Bus Stop at Purpose Ave.


By Mark E. Smith

Think about the most genuinely happy, joyful person you know. I have no way of knowing that person, but I certainly can tell you all about him or her. His or her smile lights up a room. He or she is totally comfortable in his or her own skin. He or she doesn’t worry about trivial aspects in life. He or she is one of great comfort to others in an especially unique way. And, he or she is slowly but surely changing the world for the better. Who is this individual?

The answer is, it’s a person living to his or her purpose. See, when we live with purpose, it’s impossible not to be happy and successful. After all, in living with purpose, you know the value of your life, the positive ways you impact others – directly or indirectly – and how you change their lives for the better. Most importantly, you recognize the value of others, and strive to meet their needs with your unique abilities.

For some, their purpose seems obvious. A police officer protects citizens. A comedian makes people laugh. An emergency room nurse saves lives. However, for the rest of us, finding or recognizing our purpose can be less obvious.

I recently had this talk with my 18-year-old daughter: how do we know our purpose? An even more challenging question is – and it’s one of the toughest in humanity, an age-old inner-struggle – do I even have a purpose?

As one who feels tremendous purpose in my life, I thought a lot about what core questions does my daughter – or any of us! – need to find and understand our purpose?

And, so I gave my daughter some questions to ask of herself:

Who am I?
What am I passionate about?
How do I effect other people?
What do others need from me?
How can my everyday actions better other’s lives?

For me, the answer is easy. I have cerebral palsy and in understanding the liberation of mobility and independence, my purpose is in helping others achieve those vital aspects in their own lives. As a result, at the end of each day, I feel the privilege of having a tangible sense of purpose in my life.

Based in New York, Rick Guidotti is among the top fashion photographers in the world. In the 1990s, he photographed those who were deemed the most beautiful women on Earth. Then, in 1998, at a bus stop, he encountered a teenage girl with albinism. In a world that can see such conditions as strange, Rick saw beauty, and as he embarked from there to taking photos of those who weren’t known as conventionally beautiful like the models he shot for Vogue and such, he found a turning point in his life: his purpose. See, through Rick’s photos, he not only raises the esteem of his photographed subjects – many seeing their own beauty for the first time, the camera serving as the ultimate mirror of truth – but his photos have also captured the attention of the top magazines and galleries, dramatically improving society’s perception of not just those with disabilities, but also the truth that we’re all beautiful.

Rick knows who he is, what he’s passionate about, what others need from him, and how his actions change their lives. He’s a man living with purpose.

I don’t know where you are in your life, but I l know that you, too, have great purpose. Maybe you know your purpose and know the joy that comes with it. Or, maybe you’re trying to discover your purpose. Think about who you are, what you’re passionate about, what others need from you, and how your actions can change their lives. And, live it with everything you have.

From Cerebral Palsy to Quaaludes

Matt Fraser
Matt Fraser

By Mark E. Smith

Matt Fraser isn’t afraid to be nude. He also isn’t afraid to appear on stage at venues ranging from off-Broadway plays to movies to television shows, including this season’s smash hit, American Horror Story: Freak Show. And, his fearlessness doesn’t end there. Matt is a Black Belt, a forever-charming ladies man and even a BBC radio show host.

However, here’s the single most important aspect to the success in Matt’s life: Matt Fraser isn’t afraid to be Matt Fraser. He presents himself with authenticity and doesn’t give us any other choice. We either accept Matt for who he is – disability and all – or move on.

How many of us struggle or have struggled with being who we are? Maybe as children we behaved a certain way to please our parents that wasn’t authentic to our identity. Maybe in high school, we caved to peer pressure, not feeling safe to truly express ourselves. Maybe in our careers, we squelch our personalities to fit a corporate norm. And, how many of us have curbed our behaviors, feelings and wishes to please a partner? Indeed, we’ve all been there. Yet, here’s my question for you: Have any of these scenarios worked for you in the long term?

Of course not. It’s never worked for you or me because whenever we’re not 100% authentic, parts of us feel inadequate, denied, undesired, squelched – and that’s painful. However, if you want to avoid such a terrible fate, just be yourself! It will feel risky and scary at first, but soon it will feel liberating, the freest you’ve ever felt. Now, some in your life won’t be able to handle the real you because they’re used to a watered-down, squelched version. But, your world as a whole will feel anew, fresh air filling your lungs as never before.

I remember being in my 20s and very self-aware. I watched carefully what I said to whom, and although I often had zany, witty thoughts pop into my head, I rarely uttered them, fearing I’d sound uncouth. My brother, on the other hand, who shared my wit, said anything to anyone, and I observed how charmed others were by his authenticity. With my brother as an inspiration, I slowly let my authentic voice come out – I’d say exactly what I wished on stage and in witting – and that’s when my career took off in every direction. It was time for me to be… well… me.

Some two decades later, being Mark E. Smith is a blast. I mean, if you’re an adult and ask me, “What happened to you,” I’m not going to give you a politically-correct answer about cerebral palsy as I would have in my 20s. Rather, if you’re an adult ignorant enough to ask me that question at an airport or such, I’m going to be me and you’re getting a one word answer: Quaaludes!

Each of us were born to be who we are, and assuming we’re healthy individuals, we owe it to ourselves and those around us to simply be who we are. Society, partners, and you name it may try to squelch who you are. But, your obligation is to be a Matt Fraser and live your life beautifully, exactly who you are, never compromising your authenticity – and the world will embrace you.

Prize Fighting


Mark E. Smith

As I lie on my bed in the surrounding silence, I should be angry, frustrated, maybe even panicked. I just literally beat the hell out of myself – scraped, bruised, exhausted – in three failed attempts to simply use the commode.

See, as one with cerebral palsy, in order to use the commode, I have to go from my power chair to my bed to my manual chair to the bathroom to the commode, keeping my balance on the commode, then back to my manual chair to my bed to my power chair. On my best days, it takes 20 minutes; on an average day, 40 minutes; and, on this day, after one and a half hours, I’ve not accomplished getting on the commode. I’ve tried three times, my uncooperative body struggling with every transfer, slamming me off of the commode, against walls, on the floor over and over.

Yet, as I lie here on my bed, I’m not angry, frustrated or panicked. While physically I’m uncomfortable, to say the least, I’m genuinely happy, full of gratitude. As poorly-functioning as this body is, it always gets me through. It’s the body of a prize fighter. It can get knocked down, bloodied, counted out by others, but it never quits and always gets back up.

For the moment, like a jaw-stung boxer dizzied on the canvas, I lie here with all things good streaming across my closed eyes. I think about the upcoming Christmas holiday – I’ve done no shopping yet, but I’m excited to give very meaningful gifts from a list I’ve been covertly gathering from those I love. I think about my daughter’s pending college applications to NYU and Cornell and the University of Pittsburgh, pondering if any of those are better choices than her seeded spot at George Mason University in the Washington D.C. area? I think about having my fiancee and soon-to-be step daughter back from their native west coast in about a week, joyed to be spending another holiday season together as a family on the appropriately wintry east coast. And, I think of the myriad of exciting aspects going on with my career. There’s so much gratitude in my life that I’m even thankful for the predicament I’m in – that is, having to simply use the bathroom, but knocking the hell out of myself in the process, seemingly unable to accomplish such an everyday task.

But, prize fighters never stay down long, and I’m about to sit up, struggle to transfer back into my manual chair, make my way to the bathroom and try to make the small but courageous leap from my manual chair to the commode once again. If I make it this time, fantastic. If my body fails to cooperate further, and I crash from wall to wall to the floor, having to start all over again, that’s great, too.

See, here’s the beauty of adversity: it’s not an easy route to success, but it is a proven route to success. Adversity makes us that promise – that is, as long as we’re willing to embrace it and address with gratitude and perseverance toward whatever it throws our way, we will ultimately achieve victory.

In this way, I’ve only gone three rounds – and I’ve got a lot more in me. Ring the bell. I’m ready.

Me Being Me


By Mark E. Smith

At 43, I’ve had my challenges in life, but with a mix of hard work, the support of others and luck, I’ve been privileged to have accomplished a bit, from fatherhood to a pretty cool career. Nevertheless, someone asked me what my ultimate dream is from here? My answer could have been related to a next career challenge or maybe a materialistic goal like a lake house. However, none of that’s the case – its all too easy, too meaningless in ways. My answer from the depths of my heart was, “I just want to be me.”

Assuming that we’re healthy, productive, loving individuals, isn’t that our ultimate dream: to not only be free within to be ourselves, but to be truly embraced for who we are by others? How many of us have felt at times that for any number of reasons – a work environment, a relationship, family expectations – we couldn’t just be ourselves? Maybe it’s a seemingly huge issue like if your family knew you were gay, they’d disown you. Or maybe it’s a seemingly small issue like someone correcting your grammar. Or, somewhere in the middle, where your love interest wants to change something about you. All of these and countless other examples prevent you from being you, and it’s painful and it’s isolating – and I’ve been there.

I had a cute conversation with a buddy of mine. He shared with me that if he could find a woman who loved comic books as much as he does, she would be his soul mate. See, he’s had girlfriends in the past who’ve ridiculed him for collecting comics, so finding a woman who loves comics would be a dream come true. Yet, that’s not truly what he needs, is it? He doesn’t need a woman who loves comics; rather, he simply needs a woman who loves him for him, comics and all. It’s what we all want and deserve: to be loved as-is.

And, that is an epic battle of the heart for many of us, where we just want to be rightfully loved as-is, where we’re perfectly imperfect and nothing about us needs to change to fit in or be loved. We just need to be us and be loved on that merit alone.

Unfortunately, others may not get that concept and so it’s up to us to set the standard and set the boundaries. I genuinely love people, and there’s nothing I enjoy more than a great conversation. I don’t care who you are, what you look like, or how you live. Assuming you’re doing right by others, I don’t want to change anything about you. I just want to know the real you.

It’s this way of embracing others that I more and more expect in my own life. Regardless of the situation, I’m just going to be me as authentically as possible. I don’t need to prove anything or be anything – I just need to be me. And, when I’m not good enough for someone or criticized for just being me, I’ve developed the strength to put the onus back where it belongs – on the person doing the pointing.

I am me, you are you, and for anyone who wants to see flaws in us or seek to change us, well, we need to hand him or her a mirror and go about being just who we are: perfectly imperfect, as-is.

Not Different But Authentic


By Mark E. Smith

I had the privilege of being at a public venue with a five-year-old and his mother. The little boy uses a power chair due to a severe form of muscular dystrophy – and, man, he’s a go-getter! He’s happy, adorable, and a people magnet. And, everyone at the event saw what I saw: An adorable little boy with the world at his finger tips.

Yet, as he was literally surrounded by crowds who thought he was the cutest kid ever, there was a side that many didn’t know, nor wanted to know. Everyone wants to be inspired and delighted but a cute kid buzzing around in a power chair being… well… a kid. After all, it’s painful to think of any other possibilities, that maybe his life isn’t what it seems, that it might be disturbingly complex, something no child should experience.

And, so, as he charmed the crowds, I was with his mom, knowing the whole story. The seemingly care-free little boy averages one hospital stay per month, sleeps hooked up to a breathing machine, and he must be turned every few hours to keep his lungs clear at night. For his mom – single, with three children – this means around-the-clock care. And, get this, she works from 12:00am to 3:00am as a reservations clerk from home to help make ends meat. The carefree child and family that all assumed, in fact, has unfathomable challenges every day. I discussed the challenges with the mom and gave her a hug, and she got a bit teary-eyed.

How many of us can relate to this story? How many of us gloss over the challenges of others because they’re too painful to learn the realities? How many of us hide our own struggles because we don’t want others to see us as different, to know how difficult our lives really are?

But, we all have struggles. And, when we don’t recognize them in others or disclose our own at appropriate times, a facade goes up and we don’t make connections to the depths that our humanity allows. No, we shouldn’t then treat each other “differently,” but more authentically.

My point is, let us strive to recognize and embrace the entirety of others, and allow others to know the entirety of us, struggles and all, where adversity isn’t ignored but unites.

Working Class Hero


By Mark E. Smith

John Lennon coined it, and I’ve always believed in living it – as a father, as a bread winner and, yes, as one with a disability: A working class hero is something to be.

See, to me, a working class hero isn’t about a literal vocation or social class, but about drive and determination. Are you strong enough every morning, regardless of the challenges you face, to put your boots on and go into your day willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, with little reward beyond knowing you’ve done right?

And, like I said, this purest form of heroism isn’t about vocation or social class. Yes, the roofer who’s on a roof in July, working 12 hours a day with 130-degrees radiating around him, all to support his family, is a literal working class hero. But, so is a full-time single parent. And, so is one sustaining sobriety. And, so is one thriving with a disability. Although each of these examples are very different – and you can insert any life path into the list that requires internal tenacity to succeed – they all demonstrate an extraordinary work ethic, they all demonstrate quiet, dignified heroics in everyday life.

And, there’s a certain rebellion to being a working class hero, where when life presents roadblocks that others don’t have the strength or courage to knock down, you utter a barely audible F-you, and fight your way through. Working class heroes punch adversity in the face and proceed on.

I want to introduce you to a working class hero of mine, Scott Belkner, who puts on his boots every day and just goes to work. There’s no one motivating Scott but Scott. He’s not someone you know, no fame or money. But, he demonstrates an internal work ethic that demands respect, that sets the bar for how so many of us should approach our lives.

Watch Scott’s story, and I bet he becomes a working class hero of yours, too.

Surfing Mavericks


By Mark E. Smith

In 1967, three surfers and their German shepherd, Maverick, hiked down to Pillar Point in Northern California, discovering among the biggest waves on Earth, questionable whether they could be surfed?

As the three surfers paddled out into the seemingly impossible, literally risking their lives, they soon realized that Maverick, who loved swimming pools, was beside them, paddling along in the Pacific toward monster waves. Alarmed for the dog’s safety, they promptly returned to shore, tying him up, protecting the dog from his own fearlessness. Then, the three friends paddled out, opting to surf smaller waves off to the side, avoiding the giant waves Maverick was heading toward.

Gradually, word spread about the insanely large waves off of Pillar Point, where till this day, the best big-wave surfers in the world try their luck. …And, so “Mavericks” was named after the dog – an iconic surf destination off of Pillar Point.

However, it can be surmised that the legend of Maverick, the fearless dog, didn’t end with a renown surf location named after him. See, in California surf culture, there’s an acronym, F.I.D.L.E.R, which means, F- it, Dog, life’s a risk. In other words, have no fear, and just go for it – life’s short, so live it.

At some point, I’ve all but stopped having fear, worrying or even stressing about pretty much everything. This doesn’t mean I’m irresponsible or don’t care. To the contrary, I’m ultra-responsible and take what I do very seriously. But, I don’t fear, worry or stress about much of anything. I’m like Maverick the dog – that is, I just go for it.

In a few weeks, I’m saddling up in my power chair and hitting the skies once again – Philly to LA to Vancouver to Phoenix, then back to Philly, with a monster itinerary packed in. And, while my gracious staff has covered every possible arrangement, ensuring that my travels are as planned out as possible, I’m arguably the least concerned. I have my plane tickets, my power chair, my passport and a debit card. FIDLAR – I’m ready to roll! With so much on my itinerary, aspects will go wrong. But, when they do, I’ll handle them. I have absolute confidence in being able to address whatever comes my way. I’m like Maverick the dog, just happy to be paddling into an awesome adventure.

People often think that fear, worry and stress are signs that one cares. However, the opposite is true. Fear, worry and stress say only one thing: you don’t feel in control. We know that people who perform at peak levels – surgeons, athletes, soldiers – often have lower heart rates when in a seeming situation of extreme pressure, moving to the opposite of fear, worry and stress. Fear, worry and stress typically hurts us, it doesn’t help us.

I think about relationships a lot because they are the cornerstone of our lives. And, one key I’ve learned is that feeding unsubstantiated fear, worry and stress into a relationship will destroy it. I mean, if your partner is demonstrating absolute consistent love toward you, don’t question it with fear, worry or stress, but embrace it with security, trust and comfort. If we’re going to experience life-changing love, we can’t question and hold back on an amazing relationship. Rather, we need a bit of FIDLAR in our hearts, and just go for it.

Indeed, we live in a culture where too many hold their lives back based on fear and its corresponding emotions. However, if we want to truly live our dreams – pursue an ideal career, live in the locale we wish, have a breathtaking relationship – there’s only one dog to follow, so to speak, and that’s Maverick. The best opportunities in life are like thunderous, towering waves. Most will fear and avoid them, but those seeking true success won’t back down. Instead, they prove true “Mavericks” by yelling, FIDLAR!, and paddling in the direction of big waves and a courageous heart.

Opening Our Closets


Soul is about authenticity. Soul is about finding the things in your life that are real and pure. -John Legend

By Mark E. Smith

With the holidays approaching, and special friends visiting my home for an extended stay, my daughter and I started making a list of what we needed to do in order to make our house as perfect as possible.

See, for my daughter and me, our home is about love, laughter, understanding, and tranquility, so we haven’t cared that we have a sheet hung across the family room window because Rosie the English bulldog attacked the custom blinds, nor have we cared that the dishwasher has been broken for years (it’s just the two of us, so we don’t need a dishwasher!). We’re blessed with a very nice home, that’s neat and clean, and we don’t sweat the small stuff. We’re happy as-is.

However, with company coming, the list got longer and longer of ways to spruce up our 12-year-old home, all to impress our house guests. And, then I realized how unauthentic I was being, how I was putting priority on a shell of a house instead of the depth of my character and heart. My daughter and I want to spend time with those close to us, and replacing blinds and a dishwasher has nothing to do with it. The quality of one’s character is far more important than the quality of one’s house.

How many of us live such a facade in many aspects of our lives, where we present an image instead of just being ourselves – namely, because we don’t think others will embrace us if they see who we truly are?

The answer is, most of us. However, here’s the issue: if we hide or disguise ourselves, others don’t truly know us, and it creates a barrier for letting other people in. We live with secrets, isolation and in the worst cases, shame. Any aspect that we falsely polish or hide from others is like placing a wall between us and others. If we want the truest connections, we must be open and authentic to an extraordinary degree. Here’s the real me – take it or leave it, but at least I’m authentic. Life isn’t Facebook, where everyone’s life is a happy two-dimensional facade on a screen. To be authentic is to be real in every sense.

And, I think all of us have been unauthentic at times, both with ourselves and others. The solution, though, to both resolving it and avoiding it is to be totally authentic. Yes, some will reject us in the process, but most will embrace us.

In my own life, I strive to only be authentic. However, it’s not always easy, and I haven’t always succeeded. I’ve struggled this year with a very weighty subject in my life: my daughter will be heading off to college in the blink of an eye. Those around me have asked whether I’m prepared for that emotionally, especially since it’s just been the two of us for years, our lives so intertwined?

I give a very enthusiastic answer, that my daughter’s worked extremely hard toward college, that I can’t wait for her to flourish on her own. After all, it will be another amazing stage to witness as a parent. Yet, if I’m to be authentic, it’s truly only telling others half of my feelings – I’m not being honest.

The fact is, my daughter has been my foremost focus since the day she was born. Then, in being a full-time single father, she’s the better half of our dynamic duo, always a life force in our home. Girlfriends have come and gone, but it’s always been Shorty and me. No, I don’t know how I’m going to handle having my little girl, housemate and, really, best friend no longer around on a daily basis. I can picture Rosie the English bulldog and me just staring at each other on a Wednesday night, saying, What do we do now? Even if I’m living with a woman, I don’t see the transition being any less heartfelt. Yes, the thought of my daughter going off to college is unquestionably what I want and will be among my proudest moments. But, it’s also painful, scary and sad.

However, as I’ve opened up with friends about my complete feelings about my daughter eventually heading off to college, they’ve been extremely supportive and full of wisdom. Again, if we are going to live with authenticity, we must share our whole self, as-is, honestly, and people do reciprocate on such a genuine basis. In this way, opening myself up to others is like having guests in my home: I’d rather choose the imperfection of openness and joy over the tidiness of isolation and despair.

Of course, authenticity is ultimately about accountability, and that can be a struggle in itself. A great tool in that area is to surround yourself with people who will out of love call you on your behavior when you’re not being authentic. Both my sister and my best friend have called me on my behavior over the years – and rightfully so, as I’ve done some freakin’ stupid stuff. I remember being on the West Coast, feeling a lot of sadness over the ending of a serious relationship, and rather than being authentic and telling my friends that I was in a lot of pain, I went the rock star route, numbing myself with everything I could find as the life of the party. And, to his credit, without his being judgmental, my best friend soon pulled me aside and said, “I suspect there’s a lot going on in your life and it’s getting to you in unhealthy ways. It’s not the Mark I know.”

And, he was right. I wasn’t being authentic. Rather, I was being an emotional coward and dishonest. Fortunately, I was able to get myself back on track – arguably with greater clarity – all thanks to a true friend who believed in me and wasn’t afraid to call me on my falling off of the authenticity wagon.

None of us are perfect or immune to real emotions that tempt us toward going astray. I’ve been there and I still go there. However, recognizing the power of living to a higher standard – authenticity – and working at it in even the most challenging situations makes living as who you are a lot more rewarding.

My house isn’t perfect and neither am I. I need new blinds and a dishwasher, and Lord knows I’ve got my emotional issues. But, my home and heart are open, as-is, so come on in.

The Equation of Self

photo (20)

By Mark E. Smith

Here are five facts about me: I have severe cerebral palsy. I’m a middle-aged, full-time single father. I come from a deeply troubled background. I’m among the least successful people I know. And, many see me as a despicable character.

Every aspect above is literally true. If you were a woman, would you date me? Not a chance, as I’m a rolling wreck.

However, here’s the flaw in my rolling wreck of a self-description: it doesn’t reflect anywhere near the entirety of who I am. Rather, it leaves out the amazing parts of who I am, and fabricates a negative self-image from an inappropriately critical perspective. It’s like taking a beautiful diamond, and placing it under a microscope, finding the flaws, then discarding the entirety of its stunning brilliance. How many of us do that to ourselves every day? While the rest of the world sees our beauty and brilliance – like a two carat diamond – we find flaws that no one else sees. How is it that when we’re each so amazingly unique – one in four-hundred trillion, genetically, according to science – some of us can place a microscope on ourselves and only see flaws?

I recently heard a top collegiate soccer coach explain what he looks for when recruiting players. He doesn’t seek great runners or kickers – they’re easy to find, he said. In fact, he overlooks soccer skills altogether since everyone has them who applies to his program. What he looks for is the most empowering trait that an individual can have: self-confidence.

See, self-confidence isn’t about ego or narcissism, but about recognizing our own value, viewing ourselves as the rest of the world views us. And, when we have it, we don’t just perform better, we feel better. So, why don’t more of us have self-confidence, why don’t we see the beauty in who we are that others see, so unique that we’re one in 400 trillion?

The answer, as I’ve concluded, is that we’re really really bad at math. Allow me to explain….

When others view us, they add up the sum of our parts to create the whole value of who we are. We can look at someone and say, “Wow, what an amazing person, from the inside out,” and we’re able to do that because all of his or her traits add up to extraordinary. Yet, we’re often not skilled at doing math on ourselves – that is, except negative numbers. While the rest of the world looks at us as 2 + 4 + 4 = 10, we look at ourselves and add a negative to every positive -2 + -4 + -4 = -10.

Therefore, we need to do a much better job at understanding all of the variables that comprise us, and add the positives back in. Getting back to my five examples of why no woman should ever date me, let’s see what happens – mathematically – when I complete the missing variables to my equation:

I have severe cerebral palsy, and it’s fueled a life of independence, where I’ve seen first-hand that most limitations that we project are false, that the power of the human spirit runs deeper than any ocean, where few obstacles are insurmountable.

I’m a middle-aged, full-time single father who is in fantastic shape, and my daughter is a young woman of tremendous grace, wisdom, and empathy, whose hard work applied to education and the arts has her on an Ivy-League track.

I come from a deeply troubled background, and I’m the only one in generations of my family to be formally educated, to not live in poverty, to not be an addict.

I’m among the least successful people I know because I learned that if we wish to rise, surround ourselves with those who foster our growth, so I strive to associate with those of tremendous moral compasses, exceptional work ethics, and accomplished personal and professional lives.

And, many see me as a despicable character because I’m among the most read, public figures with a disability, where my success brings out some who resent it.

The result, then, is that I’m not a loser, but a remarkably successful individual with a lot to offer in my uniqueness.

And, the same goes for each one of us. None of us are perfect, but even our so-called flaws add up to remarkable when placed in the full context of who we are. The next time you look in the mirror, see yourself as everyone else sees you – and you’ll see an amazing person looking back.

The Right Question

Jose Perez
Jose Perez

By Mark E. Smith

I’ve been running a mobility-related message board online for around 15 years. During that time, I think I’ve seen it all – the good, the bad, and the ugly. The anonymity that some feel online knows no boundaries.

However, recently, someone posed a question to me that was a first. Admittedly taken much out of context here and paraphrased, someone asked me, “Why should you feel it morally right having a job, home, van, and ATV when so many others with disabilities do not?”

Within the context of the conversation, asking me such a question certainly seemed audacious, and even ruder paraphrased here. Nevertheless, I answered the question, simply explaining that I’ve made sacrifices and worked really hard.

However, here’s what’s interesting: If one wished to be successful, it was the wrong question to ask.

See, in my early 20s, my mentor was Dr. Wayman R. Spence. He was known as the grandfather of the anti-smoking movement starting in the 1960s, formed a health education company, went on to invent sports medicine products, and was a widely-published author and art collector. Ultimately, Dr. Spence, as we called him, sold his biggest company, Spenco Medical (going strong till this day) to Kimberly-Clark in the 1980s, making an insane amount of money. By the early 1990s, when I met Dr. Spence through my writing, his life was dedicated to supporting the arts and philanthropy. My writing was actually terrible at the time, but he insisted that if I focused on it and pursued formal education, I could build a successful career. And, I listened.

As my mentor, Dr. Spence gave me weekly assignments. His secretary called me with insane challenges like, “Dr. Spence wants you to call Norman Vincent Peale…. Here’s his number.” And, so I’d cold call all sorts of famous writers, speakers and artists who Dr. Spence knew. And, I was terrified every time.

Yet, Dr. Spence taught me a life-changing lesson that I used then and I use now: Never wonder why a person is successful. Rather, always ask how he or she became successful. Then, apply that knowledge to your own pursuits. That’s how you learn, grow, and succeed. It’s modeling positive behaviors that others prove successful over 30- or 40-year careers.

I had to call painter, Jose Perez, one day, and ask him how he became a great painter?

“I wasn’t born a painter. No one is,” he told me. “I’m a painter because I paint every day, and have done so for many years. That doesn’t make me great, it just makes me successful.”

That one conversation profoundly effected my life because simply by asking Jose how he became successful, I learned a key trait of extraordinary people: daily discipline – over decades. I could be successful at virtually any pursuit as long as I sincerely dedicated myself to it. I bet in the last 20 years, I might have missed 10 days of writing; otherwise, per Jose, I write every day, period.

Since my life lessons facilitated by Dr. Spence in the early 1990s, I’ve spent my career not just practicing what some amazing people taught me, but I’ve continued asking how? If you want to come to terms with your disability, ask others who’ve done it, how they did it? If you want to succeed in your field, ask others who are successful in the field how they’ve achieved it. If you want to have a successful relationship, ask couples who’ve been married 50 years how they’ve sustained it.

See, there’s no mystery to success. If someone has accomplished something, it can be replicated. You merely need to learn and practice those behaviors in many cases. There are always going to be extreme cases, as with Mal Mixon who, at 39, close to my present age, on a career path similar to mine, went from working a corporate job to 25 years later being a CEO and a billionaire. When I spent an afternoon interviewing him this past spring, my intent wasn’t to become a billionaire, but to understand how he’s done what he’s done, and I’ve applied many of his insights to my own career already. Namely, tenacity to a level that few dare, where no simply means, try a different approach, as was the case when he was trying to buy Invacare in 1978, then an ailing little wheelchair company owned by Johnson & Johnson, having overcome cancer, with virtually no money, and everything went wrong. Yet, his dream was to own his own company, and he flat-out refused to take no as an answer, finding ways around every road block. It’s easy to look at Mal as a billionaire now and wonder why he’s been so lucky? However, I learned one-on-one how he’s succeeded, and luck had nothing to do with it. You force your way through obstacle after obstacle, an approach I know a lot about.

Therefore, the next time you encounter someone who’s achieved what you wish, don’t ask why they have done it when others haven’t, as that voids your personal accountability, suggesting that he or she has had some magic or good fortune that no one else has. Instead, ask how the individual has accomplished it – and then you’ll be a lot closer to accomplishing it, too.