“To be what is called happy, one should have (1) something to live on, (2) something to live for, and (3) something to die for. The lack of one of these results in drama. The lack of two results in tragedy.” (Cyprian Norwid, Polish poet)
The life of Ed Rapp testifies to the wisdom of those words. In addition to our health needs, we flourish when we also are meeting #2 and #3.
Life was good: a great family, working for a great company, a position in life and work that afforded numerous opportunities to make a purposeful difference in the world.
Then, bam! On November 5, 2015, everything changed.
For Ed Rapp, then group president of Caterpillar, Inc. at the peak of his career he was diagnosed at age 56 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Not surprisingly, he immediately resigned from his position.
Extremely surprising, though, at least for Ed, was the outpouring he received from colleagues and friends who came forth to offer their encouragement and support. Dozens of messages he received concluded with the admonition, “Stay strong!”
And staying strong is exactly what Ed is doing. He has embraced the challenge and has become a leader in the global effort to research, treat, and find a cure for ALS.
Ed’s stated purpose for decades has been “to positively impact the people and responsibilities experienced through life.” After his ALS diagnosis, his purpose never wavered. He founded Stay Strong vs. ALS, which has raised over $15 million for ALS research, a good portion of which came from the networks of colleagues and friends he built while at Caterpillar. The mission of Stay Strong vs. ALS is: “Support those in search of a cure and bring better assistive technologies to those that suffer from the disease.”
At Caterpillar, Ed recalls, they used to say, “The road to progress starts with a road.” Ed’s road began on a farm in Pilot Grove, Missouri, where he graduated from high school in a class of 30 students. Small wonder that when he enrolled at the University of Missouri, he felt out of place and left behind. In response, he took a leadership class where he embraced a “daily prescription” of goal setting and purpose-based affirmations.
Today, he uses that same prescription, which drove his success at Caterpillar, to counsel ALS patients when they first learn of their heartbreaking prognosis: two to five years to live. Ed draws upon his own experience in doing so. “The only times I cried”, he admits, “was telling my kids and telling my parents.” When his father-in-law expressed sorrow over his condition, Ed responded, “If I can make a difference in ALS, it will have been a good life.”
In counseling others, he shares his daily practices to fight ALS: diet, exercise, and faith. Every night, after prayers, when he lays his head upon the pillow, he asks himself three questions: “Did I approach the day with the right mental attitude?” “Did I clearly demonstrate to my family that I’m all in on fighting ALS?” and “Did I in some small way make a difference in the broader fight against ALS?”
Every morning, when he arises, he reaffirms his purpose to make a passing grade in life. Against all odds, he is “staying strong.” His gait is challenged and he walks with two arm crutches, but his strength and breathing capacity are good. He says, “I am staying strong. Yes, mobility is getting more difficult, but I am still on my feet. Life is good.”
“I just want to make a passing grade.”
Ed says, “While my challenge is ALS, the disease illuminated the fact that everyone in life deals with adversity in some size, shape, or form. As we all take on our challenges at hand, the good Lord won’t measure us by events, announcements, job titles, personal challenges, or even a diagnosis.
We will all be measured by how we respond and the contribution we make. I just want to make a passing grade.”
Ed’s calling to “stay strong” is inspiring. In the school of life, he surely deserves an A+.
When you think of your life as a “calling”, it transforms your entire experience of it. Ed’s pandemic calling was to write a book. The Flywheel of Life and Leadership by Ed Rapp is now complete and available on the major book platforms. It is heavily influenced by his 37 years as a leader at CAT and how the lessons learned also apply to “staying strong” in life.
The School of Life
So, how do we make a passing grade in the school of life?
Most of us, at some point, struggle to answer that question. Some of us uncover our answer early in life. But, most of us grapple with trial and error as we go through life.
Purpose is an important factor in making a passing grade. Researchers have become increasingly serious in studying how we unlock and sustain our purposes. Their studies draw our attention to the following qualities of purpose:
- Purpose is a verb – an action in the world. Action precedes clarity. By acting purposefully in just one of the 1440 purpose moments in a day, we make a passing grade in life.
- Purpose is a path – a key part of our own personal search for meaning. If our intention is to make a passing grade in life, to contribute to matters beyond (and larger than) our own self interest, we must choose a purpose path.
- Purpose is a practice – directed at goals or ends beyond ourselves, we make a passing grade by waking up on purpose every single day.
Do You Ever Feel that Purpose is Just Not for You?
You don’t have a cause like Stay Strong vs. ALS. If yes, fear not. You’re not alone. When I speak to groups about the reality that there are two types of purpose – big “P” and small “p” – they sigh with relief.
Purpose (big P) connects us with a cause (like Stay Strong vs. ALS), and it’s often daunting. Purpose (small p) is just as worthy and valuable, but on a smaller, daily scale. Small p purpose makes a contribution daily to others. Not every act has to be noble.
Ed’s capital P purpose is “Stay strong vs. ALS”, a noble cause, indeed.” His small p purpose is to “make a difference in one ALS person’s life every day.” He arises early every morning and counsels a stranger who has just been diagnosed with ALS and is scared. With this simple small “p” daily practice, Ed transforms a Zoom or phone call into a step towards making a passing grade.
Will I Make a Passing Grade?
Why do you get up in the morning? What is your small “p” purpose? Purpose is unlocked rather than found and discovered. It might be as simple as practicing the universal default purpose: “To grow and give.” Or, to make a difference in just one person’s life, today. The secret of making a passing grade is daily constancy of purpose.
Making a passing grade means devoting ourselves to something to live for and something to die for.