The First 90 Days to Life

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By Mark E. Smith

If you study the diet and fitness infomercials on late-night television, you’ll notice that most of the before-and-after photos – from flab to fab – show amazing results in “90 days.”

What the infomercials don’t tell you is that their products are a mere secondary factory in the process, that the real magic is in the “90 days.” See, if one performs virtually any diet or exercise for 90 days, results surely follow. The reality, then, to such infomercials isn’t the quality of the product, but the consistency of the person.

Make no mistake, we live in a culture where people gauge success by their watch, not a calendar – they want results in 90 seconds, not 90 days. However, like a diet or fitness routine, much of our success takes time, and requires our consistent effort, where we don’t slack, make excuses, or give up, but simply pursue our goals day after day, with unyielding dedication and passion.

Disability can make achieving our goals – in the physical, mental, and emotional – especially challenging. After all, regardless if one has a lifelong disability, later-in-life injury, or a progressive condition, we’re constantly facing new challenges, where we must adapt and conform over a lifetime of disability experience. And, if we’re willing to approach the entirety of our life with unyielding dedication – where we don’t slack, make excuses, or give up – we see amazing results, not only in 90 days, but never-ending. The key, then, is to invest in ourselves for the long haul, recognizing that the struggles of today aren’t road blocks; rather, the struggles of today are incremental opportunities that build the foundation of our long-term success.

One of my all-time favorite stories of practicing consistency as a “disability strategy” at its best – and one of my own foremost life inspirations – involved my friend, Nola. Nola was born with a rare form of dwarfism that made independent living seemingly impossible. In fact, when I met Nola in her twenties, she lived in a care facility, a grim reality for a young woman of her age, and she’d never known any different, having lived in a care facility since she was a young teenager.

Still, Nola told me of how she sometimes thought about what it would be like to be out of a care facility, not so much to live on her own on a big scale, but to know what it was like to have true privacy, to stay up late and sleep in, to buy the foods she wished – that is, to experience freedoms that the care facility didn’t allow.

However, such independent living was the farthest reality for Nola. The care facility staff was her family, and the residents were her friends. Imagine how impossible and frightening the mere thought of moving out would have seemed for Nola. Nevertheless, Nola and I discussed her gaining more independence. No, we didn’t discuss Nola simply packing up, getting her own apartment, and living happily ever after – that dream was too lofty, too unrealistic. Rather, Nola and I discussed her merely taking a bit more control over her life, one task at a time. We discussed small steps in the immediate that might bring big changes in the long term. You might say, we discussed consistently applying single dollars toward paying down a six-figure mortgage.

And, that’s exactly what Nola did. Her first hurdle was obtaining better mobility, so she worked through the long process, day-by-day, of getting a power wheelchair. Then, she sought a social worker to help her better understand her rights as a care facility resident. And, then she took her power wheelchair to the bank one day, and opened a checking account.

As Nola accomplished each small step, she exuded more and more confidence – and I loved hearing of her progress. However, after a year of monthly calls, a few months slipped by with no word from Nola. I called the care facility, worried that I hadn’t heard from Nola, and the receptionist said that she couldn’t tell me anything about Nola except that she was no longer a resident. Of course, I was very concerned, especially since Nola had life-threatening respiratory illness from time to time. I hoped that Nola’s health risks hadn’t finally caught up with her.

About two weeks later, I received a call from Nola. She apologized for not contacting me sooner, but she had been busy moving into her apartment – yes, her own apartment!

As Nola’s story proves firsthand, our journeys of a thousand miles do begin with a single step, and require many, many more small steps. The fact is, it is sometimes impossible to get our arms around our dreams, we can’t simply go from where we are, to where we wish – we can’t simply loose weight, get in shape, or overcome physical limitations overnight. What we need is a lifetime-long “90-day plan,” where we start with a single small step, and consistently follow through, working to big changes in our lives.

In my own writing a speaking, I frequently discuss how I, too, went through a process much like Nola’s, where in my adolescence, I made the choice to do whatever it took day-by-day to become physically independent, to where I could toilet, bathe, dress, and feed myself – and it took me a long, frustrating seven years of daily battles to accomplish my goals. Yet, as I sit here today, over 20 years to the day that I mark as a turning point in my life – the day at age 18 when I was able to live on my own – I’ve never stopped working my “90-day plan” of consistently addressing daily trials as the key toward long-term successes, big and small.

My entire adult life has been shadowed by a seemingly trivial, yet important, reality: My inability to tie my own neck ties. In my business, I often have to wear neck ties – and I like the professionalism that ties present, as well. Unfortunately, due to my cerebral palsy not only has tying a neck tie been impossible, so has merely buttoning the top button of my dress shirts, as required when wearing a tie. My lack of being able to tie a neck tie or button my top button has kept me frustratingly dependent upon everyone from my family to colleagues when tying my neck ties, and while everyone’s been so gracious whenever I’ve needed help, it’s frustrated me till no end that I’ve gone two decades now without being able to button my shirts’ top button and tie my own neck ties. If I could only tie my own neck ties, it would make my life far easier, less stressful – and, man, would I look handsome!

But, I never gave up. Every day for the past two decades, you would have seen at least one tie sitting somewhere in my bedroom – no, not because I’m messy, but because, night after night, I refused to ever stop trying to tie my own neck tie. Still, after thousands of attempts – and trying every method, tool, and trick one could imagine – the result was always the same: I still couldn’t button my own button, or tie my own tie.

Now, I’m sure that some people wouldn’t think twice about being unable to tie a tie – after all, in the grand scheme of life, who cares, right? But, to me, tying my own tie was about more than a tie. My tying a tie was about perseverance and dedication, where I wasn’t going to let two decades of seeming failure stop me from trying today, tomorrow, and the next day – or, for the rest of my life if I had to. I wasn’t on a 90-day plan, I was on a 90-year plan – and I was fully prepared to go into old age and literally die trying to tie my own tie!

What’s more, my belief in remaining constant to my goal was strengthened when every year or so, I got a little closer to buttoning that top button before it slipped away, and when I got to where I could almost put the tie through itself after wrapping it. Every night of my monkeying with a tie would have seemed pointless and futile to most; however, to me, it was incremental progress – like applying a dollar toward a six-figure mortgage, it still counts, even when it doesn’t seem like much.

Several months ago, after two decades of trying, I nailed it – I honed the process where I could both button my top button and tie my own tie. In fact, I did so right before a big business trip and convention, and I was so excited that I could tie my own neck ties, that I packed eight ties for a four-day trip, wearing a tie around the clock, even changing them from day to dinner. My colleagues made fun of me, stating, “Mark, don’t you go anywhere without a tie on?”

I thought to myself, Man, I’ve spent 20 years learning to tie a tie – I’m making up for lost time!

Indeed, maybe one of your dreams is as lofty as Nola’s, like wishing to move out of a care facility. Or, maybe one of your dreams is as seemingly trivial as mine, like being able to tie your own neck tie. Or, maybe one of your dreams is to have complete control over your finances, like paying off your mortgage. Big or small, monumental or trivial, all dreams and goals are accomplished the same way: With daily consistency and perseverance, where we recognize that no matter if it takes us 90 minutes, 90 days, or, 90 years, we’re willing to apply effort every day toward living to our fullest – regardless of any pain, hardship, and frustration. That is, let us recognize that consistency is the magic key, where the dedicated efforts that we make every single day build the foundation for great success in the long term.

Discovered on the Bathroom Floor

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By Mark E. Smith

I’ll never forget my embarrassment that day. I was in the sixth grade, and my school sent home another note. It may have been the third or fourth, but this one was more serious, involving the school counselor, not just a teacher’s note. Was I in trouble?

I couldn’t wait to read the note – desperate to know what it said – so on the special wheelchair-accessible school bus on my way home that day, I used one hand and my teeth to tear open the envelope, and read the note. To my horror, the school staff was again complaining to my mother that I smelled of an odor, and that I clearly wasn’t being bathed appropriately, that even other kids were complaining.

And, I knew they were right – I had horrible hygiene. Due to my cerebral palsy, I wasn’t able to toilet or bathe myself, and being dependent on my mother wasn’t cutting it. As an alcoholic, my mother wasn’t taking care of herself, let alone me, so my bathroom accidents and a lack of bathing were par for the course.

What made the note even more troubling to me was that I’d recently visited a care facility and saw teenagers living there with disabilities similar to mine – and I realized that between my cerebral palsy and my mother’s drinking, a care facility might be my own home in the near future. Based on the school’s concerns, it seemed like only a matter of time before Social Services was involved, and if they found out that my mother’s alcoholism prevented her from properly caring for me, I reckoned that I was doomed – possibly to a care facility.

I went to my stepfather for help, and he placed responsibility on me, suggesting that I’d better get my act together as a kid with cerebral palsy and become more independent or I would end up in a care facility. Call his tough love well-meaning or callous, but he simply reinforced my predicament and fears.

So, there I was: Humiliated by my body odor at school, with parents unwilling to take proper care of me, and unable to take care of myself. At 11 years old, I was in the bind of my life, a victim of circumstance.

Yet, that night, I intuitively realized that I wasn’t a victim of circumstance at all, that I was the one truly placing myself in the situation – not my parents, not cerebral palsy, not the school, but me. See, what I quickly realized that night was that I was looking at everyone else to take responsibility, when, in actuality, I was solely responsible for the whole situation.

Now, some might say, Mark, that’s ludicrous. You were a little kid with severe cerebral palsy, in a bad family situation – you were the last one responsible for the predicament that you were in. …You can’t hold an 11-year-old responsible for having cerebral palsy or an alcoholic mother.

Absolutely, I could hold myself responsible – and I had to. No, it wasn’t my fault that I had cerebral palsy or an alcoholic mother, but all of it was solely my responsibility at that instant. I was the one with the body odor, the one who couldn’t bathe himself, the one with the alcoholic mother, the one with the school rightfully concerned – and, there was only one person responsible for resolving the situation: Me.

That night, I did my best to strip off my clothes, pulled my power wheelchair up to the bathtub, and slid myself in, cracking my head on the way down, flopping like a fish, banging elbows and knees off of the sides of the dry tub. With what coordination I had, I turned on the cold water and washed up the best that I could. At last, I used all my might to thrust my body over the side of the bathtub, crashing onto the hard tile floor, bumped and bruised, but a bit cleaner. Maybe this will be easier tomorrow night now that I’ve done it once, I told myself.

As I lay on the bathroom floor that night, starring at the ceiling, nude, cold, beat-up, and exhausted, I believe that I discovered the single most important factor toward living with disability: Our choice to accept full responsibility for our lives no matter what’s happened to us, no matter our current circumstance.

It’s so easy for many of us to justify why our lives aren’t as successful as they could be:

If only I wasn’t born to a dysfunctional family….

If only I didn’t have a disability….

If only things were different….

But, when they’re not different, when life doesn’t go our way, we are solely responsible to take the actions needed to change the course of our lives. We may not create any given tragedy in our life, but we are solely accountable for resolving it, no matter what it takes.

Toward my publically-expressed disability outlooks, the singular criticism that I receive from some with disabilities is that my die-trying approach to living with disability is unrealistic, that just because I, personally, strive to practice extreme will and optimism doesn’t mean that I have the right to expect it from others.

However, where their argument fails, is that they don’t recognize that I don’t practice and teach my own philosophies; rather, I merely practice and discuss the realities of life. See, assuming absolute responsibility for one’s disability isn’t what I expect; rather, assuming absolute responsibility for one’s disability is what successful living demands. Again, we can find entirely valid reasons as to why we’re not living up to our fullest potential, as with my being an 11-year-old child with cerebral palsy and an alcoholic mother, unable to bathe myself. However, until we make the choice to push all of those reasons to the side and assume absolute, sole accountability for our lives, we merely exist and struggle in life – that is, we make excuses and don’t move forward. To put it bluntly, it doesn’t matter who made the mess; we are solely responsible to clean it up.

Maybe life hasn’t gone your way. Maybe it’s knocked you down, then kicked you for falling. Maybe you’ve not only faced profound disability, but any number of other trials, from unemployment to failed relationships to addiction. So what? The solution to any issues in your life, regardless of the breath of the challenge, simply starts with a single question: Are you willing to assume sole responsibility for it, and do whatever it takes to move forward, at any cost? After all, it’s the same question that life has demanded that I personally answer countless times since I lay nude, cold, beat-up, and exhausted on that bathroom floor.

The Factor of G

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By Mark E. Smith

Here’s a provocative question for you: How is it possible that one with a severe disability excels well beyond his or her peers, including those without disabilities?

For example, how does one explain a college student with severe cerebral palsy, who can’t speak or write on his or her own, graduating college, magna cum laude? Or, how does one explain a quadriplegic who rises through the ranks of the banking world to become a vice president? Or, how does one explain how one born without arms goes on to become a world-renown musician?

Truly, if you think about it, we all know of people with severe disabilities who have excelled beyond their peers with and without disabilities – but, how is that possible? After all, those of us with disabilities aren’t inherently smarter than others, and, in fact, we obviously have notable physical disadvantages over others without disabilities – for example, imagine how difficult it would be going through college without the ability to speak or write. And, statistically, those of us with disabilities can have social disadvantages over others in the mainstream, where prejudice and discrimination remain. Therefore, how is it logically possible that without any seeming advantages – and, arguably, having physical and social disadvantages – those with severe disabilities can often excel beyond their peers with and without disabilities?

This question intrigued me as I thought about my own acquaintances over the years who’ve had severe disabilities but excelled beyond most others – and I wondered if there was a common trait that they shared, a trait that many others may not practice, that’s all but guaranteed their success?

As I went back and analyzed the character traits of my successful acquaintances and peers with disabilities, I saw a clear trend toward their all sharing overall outlooks of dedication, perseverance, and optimism; however, they all shared a far greater form of everyday empowerment than most: Gratitude.

Indeed, my most successful acquaintances and peers with disabilities have all demonstrated unyielding gratitude for what life has to offer, fully embracing every opportunity with optimism and zeal, appreciative of every occasion – that is, they’re excited and grateful to wake up in the morning and tackle the tasks of the day.

Where this realization becomes clearer is when we consider “mainstream” culture, and what little gratitude many have – and, specifically, how it holds people back:

A college education is a true blessing, an amazing opportunity that very few on this planet get to pursue; yet, a 19-year-old will fail college because he simply doesn’t want to wake up early enough to get to class on time. He has no gratitude toward education.

A bank teller will begrudgingly perform her job, doing as little as possible, resentful that she only makes $9 per hour, feeling like it’s not worth her time to come to work, believing that she’s entitled to better. She has no gratitude for employment.

A 20-something will show up in Hollywood with a guitar, thinking that he’s going to get gigs because he’s the next big rock star, then gives up when doors shut on him. He has no gratitude toward success.

In your own life, think about all of the complaints of “entitlement” that you may hear from those around you every day. Three-quarters of your co-workers likely complain about their jobs all day; your kids likely want the iPod Touch because the iPod Nano of last season isn’t cool anymore; and, all your neighbor probably does is whine about gas prices and the economy, no matter if they’re up or down. There’s simply little gratitude wherever we look, where many who we encounter feel “entitled” to all in life, regardless of their own efforts and attitude.

However, what I’ve witnessed is that when those with disabilities – or anyone – possess a sincere sense of gratitude, their lives accelerate like rockets, well beyond others in most cases:.

The young woman with cerebral palsy, who can’t speak or write, but is entirely grateful for the shot at a college education, as everyone should be, of course puts her all into it, and graduates magna cum laude.

The gentleman with quadriplegia, who’s genuinely grateful to have an entry-level position at a bank, as anyone should be, of course puts his all into his job and gets promoted up the ladder to vice president.

And, the man born without arms, who teaches himself to play the guitar with his feet, entirely grateful that he can make music, as everyone should be, of course pours his heart into it, and becomes a huge success.

See, when we’re grateful for what we have on all levels – when we know that we’re fortunate, not entitled – it motivates us to live up to our fullest abilities, where opportunities are recognized before limitations, potentials before excuses. Those who are grateful don’t mope, they thrive.

Interestingly, an overwhelming lack of gratitude is what holds back a lot of people with disabilities. Sure, it may seem understandable for an athletic 40-year-old who was paralyzed in a car accident to look around and say, “What’s there to be grateful for? I can’t walk, and I can’t do half of the things I used to…. My life is a cruel nightmare.”

While some may see such thinking as understandable, it’s entirely self defeating. The lack of any gratitude in such a situation will keep one entrenched in bitterness and excuses, never moving forward in life.

To the contrary, in such a situation, those with disabilities who are successful – that is, those with gratitude in life – have an entirely opposite view: I may be paralyzed, but I’m thrilled to be alive, blessed to have my wife and kids by my side, and although it may not be easy, I’m fortunate that I have my education to help me succeed in the workforce….

And, you can bet that when such an individual is in the workforce, the passion and dedication that he puts into his job – that is, gratitude – takes him to the top.

Of course, gratitude isn’t a tool that only those with disabilities can possess – those who don’t have a disability can possess gratitude, as well, and it brings the same success. However, what I’ve witnessed is that severe, permanent disability can heighten one’s sense of gratitude beyond a common perspective. Again, when one faces loss, he or she can become either bitter at what’s lost, or grateful for what remains – and when we’re truly grateful for what remains, we naturally use what we have to the fullest, making the most of ourselves, propelling toward successes that others may never achieve. Put simply, when disability shows us how challenging life can be at times, it’s often easier to appreciate the oppertunities that we have, and use them to the fullest. A motivated man can dig a deeper trench with his bare hands than three lazy men with shovels.

As one with a disability, I practice gratitude everyday, no matter the circumstance. It takes me hours of struggle to get ready each morning, but I’ve always been grateful for it – that is, firstly, I’m forever grateful that I was able to develop the ability to bathe and dress myself, and, secondly, I’m grateful that I’ve always had the opportunity to pursue an endeavor each day, from my education in the past, to my career in the present.

When my colleagues and customers need my assistance, I don’t regret the long hours or resent more work; rather, I’m truly grateful for the privilege to serve others.

When, I’m traveling on business, and my flight’s delayed, I don’t get upset like others in the airport; rather, I’m grateful to be traveling on business in the first place.

And, when I look at my daughter, she is, of course, my foremost blessing of all, where even if I lost all of my physical abilities, my career, and my worldly possessions at once, I’d still feel like the most fortunate person, simply grateful to have her in my life.

Sure, others sometimes look at me and my cerebral palsy, and only see what’s seemingly wrong in my life – my wheelchair, my wracked body, my slurred speech. But, they don’t know how grateful I am that my wheelchair, my wracked body, my slurred speech, has gotten me so far in life – that is, they don’t recognize what I recognize: The astonishing potentials placed before each of us every day, even in the seemingly toughest circumstances.

Now, some might say, “Mark, gratitude toward everyday life is little more than a lowering of expectations, a denial of accepting how terrible life can be, including living with disability. No normal person is grateful for a life involving pain, hardship, and struggle.”

And, they’d be right – for a bitter, jaded, unappreciative, stagnant person, that is. See, there’s a truth to gratitude that such people don’t understand, that without gratitude we only see the worst in life, our limitations, what we don’t have, what we seemingly can’t accomplish: I can’t walk, and it has taken more from me than you could ever imagine. And, such thinking gets us nowhere but deeper into a self-absorbed, depressed, bitter rut.

However, when we have gratitude, it inspires our outlooks and clears a path of seemingly unlimited possibilities: I can’t walk, but this wonderful wheelchair allows me to have a career, raise my family, and have the freedom to take on the world. Gratitude, you see, makes all the difference, inherently allowing us to see paths of potential over bottlenecks of bitterness.

Whether you’re of the richest and the healthiest, or of the poorest and the sickest, there’s always something to be grateful for – namely, life, itself – and when we simply live with a sincere gratitude for the potentials that we have, no matter our circumstance, it’s impossible not to have an optimism and motivation that will propel us to successes that others could never even dream.