Diagnosed with seven benign brain tumors in 2009, Jeff Cannon, now 50, was forced to admit he needed to make some radical changes in his career. Since 2003, he had run his own ad agency with offices in New York and Los Angeles, pulling in seven-figure revenues from big corporate clients. His business allowed him to live a high-end lifestyle with his wife, but he was miserable, especially as he rode out the recession and had to let people go. “I hated going to work every day,” he says. “I was not enjoying the clients. I was no longer enjoying the work I was doing.”
He saw the tumors as a wake-up call that his work was costing him too much, health-wise. In the year he spent getting surgery to remove six tumors –the seventh was impossible to remove – and recover, Cannon did some serious soul searching. “When I finally had the time to step back and review what I’ve done, I said, `I can no longer work in advertising--the stress is going to kill me.'” He began to consider other career options, something he’d never done before.
As he pondered possible futures, looking back at his father’s life gave him some guidance. A former corporate advertising executive at AT&T, his dad had died from cancer the same year Cannon was diagnosed. While his father had enjoyed his work and been very successful, Cannon realized his father had gotten the most satisfaction from volunteer work, knocking on doors of local citizens to help get a Planned Parenthood clinic approved and built in Sarasota, Florida. “He did it for no money,” recalls Cannon. “He really believed in what Planned Parenthood stood for.” Cannon realized that both he and his father loved connecting with other people -- and that there were other ways to tap into that passion outside of creating advertisements.
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Meanwhile, Cannon was researching neuroscience to do whatever he could to heal himself. He was fascinated to learn that while his tumors had pushed his brain into 75% of the space it would normally occupy, his brain had adapted enough for him to keep functioning. Cannon began researching meditation, something he had learned as a martial arts student and practiced for many years but later abandoned in the rush of daily life. “When I started learning more about meditation, I started realizing that you could change the brain,” he says. “You could change your habits, the way you could respond to the world around you. If we can change that, creating the life we want to live is fairly easy.”
That realization was an “Aha!” moment. Instead of running an ad agency, he’d become a meditation teacher—and tap into his love of communication by sharing his knowledge with others.
Cannon was excited about trying his new career, but he knew he and his wife, Laura Lendrum, a self-employed retail consultant, would have to scale back their lifestyle to make it work. Still, as he thought about the alternative—putting his health at risk by going back to his old, high-pressure career—he found the confidence to sell the business he’d built. “Once I realized what was important to me I realized I don’t need a million dollar agency,” he says.
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Tapping his marketing skills, Cannon cold-called corporations, persuading them to hire him to create meditation programs for their employees. One by one, he won clients such as Harper's Bazaar, Ithaka Training, Whole Foods, and Lululemon. He also began seeing private clients, some of whom had attended his corporate workshops and wanted to work with him again.
His new venture, The Simple Truth Project, focused on 20-minute meditation sessions that fit people’s busy lives. “What I teach is modern meditation,” he says. “We simply don’t have time for sitting for two hours. Many of us can’t afford to go away for a five-day silent retreat.”
Cannon embarked on another major project, writing a book. The Simple Truth: Meditation for the Modern World shares the insights he gathered in his journey to recover and rebuild his health without retreating from life.
Ultimately, Cannon wanted to earn a decent living – “I didn’t want to live in a yurt in upstate New York,” he jokes – but this time around, he made sure to keep his business from becoming as stressful as the last one. Instead of hiring full-time employees, for instance, he opted to rely on a network of contractors. On a typical week, he leads one or two corporate workshops and sees five to seven private clients. While it took a while to get the business off the ground, he now earns a low six-figure income, about half of what he took home before.
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Cannon says his wife Laura has given him vital support. To make his new venture work, the couple, who don’t have children and live in an apartment in New York, opted to scale down their lifestyle, going out less and enjoying passions like cooking at home. “One of the keys to happiness is separating what’s important to you and what’s important to everybody else,” he says.
That doesn’t mean everyone in Cannon’s life has embraced his new direction. “I had a number of associates who said, `Jeff, what are you doing? Don’t you realize you’re giving up your retirement?’” he says. “They didn’t understand it. They slowly migrated out of our lives.” Meanwhile, he and his wife spend more time with the folks who share their values.
When Cannon encounters naysayers, here’s what he says: “I love what I do so much right now that I’m never going to retire. I’m going to do this well into my 70s and 80s. I love working. It’s part of what I am. Why should I feel I have to stop working at 65 or 70?”
Every six months Cannon gets an MRI to check on the seventh brain tumor. “The tumor is still there,” he says. “It has not grown. I’ve taken that as a lesson.” The lesson, he says, is that it’s impossible to separate work from the rest of life, and that there’s no point to continue doing work you hate. Today, he loves his work. “I’d like to do it for another 50 years,” he says.
What Jeff Cannon Learned About Life and Work
The Most Important Thing I Did Right Cannon says that finally listening to his inner instinct to try teaching meditation, instead of talking himself out of it, was his smartest move. “Don’t be afraid to listen to your gut,” he says.
The One Thing I Wish I Could Get a Do-Over On For Cannon, waiting so long to get out of his old business and try something new was a mistake. “When I started my ad agency in 2003, I did it because I thought that was what I wanted to do,” he says. “I wanted a big house. I wanted to be able to brag about my revenue. Six years later, I realized I didn’t like to go into work. What I created was someone else’s agency.”
The One Piece of Advice I'd Give to Someone Else Reimagining Their Work Building a strong network of friends and business associates who can offer advice on your new career when you need it is vital, says Cannon. “It’ll make your journey shorter,” he says.
Photo: Credit: Benjamin Lowy/Reportage by Getty Images