By Mark E. Smith
The shrubs and bushes in my front yard never cease amazing me, year after year. When I planted them eight years ago, in front of my newly-built home, they were tiny plants that merely dotted the landscape – the tallest one was a foot high at most. As the plants saw their first winter in the Northeast, I was sure that the months-long deep freeze killed them all. However, as spring came, they not only came back to life, but they grew exponentially – they were larger and more vibrant than ever. Winter after winter now, not only do my plants survive, but they come back every spring larger and more healthy, to where some are 10-feet tall, a remarkable sight of greenery that encapsulates my front yard, and an unbelievable change from those tiny plants that once only dotted the landscape.
Of course, there’s nothing truly remarkable about the plants in my front yard, as they simply comply with the changes of seasons, the laws of nature – that is, they don’t just accept the changes of seasons, but they literally use them as an opportunity to come back stronger, larger in size, with deeper roots.
As individuals, we, too, are prone to seasons of change, where through various forms of seeming loss – ended relationships, a job layoff, disability, or just overall tough times – we can find ourselves in the depths of winter in a matter of moments. Yet, we must recognize that our own seasons of change are just that – seasons – where as discouraging as life may seem at any given moment, it’s sure to change for the better, especially when we’re willing to work at it and don’t lose faith.
Arthur Blank was one who, in 1978, could have easily lost faith and gotten stuck in the depths of his sudden change of seasons, his winter. After a decades-long career with a national home-improvement chain of stores, he’d worked his way up to regional manager, a very lucrative, prestigious position in the company. But, one day in 1978, after 30 years of loyalty, Arthur Blank had a disagreement with the company’s executives – and he was fired on the spot.
It’s hard for anyone to get fired, ushering in a roller coaster of emotions that are understandably filled with defeat and self-doubt. And, Arthur Blank had them, too. But, not for long. See, Arthur Blank instinctively knew about seasons of change, and when he faced his winter – abruptly fired after 30 years – he was already looking toward his spring, where he wasn’t only going to survive life’s harshest times, he was going to use the changing of seasons to come back exponentially stronger.
Later that year, Arthur Blank co-founded a store that you may have heard of: Home Depot.
Today, Home Depot stands as among the greatest American retail businesses of all time – and it all started with Arthur Blank being fired. Unquestionably, when the seasons change for the seeming worse, we should all follow Arthur Blank’s lead, and use the time wisely, preparing ourselves for the next season, one of exponential growth.
When I was in college, my friend, Rick, followed a seasons-of-change philosophy, as well. In 1992, Rick was a construction worker in San Francisco’s downtown, welding on high-rise buildings, supporting his wife and newborn daughter on a hefty union wage. But, in March of that year, on a dew-covered I-beam, Rick’s construction boot slipped, causing him to fall 20-feet to the floor deck below. When he awoke in the hospital, he was paralyzed, a quadriplegic.
Rather than assume that his best years were behind him – after all, he’d gone in an instant from a strong, independent construction worker to a quadriplegic with dependencies on others – Rick looked toward a new season. He always loved math, a contrast to being a burley construction worker, and so he went to college, first getting an accounting degree, then his M.B.A. Today, he’s a financial analyst for a Fortune 500 company, working in one of the very buildings that he helped construct. And, as well-paying as his union construction job was, he makes about three times what he would been making today if he was still in construction.
Sure, it’s easy to look at any loss in the immediate as a bleak, never-ending change for the worst – it’s natural to be frightened by the loss of a relationship, job, or physical abilities. But, just like meteorological winter and the plants that not only survive, but come back stronger, we also have the innate ability to not just survive, but to truly thrive, even through the toughest of situations. We just need to remind ourselves that there are few constants in life, and just as life knocks us down, it provides even greater opportunities for us to rise up again even higher.
Personally, my life-long goal has been to turn the worst into the best, as often as I can. I strive to not just use turning lemons into lemonade as a cliché saying, but to make it a way of life. And, I’ve recently enjoyed reinventing myself once again using the simple outlook that within every loss – within every winter – there’s a forthcoming opportunity for tremendous growth.
Among the most challenging parts of my disability, cerebral palsy, is that my muscles are in constant motion, either contracting or spasming. As you can imagine, such a lack of muscle control not only makes everyday tasks difficult, but constant muscle movement is extremely fatiguing, to the point that one’s body throbs in pain at the end of some days – this is why muscle relaxers are used by many with severe cerebral palsy.
After living my life with my condition, I’m more used to it than distressed by it – after all, I can’t change my condition, so I accept and deal with it. What I long ago noticed, however, is that despite the seeming downsides to my disability, there are far more upsides offering potential. The same involuntary muscle movements that make everyday living more difficult and painful have actually kept me in great shape, with extremely low body fat and sculpted muscles. It’s often occurred to me that while others struggle with diet and exercise – arguably a national obsession to be thin and fit – my disability is, in fact, a magic pill, putting me way ahead of the game. I can eat as much as I want, never exercise, and stay trim and fit. People would pay for such a body type!
However, always one looking to turn negatives into positives to the extreme, I had an admittedly eccentric – but brilliant! – thought: What if I use my intrinsic physic as one with severe cerebral palsy as a catalyst toward bodybuilding? After all, bodybuilders go through tremendous lengths to get as lean as me, so if I simply hit the gym to build pure muscle mass, I should be able to be a hulking, fat-free, sculpted guy in a matter of months.
So, I emptied our guest room, invested in a high-end wheelchair-accessible gym, increased my caloric intake to 4,000 calories per day, began sucking down supplements like creatine, and started an intensive workout routine.
In taking an educated, methodical approach – and sticking with it – I’ve been gaining muscle mass at a startling rapid rate, where my whole upper body is getting bigger by the week. In fact, I’ve been consistently gaining about a pound per week – an insane amount for a guy with my build to keep adding, week after week, month after month.
During my training process, I’ve been going to the dietary and supplement store that all of the local bodybuilders go to – and, make no mistake, the guys in the store have looked at me like I’m a Martian, surely wondering what this slender, cerebral palsy guy in the power wheelchair is up to by buying these protein blends by the bucket and supplements by the bag full?
Finally, one of the guys behind the counter had the courage to ask me what was up? “You come in here every few weeks and buy all this stuff, and when I look at you now in that T-shirt, your arms are huge,” he said. “What exactly are you doing that’s getting you so big?”
“Just sucking down the crazy crap I buy here, and working out every other day,” I said, putting my discount card on the counter.
“No one gains that much muscle, that fast,” he said, scanning my items. “Dude, you must be doing something else….”
“In all seriousness, my cerebral palsy keeps my muscles in constant motion, and I burn a ton of calories, so by upping my caloric intake and using a wheelchair accessible gym, I’ve basically just been packing on muscle without adding any fat,” I replied.
“Where can I get some of that cerebral palsy?” he asked, laughing. “That stuff is better than steroids.”
Indeed, with every loss comes opportunity – we just need to welcome it. Arthur Blank didn’t see being fired as an end of his career, but as the perfect time to co-found Home Depot. My college peer, Rick, didn’t see being paralyzed as a loss of his existing life, but as the opportunity to redirect himself toward other interests. And, I didn’t see my cerebral palsy as a limitation to working out, but as an advantage in bodybuilding. When we see winter as a sure sign that spring is coming, success is inevitable – it occurs every time.
I say let us live our lives like plants throughout the seasons, where adverse conditions merely serve as the catalysts to make us stronger and more successful, year after year. We can’t always prevent being knockdown in life, but we surely can control how fiercely we get back up.