Rings we Wear

By Mark E. Smith

There’s so much to be said for self-acceptance and just presenting ourselves to the world as who we are. No masks. No Facades. Just be thankful for who we are, and whether others accept us as… well …just us, doesn’t really matter. And, in that spirit, here’s my spoken word piece, Rings we Wear.

Upward Mobility

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By Mark E. Smith

Anyone who tells you that “all men are created equal” is simply stating rhetorical idealism. The fact is, we know we’re not all born equal – some are born into lives of privilege, while others are born into far more grave circumstances.

If you weren’t born into a life of privilege – albeit, wealth, a stable home, good health, and so on – you’ve probably seen your hopes and dreams thwarted at some point. When an upper-class kid, with good-looks, athleticism, and not a stress in the world goes to college on his or parent’s dime, a lot is a given, success is almost a birth right. However, if you’re like some of us who weren’t so fortunate, you don’t stare at silver platters, but you encounter a lot of roadblocks and mountains to climb. And, that’s OK – be happy for the privileged ones, but also see the extraordinary potential in yourself and others like you, those who have to work harder, those who face greater adversity, those for whom it takes more time, but get there, no less.

See, you can’t worry about what those of privilege have, or that you got the proverbial short end of the straw. So what if she has Daddy’s money, or he got a promotion by being at the right place at the right time. Life isn’t just about luck of the draw; it’s a marathon about tenacity. You have what you have, no matter how little, and it’s your job to make the most of it, building upon it over the long term – with laser-like focus, unwavering drive, and, yes, do-or-die tenacity. You have no safety net, and that in itself will make you a better tight rope walker in the end – you won’t fall because you can’t risk falling.

And, none of it is easy – climbing mountains never is. But, it’s totally possible. At times, you may have to make extreme sacrifices – maybe you live in a hole-in-the-wall place, with no television, subsisting on Top Ramen because the little money you have covers the books for your community college courses. Or, maybe you go to work despite health issues because you wish to excel in your career regardless of any adversities. The fact is, as long as you have unyielding tenacity and focus – where you have the guts to make sacrifices that others run from – you will succeed, period. Life isn’t for the privileged; life is for the strong.

Interestingly, political beliefs aside, our most recent three presidents are a great study in privilege versus tenacity – and where the playing field is leveled. President George W. Bush certainly worked hard in his life, but was born into privilege and a family legacy that led him to President, his grandfather a U.S. Senator, and his father, of course, a President. By contrast, President Clinton’s father died three months before his birth, and his later stepfather was a gambler and alcoholic who abused his mother, with President Clinton earning his way through college on scholarships. Similarly, President Obama came from a broken home, mostly raised by his grandparents, putting himself through school. So, we have three presidents of practically speaking the same era, and one was born into privilege, while two came from very humble beginnings. The point is, tenacity can catch up with privilege in the end – but it takes work and vision and guts.

If we truly look at the backgrounds of our 42nd and 44th presidents, there’s tremendous inspiration in that. You don’t need to be of the birth right of the 43rd president – lineage of privilege and power – to be among the most successful people on Earth. Rather, you can come from the so-called bottom, never feel lower than anyone else, and chart a course of personal empowerment. No, you statistically won’t ever be the president, like Clinton or Obama, but think of what you can accomplish in the way of education, career, community, and family – there’s nothing holding you back.

And, you mustn’t let success stop with you. You must have a moral and ethical compass to help others. You don’t want to be smug and selfish, but kind and giving – a leader in action. You see ignorance on the Internet, in line at the grocery store, on cable news shows. You don’t want to be that guy. You want to have the backbone to lead others from despair, not create it. See, the ultimate form of success isn’t in just bettering your life, but bettering others, bettering the world around you as you rise.

Life is simple geography: regardless of where you start, you can go anywhere – just plot an extraordinary course and follow it unrelentingly.

It Gets Better

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Morgan Duffy & Crew, Stanford Class of 2013

By Mark E. Smith

Author’s Note: There’s a disturbing undercurrent that, in this modern day, some teens with physical disabilities still feel isolated, depressed, even suicidal. So, let us talk about being a teen with a disability, and how life gets better….

As a teenager struggling with having a disability, you need to know only one truth: Life gets better – remarkably better.

I remember being a teenager with cerebral palsy and, like you, I remember struggling with it all – feeling different, but wanting to fit in; being treated different, but wanting to fit in, or, at times, feeling completely “normal,” but not being accepted as such. No, high school for me wasn’t all terrible – there were some good friends and good times, as I hope there are for you. We should all see good where there’s good. But, it wasn’t easy for me being different. But, it did get better. And, I know it may not be easy for you right now, but it will get better – remarkably better.

See, high school is tough for everyone, typically a confusing time, and everyone just wants to fit in. I have a 16-year-old daughter who “fits the mold,” and it’s even tough for her and her friends at times. Like you and my daughter and her friends, I just wanted to fit in, too – to have the right friends, have the right persona, and get invited to the right parties. And, for me, maybe like you, sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. Well, a lot of times it didn’t work. And, when it didn’t work – the occasional bully calling me “retard,” or not getting invited to different events and such – it really, really hurt. At points, I, too, just wanted to give up and die. And, before it gets better, sometimes it gets worse.

I remember at among the lowest points in my teen years, I had a girlfriend who I thought truly accepted me, but when it came time to dance at the prom, she wouldn’t dance with me because I used a wheelchair. I remember thinking that my disability was the blame, that if I wasn’t plagued by cerebral palsy, I’d have all of the friends, girlfriends, and coolness in the world. However, I would never be accepted or successful because of my disability.

But, I was wrong. High school and my peers had no impact on my ultimately living a happy, successful life. The day that I graduated, virtually everything got better for me. I went from bullies calling me “retard,” to being a writer, speaker, and academic. I was soon invited to real parties, with amazing people, even getting to meet the President of the United States. And, while no relationship is perfect, I had my ultimate dances with amazing women since – loving, accepting, sincere. It all got better – remarkably better.

My daughter and I were planting Marigolds this spring in a flower bed in front of our home. It was a 70-degree sunny day, where our English bulldog lay on the ultra-green grass. And, although my life, again, isn’t perfect, I was reminded of all I’ve been blessed with – my daughter, a career that helps others, a nice home, the respect of those in my community – and I thought back to my days in high school, wondering where those who treated me poorly are today? Oddly, when I was on Capitol Hill recently, none were there. I don’t see any of them in magazines that I write for, or any with Internet followings. And, I have to wonder with a smile, is their grass as green as mine?

The fact is, while those who hurt you today in school may seem so powerful, they’ll soon enough get lost in the world. But, you. You were born into the extraordinary, with capacities toward life success that they’ll likely never realize. Let’s wish them well, but they don’t have what you have – that is, potential waiting to explode. And, it will, where your life is going to get better – remarkably better. You’re a survivor and a thriver, and that which seems to work against you now, will work for you soon. You’ve been given the gifts of tenacity, perseverance, and empathy – traits that are rocket fuel for life, just waiting to ignite your life in the most rewarding of ways.

My young friend, Morgan Duffy, graduates from Stanford University in a few weeks at this writing. She’s a Dalai Lama Fellow; she’s done an internship on Capitol Hill; and, she’s studied abroad. And, get this, she’s accepted a job with Genentech – without even applying (the recruiters found her based on her accomplishments). But, I’ll let Morgan’s own words explain the rest of her story:

So I’d like to tell you that I am your average 21 year old, living life and learning through mistakes and experiences. Most of my experiences, however, are less than average. Three years ago, I packed up my life and moved from the small city of Scranton, PA to begin my college education at Stanford University. I am a Cross Cultural Health and Intervention major with interests in disability, health policy, social justice, women’s health and choice. Like most, my interests are based in experience. I am a woman with a physical disability, who navigates the world in a wheelchair. And I like to feel the world beneath me in that way, taking each bump and knock consistently and steadily. My mother is a nurse, and through my years listening to her complain of the inefficiencies and inequities of modern US health, I have been motivated to learn how to change this. Social justice was the foundation of my high school career at Scranton Prep, and I have vowed to never forget.

Morgan isn’t an exception, she’s the rule – just as you are. You, too, will leave your town and “feel the world beneath you,” as Morgan puts it, going on to successes that won’t just change you, but will change the world.

It may all seem tough today, but the strength to hold on was born into you – there’s a purpose for who we each are, and yours is extraordinary. Tough out the tough times, as it all gets better, remarkably better. And, yes, the grass will be greener on the other side. I’ll see you there.

The Real American Dream

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By Mark E. Smith

We often hear of the American Dream, but what does that really mean? In my home, it means a lot – because we’re living it.

This past week, I was in Atlanta, working with the Georgia Association of Medical Equipment Services, advocating at the Capitol and its Legislature for sustained mobility funding and disability-related services.

Before I left, my daughter and I sat at our kitchen table, and laid out our 2013 schedules, finances, and priorities. As a family – even though it’s just the two of us – we must be on the same page, as a team, pursuing my goals, her goals, and most importantly, our goals as a family building a legacy.

At just turning 16, my daughter is on her high school’s honor role, and on an Ivy-League track toward college, leaning heavily toward an ultimate doctorate in psychology. She plays and holds a seat not just in the school band, but regional orchestra, too, and is next auditioning for the state level in March. She’s a member of the National Thespian Society, where she acts, as well as serves as Secretary for her troop, and she’s a gallery-shown photographer. This summer, she’s attending George Mason University, where she was nominated as among the top 250 youth leaders in the country, and she’s also volunteering as a counselor at a muscular dystrophy summer camp. Yes, the kid is freakin’ awesome, nailing life at 16!

My career continues in full swing, where I have more corporate, advocacy, writing, and speaking projects lined up than in the history of my career, and what I’ve accomplished in just the first month of the year makes my head spin. Again, I was in Atlanta last week – recently back from Detroit! – now I have a radio interview, magazine columns (both in print and in process), a MDA Muscle Walk fundraiser, which I’m helping coordinate, an on-going book project, engagements in Nashville, and Los Angeles, and a full-time corporate job, message board, and weekly blog. And, that only gets me to mid March! (Then it’s Capitol Hill time, Abilities Expos… you get the idea….)

Yet, as a family, my daughter and I not only have to annually budget time, but also finances. We take money management very seriously in our home, where it’s not just about wealth-building and security, but “stewardship.” We believe that what we’re blesses with isn’t truly ours, but that we manage it for a greater good. We live totally debt free, put necessity before want, share with others, and give as much as we can to charity. We don’t live with a scarcity mindset, where we hoard for ourselves; rather, we live an abundant mindset, where there’s enough for us to really enjoy life and not worry, but we have the ability to give generously, as we believe giving to others is the absolute most fun that one can have with money (and, it’s the reason why we’re “stewards” of income – that is, to ultimately do good with it for others, as opposed to seeing it as ours to keep).

But, here’s what struck me about our 2013 family schedules, finances, and priorities meeting: We’re living the American Dream. In two generations – mine, now my daughter’s – we’ve changed our family tree beyond what many would deem possible. The number of firsts for us is astounding. Although a non-traditional family of just the two of us – there’s no mother figure in our family photos – we personify the American Dream.

See, it’s easy to look at me in a suit and tie traveling the country, speaking to audiences, or read my magazine columns, or know of my corporate career, or see me sunning on my boat or jetting off to Vegas, and say, Sure, Mark, life is easy for you when you and your daughter have money and opportunity….

However, the fact is, I was born into less than nothing, with the four generations before me living in abject poverty, all addicts, most serving prison time, none with an education, most just to steal and harm whoever they could. As I open some of my speaking engagements, On the day I was born, my grandfather was in prison, a lifelong criminal; my grandmother was a heroin-addicted prostitute; my father was an alcoholic, drinking in a bar at noon; and, as I was born on that day, I wasn’t breathing….

And, my family tree got worse from there. My grandmother called my mother on the phone and shot herself in the head, committing suicide. My grandfather died of a heroin overdose after endless years of prison time. Both my parents were Skid Row alcoholics, dead by the time I was 40. And, it all made sense, going back for generations on both sides of my family.

So, how did my daughter and I end up here today? Well, there’s been a lot of hurt, pain, struggle, and success in-between; but for me, it all started with getting myself in and out of a bathtub at age 11, where I simply learned that with unyielding tenacity and vision, my potentials could extend as far as I wished. I couldn’t just change the direction of my family tree, I could grow my own. …And, I did.

I was the first one ever to graduate high school in four generations. I was the first to go through college. I was the first to never serve jail time. I was the first to have a career. I was the first to own and invest. I was the first to not be an addict of any sort. I was the first to not do what those before me and around me had done, but to live by a radically different moral and ethical compass. I was the first to live the American Dream.

Yet, the climb has never been linear. Many of the ghosts of my heritage have chased me at times. At 17, I awoke in intensive care after my own failed suicide attempt. I got myself horribly in debt in my 20s. And, I have yet to sustain a life-long romantic relationship. Yet, every time I’ve fallen down, I’ve used second chances, which we all have, to make things right. I immediately got into counseling at 17; I worked my way out of debt in my early 30s; and, at this writing, I’m currently in counseling, striving to take accountability for a string of ended relationships, and get this whole love life thing right. Indeed, the beauty of the American Dream is it gives each of us the chance to change the directions of our lives at any time and redefine who we are. Again, we can get knocked down and fall down, but we have the chance and the choice to get up stronger every time. And, I’ve never passed on that opportunity.

And, while my daughter’s life hasn’t been a piece of cake, either – her mother ultimately unable to break free of her past and demons, to the point where she hasn’t been in my daughter’s life – my daughter has taken the torch of the American Dream, and ran with it. What we’ve both learned is that life isn’t what you’ve been born into; rather, it’s what you make of it, and despite hardships and hurt, you can move through it all, day by day, hurdle by hurdle, to success that you’ve earned by simply striving to do right – that’s living the American Dream.

Talk About Mistakes

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Mistakes are lessons of wisdom. The past cannot be changed. The future is yet in your power. -Hugh White

By Mark E. Smith

Have you ever made a grievous mistake, one that you immediately regretted, one that you wished you never made, one that made you think less of yourself?

I have – and a lot more than once.

Not too long ago, I made just such a mistake. I pride myself on not losing my temper, not saying anything I’ll regret, only showing respect toward others. However, not too long ago, I said something to someone close to me that I truly regretted. It wasn’t who I am, and certainly not who I wanted to be, but in a really weak, lousy moment on my part, I said something that came out of all of the wrong emotions, and it hurt the other person and violated trust.

For me, I immediately knew I wasn’t just in the wrong, but made a grievous mistake. There’s really only two things we should never do in life: One, never hurt another person’s feelings, albeit someone close or a stranger. And, two, never violate trust. And, I did both.

I called the person the next morning, took full accountability, and was prepared for the person to hang up on me. But, with I suspect some caution, my sincere apology was accepted. However, an apology didn’t resolve much for me; I still felt horrible about what I’d said the eve before. Yet, as I shared with the person, my job wasn’t to pity myself for acting so poorly; rather, my job was to take accountability, to understand what vulnerabilities, insecurities, and character flaws fueled a split-second reaction that I was truly ashamed of. I needed to understand why I did what I did, and strive to never do it again.

We all make mistakes – some more grievous than others, as I’ve done at points in my life. But, the biggest mistake that we can make is to allow a mistake to define us instead of using it as a lesson to refine us. See, when we let mistakes define us, we don’t correct the behavior, we perpetuate it. I failed that class because I’m a bad student…. She dumped me because I’m a jerk…. I lost that job because I’m an idiot…. When we allow mistakes to define us, nothing gets resolved – and there’s truly no accountability.

Yet, look what happens when mistakes don’t define us, but refine us: I failed that class, but I’m going to study harder next semester…. She dumped me, but I know that I need to treat my partner better…. I lost that job, but I’m coming in early and staying late at the next…. When we don’t allow mistakes to define us, but to refine us, it’s the ultimate accountability. Put simply, let’s not say how stupid we are, but show how smart we are by learning from our mistakes.

If we’re alive, we’re going to make mistakes – sometimes really, really bad ones. However, if we let them define us – I’m just an idiot – we’re not learning, but merely propagating the mistake, where we keep making it. Instead, when we make mistakes, let’s learn from them and strive to be refined by them, where we take accountability and grow.

As for me, there’s still refining going on – and always will be. To make mistakes is human; and, so is learning from them.

The Power of Choice

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By Mark E. Smith

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to a very large group of diverse professionals – executives, CEOs, managers, and small-business owners.

In a rapport-building exercise, I asked the group to be open and trusting, and by a show of hands, how many of them felt that 2012 was a great year for them? Two of us – yes, I was one of them – raised our hands.

I then asked how many people had a terrible year in 2012, and it was a sea of hands in the air, with seemingly everyone raising their hands.

Then, I asked how many people had an in-between year in 2012, and three people raised their hands.

There was a fairly round number of attendees at the conference, of diverse backgrounds and occupations, and what I realized was that, mathematically, 95% of them raised their hands that they’d had a terrible year.

I went on to do my talk about “recognizing the treasure within each of us,” and then we had a question-and-answer session. And, as is my ultimate blessing and privilege, the program went fantastic, where from the host to attendee surveys, I was noted as the highlight of the conference.

Yet, as my publicist and good friend, Haley, and I got in my van, starting it to leave, I asked, “How is it that 95% of those participants had a terrible year?” It really did trouble me, where I wanted to go back and learn each person’s story. I mean, I know all of us go through tough – sometimes, hellish – times in our lives, so there undoubtedly is more pain in the lives of those around us than we realize. I can only imagine how many people in that room experienced a painful relationship, illness in the family, financial troubles, depression, and on and on during 2012. Yet, to have 95% of a large audience tell me they’ve had a terrible year truly saddened me.

Interestingly, just prior to that conference, I’d read that 63% of Americans feel that the best is past, that only worst times are to come – a record high of discouragement in our country today. Again, I know that these are tough times for many, but the lack of hope and optimism is downright alarming.

All of this reminded me of the hellish times in my life – from the petty like riding my power wheelchair to work in horrible snow storms, to the more serious like finding my mother with her wrists slit on my 10th birthday, to my sister having cancer, to being in painful relationships, and so on – but I don’t recall having what I would label an outright bad year, not to mention a bad week (a bad day, here or there, but that’s to be expected). There’s always some blessing – yes, even during hellish times.

So, what was it that made 2012 a great year for me, as opposed to 95% of my peers that day? Gratitude and personal growth. Sure, I can make the year sound terrible, too: As a full-time single father with cerebral palsy, with the economy in the dumps, and my sister having another cancer scare, the year had its challenges. Yet, while I acknowledged each adversity, I chose not to let them define my year. Instead, I had a great year. My daughter’s doing extremely well, there’s a special lady in my life, I still live totally debt free, my sister is healthy, and I maintain rewarding work. No, my life isn’t easy on the daily basis, but in the larger picture, all is blessed. Why focus on the trying times of 2012, when there’s so much to be thankful for?

And, that’s where all of this ties together. While we can’t control many circumstances that bring adversities into our lives, we always retain the ultimate ability to address them: Are you going to choose to focus on defeat or victory, the challenges or the successes, the curses or blessings? You have the power to choose the perspectives in your life – we all do.

And, it was Haley who raised a great point that day. Maybe the 95% of people at that conference who declared having a terrible year were only thinking of the bad, not the blessings? Despite some adversities, surely there were great moments in all of their lives in 2012 – they were just choosing to focus on the negative, albeit even if just being put on the spot with my question.

For the New Year, I hope more of us employ the conscious power of choice – that is, choosing to focus on the positives. The fact is, focusing on the negative stalls us, while focusing on the positive empowers us. When we’re negative, we dwell; when we’re positive, we accomplish. …And, we know which gets results and inspires us. The power of choice isn’t rocket science.

We’re all going to face adversities in 2013, and of course we should acknowledge and address them. I’m not saying pretend that adversities don’t exist – they do, and the only way to resolve them is to address them. However, rather than hyper focusing on only the negatives in a situation – or, forbid, our whole lives – let us focus on the positives. I’ve never encountered an adversity in my life where there ultimately wasn’t opportunity or blessing. It hasn’t always been immediately evident or timely, but truly, even the worst times of pain have brought my life to higher levels of opportunity and blessing.

So, how do we shift toward the positive powers of choice? …By consciously looking at the positives, and moving our perspectives in that direction – it’s that simple.

Maybe you’re entering the New Year with a relationship on the rocks because you’re both dwelling on the negatives. Get on the same page as a couple, remind each other why you fell in love in the first place, and choose as a team to focus on those positives – don’t settle for an end when you can reignite the beginning. Choose to keep learning, growing, and loving.

Just because the economy is down, doesn’t mean you have to be down – choose to focus on the positives and opportunity – and look for them where you wouldn’t expect. A college buddy of mine was an executive at the country’s largest newspaper chain, but was laid off a year ago based on changing times. He’s been out of work ever since, but has volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, filling his time of adversities with efforts that bless others, having now helped build dozens of homes for those in need. Nevertheless, his actions weren’t always so selfless. His ultimate dream for years was simply to own a Ferrari, loving the car when he finally bought it in 2008. He called me not too long ago and said, “Mark, I have great news – I sold my Ferrari.”

I was puzzled because he loved that car, and it was a dream realized, so how was selling it great news?

“That car was a double blessing in disguise,” he told me. “When I bought it, it was my most prized possession, and when I sold it, it was a true blessing – that car just paid my daughter’s college tuition when I couldn’t have afforded it.”

My friend didn’t look at dreams lost by having to sell his beloved car based on job loss, but he saw dreams realized by using it to pay his daughter’s tuition. He chose to look at the positive in what those who were more superficial may have seen as a disappointment.

Of course, we’re not islands, and those around us have a huge impact on how we see the world and feel. Part of the power of positive choice is choosing who’s in our lives and how we deal with them. In my life, I’ve made big strides over the years to avoid those who bring negativity and drama into my life. I want reciprocating relationships of inspiration – and I’m striving to be that person, as well. If we’re around lousy people, with bleak outlooks, who are emotional and psychological vacuums, we’re going to get sucked into what Dave Ramsey calls the “language of losers,” people who are so negative that they just pull us down. Instead, we should surround ourselves with champions, those who ooze positivity and are our peers in positive outlooks. People who pump us up – who are excited about life – are who we should choose to have around us, just as we should do for others.

With 2013 right around the corner, I still have no idea what it has in store for me. I’m betting that there will be adversity – I don’t know in what form, or how severe, but it will be there. Nevertheless, I’m also betting that I’ll get through it with strides, as I always have, knowing that adversity is always lined with opportunity and blessing. Join me in choosing the power of positivity to make 2013 among our best years ever, regardless of what it brings.

Hill Holders for Life

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By Mark E. Smith

In the realm of manual wheelchair technology, there’s a mechanism commonly called a “hill holder.” As you push up a hill, the hill holder works as an automatic, one-direction brake – the wheelchair can’t roll backward, only forward, allowing ultimate progress pushing up the hill. In fact, even on the steepest of hills, you can push forward, let your hands off of the wheels, and the wheelchair stays right where you want it, guaranteeing constant progress.

I often think that we need hill holders in life – emotionally, mentally, financially, physically, spiritually. We need a mechanism that prevents backward slides on our momentum. You’ve heard the saying, Two steps forward, one step back… well… that’s our hill holders not working.

No, if we’re to learn, grow, and succeed, we need hill holders firmly in place, where we only go forward in life, not backward. Have you ever paid off your credit cards, only to use them again? Have you ever struggled with an addiction, only to start again? Have you ever vowed to stay out of unhealthy relationships, only to get in yet another one? Have you ever vowed to diet and workout, only to overindulge and go back to being a couch potato? In whole, have you ever tried to make positive changes, forward momentum in life, only to end up going backward, to old patterns? Most of us have, for any number of reasons – returning to negative comfort zones, being scared of progress, low self-esteem… self-sabotaging roots. I know, I’ve been there, and still find myself there at times!

But, that’s where real life hill holders come into play – when things get tough, they keep us from going backward, from losing momentum, from throwing away great progress in our life.

I met an acquaintance who had completely turned around his whole life. He went from divorced, broke, alcoholic, and spiritually bankrupt to having a soul mate, a great career, not drinking, and becoming a pastor – all in about six years. Now, six years is a long time, but to make such complete, radical changes over any period is impressive. When I asked him his secret to success, he said that it started with personal accountability – the ultimate hill holder – but then he went the extra step and only surrounded himself with people who brought out excellent in him (even if we’re not savvy enough to catch ourselves off of track, let’s at least surround ourselves with those who care enough to catch us).

My acquaintance is a great example of installing hill holders in our lives. We may be compelled to go backward toward that which is bad for us – it’s easier to roll back down the hill than to push up it! However, if we do that, our lives never improve, and we never succeed. Instead, hill holders keep our forward momentum, where despite being scared or self-sabotaging or lazy, accountability and our support network kicks in to bolster our progress.

Be brave enough to use hill holders in your life, and you”ll achieve greater vistas than you ever imagined.

Palm Tree in the Wind

By Mark E. Smith

Indeed, my friend, I continue working on this thing called life – physically, emotionally, mentally. I’ve concluded that it’s all a bit like exercise. From the physical to the emotional, if we do nothing, life is effortless. However, such a no-effort approach is also the worst thing for us – we don’t grow, nothing changes, nothing gets easier, things just stay the same or degrade. Yet, like physical exercise, when we put in the effort to change ourselves for the better, we grow and become healthier – and life gets better. It’s the nature of personal growth: It takes effort, but the more we do it, the easier it gets – more intuitive, more natural – and the healthier we get.

I just spoke at the University of Scranton, and a student asked where I got my resiliency as a child? I couldn’t give an absolute answer other than there was something intrinsic in me toward facing adversity. I know that in changing our lives for the better as adults, we need a conscious desire to improve ourselves, as well as an innate inner capacity to accomplish it. There’s often a catalyst for conscious change – and I’ll get to that more in a moment – but the innate part is more complex.

I recently learned about the resilience of palm trees. While all other trees topple in hurricane force winds, the palm bows for hours in horrendous storms, then simply uprights to normal. Oaks, pines, maples, you name it, all topple – but not the palm. I think all of us are born as palms – that is, having utmost resilience – but for some, the roots are eroded by others, where hellish upbringings can kill our capacities to grow beyond the scars that were left. But, fortunately, I wasn’t one of those people whose spirit was ever lost or destroyed. I’ve weathered my storms, but my roots – my capacities to learn, grow, and change – stayed intact.

For a lot of years, I relied on my innate capacities to change and grow, but it wasn’t until the passing of both my parents due to their troubled lives that I truly understood the power of combining innate strength with the conscious desire to change, to move beyond their negative examples and live a better life for myself. It’s one thing to survive and get by; but, it’s another to thrive and do well. I guess with my parents’ deaths, I was able to shake away a lot of shadows, and truly work on moving beyond the pain of my past. It may be a shame that their passing liberated me in ways – that’s not how parent-child relationships should work – but it did put so much of the dysfunction to rest. I guess those who aren’t there anymore can’t hurt us – but the memories still can – and moving beyond both has been my goal for several years now.

And, the newly-made memories are better these days, all of them. I added a fireplace to my master bedroom. No, it’s not a real one, but what they call “vent-free.” But it’s a beautiful mantel, with a realistic flame and logs, and heats the room with a toasty warmth and glow. I also picked out a thick, shag area rug that nicely frames my bed. It all cozies up my space, a tranquil one, where my daughter and I have nightly conversations about her life, my life, our life – life overall. She’s in driver’s education now, with her first formal gallery showing of her photography coming up, and a boyfriend who’s an Eagle Scout. So, there’s a lot to talk about around the fake fireplace and shag rug – warmth abound.

We recently went and saw The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s the movie adaptation from the 1990s novel by the same name. A central theme of the movie is, We accept the love we think we deserve, meaning that if we think we deserve little, then that’s what we’ll get, that we should all raise our expectations – in life and love. And, the movie was not lost on who we’re each striving to become, the wounds we’re each healing, the ever-rewarding effort that we’re each putting into loving, learning, and growing.

It’s said that if we don’t address the trauma of our pasts and heal, we statistically will relive it, making ourselves forever either a victim or a perpetrator – or both. If you were raised by an alcoholic, chances are that unless you make a conscious change, along with possessing the innate capacity to do so, you will marry an alcoholic, be an alcoholic, or, forbid, do both. This holds true for any trauma in our lives, where, again, if we don’t address it, we relive it – the only creature on Earth known by science that revictimizes itself. And, I’ve done it, now taking absolute accountability for choosing relationships where I simply found those who fit the mold of those I knew in my insanely dysfunctional upbringing – emotionally unavailable for any number of dysfunctional reasons. However, with my own value at stake – raising the bar on the health and love that I deserve, and breaking the cycle of dysfunction for the sake of my daughter – I continue working on myself, changing my own flawed programming, moving out of the shadows of my past and into the glow of my potential. And, like exercise, it’s been painful getting into shape, and it’s all just scary and confusing at times. But, I just keep working at it – the strength of a lone man just trying to do right.

And, so it’s around the fake fireplace and shag rug that I continue building an ever-inspired life of laughter, love, learning, and growth. Sure, it was once just my daughter and me in a house left both literally and figuratively empty by my ended marriage, repeated dysfunctional patterns from my childhood on. But, now there are new pictures on the walls, a fake fireplace, and shag rug that are just quirky enough to feel so right. Palm trees, my friend, do always find ways to right themselves – it just takes time.

Just Jump!

By Mark E. Smith

OK, I know what you’re thinking: Mark’s back in Vegas again? Publicly, I guess it does seem like I’m in Vegas a lot, but really it’s only a few weekends per year. …OK, so, yes, I’m in Vegas again – but I love this place! And, this time is different, namely because I’m with my girlfriend and our two daughters – sort of like the Brady Bunch, minus four kids, Alice, Sam the Butcher, and Cousin Oliver. But, really, we’re in Vegas for a three-day weekend on a much more serious note: Personal growth as individuals and as a group.

Our daughters are moving toward 14 and 16, mine being the older. It’s a pivotal time in their lives, where we want them to be empowered, to know their amazing potentials as strong, poised, confident young ladies. In this messed-up culture that sends airbrushed, cosmetically-enhanced messages that no woman is ever good enough, we say, nonsense – every woman is more than enough, perfect as-is, capable of whatever she dreams. And, this is why we’re in Vegas, encouraging our daughters to step of the 108th floor of the Stratosphere, plummeting 855 feet to the ground.

…Well, maybe I should clarify the jumping off of the building part. See, the Stratosphere, on the outreach of the Vegas strip, is a replica of Seattle’s Space Needle. The only real difference is that if you jump off the Space Needle, you die; whereas, with the Stratosphere, you’re perched on a ledge, wearing a harness, and as you leap, control cables guide you safely to the ground, slowing you to your feet at the end. Yet, despite the safety factors, stepping off of that ledge on the 108th floor, 855 feet off of the ground, and virtually free falling, takes a huge amount of courage and confidence. And, I explain this to our girls at dinner the night before:

At points in our lives, we each find ourselves perched on a ledge. If we have the courage to jump – maybe it’s a career step, or starting or ending a relationship, or any aspect of life that requires us to stretch our comfort zone – we grow. However, if we don’t have the courage to make those leaps, our lives stagnate, we go nowhere. Both of you girls are doing an amazing job in school, with huge life potential ahead of you. But, you’ll need to take leaps of courage along the way to do it. Let the literal Stratosphere SkyJump be a lesson in life, where you’ll carry it with you, knowing that you have the courage and strength to take big leaps in life whenever needed….

After the jump, I tell the girls how proud of them I am, and they share how the scariest part was preparing for the jump, that once they summoned the courage to step off of the ledge, the liberation of flying through the air was amazing.

Really, for all us, no matter our backgrounds or challenges, there’s a lesson to be learned here, isn’t there? Success in all areas of life is all but guaranteed, as long as we have the courage to take initial leaps out of our comfort zones. A lot of times challenges are easy, but stepping off of the ledge, into a seemingly new territory is the hard part. Yet, when we summon the courage to simply step off of the ledge, our lives always move to the next level. As I told the girls, just jump!

Raising Expectations

By Mark E. Smith

At this writing, my daughter is in her first week of the 10th grade. It’s unquestionably the most pivotal point in her academic career – and, make no mistake, the expectations are set high.

See, the 10th grade is where colleges begin looking at grade-point averages, curriculum, and extra-curricular activities toward college admissions – and, again, make no mistake, their expectations are set high, where they want the best of the best.

However, it’s really not the universities’ expectations that matter; rather, it’s my daughter’s expectations that matter. My daughter’s self-expectations will determine how well her school year – and ultimately all of high school – goes toward college admissions. So, wisely, she has set her expectations high, too. Her grade-point average can’t be below 3.8 and, ideally, should be a perfect 4.0 or higher (honors classes can increase it). Her expectations aren’t to cruise through high school with no forethought, but to expect nothing less than to remain at the top of her class.

Yet, here’s what’s interesting about my daughter: She’s not an intellectual genius or such – just a regular 15-year-old who happens to know that whatever expectations she sets create her success.

It’s truly a lesson for all of us: What we expect is typically what we achieve. Set low expectations for yourself, and you’ll receive dismal results. Set high expectations for yourself and you’ll achieve amazing results. My great-grandmother always said, “It’s just as easy to love a good man as it is a bad man, so why not love a good man?” Really, she was hitting at the heart of self-expectation – what you pursue is what you get, so pursue the best.

In the disability realm, I can tell you for a fact that self-expectations play the single largest role toward successful living. I’ve known those with the severest of disabilities, and those with minor disabilities – and while physicality should dictate that those with more severe disabilities should have a tougher plight, that those with minor disabilities should be more successful, it simply doesn’t prove true. We see some with minor disabilities wallowing in life, while those with sever disabilities achieve amazing success. It becomes evident, then, that the single key factor between success and failure is self-expectation. If one with a minor disability believes one’s life is over, it is – low self-expectation achieve low results. However, if one with high self-expectations believes one can accomplish anything, one can – again, high self-expectations accomplish high results.

The key, then, is for all of us to look at each aspect of our lives, and ask ourselves the vital question of, Am I setting my expectations high enough? I mean, Am I pursuing the career I’m capable of; am I pursuing the relationships I’m worth of; am I being the best parent that I can be? Most importantly, Am I setting my expectations high enough in all aspects of my life to achieve the high results I’m worthy of and that those around me deserve?

Of course, increasing our self-expectations can be scary at first. If we expect little, then there’s no risk of disappointment, right? Going back to my daughter, if she had low expectations toward her grades, a D wouldn’t matter. However, because her expectations are to achieve a 3.8 grade-point average or better, a D would be devastating. But, setting low expectations to avoid feelings of failure is flawed logic. Sure, if you have low expectations, you’re less likely to be disappointed by any failure; yet, that’s only because you’re setting yourself up for failure! Setting high self-expectations may seem like a risk for failure – and it sometimes can be in the short term – but in the long term, it’s the only true guarantee for success. Again, what we expect plays a key role in what we achieve, so simply raising our self-expectations – and putting effort toward it, of course – will bring success. Put simply, there’s nothing but risk in low expectations, as we will fail; however, there’s virtually no risk in high expectations because it ensures success at some level.

Let us each raise our self-expectations in all aspects of our lives, and live to those standards. Why? Because we’re each worth it.