By Mark E. Smith
People are very kind in noting how they’re inspired by my spirit, sometimes asking how I stay so passionate, inspired, and fired-up about life? Sometimes they’re blunt enough to note that living with a disability surely isn’t easy, that my career in itself, dealing with rightfully frustrated consumers, can’t be a pleasant job at all times, either. And, when they know a little bit about my childhood, coming from the wrong side of the tracks, they’re even more intrigued, wondering how do I stay so eternally positive and inspired?
My answer to the question is a simple one: I’m constantly on the lookout for inspiring people, circumstances, and teachings in the world around me – and I follow their leads. I’m humbled and inspired by others around me on a daily basis, and it’s their efforts that encourage me to live my best.
Years ago, when I was routinely boating in the rough waters of the Pacific Ocean, I had one of the smallest boats in the recreational fleet during salmon season each year. And, when I headed out from the San Francisco Bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge as a lone boat, it was a brutally-rough ride, getting pounded by the very tumultuous waters where the ocean meets the bay – an area called the “Potato Patch.” However, I learned that if I tucked my small boat in the wake behind larger boats, the ride was a lot smoother – the larger boats broke the waves for me, clearing the path. By simply following boats bigger than mine, I made greater headway.
My everyday life today is just like my time spent boating on the Pacific – I’m always on the lookout for those greater than me to lead the way, true inspirations to help me grow as a man, father, friend, colleague, and businessman. And, there are no shortages of inspirations everywhere that I look. I’m forever impressed by witnessing everyone from strangers in public demonstrating pure kindness, to colleagues making honorable decisions – and countless examples in-between – all of whom inspire me to strive toward excellence.
Indeed, when we’re on the lookout for inspiration, it’s impossible not to find it in the everyday greatness of others, and that makes us remarkably optimistic about what each of us can accomplish. However, what’s interesting is that so often our culture tells us to look at the rich and famous or so-called accomplished as inspirations, but that’s rarely where our true, lasting inspiration is found. Rather, our true, lasting inspiration is usually found in those around us every day, those who are doing the extraordinary with no fanfare, those who do right simply because it’s their nature.
I’ve had the chance to get to know a gentleman who works at a Subway sandwich shop near my home. And, in talking with him, I learned that he lives with his girlfriend, and has assumed the role of father figure to her two children. Wanting to build a life for his girlfriend and her children, he takes three community college courses per week at night, bringing his books to work at the Subway shop each day to study when there are no customers. Having been an English major, myself, it’s been my privilege to meet him at the Subway shop one evening per week, and help him with his formal papers. And, I look at this gentleman and think, Man, everyone should learn from this guy’s initiative and dedication! After all, how can one meet a guy who works at Subway by day, probably making $8 per hour before taxes, to support his girlfriend and her kids, while attending college at night to better himself, and not be inspired by his efforts of doing whatever it takes to move his life forward? He’s been very gracious in noting my inspiration to his life, but I truly don’t hold a candle to his inspiration – his unyielding dedication shows me week after week how much more we can all achieve if we simply apply ourselves, building success from the ground up.
At this writing, I’m in the middle of working 14 days straight – that is, working last week, having worked the Abilities Expo all weekend, getting home late Sunday night, then getting in my office Monday morning by 7:30am, working the present week as usual. And, when I got home from work Monday evening, 8 days into it, I was as tired as I’ve ever been, just wanting to go to bed. Yet, I knew that due to being on the road, I hadn’t worked out in my gym in 4 days. Sure, dead-tired, I could have gone to bed, easily justifying not working out, reckoning that both my body and mind just needed rest. But, then I thought of my childhood friend, Stephen Wampler, who has severe cerebral palsy like me, and is currently preparing to climb El Capitan, the granite cliff in Yosemite, planning to pull himself up 6-inches at a time with a special harness, where he’ll spend an estimated week doing it, specifically to raise money for a camp for kids with physical disabilities. And, he’s training like a maniac for the climb, where we all know that he will make it to the top, no matter what.
As I rolled by the closed door to my home gym, on my way to my bedroom – again, where I just wanted to go to bed! – I reminded myself that Steve won’t give up no matter how tired he gets, so why should I take the easy way out, and go to bed when I had every ability to push myself further? Of course, following Steve’s lead, I changed into my workout clothes and hit the gym. See, when you know of inspirations like Steve, it’s all but impossible not to live your best, so I’m always drawing upon others as inspiration, especially when I feel like I’m on the verge of taking the easy road instead of digging down and pursuing excellence.
While I’m constantly on the lookout for inspiration and use it to enhance my life, many around us are oddly blind to inspiration, choosing to dwell on the negatives in their lives, ignoring the empowerment to be gained by acknowledging the inspiration in others. Middle management in corporate America is a great example of such self-defeating, oblivious cynicism because you run into so many disgruntled, jaded employees – a striking phenomena not lost in in popular culture, where media ranging from comic strips to sitcoms illustrate life in a cubical that’s somewhere between boredom and insanity. However, where the real issue resides is in a lack of inspiration and admiration of others. After all, in many company cultures, when someone is promoted or gets a better job, the coworkers are often more inclined to whisper back-stabbing sentiments about the person rather than celebrate his or her accomplishments. Yet, when someone moves forward in life, what we really should do is be inspired by his or her accomplishments, admiring the effort, and learn from his or her success – that is, we should be thrilled to witness excellence because it’s a model that helps us grow. If she did it, so can I! is the spirit with which we should live.
Disability culture can be a lot like working among middle management, where some with disabilities can be quicker to criticize others than to be inspired by their accomplishments. For many years, I’ve known a strikingly beautiful woman who uses a wheelchair and is married to a wonderful man who doesn’t have a disability, and they have several terrific kids – they’ve worked hard, made responsible decisions, and live with uncompromising integrity. Still, to my dismay, others have flung criticisms at them since the day that they were married: She only married him because he’s able-bodied; he only married her because he could never get such an attractive woman who was able-bodied; and, on and on – horribly jealous, spiteful words coming from the disability peanut gallery of individuals arguably miserable in their own lives.
However, rather than criticizing the couple, the cynics ought to find inspiration in them, learning how to achieve such a loving, supportive relationship in their own lives. I look at the couple and I’m truly touched, not only in awe of their accomplishments, but I’ve sought to better understand the traits that allow them to retain such a healthy, fulfilling relationship, so that I can apply them to my own life. Again, when we acknowledge others’ greatness, it presents us with our own opportunities to learn and grow – that is, it allows us to be inspired.
This concept of recognizing the countless forms of inspiration in the everyday people around us, and using them as guiding stars, is by far among the most effective ways to motivate and improve our own lives. The fact is, if someone else has accomplished any given goal, it typically proves that we, too, can accomplish it – and that’s the true spirit of inspiration. The world is a mirror, where when we see the best in others, we’re also witnessing the potential in ourselves. Look for inspiration in those around you, and strive to learn from the best – for, when you do so, you’ll soon enough propel yourself from following their wake, to creating your own.