Before the Bars Turn Pink

By Mark E. Smith

I’ve had the privilege of visiting Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which goes by CHOP, several times recently. What I’ve learned has both strengthed and questioned my faith in mankind.

During my first visit at CHOP, I was struck by the level of graciousness among all employees, from the parking attendants to the doctors. I wondered, how does an organization with thousands of employees maintain such an inspired staff across all positions? What does CHOP’s human resources department know that others don’t?

I thought about this long and hard, as among my roles at my company is to ensure that our employees understand the importance of their work, the importance of serving our customers who rely on our mobility products. Yet, the more I thought about CHOP’s workforce, I couldn’t break the code.

Then I went back. And, informally, I studied every interaction I witnessed while I was there, from my interactions with others to witnessing others interacting. What I realized was that the secret to CHOP’s amazing culture quickly became not just apparent, but I felt it in every fiber of my being: shared humanity.

See, while CHOP is a great resource as among the best pediatric hospitals in the world, no one wants to be there. Children and their families are only there because they’re going through a medical crisis or disability, often a grave condition. As a result, everyone there is going through something, and that fact is known. As an employee, patient, parent, or visitor, you know that reality – it’s unmistakable when you’re there, people are in the midst of life’s most difficult circumstances. Therefore, the culture brings out nothing but kindness, compassion, and empathy toward everyone you encounter and everyone who encounters you.

When you visit CHOP, you’re issued a daily name badge, which includes your photo. Using an inexplicable security technology to me, when you exit the complex, pink bars void your name badge, noting that you’ve left the buildings.
Every time I exit CHOP, to the parking garage, and the pink bars appear across my day name tag, a big part of me wishes that name tag remained valid in the everyday world, where we, too, intrinsically treated each other with nothing but kindness, compassion, and empathy no matter where or who we are.

From Rocks to Balloons

balloons

By Mark E. Smith

Why do you eat at your favorite restaurant? Is it the food?

And, what’s been your favorite job? Was it because of the salary?

As different as these two questions seem, the answers are one in the same: the people.

The theme to the television classic, Cheers, where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came, tells a life truth – that is, the quality of the people in our lives directly correlates with the ultimate quality of our lives.

From family to friends to colleagues to acquaintances, people in our lives aren’t hard to come by. However, how well do we really vet them? I don’t mean that in a snobbish way, but in a healthy, heartfelt way. Are the people we surround ourselves with bringing positive aspects into our lives or negativity? In fact, even neutrality leans toward negativity because such individuals aren’t enhancing our lives, just existing in it.

My wife and I are working on an ambitious personal project, and it’s required us to assemble a team of varied professionals. Competency is a given, but we’ve also understood that in order for the project to succeed, we needed to assemble the kindest, most empathetic souls. And, it’s worked. Slowly, we’ve seen this diverse cast of characters come together who are truly loving, supportive people. Every get together just elevates everyone’s spirits. The project is the project, but it’s the quality of the people that are elevating not just its success, but all of our lives in the process.

Yet, there’s a process to having quality people in our lives, an awareness that has to occur, especially with those we spend a lot of time with. Not everyone is a right fit. How do we know? We feel it. There are those in our lives who bring an incredible spirit that leaves us feeling great, and others who emotionally pull us down. For me, I go by my “hug factor” – that is, if I feel the natural draw to hug someone after spending time together, that’s someone who’s a great force to have in my life. However, if someone makes me feel some sort of negativity, I know it’s someone to keep at arms length or eliminate altogether from my life. I want to hold on to helium balloons that uplift, not rocks that sink. I likewise, though, strive to equally be a helium balloon to others – and, man, if you get two helium balloons together, a sky of unlimited possibilities is literally yours.

Sometimes this process is innate when we’re lucky; sometimes it takes awareness, which is most common; and, sometimes it requires difficult decisions, setting boundaries. My wife and I have had someone on our project team who by profession had to be involved, but has become a very negative force. No matter the kindness all have extended, this individual has ticked everyone off with rude comments and an overall negative disposition. Needless to say, this individual won’t be invited to the wrap-up party. Yes, we should always extend empathy, but we likewise shouldn’t allow negative individuals to pull us down. And, in leadership roles of groups, it’s vital for morale not to allow one individual to diminish the camaraderie of the group.

Ultimately, we can’t always control who’s in our lives. Yet, we can control how we recognize and interact with them. Observe how those around you effect you and others, and realize that the quality of those in your life directly correlates with the quality of your life. So, let the rocks go, and grab on to those helium balloons. They will elevate your life, as you do theirs.

The Kind of World we Live In

freehug

By Mark E. Smith

Every night at 10:00 pm, I flip through the cable news channels. With redundant sound bites and flashing scenes – not to mention partisan political rhetoric – I’m told what a terrible world I live in. If I am to believe them, my life in every fathomable way is on the brink of disaster – and so is yours. If texting drivers and terrorists don’t kill us, our jobs will be downsized and exported, and our children will end up on heroin. But, then they go on to note that if we make one wrong vote, we will lose civil liberties and nuclear proliferation will usher in World War III. However, none of this matters because whatever the latest virus is, it’s likely to kill us before all else.

This is how the news media portrays our world night after night. Yet, day after day, my life – the world we share – couldn’t be more different. As one with a severe physical disability, the world of intolerance portrayed by the media that we live in should place me drowning in the bottom of a cruel socio-economic barrel. Yet, I’m not – and, in fact, my world, your world, our world couldn’t be more different than the distorted, sensationalism hyperbole spewed by make-up-strewn talking heads on cable news.

What 45 years of disability experience has proved to me is the truth of humanity. People are kind, accepting, embracing and tolerant. We know that we’re all in this together, and while my adversity is an obvious physical one, we all have known adversity, and it’s among the bonds that unites us. We all want to love and be loved, and as my career has taken me to countless cities and towns across this country, every where I’ve been has demonstrated one universal trait: kindness.

As one with a severe disability, who speaks and looks differently than others, who must turn to strangers for assistance in situations, who flies on planes and lands in cities, I see none of the harsh, cruel world portrayed by the media. I see the flight attendant offer to walk with me through the airport to ensure I find my shuttle van. I see the shuttle van driver insist on tying my shoe. I see hotel clerks ensure all I need is taken care of. I see waitresses intuitively move everything where I can reach it. I see individuals homeless say words of blessing to me. I see strangers in stores, restaurants, everywhere, share the kindest words and hug me.

I don’t know where the media gets its soundbites and images of the bleak world it portrays. But, if they followed me for an hour, in any city in this great country, they’d see the truth: the kindness of the world around us is awe-inspiring. Turn off the TV and get out into it.

The Walmart Effect

smiley

By Mark E. Smith

According to a new survey by Yahoo Travel, 31% of travelers think New York City is the unfriendliest city in the world.

As I read the articles on this, I was initially puzzled by how anyone could declare New York City the least friendly city in the world? After all, in recent years, I’ve spent a remarkable amount of time there, not so much as a tourist, but as one who’s immersed myself in the neighborhood culture, where Brooklyn, in particular, has become a sort of weekend getaway.

Now, if NYC was the least friendly city in the world, you’d think that I – as a power chair user, with severe cerebral palsy, with all of the social stigmas around it – should be invisible, if not shunned, in NYC, especially in local neighborhoods where people tend to know each other. Yet, to the contrary. From Brooklyn to the Upper East Side, it’s tough passing someone on the sidewalk who doesn’t say hello; people treating me so kindly, from opening doors to pulling out access ramps at local restaurants; and, people talk to me without reservation, as if they know me.

So, how is it possible that as a man with a severe disability, I find NYC among the friendliest places on Earth, while 31% of travelers find it the unfriendliest city in the world?

The answer is, those 31% are the most miserable people on Earth! If there’s one truth I know, it’s that the world is a mirror, and what we project is what we get back. New York City isn’t unfriendly; rather, 31% of travelers are. If you move through NYC with a scowl and a miserable attitude, people are going to scowl and give you a miserable attitude back. However, if you smile and treat everyone with gratitude and graciousness, they open up in the same way. It doesn’t matter what city or situation you’re in – your own behavior and persona dictates how others react to you.

I call all of this the Walmart Effect. I grocery shop at Walmart because I’m a no-nonsense kind-of-guy – I want all that I need in one store. What I’ve observed over the years is that every stereotype you’ve heard about Walmart is true – it’s a lower socio-economic demographic, where everyone from the customers to the cashiers can be from rude to crude. Yet, my experience doesn’t fit that stereotype at all.

I took my sister with me shopping at Walmart one eve, and half-way through, she stopped in an aisle and asked, “How come everyone is so nice to you here? I get treated like crap.”

Again, there’s no secret. I simply present myself in a welcoming way, where the world’s a reflection of my behavior. I smile, I acknowledge people, I excuse myself when moving among crowds. Graciousness goes a long way, and even at Walmart, if you smile and make eye contact, people smile and greet you back. People are good and kind, and when you treat them as such, they react equally.

Recently, I flew alone to Nashville, and I needed to get my airline seat upgraded because coach seats don’t suit my unconventional posture well. As a waited in line, the gentleman in front of me was screaming at the agent, leaving furious. I don’t know why he was so angry – a 31% club member, obviously! – but his behavior was totally inappropriate. I rolled up to the counter and explained that while I didn’t know the gentleman or his situation, his behavior was unacceptable and I offered my apologies for him to the agent. It was just a natural reaction for me, but she seemed genuinely touched that I acknowledged her not just as an airline agent, but as a person. What touched me was that when I explained that a bulkhead seat makes flying easier on me, she punched some buttons on her computer and said, “Mr. Smith, I’m putting you in the first row of First Class, where I’m sure you’ll be the most comfortable.” Indeed, kindness begets kindness.

The world is a mirror, reflecting what we project. If we want to live in a world that’s full of friendly, gracious, kind people, it begins with a smile on our own face, a pleasant demeanor and a kindness toward others. If we simply present ourselves with genuine positivity toward others, not only does New York City become the friendliest place on Earth, but so does everywhere we go.

The Truths of Time

watch

By Mark E. Smith

On Walnut Street in downtown Philadelphia – an upscale shopping district lined with cafes – I’m let into a watch store by a security guard. It’s not an ordinary watch store. In the display cases are literally millions of dollars in watches – Cartier, Breitling, Rolex. I stroll by them casually, with no interest to stop and gaze in the cases.

I have my own watch, which was a gift. I don’t get many gifts, so this watch is especially meaningful to me. No, it’s not a Cartier, Breitling or Rolex. But, then again, I can’t put a value on its sentimental value, so maybe it’s more valuable than any watch in the glass cases – at least to me.

I’m greeted by a woman, and I explain to her that I need my watch band fitted. She gets a gentleman from the back, and he’s glad to help. As he sits at a desk and removes links from my band, I know that his hands rarely touch such a watch as mine, nowhere near the cost of even the least expensive watch in his store.

“I really appreciate your adjusting my watch,” I say. “I realize that it’s nowhere near the level of watches that you sell.”

“Any watch that tells time is a great watch,” he replies with a sincere smile, handing me my watch to try on.

With my watch fit to my wrist, I head back out onto the bustling sidewalk of Walnut Street. It’s as diverse of crowd as you’ll find anywhere. And, I’m struck by the profound words spoken by the gentleman at the watch shop. He really wasn’t just talking about watches, but the people who wear them. Think about how, as a society, we label everyone like watches – labels that often dictate a person’s status – from the wealthy to the homeless, the African American to the Irishman, the gay to the straight, to me, one with cerebral palsy. Yet, we’re all just watches, aren’t we? And, as the gentleman at the watch shop summed up each of us with such humility, Any watch that tells time is a great watch.