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Flight of fancy: When ambition soars

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in Leaders & Managers,Profiles in Leadership

Everybody is happy to tell you about the importance of following your passion. Few let it lead their lives.

A good example is Phoebe Snetsinger, the first person to see 8,400 species of birds, becoming a hero among birders while battling cancer.

Snetsinger drew intensity and drive from her father, Leo Burnett, founder of one of the biggest advertising agencies in the world. “I’m as crazy about this as my father was about advertising,” she told a newspaper.

In 1981, at nearly age 50, she was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer and told she had less than a year to live. Snetsinger decided to live out her time well. Her passion grew from local to global birding.

Finally happy, she catapulted to fame by rushing to St. Louis and identifying a type of gull that usually migrates between Siberia and Alaska, and had never been seen in the lower 48 states.

At this point, a few birds shy of 4,500 on her “life list” of birds she’d spotted, she decided that 5,000 would be her final goal. “I’m looking forward to ‘retirement’ after 5,000,” she told a friend, “and leisurely birding!”

Snetsinger felt “considerable triumph” when she reached 5,000. But she couldn’t stop. Her passion became a compulsion, and as her reputation grew, she became more desperate and irritable.

On some trips, Snetsinger still felt euphoric about the birds, using superlatives to describe them. Birders around the world started to spot her.

She reached 7,000 on a trip to Sri Lanka in 1992. After 7,700, she wrote, there would be no “easy or guaranteed ones.” In 1994, she hit half a dozen countries, promising her husband that “I really am going to cut way back on birding after 8,000 … This verges on insanity.”

Snetsinger also became increasingly insulting of her guides and harsh toward competitors. On the other hand, she did set the world record in 1995, inspired her children to pursue careers in science, became a mentor, maintained high standards and turned her death into life.

Snetsinger died in a van accident in Madagascar in 1999 while—what else?—birding.

— Adapted from Life List, Olivia Gentile, Bloomsbury.

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