tragedy

By Mark E. Smith

My daughter had a scholarship interview on “the challenges she’s faced.” When she asked for my advice, I suggested describing the challenges, but mainly emphasizing how she’s overcome them, what we all can learn from them. After all, a tragic story is just… well… tragic. However, when we turn tragedy into triumph, that becomes an inspiring lesson for all.

It’s really the way life, too, works, isn’t it? For example, we know that dysfunction is generational, and when we see someone – hopefully not ourselves – repeating the cycle of generational dysfunction, it’s just tragic. Imagine a Ted Talk where the thesis was, “My parents were abusive alcoholics and now so am I….” The jaw-dropped audience would leave saddened and stunned. However, if the thesis was, “My parents were abusive alcoholics and here’s how I broke the cycle,” then there’s a riveting story all can learn and grow from.

I believe all of us have the ability to not rewrite our stories, but to finish them in ways that redirect them from the tragic to the triumphant, creating a phenomenally successful narrative – read that, life. The first chapters may be already written, but we can direct new ones, dramatically changing the story at any time.

See, tragedy is rarely a finite end, but almost always a remarkable opportunity for new beginnings, redirection. Yet, it’s rarely obvious. It takes a lot of awareness, introspection, and hard work to redirect our lives from tragedy to triumph. But, when we do, it’s the most important move we ever make, where tragedy stops, and healing and success begin.

Reflection, as I shared with my daughter, is key in this process – it’s where the learning curve is. If we’re unable to reflect on the tragedies in our lives, not only can’t we gain from them, but we’re at extreme risk of continuing living them. Any time that tragedy affects us, we ultimately need to find a space of reflection and introspection to stop the suffering and start the healing, the redirecting from the negative to the positive, the end of chapters and the starting of new ones.

It can be tough to do, I know. And, it’s heartbreaking when we see anyone – from loved ones to strangers – stuck in the wake of tragedy, sometimes a whole lifetime marred by its lingering effects. There are so many situations where it’s impossible to obtain clarity of thought in the situation, where reflection or introspection can’t occur because the scars are seemingly too deep or one’s capacities seem too limited. …Or, can it?

We often hear of people “hitting rock bottom.” I did this years ago in a marriage. The common misconception is that we hit rock bottom when we’ve lost everything, our lives in shambles. However, that’s rarely the case. I define “hitting rock bottom” as a point of uncanny clarity in the wake of tragedy, the point where we can reflect so honestly upon our past and present situations that we say, “Enough! I’m learning and growing out of this situation to live a healthier and more fulfilling life.” What’s wonderful is that we don’t have to be in shambles to do this – at any point, in any aspect of our lives, we can reflect upon that which isn’t working, that which has harmed us, learn from it, and move to new levels of success.

In these ways, tragedy doesn’t have to define us, it doesn’t have to be a life-long scar or pattern, but can be a catalyst for growth and change toward living the life of our dreams. As I shared with my daughter, the ultimate triumph over tragedy isn’t the inspiring messages we convey with others, but the liberation it brings to our own lives.

Making Humpty Whole

Posted: March 20, 2015 in Delving Deeper

humpty-dumpty

By Mark E. Smith

An individual I helped out along the way with his mobility was gracious in sending me a signed print of his artwork. It hangs wonderfully behind me in my office, intentionally placed so that those meeting with me at my desk can look above my head and see the framed print.

What makes the print intriguing is that it’s Humpty Dumpty in a wheelchair – and it contradicts the outcome of the nursery rhyme :

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

No, in the piece hung on my wall, Humpty is, in fact, whole. He’s just sitting in a wheelchair.

I see the wonderfully whimsical piece of art on my office wall as a simile for so many of our lives – that is, once thought missing pieces, but now whole. Yet, it raises the question of how did Humpty go from shattered to whole again?

Have you ever felt like the original Humpty, where based on events in your life, you were shattered, resulting in a space you had a yearning to fill? For a lot of us – I’m raising my hand! – these voids or the yearning to feel complete often come from the darkest places, trauma in our lives. We’ve been metaphorically pushed off of a wall in life – abuse, abandonment, loss, injury – and while we can pick ourselves up, there’s often that one piece missing, isn’t there?

And, damn, we can do some completely counter-intuitive, self-destructive behaviors in trying to fill that void, trying to create wholeness. If you get to the pathology of any self-medicating behavior – substance abuse, co-dependent relationships, obsessive-compulsiveness – they’re all rooted in trying to fill that void, that missing piece. However, voids are just that – empty space – and no matter how much vodka we drink or sex we have or clothes we buy, the void can never be filled. The voids in our lives are bottomless.

Yet, there’s an absolute solution. See, while voids within us can never be filled – pour whatever you want into them, but they can never be filled! – they can ultimately be healed. There’s a monumental difference between filling and closing a void. Filling a void sustains it, but closing a void – read that, healing – makes us whole again. And, when we’re whole, there’s nothing to chase, no need to self-medicate, just security in who we are. Wholeness is the ultimate in self.

I could give you a whole list of causes of voids within me, ones that haunted me in my 20s and 30s. Yes, I did some stupid stuff trying to fill the voids, but it wasn’t until I strove to heal them that the angst I felt slowly turned into serenity and esteem. For a lot of us, I’ve learned that healing comes from breaking patterns, ones that may have been set into motion by circumstances beyond our control. Humpty may have fallen off of the wall, but he didn’t need to sit on it again! For me, being a truly present father healed the void of not having my father in my life. For me, getting an education and building a career healed the void of living in poverty at times as a child. For me, not being a drinker healed the void of having an alcoholic mother. And, for me, taking pride in who I am helped me heal the void of not feeling as enough when I was growing up with cerebral palsy.

What I’ve learned is that the human heart isn’t a shell. Yes, it can be shattered and left with voids, but it also has the amazing capacity to heal. Let us not strive to fill those voids – we know that does more harm than good – but let us be self-aware and give ourselves the time and space to heal, to close our voids for good. It is then that we know true contentment because rather than forever needing, we’re finally whole in just being.

perch

By Mark E. Smith

Sometimes our pasts, presents and futures collide all at once – and for a moment we see how it all makes sense.

I’m at Perch, an insanely hidden but outrageously hip rooftop patio bar and restaurant atop a skyscraper, with a 360-degree view of Los Angeles. It’s like walking onto a terrace party on Manhattan’s upper east side, only I don’t know anyone. But, they all are fashionable and laid back, sitting in upscale patio chairs around fire pits – 65 degrees in L.A. is cold, even for me, an east-coaster.

I’m with my fiancee, my soon-to-be step daughter, and my fiancee’s high-school friend, Deb. Deb is so down to earth and grounded that you’d never know she’s an exec with AE Sports, the video game giant, and her husband is some sort of brand manager for Aston Martin in Beverly Hills. I ask Deb if she knows of Magnus Walker, but she doesn’t, so I just tell her he’s a crazy Porsche guy in L.A.

The L.A. skyline at sunset is stunning. As spectacular as the ridges of the Grand Canyon, the surrounding skyscrapers create reflections and shadows that make it all appear beyond man-made. I just take it all in, and wonder amidst the beauty of it all – the rooftop, the sunset, the view, L.A., my fiancee – how’d a guy like me ends up here, at this place, this moment, this point in life where I feel blessed in so many ways?

Earlier today, I worked a big consumer trade show. While returning from lunch, I ran into my ex-girlfriend who I hadn’t seen in 24 years. We were so young when we dated, and when we broke up, I was crushed. There’s fragility to a young heart, and I just couldn’t make sense of the breakup. But, then I met who would become my wife, then we had my daughter, grew my career, moved cross country, built a very prosperous life, got divorced, raised my daughter on my own and just strove to live right by all. That first breakup turned into just good memories from my youth.

As I chatted with my ex-girlfriend, it was a very touching moment, no weirdness or awkwardness. Through the wonders of Facebook, we’d both known where each had traveled in life, and we both were genuinely happy for each other. It was sort of like just smiling at how far we’d both come. And, after a hug and a picture, we parted ways, she going to catch a flight home to her husband and daughter, and me, back to my company’s booth.

And, so as I sit on this L.A. rooftop, I look out at the sunset over the Pacific and flash back over those 24 years – my beloved daughter having turned 18 just a few days ago – and the question of how I ended up in this breathtaking spot, at this exact time, answers itself: despite the twists and turns, life always leads us to where we’re supposed to be.

marriage

By Mark E. Smith

Whenever I meet couples who’ve been married for several decades, I always ask them what’s their secret to a successful marriage?

“You need to weather the storms, the peaks and valleys,” they all essentially note. “You need to compromise and be willing to stick out the tough times. Love will pull you through.”

Interestingly, people always elude to how difficult marriage is, that to make it work, you have to be “too stubborn to quit,” as a gentleman told my fiancee and me on Valentine’s day.

However, while toughing out the bad times and being too stubborn to quit will keep any couple together, is that what anyone really wants in a marriage?

Out of every couple I’ve spoken with over the years, not one has ever told me that the success of their marriage has been due to mutual respect, unwavering trust, and sustained passion. No one’s ever said, “We constantly inspire each other….”

Respect, trust, passion, inspiration — why aren’t these the tenants of decades of a successful marriage? Why are couples accepting “toughing it out” as the key to marriage?

We live in a society with a fifty-one-percent divorce rate, and those who remain married are deemed successful. But, if your marriage is lacking respect, trust, passion, and inspiration, that’s not a success by any stretch.

Interestingly, if you look at the top reasons for divorce – communication breakdowns, infidelity, substance abuse, financial woes, lack of physical intimacy – they all go back to couples violating the four core values I note: respect, trust, passion and inspiration.

All of this leads me to a provocative question: where is accountability in relationships and marriages? There’s no magic to what makes a marriage a dream, a nightmare or a form of merely co-existing in-between: the two individuals’ behavior. Disrespect, infidelity or substance abuse don’t just randomly appear – pathology or not, someone makes the decision at some point to go down such paths. Again, marriages don’t mysteriously self-destruct – one or both partners pulls the pin, so to speak.

However, If you maintain respect, earn trust, fuel passion and foster inspiration, you’re guaranteed to live the most fulfilling life together. On the other hand, if you’re disrespectful, violate trust, defeat passion and uninspire each other, you’re doomed – either to a dissatisfying marriage or divorce. Go ahead and justify being in an unsatisfying marriage all one wishes – kids, money, being too stubborn to quit – but the goal should be living as a truly happy and passionate couple, not simply avoiding divorce. Again, there’s accountability where, as a couple from day one, over decades, you don’t justify or settle for poor behavior, but are dedicated to a lifetime of unwavering respect, trust, passion and inspiration.

Now, I may sound like an idealist, one who doesn’t know the challenges of marriage. To the contrary. I’ve known not only the challenges of marriage, but more so the opportunity within marriage to live to a higher standard. No, I haven’t been willing to accept disrespect, distrust, a lack of passion or inspiration. I’d rather be healthy and happy than in a dysfunctional, relationship. Yet, even more so, I’d rather share a life of respect, trust, passion and inspiration with my soul mate.

I know that some may see my relationship aspirations as unrealistic. I see them as accountable – and unquestionably possible. Of course, if everyone took my hard line toward love, that we shouldn’t compromise core healthy behavior and stay in dysfunctional relationships, the divorce rate might push 90%. But, the 10% of sustained marriages would be blissfully happy, living and loving with unwavering passion and ultimate security. I say, don’t settle, don’t compromise your marital happiness – and find yourself in the right relationship as a ten-percenter.

20150218_205614-1

By Mark E. Smith

How fortunate are we when life hands us an unyielding passion? And, sometimes life-sustaining passions stem from the most unlikely of sources. In fact, they almost always do.

At the age of five or so, with severe cerebral palsy, I was blessed to have an occupational therapist place me in a power chair, and I went from a world of confinement to one of liberation at the touch of a button. And, I haven’t let off of the joystick since.

Thirty nine years later, I remain not just passionate about power chairs, but obsessed. I know the empowerment they bring, and I live it. My career revolves around power chairs; my personal life revolves around power chairs; and my friends revolve around power chairs.

But, my power chairs aside, here’s what’s amazing about having such a passion: no one can take it away from you because it’s your intrinsic life force. Lot’s of people like what they do. However, a passion is what you love to do, what you’re compelled to do – it’s who you are – and nothing can change that.

So, at 44, after 39 years of using a power chair – despite all of my life’s accomplishments – there’s still that one, ultimate thrill for me: when I have an awesome new power chair, as was the case this past week, where I immediately become that five-year-old again (a secret warehouse as my personal race track), where I feel an awe-inspiring sense of liberation and empowerment that wipes away all of the complexities of life – and I’m just living my passion to the core.

Video

purpose

By Mark E. Smith

After talking with my vice president of human resources about the pros and cons of joining the enormous career social network site, LinkedIn, I built my profile, an online resume of sorts. In a mere two weeks, I accumulated over 450 “connections” with people I know from my career.

However, I’ve noticed an aspect missing from LinkedIn, the same aspect missed by most employers and employees in the hiring and career process. While LinkedIn is great at demonstrating what we do and what we’ve done, it’s not a vehicle that conveys why we do what we do – that is, it doesn’t convey the purpose in our lives.

Now, this isn’t a fault of LinkedIn, but a cultural one, where most career paths are more about literal job roles and salary than an individual’s purpose. And, that is a shame because when we don’t feel we’re living to our purpose – as in, I really want to be a photographer but I work in sales because it pays the bills – we lose a part of ourselves, including passion, in the processes. Yes, all of us need to make a living, but when we don’t feel purpose in our lives, it pulls us down, a sense of longing that we carry.

I’ve been very blessed to have career for which I feel purpose. My company manufactures mobility products, and the difference our products make in the lives of those we serve is profound – they allow individuals with severe disabilities to pursue education, career, family and community. On a daily basis I encounter harrowing stories of injury, illness and injustice, and to contribute solutions to individuals’ situations – as one with a severe disability, myself – it fills my life with purpose and passion.

In fact, I see so much purpose in what I do that I’m inspired to constantly spread that passion in my leadership roles. Every Monday at 4:30, I meet with our company’s new employees of all levels and talk about the purpose in what we do. “All of us need to make a living,” I say. “But, at our company, we’re also able to make a difference – that’s a remarkable opportunity in any career.”

Monthly, I also speak alongside our CEO at what we call our birthday lunch, where employees with birthdays in that month gather for a celebration and a company update. I speak to the vital role each employee serves, regardless of position, toward empowering our customers. After all, what’s more powerful than being reminded how you’ve positively impacted the lives of others – that’s purpose.

What’s intriguing to me, however, is when I read anonymous employee reviews online. I see disgruntled comments by our employees – as a large company, we get those – yet, even within the most disgruntled reviews, there’s almost always a positive mention of helping others. No, I don’t want anyone hating one’s boss or feeling underpaid, but the fact that one acknowledges seeing purpose in one’s job is a powerful sentiment.

At the other end of the spectrum, I also spend my days speaking with those who are unemployed. My peers with disabilities have a 75% unemployment rate based on remaining social barriers toward employment. Nevertheless, when I speak with my peers about their employment goals, it’s never about money or status. Rather, when I speak with my peers about their employment goals, they touch upon simply wishing to make a difference – that is, they want to live with a certain purpose.

Now, although purpose and career are a meaningful match – who doesn’t want to feel purpose in his or her work, right? – purpose extends much farther. I mean, the definition of purpose in our lives is that we feel that we have impact. For some, this may mean parenthood, while for others, it’s creating art or volunteering, and on and on. Purpose is what gives internal meaning to our lives. And, when we don’t feel purpose, we can feel a void and longing. So, how do we move beyond that void, into purpose?

A lot of times, it takes courage. My friend and colleague, Bryan, a triple amputee wounded Iraq veteran, shared with me that he felt so much purpose when on the road speaking, acting and volunteering. But, when he was home in Chicago, he felt a certain void, alone in his condo. However, he realized that much of the roles he loved serving – his purpose – were based in Los Angeles. So, Bryan took a leap of faith, packed up, and moved to L.A. His life and career have never been better, where he’s now able to constantly pursue his passions, right down to appearing in the current blockbuster movie, American Sniper.

As we think about our purpose in life, the question is, what do we feel truly fulfilled doing? Then, we must have the courage to live to that purpose. For me, I believed 14 years ago that my purpose was in serving my peers with mobility needs, so I moved across the country to join a small team to start a division of a parent company that subsequently grew into an industry-leading company in its own right. For Charles Bukowski, he worked at the Los Angeles post office as a filling clerk while going home at night to follow his purpose, poetry, going on to be a 20th-Century great, publishing thousands of poems and over 60 books. All of our purposes are different, but the way we achieve them is the same: in our hearts, we all know what ours is – we just need the courage to live it.

Taking Off My Shirt

Posted: February 6, 2015 in Uncategorized

shirtoff

By Mark E. Smith

I struggle with body image. I know that many of us do. Yet, my struggles with body image take a different turn than most. See, while many who struggle with body image want to conceal their body, I want to reveal mine.

We live in a society were outer image is powerful. Yet, it’s rarely accurate. And, that holds true in my case. As a man with severe cerebral palsy, using a power wheelchair – where my posture is contorted and my movements spastic – I am the blatant fragility of disability in the eyes of many. Yes, I dress well, but, ironically, that very form of dress, while socially elevating for most, accentuates the concealment of who I am. In a button-up shirt and chinos, or a suit and tie, I’m the portrait to many as a contorted figure in a power wheelchair, fragile, needing help, and certainly asexual.

And, nothing could be farther from the truth. Underneath my clothes, there’s nothing fragile, helpless or asexual about me. Beneath my socially-concealed body is my true self: masculine, muscular and edgy. While society can project assumptions on me clothed, the truth is told when my shirt comes off, when the real me is literally exposed.

Yet, when we think of my struggle with body image – wanting to be embraced for who I truly am beyond my exterior facade of socially-stereotyped disability – it’s actually no different than anyone else’s, is it? While many of us on the surface wish to change an aspect of ourselves that we feel awkward, embarrassed or even ashamed about based on society’s idealization of appearance, it’s really not what we want at all – that is, deep down, we don’t want to change who we are. No, what we truly want is to live in a society that doesn’t judge or value us based on subjective appearance; rather, we want to live in a society that recognizes and embraces the beauty of who we really are – nothing for us to feel the need to change, and all of ourselves celebrated and seen for who we truly are.