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.