By Mark E. Smith
If you had to chose between a chunk of coal and a three-karat diamond, which would you chose?
Of course, based on monetary value, you’d likely pick the diamond. And, so would I – but, not for monetary value. Rather, I’d pick the diamond based solely on its origin. See, I value strength and perseverance above all else.
As geology works, a chunk of coal and a diamond start out as the same thing: A coal deposit. However, when a coal deposit sinks deep enough into the earth, and is subjected to immense pressure and temperatures – 60,000 times normal air pressure, at 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit – a diamond is formed. Think for a moment, then, about how when an ordinary substance, coal, is placed in the worst circumstances imaginable, it evolves into an astoundingly more precious entity, a diamond.
And, as people, we’re no different. For many of us, experiencing among the seemingly worst circumstances in life hasn’t defeated us, it’s made us stronger and better – transforming us from coal to diamonds, you might say.
An interviewer recently asked me who I admire and why? My answer was, I admire anyone who’s gone through adversity and come out better, not bitter. The fact is, while I appreciate all people and successes, I have an especial appreciation for those who have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve success, those who have gone from coal to diamonds – and learned their lessons well. As those with disabilities, these are the types of people who we should both admire and emulate.
I’ve long had a friend who has spina bifida and has worked on Wall Street for a decade, earning well into six figures – that is, until he was laid off last fall in the economic shakedown. The day after he got his pink slip, he called me, despondent about the situation. He had a wife, three kids, two homes, and three cars, with some savings, but not much. “Everyone I know is out of work and looking for a job – and they don’t have a disability,” he explained to me. “How am I going to find another job in this economy, with the disadvantage of a wheelchair strapped to my butt?”
“It seems pretty simple to me,” I replied. “You’re going to account for every adversity that you’ve ever faced, realizing that all of the challenges that you’ve overcome till this point have built an emotional and mental strength within you that many others simply don’t have. You survived growing up as a foster child with spina bifida, put yourself through college, and maintained a high-pressure, big-money job for over a decade. Really, a guy with your life experience is truly incapable of buckling under a job loss. This situation may be a life crisis to others, but it’s merely an inconvenience to someone with your track record. Trust me, you’ll be ahead of the game before you know it. Guys like you don’t hit roadblocks – you only encounter speed bumps.”
Within three weeks, my friend was named CFO at a private equity firm, with a salary increase of around 25% from his prior job. “It all just fell into place,” he told me recently.
Of course, it truly didn’t all just fall into place. Rather, what my friend discovered was that when we successfully live through life’s toughest challenges – disability, poverty, a dysfunctional childhood, divorce, job loss, you name it – and we invest what it takes to learn and grow from the circumstance, we solidify our ability to overcome any future challenges – we become stronger and more skilled at succeeding despite adversity. Put simply, under the worst circumstances, coal turns into a diamond, a phoenix rises from the ashes, and we elevate over obstacles. Pick your metaphor, but the truth is this: We have the amazing capacity to not be destroyed by adversity, but to literally excel from it – life has its way of delivering its most invaluable gifts in even the most seemingly bleak circumstances.
I recently had a weekend speaking engagement in Michigan, where I had to fly in, stay overnight, and fly home, all with my power wheelchair, of course. In recent years, I’ve traveled mostly with companions because it’s dramatically easier, where he or she can assist me with all of the complications that occur when traveling with a severe disability. However, for this particular trip, I had no one to travel with – so I was on my own for the first time in several years. “Are you sure you can handle this trip by yourself?” my sister asked.
“Let’s see,” I said sarcastically, “I once was stranded overnight, alone in Chicago, when my flight was canceled. Philadelphia International once dropped my power wheelchair off of the plane’s conveyor belt, and shattered the joystick. I sat for six hours once on an airplane undergoing emergency service in San Francisco, only to then miss my connecting flight in Pittsburgh, where my luggage was then ultimately lost. So, I’m thinking that as long as I’m wearing my lucky pink tie, and the plane stays in the sky like it’s supposed to, I can handle anything that goes wrong along the way to Grand Rapids and back….”
The fact is, in order to survive with disability, we become master problem-solvers. In the simplest terms, when we can’t perform a task one way, we have to find another way to do it – that is, we emotionally, mentally, and physically cope – and, when we do, not only do we move forward, but we also create a legacy of accomplishment and confidence. This same strategy proves invaluable to every aspect of our life. See, disability intrinsically teaches us that when when problems arise, and we face them head on, we ultimately find solutions and success.
Peers with disabilities often come to me with the weight of the world on their shoulders, feeling defeated by disability:
Mark, I don’t think I can take any more of this.
Mark, life has become too hard.
Mark, every day just gets worse.
And, my response is clear: We mustn’t buy into such a defeatist mentality. As those with disabilities we possess the ability to choose our paths. We can choose not to be defeated, but to be empowered. And, we can chose not to be victims, but to be victors.
It is true that not all of life’s challenges are equal; but, when we view our intrinsic strength to overcome them as equal, even the biggest of challenges becomes not just manageable, but empowering. As I believe, Surely, you can knock me down – and, I’ve been knocked down many times. But, make no mistake, I will get up again, just as I always have. And, when I do, I don’t just get up – I get up emotionally and mentally stronger, with lessons learned, ready to rise higher.
And, that’s the way that we should view all of life’s current and future challenges: Based on our proven abilities to get this far in life – where we’ve gotten up each time we’ve been knocked down – any current or future challenges must be recognized as entirely manageable, as temporary inconveniences, not life-changing crises. No matter the circumstance, till our very last breath in this life, we shall move forward not as dissolved, defeated victims, but as evolved, empowered victors.
Really, life is basic seamanship: The more experience that we’ve had navigating rough waters, the more skilled we are at weathering any storm. In this way, we must remind ourselves, I’ve been there, survived it, and I’m equipped to handle whatever life throws my way. Every new challenge simply moves my transformation even closer from being a chunk of coal to a polished diamond.