When Being Our Best Truly Counts

By Mark E. Smith

I live in an inspired cultural niche, one of disability. Every day, I have peers vying against the odds to overcome seemingly insurmountable struggles. What’s long intrigued me isn’t that they do it, but the specific life tool that they use, one that we all have.

Tiffani Ntanos, is a well-known YouTube personality, who became a high-level quadriplegic at age 20 as a result of a diving accident. She’s spent the past six years learning how to live as a quadriplegic. Being in one’s 20s can be confusing enough, and adding a life-changing accident makes it even more difficult. Now, at age 26, she’s living with cancer. Talk about blow after blow. Make no mistake, it’s a daily struggle, but she’s doing it, she’s addressing each vying in life as it comes. She’s had not one, but two of life’s toughest paths, but keeps pushing forward. How?

Tiffani and many of us know the rule of the road when it comes to navigating harrowing challenges: When we’re at our lowest, let us be at our best – for that’s when it counts the most.

Most assume that we’re at our best when… well… we’re at our best. Yet, that’s a misnomer. See, being at our best when life goes smoothly isn’t difficult. It’s actually quite easy. We’re soaring at those fortunate points and it doesn’t require a lot from us.

However, when being at our best truly counts is when we’re in the depths of struggle. We must find the insight to cope, the fortitude to adapt, and the strength to rise. We must not settle for where we are, but strive toward where we can be. We must not accept a defeat, but fight for a win. This all requires our best.

I’ve been at the lowest of the lows in life, and the highest of the highs. I still oscillate between the two from time to time – most of us do, as that’s how adversity in life works. And, it’s at the lows when I learned to be at my best, as we all must do if we’re going to succeed. Dancing around a ring as a boxer is easy. Real strength comes in when you’ve been knocked down and must get up.

When we’re defeated, of course it’s natural to feel defeated. Yet, those who know how to succeed during extreme adversity make the choice to move from feeling defeated to feeling motivated, they know it’s time to be at their best. The key to all of this is living with hope. If we feel motivated, we feel hope, and they fuel each other. Therefore, rarely is it the situation that dictates the ultimate outcome, but our perspective – that is, rising to our best, especially when at our lowest.

Life throws adversity our way from time to time, which can knock us down. That’s not the time to curl up and succumb. Rather, when adversity comes our way, that’s the precise time to double down and say, Man, I’m at my best – I can handle this!

How to Win the Blame Game

By Mark E. Smith

Mathematics has it right: a problem dictates a solution. As emotional humans, unfortunately, we’re often not so constructive: a problem often fosters blame rather than a solution.

Indeed, we’re typically not mathematicians when it comes to solving everyday problems. However, it comes at a high cost, where seeking to place blame not only doesn’t solve a problem, but often makes a situation far worse.

Most of us in a relationship can recall situations where there was a problem at hand, and rather than addressing finding a solution as a couple, we’ve blamed each other. Those arguments didn’t turn out well, did they? They likely only made situations far worse.

My wife and I once argued over the proper place for a TV antenna to work most effectively. It was a simple problem and solution – that is, move the antenna around until the picture is clear and place it there. We both had our opinions on where it should be located, and when it didn’t work, we blamed each other. The more we moved it, the more we argued, to where we were so focused on blaming each other that we became oblivious to solving the problem.

My wife and I blaming each other over a TV antenna not working is a true but ridiculous story. However, we’ve all heard of very serious stories where couples get divorced over, say, finances, where rather than come together for a solution, they blame each other to the very end. Blame can truly lead to tragic outcomes, making a logical solution seemingly impossible.

We see the blame-game dynamic occur a lot in government. There’s no wonder as to why so few problems get solved on Capitol Hill – everyone blames everyone else rather than finding solutions. Locally, where I live, there’s a problem with potholes. The street department blames increased traffic and weather. The citizens blame the street department for not caring. I even heard someone blame automakers for poorly designing cars that can’t handle potholes. Yet, I haven’t heard anyone say, Hey, how about we just focus on fixing the potholes!

Few realize the toll that the blame game takes on commerce, as well. Have you ever had an issue with a product or service, and rather than solving the issue, everyone blames everyone and the situation escalates? Countless hours are spent arguing round and round – wasting time and money – and no one truly seeks a solution. It’s a disturbing dynamic I’ve long tried to earnestly change via my formal business roles, with mediocre success – people are people, after all. What I try to emphasize to my customers, dealers, and colleagues is that we need to solve the problem, that throwing blame around like a proverbial hot potato defeats everyone’s interest. We’ll determine the true causation of the problem in step two, but step one is finding an immediate solution.

On a personal level, once a problem is solved, some can hold on to animosity. I’ve found this to be primarily caused by people investing too heavily in blame to begin with. If a problem is solved, let’s move on, and holding on to animosity only makes us our own victim. Holding on to bitterness over a problem long solved is a tough way to go through life. Again, the goal is to solve a problem, not seek and hold on to blame.

If we want the most successful outcomes when issues arise in life, we have to seek solutions and avoid blame. Water puts out fires; gasoline makes them worse. Let us jump right to solutions, where we all simply do right by each other in the end. That makes for the ultimate solution, no matter the problem.

Robbing Banks

By Mark E. Smith

In the San Francisco Bay Area during the mid-1980s, it wasn’t hard to get harassed by the cops if you were a punk teen. Smoking in public, hanging out in front of a convenience store, being on the streets too late, having a house party, and so on would all but guarantee the appearance of cops. I witnessed many such scenes. Among my peers, there was teenage social credibility to it all. If you wanted to be the cool 11th-grader on Monday morning in homeroom, a run in with the cops on the previous Saturday night did the job.

For me, it was hard to be that cool kid Monday mornings. The cops simply didn’t hassle a kid using a wheelchair like me. I was once hanging out with a bunch of smoking, punk friends outside of an ice cream shop, and a cop threatened to haul everyone away, then turned to me and said, “Don’t worry, I don’t take people in wheelchairs to jail.”

I was instantly stung by his remarks. I wanted to be one of the guys, as teens do, but the cop clearly pointed out that I wasn’t, that I was different. In my mind, I was just as much a punk as my punk friends, right down to my black leather jacket. How dare the cop discount my punkness due to my disability. Worse yet, how dare he give me a pass in front of the punk peers I was part of – but suddenly differentiated from because of the cop’s attitude toward my disability.

My immediate emotions aside, I wondered if the cop spoke a universal truth, that people who use wheelchairs aren’t taken to jail? If it was a fact, should I skip college and take up robbing banks?

All of this – the cop’s condescending attitude and the potential of never going to jail – made me more mischievous than ever. One night, as my buddy and I prepared to cruise the avenue in his car, I got the brilliant idea to put a pillowcase over my head in the passenger seat and pretend like I was dead.

The avenue was heavily lit, so everyone saw in everyone’s car. When my buddy stopped at traffic lights, I relaxed my body, pillowcase over my head, and flopped against the dash like a dead body. It seemed like harmless fun and got lots of attention – until the cops pulled us over.

It turned out that I played such a convincing dead body with a pillowcase over my head that multiple people took our license plate number and description, and called the cops.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the cop asked, holding my passenger side door open, the scene illuminated by the cop car’s colored lights.

“Nothing,” I said, the pillowcase still on my head.

He yanked the pillowcase off of me, my grin appearing.

“This isn’t funny,” he said. “You’ve scared a lot of people.”

“It’s a joke,” I replied with no remorse.

He looked in the back seat and saw my manual wheelchair, then looked back at me.

“Let’s get your wheelchair out and get you to Juvenile Hall,” he said. “I bet your parents won’t find that funny.”

Obviously, not arresting people who used wheelchairs wasn’t a universal code among cops. I was in deep trouble, fast, and my disability wasn’t getting me out of it. So, I did what any punk teen would do: I apologized profusely and explained that I never intended to scare anyone, that it was a dumb prank gone wrong, that I’d never do it again.

Fortunately, the cop let me off of the hook – but kept my mom’s pillowcase.

At 16, I learned a lot that night. I learned that what I thought was funny scared a lot of people and that wasn’t right. I learned that there’s nothing cool about getting in trouble with the cops. And, I learned not to rob banks because they do put guys like me, who use wheelchairs, in jail.

One Fine Burger

By Mark E. Smith

It’s a simple, quiet place. The confusion and struggle of a younger man are long gone. It’s reminiscent of when I look out through the pane windows of our farmhouse on a wintry Sunday morning. There’s something gentle and still about it all – winter and life.

It’s another Friday night and my wife and I are the early crowd at a local restaurant. It’s the kind of restaurant where some go for special occasions; others are regulars, older folks who have dinner there several nights per week. We’re neither. It’s close to home, and despite its higher-end menu, I prefer to sit at the vintage mahogany bar and get a basket of bread, one fine burger, and just be, with my wife. There’s no complexity to it. It’s all comforting – my wife, the food, the atmosphere.

The owner-chef and I have an understanding. We’re acquainted just enough to be on a personal basis. He’ll sit with us and chat. We’ve been open to the degree that we both have shared that we come from families on the other side of the tracks, as he’s politely put it. When you come from that type of family and get to a point in adulthood where you’re no longer running, no longer hiding, no longer out to prove yourself, and you don’t need to worry about being able to pay the utility bill each month, life becomes easy, almost effortless – at least emotionally. So, what’s the key to moving beyond it all, where you’re no longer running, hiding, or proving, but just being, finally at ease?

I’ve come to understand that there are two sides to living with a difficult past: sometimes we hold on to the past and sometimes it holds on to us. Some of us, with struggle, get to a point where we can, for the most part, let go of our pasts. For me, time has equaled distance in that process. The more that time passed, the less my past affected me. Sometimes we can move beyond all in a literal sense by simply moving our lives forward. Education leads to career, which leads to financial security, just as finding love leads to understanding love, and at some point we transcend from what we knew into what we know, all for the better. That’s the key to the best of my understanding of how to change one’s life and leave the past in the past – we realize that we can work to move beyond what we’ve known, into a life of different possibilities, potentials, and outcomes. It’s not easy, but the time-distance equation makes it possible.

On the other hand, when our past has a hold of us, it’s a harrowing plight, as well. We live in a culture that propagates the belief that anyone can “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps.” It’s not just physically impossible – try pulling on your shoes to lift yourself off of the ground! – but it’s also emotionally impossible when one’s past has its grip. We can’t expect anyone to just get over it and move forward. Trauma is far more complex to heal from.

We know that the healing process is subjective. Of course, the severity of the trauma plays a role, as does one’s psychological and physical health. Where the subject gets tricky is when, say, siblings grow up in the same dysfunctional family and one is able to move beyond the trauma while another continues in its grip. Similarly, in my world, I often see individuals of the same severe injury or illness, but some cope in positive ways while others struggle in a negative space. Therefore, it’s difficult to say who escapes the grip of trauma.

Regardless, it’s vital to have empathy and utmost respect for both plights. After all, both plights involve just as much struggle. We can’t look at someone who’s moved beyond his or her past and say, You’re lucky, because we know the phenomenal amount of work it took. Similarly, we can’t look at someone who’s struggling in the grips of his or her past and say, You’re just not trying hard enough, because we know that’s not how the process works. Again, one only knows what one knows until one knows differently – and there’s no single or direct or surefire route to getting to that point. If you swam across a channel of water, knowing how tough it was to cross, you can’t look at those still in the middle, struggling, with anything but empathy and respect.

My wife and I try to remember if I ordered my burger medium-rare or medium-well? I don’t recall. I simply know that, regardless of how they’re cooked, such burgers taste better than ever these days.

Quitting is Winning

By Mark E. Smith

I saw a video of a Little League coach giving his team a pep talk. He rolled out every possible cliché and movie line one can imagine to pump up the kids. These talks work well with 10-year-olds, but not so much for us adults.

See, one of the clichés the coach invoked was, Winners never quit, and quitters never win!

We’ve all heard that saying and it sounds great. However, if we’ve ever struggled, then succeeded at an accomplishment, we also know that that saying isn’t true.

In order to succeed, we do need perseverance, but only in the most successful ways. It sounds great to say, Winners never quit and quitters never win, but such a black-and-white situation is rarely found in life. Perseverance only works when combined with adaptation. If we’re not succeeding at a task, but just keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to fail. Persevering means constantly moving through that which isn’t working by finding different approaches in order to achieve success. Winners always quit doing that which isn’t working!

I’ve faced a lot of adversity in my life and I’ve always known when to throw in the towel and try a different approach. The key I’ve learned is to be realistic, not dogmatic. I remember going through occupational therapy as a child and was taught single ways to accomplish tasks. However, the approaches, although text-book to the therapists, rarely worked with my abilities, or lack thereof. When I couldn’t accomplish tasks as directed, I simply stopped trying – I quit. Even as a child, I understood the futility of metaphorically beating my head against a wall by pursuing failing approaches. It didn’t mean I was a quitter. Rather, it meant I had good sense. I then pursued other approaches that enabled me to successfully accomplish the tasks and move on to more, arguably to degrees of success greater than my therapists fathomed possible. Winners stop pursuing failing strategies and adopt those that work.

If an aspect of life clearly isn’t working, stop doing it. It doesn’t mean that you’re a quitter; rather, it means that you’re motivated to pursue greater paths. We shouldn’t hold on to that which isn’t working, as like an anchor, it holds us back. I read a great quote that said, “Don’t worry, I’m not quitting. I’ve decided I’m going to stay and make life a living hell while I run this business into the ground…” That’s crazy talk, but many literally do just that!

Quitting is, in fact, a part of the path to success. After all, some kids quit baseball for music lessons – and rock stars are made.

Not Giving A Blank

By Mark E. Smith

I’m a firm believer in not caring what the blank other people think of us. In fact, it’s a skill that I developed living with cerebral palsy as a child and one I’ve continued as an adult – and it’s served me phenomenally well.

See, I’ve faced being viewed as “different” my whole life. As a child, I was taunted and teased at times. I wish I could say that changed in adulthood, but it merely shifted toward more discrete forms of ignorance – looks, reactions, comments. People can be cruel toward those of us who are seemingly different.

However, truly not giving a blank proves the ultimate antidote toward those who may try to treat us differently. It doesn’t mean not caring what anyone thinks of us. It means having the confidence and self-esteem to not care what inappropriate people think of us. I’m a fan of constructive criticism. I truly care what my wife or colleagues think of me, and I want to improve myself when needed. Yet, when it comes to strangers or self-appointed critics, I don’t give a blank what they think of me. I learned as a child that I could either let the negative attitudes of others stop me or I could own my destiny and not give a blank about what others thought of me and move through the world on my own terms. I chose the latter.

My I-don’t-give-a-blank attitude has served me well. I’m comfortable being me, regardless of what others may think. I garner attention rolling into, say, a restaurant. But, I hold my head high, smile, and if I’m a spastic mess at that moment, all the better. Here I am, and I don’t give a blank! We’re each unique, and owning who we are is key. We can either let others define us or we can define ourselves.

So, how do we do this consistently – that is, not give a blank what others think?

Firstly, let us move beyond our own self-consciousness and focus on others. It sounds like an oxymoron, but the truth is, when we’re consumed by what others think of us, it’s a form of narcissism – we’re making the world all about us. If we focus less on ourselves and more on other people, we’re less self-conscious and more engaged. If you watch really confident, comfortable people in social settings, you’ll see that they’re very engaged with others. When we focus on others, we release focusing on ourselves, and we’re not dwelling on what others think of us.

Secondly, extend people the benefit of the doubt. Just because someone doesn’t understand your situation doesn’t mean it’s personal. People have different life experiences, and just because someone is ignorant toward yours or mine, shouldn’t be taken to heart. As the proverb says, live and let live.

Lastly, focus on what you’re doing, not what others may be saying or thinking. As an adolescent, a group of kids teased me as I struggled to push a manual wheelchair up a hill. I could have been deterred by them, but I chose to stay focused on surmounting the hill. Focusing on the hill voided the taunting.

Really, all of us should carry an I-don’t-give-a-blank attitude, wielded at the right time. Of course, we should care what certain people think. However, we shouldn’t give a blank what everyone thinks. Move through the world and let the chips fall where they may. Better yet, don’t worry where they fall at all!

Life as a Picasso

By Mark E. Smith

I recently spoke on a senate panel on aging. The panelists were heavy-hitters, including a U.S. senator and heads of government agencies. As speakers go, they were the best-of-the-best, both in presentation and knowledge. Then, there was me.

As a speaker, I prefer keynotes, not because I wish to be the star attraction, but because there’s a different dynamic on panels, especially when the other panelists are beyond great. It’s like sitting back stage as a musician and the band before you is phenomenal, and you’re thinking, Man, I can’t live up to what Iggy Pop just did!

What made the recent panel even more challenging was that I went last, so there I sat trembling in my boots – not emotionally, but literally, as I have uncontrollable body movements due to cerebral palsy – as I watched eloquent, brilliant speakers along our table command the room. So, how’d I move through it?

The same way that I always do. Public speaking can be tricky. Yet, if you know your subject, know your audience, and you’re skilled with rhetorical devices, public speaking is a bit of an illusion – it looks tougher than it is. For me, however, there’s a wild card added to the mix: cerebral palsy. My brain sends involuntary signals to my muscles and they do whatever they want, whenever they want. My central nervous system doesn’t care if I’m in bed watching TV or speaking in front of 250 statesmen. If it tells my legs to kick, they simply kick – formally known as a “spasm.” Speaking as a craft is easy for me; doing it with the physical unpredictability of cerebral palsy can be the harrowing part.

Given my situation, I view speaking in front of audiences like driving a race car. Driving a car at 150 mph around a race track takes skill, but even more so when the unexpected occurs. Race car drivers win races not based on simply going around a track, but in addressing peril when encountered. Did you see him keep his car from spinning off of the track!

When I’m publicly speaking, it’s the same phenomenon. I have my emotional and mental composure, but I never know what my body will throw my way. The ability to address spasms and uncontrolled body movements without missing a beat while speaking is my real craft. The way I do it is I let go of the mental and emotional constraints others often feel in such situations. When I sat on the senate panel, there was no way I could be as physically composed as the other speakers, so I threw that standard out the window and focused on being the only person I could be: me. I have cerebral palsy and a microphone – hold on to your seats, folks! In these ways, cerebral palsy becomes an asset of originality.

It doesn’t matter if we’re public speaking or living our everyday lives, the minute we let go of social pressures or preconceived notions of who we should be and just be ourselves, as-is, there’s no freer realm to be in. I understand that this is difficult for many. We live in a culture that presents ideals on how we should be. Yet, for many of us, it’s impossible for us to meet those ideals – there’s no product to resolve cerebral palsy – and in the larger scope, nor should anyone feel he or she has to live to such scripted ideals.

See, I view the world as the most spectacular art gallery. Each of our beauty isn’t blended on a single cultural canvas, in a single form, but seen within the borders of our unique frames. Photoshopped images are great; an original Picasso is amazing.