Posts Tagged ‘Mark E. Smith’

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.

Canada’s Andre Viger (front) and Mel Fitzgerald (left) compete in a wheelchair event at the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles. (CP PHOTO/ COA/J Merrithew)

By Mark E. Smith

I have a home gym. Two or three nights per week, I go into that room in my house, put on old, sweat-crusted weight-lifting gloves, and start wailing away at the contraption. As it bangs and crashes, sounding like some sort of machine from the Industrial Revolution, I push, pull, and grunt. It’s a competition of me versus it. So, what drives me to keep working out, especially as a 46-year-old dad with cerebral palsy who could get away with taking the easy road at this point in life?

When I was an adolescent, I watched the greatest wheelchair racers of all time fly across my TV screen during events like the Boston Marathon and the 1984 Summer Olympics. They looked like gladiators. They had massive upper bodies, and all was squeezed into an ultralight racing wheelchair that they hurled down the road or around the track at insane speeds. Their triceps pumped the wheels like pistons.

Yet, I wasn’t in awe of them. Rather, I was inspired.

See, there’s a vast difference between being awed versus being inspired. When we’re awed, we never imagine that we can do what another person does. It’s like, That’s awesome, but I could never do that. However, when we’re inspired, we’re compelled to get out there and do it, no matter how rational or irrational the thought may seem. That band rocks – give me a guitar. This poetry is astounding – I need a pen. Her words are so eloquent – I’m learning to speak like her. That person has an amazing career – I’m going back to college. Inspiration moves us into action. In awe, we watch. With inspiration, we do.

I realized the profound difference between awe and inspiration in my adolescence, and in being inspired by the wheelchair racers I saw on TV, I said, I’m doing that! Of course, like a 12-year-old picking up a guitar at the Salvation Army with the intent of starting a band and becoming a rock star, I had no ability at that moment to truly become a wheelchair racer, especially given the severity of my disability. But, that’s the beauty of inspiration – it launches us toward something great. We may not know where we’re going to land in our attempt – did Jackson Pollock when he began dripping paint on canvas in 1947? – but we’re bound to go somewhere.

I pushed around in manual wheelchairs for years, struggling merely to become self-sufficient, literal miles from ever being a “racer.” It did, though, help lead me to weight lifting, which I excelled at. I couldn’t push a racing chair faster than a snail, but through tenacity in the gym, I could have an upper body that looked like I did! That spirit continues with me today every time I hit the gym: Why watch when I can do, and why not see how far I can get with my efforts?

All of us see people accomplishing seemingly amazing feats. Some take talent and some take years of hard work. Yet, the people doing them are merely people like each of us and, most often, if they’re doing it, we can take a shot at it, too. Don’t be awed by others; be inspired. After all, the only reason why others are where we’d like to be is because we simply haven’t tried – yet.

By Mark E. Smith

Have you ever thought, I shouldn’t feel this way because others have it worse than I do? Most of us have reasoned with ourselves in that way at some point. While it’s empathetic toward others and is a coping mechanism, it has a huge downside: self-invalidation.

The fact is, everyone has struggles. However, trying to compare our adversities to those of others is impossible – because we are us and others are …well …others. Your struggles are as valid as anyone else’s because struggling isn’t based on a definable scale; rather, it’s relative to each of our experiences.

I know what it’s like to live with severe cerebral palsy, and I’m fairly emotionally adept at doing so. I’m struck when others express to me that they are inspired by me because as they face their adversities, they know individuals like me “have it much worse.” I understand the good intentions of such sentiments, but I also don’t want others discounting the totally valid emotions around their individual situations, as they very well could be struggling more than I am relative to our own circumstances. I have no idea what another is dealing with, and I never want anyone diminishing his or hers own adversities based on my visible ones.

All of this ties back into realizing that there’s validity in all adversity, in all struggles, for each individual. Just as we are kind enough to give credence to the struggles of others, we must extend it to ourselves, where we don’t compare and create a scenario of self-invalidation, but one of common experience. Adversity is not a measurement or a competition, and there’s certainly no hierarchy. We each have our struggles and no one can say one is easier to cope with than another. It’s all relative and individual.

Now, I’m not saying to wallow in self-pity – that’s at the other end of the scale and can devastate your life. What I am saying is, we shouldn’t dismiss our struggles because others have struggles. Everyone’s struggles should be embraced – including our own.

Ultimately, the truth of adversity is this: There are no struggles more or less significant than others…. Simply different.

By Mark E. Smith

Is the glass half full or half empty? …There’re two sides to every coin. …Or, would you rather a steak that’s 80% lean or 20% fat?

All of those statements are utter clichés, but they tie into a psychological principle that dictates the way we see each situation: framing.

Framing is the psychological process that applies to whether we see a situation as negative or positive. The fact is, in even the worst of situations, we have the choice on how to frame them – that is, to see negatives, positives, or both – and the way we frame them dictates our success in addressing them, literally and emotionally.

I’m a firm believer in framing adversity as a tool for opportunity. No matter what happens, I believe in recognizing the opportunity in it. I once had a home severely flood, and as I evacuated, I told everyone, “It looks like I finally get to remodel….” And, I did get to remodel as a result of the unfortunate circumstance, where the house was far nicer than before it flooded.

So many aspects of our lives are like that: As the flood waters rush in, it’s difficult to see beyond the seeming disaster. However, if we frame life’s adversities so that we can draw positive aspects from them in the immediate and long term, it lessens the impact on us and allows us to move forward.

On top of using positive framing as a tool of coping, it’s invaluable as a tool for learning and growth. If we only see a situation as bad, we’re simply in victim mode – adversity only harms us – and we can’t move forward. However, if we frame adverse situations with at least some positives, we not only take control of the situation, but we learn and grow. Imagine if every time a professional sports team lost a game, they just went back to the locker room and sulked about how unfair the game was. They’d be the worst team in history. No team does that. Rather, they watch replays of the game to determine how mistakes were made, then they strive to improve in those areas. We lost that game, let’s learn from it to win the next.

If you’re not in the habit of framing adversity toward the positive, I know it’s hard. None of us want adversity in our life, and it can weigh us down. Yet, adversity enters our lives at times no matter what – which is why it’s so important to develop the habit of seeing positives. If we only see negatives, it tends to freeze us in place. However, if we can see a positive – even in the bleakest of situations – it allows us to begin moving forward. Most of us have had our hearts broken by an ended romance. Then, a well-meaning friend tells us, Don’t worry, there are other fish in the sea. While that cheesy saying lacks empathy in the moment, the painful end of one relationship most often does lead to a new, joyous chapter of love. In this way, even an ending in our life can eventually frame a wonderful beginning if we allow it.

If we can get to a place in our lives where we can frame adversities in the positive, we can then move forward, learn, and grow. That’s a great frame to be in.

By Mark E. Smith

Every Monday, I meet our company’s new employees. It’s my role to share with them not what we do, but why we do what we do. We make mobility products and that’s a noble endeavor. I know that because my life depends on the products we make. And, I tell them about that. But, as a General Manager, in my slacks and button-down dress shirt, here’s what I don’t tell them or most people these days:

I’m nobody from nowhere. That truth drives me to push and pull and continue dragging myself up a mountain that I could easily fall from at any moment. Fear of falling has been my purest motivator.

Others have talent, education, abilities. I wasn’t born into any of it. If it wasn’t for my cerebral palsy, I’d likely be mowing lawns or asking at 46, Do you want fries with that? Now, there’s nothing wrong with jobs like that – it’s in my gene pool. But, that doesn’t work with cerebral palsy, so I had to go a different route: one that’s been a third luck, a third showing up, and a third blistering hard work.

Do you want to try a power wheelchair? Sure.

Do you want to take a swing at public school? Absolutely.

College? Let’s go.

So, I’ve moved through life knowing that guys like me don’t get a lot of breaks. So, when I do, I show up, shut up, and do what the task takes.

Along the way, my failure has been predicted by many. I’ve been OK with that. Although, I admit that the further I get up the mountain, the more I look down on them. Don’t tell me I can’t climb when you’re unwilling to climb with me – because I’m going for it, not out of spite, but opportunity.

The fact is, my only option in life is climbing a mountain. I know that with a single wrong move I can lose everything, I take nothing for granted. I am simply thankful for the next obstacle that comes my way – and fear strengthens my grip.

By Mark E. Smith

Do you mind if I share a quick story about my 20-year-old daughter? I hope she doesn’t. A while back, she called me from college, having received a speeding ticket. She explained that it wasn’t her fault, that she was unfamiliar with the area, that she didn’t know the speed limit, that she didn’t see the police officer. The ticket said she was traveling at 20 mph over the speed limit – and that was the only part I cared about. She broke the law and now had to pay the fine. At 20, my daughter is learning what her generation calls “adulting” – that is, how to take accountability.

Many of us, even though we don’t like to admit it, struggle with accountability, don’t we? My daughter isn’t the first to find every reason except her own lead foot for getting a speeding ticket! Many of us have likewise found every reason possible to place accountability elsewhere but on ourselves in circumstances ranging from financial difficulties to relationship struggles. It’s not that we’ve irresponsibly overspent, it’s that we just need more money. It’s not that we’re contributing to unhealthy patterns in a relationship, it’s that our partner is at fault. If we’ve lived to any experience, and we’re honest, we’ve certainly tried to wiggle out of accountability at points.

However, what about when we experience bad circumstances totally beyond our actions or control? Who’s accountable then, when some circumstance isn’t of our doing whatsoever?
The answer is, we are. See, if we want our lives to flourish, if we want to thrive amidst any adversity, we can’t pick and choose what we’re accountable for. Rather, we must assume accountability for all that happens to us, regardless if it’s our own making or a genuine misfortune. From as fleeting as my daughter’s speeding ticket to as profound as my cerebral palsy, we’re accountable for every circumstance in our lives.

Now, let’s clarify that this isn’t about blame. In fact, it’s about the polar opposite mindset. It’s about being in constructive control of our lives no matter what happens to us. Put simply, it’s about shifting from a victim mindset to a victory mindset. We don’t dwell or place responsibility on what’s happened to us, but we instead focus on moving our lives forward in ways that empower us. It’s flipping the script from reactive to constructive. This happened to me, now I’m accountable to address it, turning a negative into empowerment. I’ve spent my life living to this principle, and while I’m not flawless at it, it’s served me astoundingly well, empowering me in times of adversity more than any other factor.

As a reader of this blog – or if you’re among the many who saw the news stories and social media coverage –- you’ll recall that I experienced an unfortunate circumstance where I was removed from an American Airlines flight, arguably based on discrimination toward my disability.

In the wake of the incident, many suggested that I sue for monetary damages. We live in a litigious society and when we’re victimized, we sue. I thought of going that route, but as I explained to many, nothing could change what happened to me, but I certainly didn’t want it to happen to others with disabilities. Rather than being reactive and sue, I wanted to be accountable for what happened and thereby constructive. This ultimately meant pursuing routes of changes to air carrier policy to hopefully protect others.

I filed a formal complaint with the Department of Transportation under the Air Carrier Access Act to ensure my incident went on public record, where it helped expose a pattern of violations based on other formal complaints (I learned that in 2016, over 30,000 complaints were filed against the airlines by passengers with disabilities being mistreated). Next, we discussed my testifying before the Senate, but hearings ultimately weren’t needed because, right at that time, fortunately, Senator Tammy Baldwin and four co-sponsors introduced vital legislation that expands protection for passengers with disabilities. My point is, rather than being a victim, I assumed accountability to contribute to helping resolve a systematic issue.

We have the ability to do this in all areas of our lives. When we encounter adversity of any kind, from any origin, we don’t have to point outward toward who or what is responsible. Instead, let us turn inward and know that we’re accountable. In doing so, we remove the power from the circumstance to further victimize us and create the capacity for it to empower us. When we move from looking for responsibility to assuming accountability, we realize an amazing shift: Life doesn’t happen to us, but for us – and we’re in true control.

Let us not squander our amazing potential by looking to others for responsibility in what happens to us. It’s only when we assume accountability, regardless of circumstance, that personal empowerment occurs. Don’t let circumstances narrate your life when you can take the pen and write each captivating chapter.


By Mark E. Smith

Cognitive dissonance. Have you ever heard of it? Probably not, as it’s pretty much confined to psychology jargon. Yet, it impacts each of us in countless ways, and in understanding how it functions in our everyday lives, it can save us hassle and heartache in avoiding those who engage in it.

In simple terms, cognitive dissonance is when our beliefs are not reflected by our actions. For example, most smokers know that smoking will eventually harm them; yet, they still smoke. You might say, cognitive dissonance is the inexplicable logic of doing something contrary to one’s beliefs: Smoking is bad for me, but I smoke.

Fortunately, not everyone engages in cognitive dissonance. People on diets skip bad food for healthier choices – and, therefore, their beliefs and actions are in harmony, not dissonance. In fact, it’s said that, as evolved humans, we naturally seek cognitive consistency, where our beliefs and actions align, and if they don’t, mechanisms like guilt, shame, and remorse come in to get us back on track. That is, doing what’s right is more instinctive than doing what’s wrong or negating our values.

Of course, cognitive consistency – where our actions reflect our beliefs – is vital to living an integrity-based life, where we honor those around us by doing what we say. However, beyond our own behavior, we need to do a much better job in surrounding ourselves with people of cognitive consistency rather than cognitive dissonance. We need to assess those around us based more on actions than words.

See, rule number one with cognitive dissonance is that there’s danger in trusting people who say one thing but do another. People who claim to love you do not hurt you (raise your hand if you’ve ever been in such a relationship or have known someone in such a relationship). Therefore, if you’re witnessing someone whose words don’t align with his or her actions, don’t let it slide – there’s danger in dealing with such a person.

Rule number two is to look for actions that reinforce words before placing too much emphasis on an individual’s character. People engaging in cognitive dissonance will promise you the world, with no ability or intention to live up to those promises. My friends who participate in online dating share the universal experience of connecting with amazing people who come across via messaging and texts as “the one,” but then disappear when it’s time for an in-person date. Why does this happen?

The answer is, it’s an online form of cognitive dissonance. Anyone can say anything online, with no actions to back it up. When we encounter someone in the real world, we intrinsically know at least something about him or her, so it’s much tougher to get fooled (or “catfished,” as they say online), as opposed to only speaking to someone through the web. If a thoracic surgeon chats you up online, but consistently finds reasons not to meet for coffee – so many emergency hospital calls! – what are the odds that the person is telling the truth, as you see no actions to substantiate the words? However, if the cute teller at your bank asks you on a date, you already know he or she is truly a bank teller, where you’re witnessing actions, so there’s at least some known authenticity.

In the corporate world, a real problem is “professional interviewees.” These are individuals who have a golden tongue toward selling themselves, but never professionally execute all of the talents they boast. The fact is, in high-performance positions, it can take six months to one year to see real results or failings – and that’s right around the time too-good-to-be-true employees jump ship to the next unsuspecting company (read that, when their cognitive dissonance is shown). To address this, astute companies look for performance-proven queues in resumes, as well as hold performance-based interviews, where claims are reasonably able to be substantiated.

There’s likewise a lot to be said surrounding cognitive dissonance and the words I love you in our culture. People are quick to say those words – easy utterances of sound – but are not so consistent in putting actions behind them. We can say those words to our spouses and children all day long, but if we’re not actively engaged in their lives in loving ways, do those words truly have meaning? I say I love you to my wife and daughters a lot, but it’s my demonstrations of love toward them that creates meaning to the words. Saying I love you doesn’t create love; engaging in loving does.

The examples could continue, and I’m sure you have your own that you’ve experienced and learned from. Yet, here’s what it all comes down to: Actions are an absolute, while words can waiver.

To truly know someone, let us not merely listen to words, but authenticate one’s character via observing one’s actions. We all find ourselves in vulnerable spots, where words can say exactly what we want to hear. However, if the words aren’t substantiated with actions – especially when the dissonance causes us harm of any kind – it’s time to break ties with such people in our lives. We deserve the reciprocation of accountable actions, not hollow words.

At the same time, we owe it to all around us to be as harmonious as possible with our own behavior, where we honor others with actions that live up to our words. So often our own behavior sets the tone of others’, and we must be authentic if we wish others to be authentic. It’s easy to point at someone and say, He’s exhibiting cognitive dissonance! Yet, let us also honestly look inward to ensure that we have cognitive consistency in our own behavior, as that’s ultimately where it all begins.

It’s cliché and true: Actions speak louder than words. As Stephen Covey puts it, “What you do has far greater impact than what you say.”