Prioritizing Your Life Purpose

How a COVID-19 diagnosis reminded a doctor of what really matters.

Dr. Marcus Ranney

Dr. Marcus Ranney had been out of medicine for ten years when he decided to put his name as a volunteer to help fight COVID-19 in Mumbai, India. Like most of the world, he was getting used to working from home in his then-role as the country manager for a global wellness company. A few weeks earlier, COVID-19 started to emerge in the United Kingdom, where he grew up. “My wife and I had a conversation,” he said. “And I said, if I were in London now, I would happily go back and volunteer because it seems like the natural thing to do.”

COVID-19 eventually emerged in India, and Ranney and his wife had the conversation again. They knew that if Ranney were to volunteer, it would carry an element of risk, particularly with two young children at home. “We didn’t know how bad it was going to be,” Ranney admitted, but “my sentiment is that I never operated from a place of fear. This is our equivalent of war. We said, look, if the situation became so bad that they needed someone who has been out of medicine for ten years, then it’s time we step forward.” Ranney ended up putting his name as a volunteer on the list. “A month later, I get a call saying we’re now drafting volunteers. Would you be interested in coming out?”

From commentary to on-the-ground insights

Ranney ended up being part of a surveillance team that was deployed into the slums of Mumbai. He conducted community screening of those who had symptoms of COVID and needed to undergo formal testing as a result. Over time, he noticed that the prevalence of many other health conditions—like hypertension, asthma, diabetes—made identifying suspected COVID cases just that much more difficult. In many instances, “I was the only doctor they’d seen for three months,” he said. “I found great purpose in serving people beyond the COVID aspect.”

That realization was the start of a journey of bringing Ranney back to his long-term vision and commitment to wellbeing. It also reminded him of the complexities of what it takes to fight a global pandemic. Ranney, whose stint as a physician included the role of medical officer for the British Royal Air Force and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, found himself being contacted by the press for his thoughts when the virus started to emerge as a global pandemic. “I was slipping into lazy armchair commentary. When I got into the frontlines…I suddenly became much more empathetic of how complicated it is. We have other diseases. How do we distinguish whether it’s COVID or something else?”

Dr. Marcus Ranney COVID-19 testing in Mumbai

Finding a north-star amidst a COVID-19 diagnosis

Ranney ended up on the other side of the COVID-19 when he was diagnosed with the virus itself. He woke up with symptoms one morning and saw that his oxygen levels were down 91%. Ranney was sick for about 3 months and hasn’t returned to frontline work since then.

As an accomplished professional, an avid marathoner, and the father of two young children, Ranney was used to moving at a fast speed. Slowing down forced Ranney to step back and re-orient himself with his long-term goal: to be a “champion of wellbeing.” And his experience working with COVID-19 patients and contracting the virus himself made him realize that he needed to focus on large-scale global issues. The pandemic, he says, is just a symptom of large-scale problems like the climate crisis. He joined the Atlantic Council as a nonresident senior fellow in September 2020 to research the relationship between the climate crisis and planetary health. Ranney also decided to leave formal employment to work on an entrepreneurial project (The venture is currently in stealth mode, so Ranney is unable to share further details. He does hint, however, that it will involve changing the way that individuals and businesses view wellbeing).

It’s also about putting wellbeing back in the center of his life. “I have a mantra that I’ve been trying to live around,” he says. “Self-care and self-love is not selfish.” Somewhere along working in the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis and balancing a professional career, “I lost those priorities and had a burnout,” Ranney says.

Focusing on and measuring what matters

Ranney’s extensive professional experience that spans healthcare and venture capital also meant that he’s seen and experienced many systems for goal-setting and prioritizing the work that moves an organization forward. He first came across OKRs working with Times Bridge—the investment and partnership arm of India’s largest digital media company, the Times Group. “My learnings from using this system was that it provided an easy framework to measure our business’ growth and success,” says Ranney. “Too often, we get carried away in making and creating high-level strategic statements in business.” The OKR process, he says, means that strategic decisions can be correlated with “easy to measure objective deliverables.” Those deliverables, he says, can then be “audited as a simple binary outcome.”

Ranney doesn’t follow a prescribed process when it comes to personal goals. “But what I am thoughtful about is monitoring how successful a particular activity is,” he says. “If I write something, then I do try and keep track of how it’s contributing to the narrative,” he says. Some of the questions he asks include, is it being shared? Who is sharing it and on what platform? Is it generating discussions among decision-makers and shaping their conversation on that topic in one way or another?

Ranney is aware that the nature of solving complicated problems will involve making mistakes in the process. And if it turns out that what he’s doing isn’t contributing to his long-term objectives, he doesn’t have a problem changing course. The nature of experimentation, he says, is that some work and some don’t work. And when something doesn’t work, it’s time to change course.

That thought process mirrors the purpose of OKRs—which is to provide a framework towards achieving goals that “merit special attention.” In the process, that involves assessing what areas deserve your focus. Just as importantly, it’s about knowing what doesn’t deserve your attention. Making that assessment requires an honest audit of whether what you’re doing brings you closer to your long-term objective.

Ranney says, “I don’t mind zigs and zags. If you look at my career trajectory, it constantly changes every few years, and that’s what I’m going to do in 2021 for my own venture as well.”

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