Grinnin’ In Your Face

Son House
Son House

By Mark E. Smith

When I attended San Francisco State University’s creative writing program, we were allowed to focus on the genre of our choice. My peers mostly focused on poetry, fiction or full-length feature writing. I was the only one in my class, however, who focused almost exclusively on the short-short story, a genre others found too difficult because of its inherent limitations. Whether writing autobiography or fiction, I loved the constraint of having to tell a story – convey a profound message – in 1,000 words or less (that’s no more than two typed pages). The constraints of the short-short form, I found, made me maximize what I had, it made me more creative because I had to learn ways to do more with less.

Of course, looking back, I simply grabbed onto what I knew based on growing up with disability – that is, I was really good at taking limitations and using them to utmost potentials. Constraints, you see, don’t box us in; rather, they challenge us to find innovative solutions to work with what we have. I’ve never found that ease or excess bring out our full potential. However, constraints and limitations do. I know that it sounds counter-intuitive, but if you want to grow, work within limitations.

The way I learned really quickly how to manage money was by being broke. Again, I know that sounds counter-intuitive – how do you manage money that you don’t have? – but what being broke is really about is expertly managing the money that you do have. It goes right back to disability experience, doesn’t it? I focus on what I have, not what I lack.

I was grocery shopping with my daughter recently and we encountered a sort of mirror image of us at the grocery store – a presumed single father and two daughters. In his hand, he had a grocery list and a calculator, adding up the cost of items as he went. It was a familiar sight because I’ve done that. When you have financial constraints, you find ways to do more with less. In that moment, that gentleman was a financial wizard compared to many with far more money because each of his dollars was wisely watched and allocated. Attentiveness and creativity filled his cart beyond financial limitations. Again, limitations bring out the best in us.

One of the greatest blues songs of all time is the mid 20th-century, “Grinnin’ in Your Face,” by Son House. In conceiving and performing the song, House had the ultimate constraints: no instruments and no formal musical training. How do you make an iconic song with none of that? Yet, by working around those constraints, he created a soul-penetrating song using just his voice and clapping, setting time to what sounded great to him. House found the ultimate instrument within the ultimate limitation: he used his voice and hands. Contemporary musician, Jack White, noted about House’s classic piece, “I didn’t know you could do that, just singing and clapping. It said everything about rock ‘n’ roll, expression, creativity, art – one man against the world.”

If we look at ourselves as writers, single parents, musicians, those with disabilities, and on and on, it’s amazing what we can do within constraints grinnin’ in our face. What’s fascinating is that constraints don’t limit us; rather, they inspire creativity, help us find better ways, and ultimately foster personal growth. However, what living with limitations truly does is empower us to realize that we don’t have limitations after all.


Even When Losing, Let’s Win


By Mark E. Smith

I speak a lot about seeing opportunity in adversity because it’s where our biggest successes are formed, and it’s really been the guiding principle of my life. If you can take the bleakest circumstance and turn it completely around – to work not against you, but for you – that’s where the most rewarding circumstances of our lives occur.

I was recently mortified when I was informed by one of my team members that I’d missed an article deadline. These days, I write several formal magazine articles per month, with deadlines six to eight weeks in advance of publication. And, I’m fanatical about deadlines, where I never run up to the wire, always ahead of the game. But, this article escaped me. I don’t know if I’d never received the request or if I simply totally forgot about it; but, for whatever reason, I had no recollection of it. I’d missed the deadline, let the editor and my staff down, and, of most regret, I’d blown an opportunity to publish a piece that I believed could impact the lives of others with a very poignant topic. I’d failed completely.

Yet, I don’t give up that easily. I immediately took ownership and disclosed to my whole staff that I’d blown it, that for reasons I couldn’t explain nor excuse, I’d dropped the ball. And, I asked all to give me the opportunity to try to make things right. I went to the editor and sincerely apologized, noting that my failure was inexcusable, but if she could give me two days, I could make things right. She, understandably, was reserved, but gave me two days to write a 1,600-word article – a seemingly impossible task considering all of my existing commitments over those 48 hours. And, reading between the lines, the editor didn’t seem too optimistic, as pulling off a 1,600-word article of quality in two days is rarely accomplished.

Yet, I had the only tool I needed: opportunity. The editor was gracious enough to give me a second chance, two days to rise to a challenge – and I thrive on the opportunity in adversity. And, so I squeezed a half hour here and five minutes there, and rather than neglecting any other obligations, I wrote around them – literally – and got the job done. But, was the quality of the piece up to par, or had I struck out twice?

Upon submitting the piece, just a day before the editor needed to go to lay-out with the magazine, I didn’t hear back from her – that is, until she let me know that she’d decided to give my piece both the feature position and the cover, as big of compliment that writers get. In 48 hours, I went from a no-show to the feature. Talk about going from a zero to a hero.

Now, it is true that without the editor extending me the gracious opportunity, I’d been shut out, and rightfully so. After all, I missed the original deadline. However, by not accepting a loss, assuming accountability and seizing opportunity in adversity, I scored big time. I went from losing to winning, from out of the magazine to getting the feature and the cover.

Think about how many times in all of our lives we find ourselves at a dead end, a game-over moment. Think about how many people accept that and just quit. No, these are the times of utmost possibilities in our lives, where a dead end is virtually always a fantastic starting point. What’s to the right or the left or beyond that dead end? That’s where to look, that’s where there’s always opportunity in adversity.

Find A Way


By Mark E. Smith

I’m not a miracle worker, but no matter what problem you throw at me, I can tell you in three words how to solve it: Find a way.

If there’s one life-changing, ever-empowering truth that disability experience has taught me, it’s that there’s always a way to resolve or accomplish what we wish – we just have to find a way to do it. It may not be initially evident; it may not be easy; it may not seem practical; and, it may even seem ludicrous. Yet, to any challenge or situation in life, there is a way to resolve it – we just have to find the way.

I often share the story of my shoe laces. For the first 25 years of my life, I couldn’t tie my own shoes based on my lack of dexterity and coordination. Now, in the grand scheme of life, not being able to tie one’s own shoes may not seem like a big deal – after all, there are far more serious limitations in life – but it was one of the last pieces to my physical independence. The ability to tie my own shoes meant the difference between being able to fully dress independently or forever rely on others.

For years, I tried all sorts of shoes, with all sorts of practice. But, alas, I could never coordinate shoe laces well enough to tie them. I even got to the point where I could make the loops, but as I went to cross them, all fell apart. It was forever frustrating, to say the least, right down to my brother having to tie my shoes on my wedding day.

Yet, after years of practice, trial, error, and failure, I was so close to tying my own shoes that I knew that I could do it – I just had to find a way. And, so I reanalyzed my process, and realized that where the issue was, was that when I went to cross the shoe lace loops, my poor coordination over-extended the shoelaces, causing them to come undone. If only I had more shoelace length to work with, I could cinch the loops before pulling the ends out…. And, in that was the answer: get longer shoelaces! Indeed, I found a way, and till this day, 72” shoelaces are the solution I use to tie my shoes. It wasn’t that I couldn’t tie my own shoes; rather, I simply had to find a way to do it.

Finding a way is amazing because it empowers us to find a solution to any problem rather than accepting it. A task or situation may seem impossible, but if we truly believe that there is a way to successfully solve it – we just have to find it – it inspires us to not just try, but try harder, as well as go into situations with a can-do attitude.

I admit, I’ve become pretty skilled at finding a way, where when I encounter a challenge, I don’t shy from it; rather, I go into find-a-way mode. I recently wanted to interview a business titan for a book I’m writing. The individual is bigger than life, worth an estimated $2-billion, and has an insanely busy schedule. I remember thinking, How am I going to track this individual down, let alone get a several-hour interview? The answer immediately struck me: Find a way.

I thought for a moment who might have the individual’s personal contact information – as I wanted to get direct to the source – and with a single email exchange, I scored both the individual’s and the individual’s assistant’s contact information. Bingo! I then sent an email to the assistant, and within 20 minutes, I had an interview scheduled. I flew to the individual’s headquarters, and ended up with an amazing two-hour interview. If I had told most folks who I wanted to interview and where, they would have thought it crazy. There’s no way you’ll pull that off, most would have said. However, knowing that I just had to find a way to pull it all together made the seemingly impossible ridiculously easy. There I was, having flown partly across the country, sitting in the individual’s stately office, hearing amazing, never-before-told stories to include in my book.

See, that’s the eloquence of find a way – it immediately makes the impossible totally plausible. Are you having difficulty accomplishing a goal? Find a way. Are you struggling to get the results in a particular aspect of your career that you want? Find a way. Do you want to make major changes to your life? Find a way. Do you want to live your dreams? Find a way!

No, anything truly worth striving for isn’t easy, nor without complications. But, if it’s truly worth doing – if you’re truly dedicated to accomplishing it – there’s a way to do it. Find it. Live it. Never give up hope, as there’s always a way….