The First 90 Days to Life

Posted: October 1, 2009 in Disability Deliberations
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first90days

By Mark E. Smith

If you study the diet and fitness infomercials on late-night television, you’ll notice that most of the before-and-after photos – from flab to fab – show amazing results in “90 days.”

What the infomercials don’t tell you is that their products are a mere secondary factory in the process, that the real magic is in the “90 days.” See, if one performs virtually any diet or exercise for 90 days, results surely follow. The reality, then, to such infomercials isn’t the quality of the product, but the consistency of the person.

Make no mistake, we live in a culture where people gauge success by their watch, not a calendar – they want results in 90 seconds, not 90 days. However, like a diet or fitness routine, much of our success takes time, and requires our consistent effort, where we don’t slack, make excuses, or give up, but simply pursue our goals day after day, with unyielding dedication and passion.

Disability can make achieving our goals – in the physical, mental, and emotional – especially challenging. After all, regardless if one has a lifelong disability, later-in-life injury, or a progressive condition, we’re constantly facing new challenges, where we must adapt and conform over a lifetime of disability experience. And, if we’re willing to approach the entirety of our life with unyielding dedication – where we don’t slack, make excuses, or give up – we see amazing results, not only in 90 days, but never-ending. The key, then, is to invest in ourselves for the long haul, recognizing that the struggles of today aren’t road blocks; rather, the struggles of today are incremental opportunities that build the foundation of our long-term success.

One of my all-time favorite stories of practicing consistency as a “disability strategy” at its best – and one of my own foremost life inspirations – involved my friend, Nola. Nola was born with a rare form of dwarfism that made independent living seemingly impossible. In fact, when I met Nola in her twenties, she lived in a care facility, a grim reality for a young woman of her age, and she’d never known any different, having lived in a care facility since she was a young teenager.

Still, Nola told me of how she sometimes thought about what it would be like to be out of a care facility, not so much to live on her own on a big scale, but to know what it was like to have true privacy, to stay up late and sleep in, to buy the foods she wished – that is, to experience freedoms that the care facility didn’t allow.

However, such independent living was the farthest reality for Nola. The care facility staff was her family, and the residents were her friends. Imagine how impossible and frightening the mere thought of moving out would have seemed for Nola. Nevertheless, Nola and I discussed her gaining more independence. No, we didn’t discuss Nola simply packing up, getting her own apartment, and living happily ever after – that dream was too lofty, too unrealistic. Rather, Nola and I discussed her merely taking a bit more control over her life, one task at a time. We discussed small steps in the immediate that might bring big changes in the long term. You might say, we discussed consistently applying single dollars toward paying down a six-figure mortgage.

And, that’s exactly what Nola did. Her first hurdle was obtaining better mobility, so she worked through the long process, day-by-day, of getting a power wheelchair. Then, she sought a social worker to help her better understand her rights as a care facility resident. And, then she took her power wheelchair to the bank one day, and opened a checking account.

As Nola accomplished each small step, she exuded more and more confidence – and I loved hearing of her progress. However, after a year of monthly calls, a few months slipped by with no word from Nola. I called the care facility, worried that I hadn’t heard from Nola, and the receptionist said that she couldn’t tell me anything about Nola except that she was no longer a resident. Of course, I was very concerned, especially since Nola had life-threatening respiratory illness from time to time. I hoped that Nola’s health risks hadn’t finally caught up with her.

About two weeks later, I received a call from Nola. She apologized for not contacting me sooner, but she had been busy moving into her apartment – yes, her own apartment!

As Nola’s story proves firsthand, our journeys of a thousand miles do begin with a single step, and require many, many more small steps. The fact is, it is sometimes impossible to get our arms around our dreams, we can’t simply go from where we are, to where we wish – we can’t simply loose weight, get in shape, or overcome physical limitations overnight. What we need is a lifetime-long “90-day plan,” where we start with a single small step, and consistently follow through, working to big changes in our lives.

In my own writing a speaking, I frequently discuss how I, too, went through a process much like Nola’s, where in my adolescence, I made the choice to do whatever it took day-by-day to become physically independent, to where I could toilet, bathe, dress, and feed myself – and it took me a long, frustrating seven years of daily battles to accomplish my goals. Yet, as I sit here today, over 20 years to the day that I mark as a turning point in my life – the day at age 18 when I was able to live on my own – I’ve never stopped working my “90-day plan” of consistently addressing daily trials as the key toward long-term successes, big and small.

My entire adult life has been shadowed by a seemingly trivial, yet important, reality: My inability to tie my own neck ties. In my business, I often have to wear neck ties – and I like the professionalism that ties present, as well. Unfortunately, due to my cerebral palsy not only has tying a neck tie been impossible, so has merely buttoning the top button of my dress shirts, as required when wearing a tie. My lack of being able to tie a neck tie or button my top button has kept me frustratingly dependent upon everyone from my family to colleagues when tying my neck ties, and while everyone’s been so gracious whenever I’ve needed help, it’s frustrated me till no end that I’ve gone two decades now without being able to button my shirts’ top button and tie my own neck ties. If I could only tie my own neck ties, it would make my life far easier, less stressful – and, man, would I look handsome!

But, I never gave up. Every day for the past two decades, you would have seen at least one tie sitting somewhere in my bedroom – no, not because I’m messy, but because, night after night, I refused to ever stop trying to tie my own neck tie. Still, after thousands of attempts – and trying every method, tool, and trick one could imagine – the result was always the same: I still couldn’t button my own button, or tie my own tie.

Now, I’m sure that some people wouldn’t think twice about being unable to tie a tie – after all, in the grand scheme of life, who cares, right? But, to me, tying my own tie was about more than a tie. My tying a tie was about perseverance and dedication, where I wasn’t going to let two decades of seeming failure stop me from trying today, tomorrow, and the next day – or, for the rest of my life if I had to. I wasn’t on a 90-day plan, I was on a 90-year plan – and I was fully prepared to go into old age and literally die trying to tie my own tie!

What’s more, my belief in remaining constant to my goal was strengthened when every year or so, I got a little closer to buttoning that top button before it slipped away, and when I got to where I could almost put the tie through itself after wrapping it. Every night of my monkeying with a tie would have seemed pointless and futile to most; however, to me, it was incremental progress – like applying a dollar toward a six-figure mortgage, it still counts, even when it doesn’t seem like much.

Several months ago, after two decades of trying, I nailed it – I honed the process where I could both button my top button and tie my own tie. In fact, I did so right before a big business trip and convention, and I was so excited that I could tie my own neck ties, that I packed eight ties for a four-day trip, wearing a tie around the clock, even changing them from day to dinner. My colleagues made fun of me, stating, “Mark, don’t you go anywhere without a tie on?”

I thought to myself, Man, I’ve spent 20 years learning to tie a tie – I’m making up for lost time!

Indeed, maybe one of your dreams is as lofty as Nola’s, like wishing to move out of a care facility. Or, maybe one of your dreams is as seemingly trivial as mine, like being able to tie your own neck tie. Or, maybe one of your dreams is to have complete control over your finances, like paying off your mortgage. Big or small, monumental or trivial, all dreams and goals are accomplished the same way: With daily consistency and perseverance, where we recognize that no matter if it takes us 90 minutes, 90 days, or, 90 years, we’re willing to apply effort every day toward living to our fullest – regardless of any pain, hardship, and frustration. That is, let us recognize that consistency is the magic key, where the dedicated efforts that we make every single day build the foundation for great success in the long term.

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