The Power of Wakes

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.

Facing the Flames Within

By Mark E. Smith

Tiger Woods. What’s up with that whole dysfunctional drama-rama? I mean, the guy attended Stanford University, but isn’t smart enough to know that vices don’t void your problems? Even I know that – trust me, I’ve tried. No, I haven’t slept with 14 adult film starts – not even one, thank goodness – but I do know that escapism never, ever works. In fact, escapism just makes any problems in our lives worse – really, really worse in most cases. Just look at how it’s played out for Tiger.

Now, make no mistake, I’ve tried escapism to avoid my own problems at times. I remember at least one night where I didn’t feel like all was going the ways I wished, and I went out and got rip-roaring drunk. And, when I awoke the next morning, not only were all of my problems still there, but I felt like my head was a banging drum and my stomach a churning sea, not to mention the other I can’t believe I did that thoughts racing through my mind. Escapism didn’t resolve my issues; rather, it added to them – as it always does for all of us.

See, our issues in life are like fires, and when we seek escapism – alcohol, drugs, sex, overeating, overspending, you name it – we’re not dealing with the issues that need addressing, merely avoiding them with vices. And, then the fires – the not addressed issues in our lives – just rage, until we lose complete control, and it all comes crashing down in flames. That’s the deceptive nature of escapism: It distracts us while our lives fracture.

Surely, some with disabilities are professionals at practicing escapism – they avoid facing the fires within when coming to terms with disability. After all, if you’re a woman who questions her “value” as a future wife and mother due to disability – wondering if you can ever be that so-called “ideal” woman – what’s an easier escape from those scary emotions than to engage in promiscuity, where you prove to yourself that you’re worthy by sleeping with man after man, feeling validated in the moment, right?

Or, if you’re a guy who’s struggling to come to terms with disability, who’s entirely insecure with his identity, why not just stay high on every prescribed and elicit drug that you can get your hands on? After all, when you’re high, you don’t need to feel anything, or deal with anything, and your doped-up friends require nothing of you, right?

Indeed, escapism is oh so tempting, and I’ve seen many around me engage in it – including myself – in one form or another….

…But, again, it never, ever works. Escapism is little more than degrading and destructive at best, and dangerous at worst. What does work is facing life’s challenges head-on, with courage and clarity of mind, where we don’t avoid our problems; rather, we confront them. When we hit speed bumps in our relationships, careers, or disabilities, that’s not the time to veer and run off course. We shouldn’t seek escapism in the vices that so tempt us – from as seemingly mundane as pulling the covers over our heads instead of going to work, to as blatantly dangerous as drugs and promiscuity. Rather, when we experience rough spells in our lives, that’s the time to get more focused on only pursuing positive directions, and, most importantly, addressing the emotions at hand. Put simply, when there’s a fire, many people want to run from it, but our game plan has to be to run toward it, where we immediately focus and strive to extinguish the flames with an unyielding intensity.

I recall going through one particular tough spell in my marriage, and my friends wanted me to go out carousing with them, insisting that it would be good for me. Again, after all, what feels better to most guys – that is, what’s more validating – than getting boozed-up and hitting on other chicks when your relationship is on the rocks? But, again, it’s a deceptive, harmful path of escapism that just builds a snowball of dysfunction, adding fuel to the fire. What does resolve issues is when we face the emotions in our lives rather than running off in an effort to escape them. As I told my buddies at the time, Look, you Neanderthal knuckleheads, the last thing I should do is drink and chase chicks during tough times in my marriage – I need to focus on my career, my daughter, and all other positive pursuits while working through the emotions surrounding my marriage, not run in the wrong directions.

And, such a mindful approach always works, where it doesn’t prevent or immediately resolve the issues in our lives, but it allows us to address them in healthy ways, where, when we come out on the other side, all aspects are brighter. As I like to say, Run from your problems, and you’ll fail; run toward your problems, and you’ll succeed – it’s just how life works.

No, I have no idea what specifically drove Tiger Woods to jeopardize every aspect of his life to pursue unquestionably destructive sexual escapades. However, common sense tells me that he was using it as an escape from something troubled within. And, some of us with disabilities can find ourselves pursuing the similar paths of escapism, avoiding issues in our own lives by chasing destructive vices – alcohol, drugs, sex, or whatever self-medication one chooses. However, like Tiger Wood’s life proves to the world – and, as some of us have experienced in one way or another in our own lives – escapism not only catches up with us, but it ultimately crashes down upon us.

Face your problems head-on with accountability and self-awareness, and not only will your issues get resolved within, but you’ll be a better person for it, where you’ll be respected, not humiliated, and where you’ll display dignity over degradation. Unfortunately for his family, colleagues, sponsors, and fans, you only need to look at Tiger Woods to prove my point.

Man Vs. Life

By Mark E. Smith

If there’s one common criticism of my writings, it’s that I’m an idealist. However, such critics couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, I’m the most cynical, paranoid person I know. See, I recognize that it’s Man versus Life, and when we’re not living to our absolute best, Life will take us out – it’s itching to drop us to the canvas like a soft-jaw boxer, never to get up again.

I figured out as a young kid that I could never give in to Life – I could never let it win. Sure, it’s tried every day since I was born to tear me apart, but I strive to stay one move ahead of it, a chess game of real consequence. It’s thrown adversity after adversity my way, landing a few blows; but, for the most part, I’ve bobbed, weaved, and ducked, telling it, Is that all you’ve got?

And, yes, it always has more – Life’s a worthy opponent, never ceasing. I give Life credit for being especially proactive with my cerebral palsy, where it thought that it could slow me down, placing an anchor around my neck right out of the womb. But, Life made a strategical error, lacking foresight, not planning on my simply choosing to grow bigger and stronger than that anchor, not dragging it as a burden, but carrying it as an honor.

Then, once life saw that physical limitation weren’t something that would slow me down, it decided to toss in mental and emotional turmoil – dysfunctional parents sure to defeat me. But, like watching old tapes of a boxing opponent, I learned Life’s most devastating tactics by seeing what it did to those around me, where it used addiction and poverty to defeat them. I knew it would send those my way, so I got my fists up as soon as the bell rang, ready to rumble.

Alcohol destroyed the lives of many around me, so I simply had to avoid that slippery slope of indulgence, not routinely drinking. Poverty kept those around me destitute, so I simply had to get a formal education, follow a strict work ethic, and live debt-free. And, irresponsible living took the health of those around me, so I knew that I had to maximize my health. Life lured those around me into easy defeats, placing them on the ropes – but, I wasn’t falling for its tricks.

Pushing 40 now, and having found security against many of Life’s blindsides, I might be inclined to relax a little, let down my guard, not be so cynical or paranoid. No way. To the contrary, I know that Life’s still waiting to tear me apart and rip me to shreds – as quick as we rise, Life will try to make us fall even faster. Life shadows me, where if I have one slip, I know it will kick all of the legs out from under my table, crumbling me like house of cards. But, I won’t let it. I sleep with my eyes open. I keep sobriety on my breath, and money in the bank. I work till I collapse on the keyboard, and I workout till my arms feel raw, ready to tear from my torso.

Life may be pacing me, but I’m pacing it, where when I take my last breath, I will know that I’ve likewise left Life bloodied, gasping on the canvas, with nothing left, from among the most epic battles it’s ever faced.

Roll In Like You Own the Place

By Mark E. Smith

We hear of those who note that disability can be a hindrance in social settings. After all, if you roll into a club of the glamorous, and you’re the one using a wheelchair, it visually tags you as “different.” However, even in the most superficial of social scenes, who says that appearing as “different” because you use a wheelchair has to be bad for your social life? In fact, is it possible that your “difference” can actually work for you in the positive when it comes to making new friends and winning over a room full of strangers?

If you’ve ever met me in person, you know that I’m an always-upbeat, outgoing kind of guy, enjoying any social setting. I smile and say hello to everyone. I shake hands with men, and kiss women on the cheek. And, I always throw humor, wit, and charm into every conversation. I genuinely like people, and I learned long ago that when I relate warmly to others, they respond equally well to me. Sure, my disability still freaks out some people, but I find that in almost any circumstance, my personality can move them over to a level of comfort that helps them see beyond my disability, to the point where it can even give me an edge over others in a social scene.

I have been known to end up out carousing with friends every once in a while, landing at hip, trendy clubs where the guys and gals take pages from the Hollywood set. The dudes are typically pumped-up and decked-out in their designer duds, and the women are usually bleached, tanned, and nail-polished like Barbie dolls on the loose with Daddy’s platinum card. What’s often striking among such crowds, though, is that at some point, one of the “beautiful people” usually asks someone in my group who I am? In fact, recently a woman in such a scene asked if I was someone famous? My friends and I, of course, thought that the woman’s question was hilarious, especially since we overheard one of my friends reply, “That’s Mark – of course he’s famous.”

But, why would a stranger in a club ask if a cerebral-palsied guy using a wheelchair like me was famous?

Probably because when I’m out, I go big – all in, large and in charge.

I roll in elevated on my power chair’s seat lift, bump fists with the door man, and smile as I stroll through the crowd. I make eye contact with everyone I see, saying, “Hey, how are ya,” and move in like I owned the place. Within minutes, I’m chatting it up with folks around me, soon I’m grooving to the music, and my cache grows from there. At some point, the band often dedicates a song to me, and I end up partying the night away like a rock star, drawing moral boundaries when needed, but having such an over-the-top time that my friends know that there will be Monday morning stories to tell – or deny.

So, how do we, as those with disabilities, roll into a social situation and sway it our way? Or, more aptly, how does a big-eared, goofy-smiled, spastic dork like me me win over a jet-set crowed of strangers?

With energy and confidence – that’s how. It amazes me how some with disabilities automatically presume that the fact that they appear physically different penalizes them socially among strangers. But, it doesn’t have to. I mean, sure, if you’re utterly self-conscious about you’re disability, it will absolutely hold you back, where people may very well observe that you are shy, insecure, and uncomfortable when you roll into a room. And, no one seeking a good time wants to be around a shy, insecure, uncomfortable person with a disability – or any such person, for that matter.

However, what I’ve learned is that our “differences,” including disability, don’t have to be limiting disadvantages; rather, our “differences” can unquestionably serve us as empowering distinctions. It’s all in how we present ourselves – that is, outgoing, confident, and comfortable.

When you roll into a social scene in a wheelchair, people will notice you – and that can be a huge advantage over others who simply blend in when they enter a room. With everyone’s eyes drawn to you because you’re different, you then have the opportunity to turn it into a distinction by flashing your smile, making eye contact, saying hello to everyone you encounter, acting like you’re all but running for political office – that is, you can exude a confidence and charisma that’s unmistakable, where people think to themselves, “Who’s this cool cat in the wheelchair working the room?”

Then, there’s a snowball effect, with others noticing that people are warming up to you, peaking everyone’s interest even further. Next thing you know, you’ve got an entire scene of people comfortable, with women and men alike actually coming up and introducing themselves to you, where you’re holding court in the center of the place like you’re a true celeb. In these ways, it’s amazing how quickly you can turn your entire persona as one with a disability from one of obviously different to captivatingly distinct.

Surely, rolling into a room full of strangers like you’re a rock star is a scary thought for some. After all, lots of people are self-conscious and shy, and the perceived difference that disability suggests can absolutely affect one’s self-confidence for the worst – all of which adds up to making it seemingly impossible to pickup one’s social game and view one’s wheelchair as a people-magnet. Plus, based on lifestyle and career, some people don’t have an opportunity to hone their social skills as much as others.

However, it truly doesn’t take too much confidence or skill to begin – just enough courage and awareness to thrust yourself into the scene, and smile, make eye contact, and have light conversation. I often try to ditch my friends at some point when we’re out, and go off on my own to meet new people simply because it’s a skill that takes constant developing, where the more we socialize with strangers, the easier it gets – practice makes perfect. If you look at it that way, it’s truly quite simple, isn’t it? I may feel insecure on the inside, but I’m going to suck it up, flash a smile, look others in the eyes, and work my way through the crowd like I’m the popular co-ed on campus! And, you will be.

Now, just like anyone looking to work a social scene, it’s important to address the occasion as a whole, aware of how you present yourself and who you associate with. For starters, always dress appropriately for the occasion. If you show up at your local hot-spot in stained sweatpants and a wheelchair expecting to win over a crowed, you’ll appear out of place at best, creepy at worst. Disability doesn’t negate pride in appearance, and you should dress with flair, where people’s eyes transition from your wheelchair to noting how well you’re decked-out. Call it shallow, but simply dressing nice, with good grooming, goes a long way toward increasing one’s status, wheelchair or not.

Similarly, use discretion toward who you’re around – and who’s around you. Let’s face it, if the social scene has booze, the person using a wheelchair will likely become a draw for drunks. “I love you, man!” every drunk will say, putting their arms around you, patronizing. Stay away from these people, and when they approach, make it clear that you want them to leave you alone, period. You want others in the room to see you as empowered, and if others see you engaged with drunks patronizing you, others will likely write you off, back to “different” instead of as distinct. Esteemed, empowered people don’t associate with slobbering drunks, and neither should those with disabilities.

Put simply, view your wheelchair as a positive hook toward capturing attention, then let your class, character, and personality carry you the rest of the way. Dress the part, act the part, and make yourself the one to be known, disability and all.

Make no mistake, your disability will get others’ attention, but you have the ability to dictate that it’s for the better. The next time you’re out on the town, roll into the social scene like you own it, flashing a never-ending smile, acknowledging everyone with eye contact, striking up conversations with a quick wit, and show the room with your empowered presence that you’re not just the one with the wheelchair, but also the one with the charisma and personality to set the place ablaze.