Well, just how valuable this conversation has been for me personally. Because when we're doing this podcast, we're trying to dive into like really authentic people, no BS, like what does a real life look like? What does a good life look like? We don't want a motivational poster. I don't want this perfect little neat ingredient to the secret of life, right? It's a super messy thing. So Jim didn't ask for a cancer to happen in his life, but these things are like a catalyst that create a kind of energy. Like he said, in terms of the CT scan, it creates a kind of contrast in your life. And so cancer could make you go either way. It could be this thing that just crushes your spirits and fills you full of fear, dread. It could be like this weight that looms over you, or, like Jim, you can make it the catalyst to clarity. Part of it is how you step up and try to live your life, as Jim eloquently said, the best you can every day with the time you have. So I think this is the perfect messy message for our community.

Jeff: Yeah. Yeah.

Erik: And thank you to Jim. Thanks, Jeff. If people are interested in No Barriers and want to attend our virtual summit, we're going to have thousands of people being a part of the summit, incredible speakers and innovators and workshop leaders, sort of like the podcast here on steroids. And also thank you to Wells Fargo and Prudential for supporting the podcast. These are great companies. Go out and support them because they support us at No Barriers. So thanks to all of them, no barriers.

Jeff: See you next time.

Dave: The production team behind this podcast includes senior producer, Pauline Schaffer, executive producer, Didrik Johnck, sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cottman, graphics by Sam Davis, and marketing support by Megan Lee and Carly Sandsmark. A special thanks to The Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.



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