“We’re in a pre-9/11 moment,” warned Mike Wallace, a member of the National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC), at the White House on August 22.
How do so many people who are severely challenged by a disability or disease overcome that challenge and excel seemingly beyond their limits as is so often the case?
In fact, it seems to be more common to see those with a disability excel than to see them turn inward and give up.
What makes the difference between conquering their limits and being successful, and giving up, feeling sorry for oneself and a failure? And can whatever it is that leads to success be applied by people without a disability to go far beyond their limits and achieve success at what they want to accomplish?
Based on personal experience garnered from 44 of my 61 years living with two major disabilities, along with observations I have made of many others with equally or more challenging situations, I believe a triple package of traits lead to success or, using a phrase I have coined, “not just survivorship but thrivership.” That is, thriving at all aspects of life.
Those three traits are Exceptionalism, Insecurity, and Discipline.
This triple-package is identical to what Yale Law Professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld wrote about in a 2014 New York Times opinion piece entitled “What Drives Success?” Chia and Rubenfeld postulated that some cultural minority groups (e.g. Jews, Asians in America) achieve success far beyond what their proportion of the population would indicate because of three traits: a feeling of exceptionality, juxtaposed with a feeling of insecurity, focused by impulse control (by which they meant discipline). While Chua and Rubenfeld focus on minority cultural groups who are doing strikingly better than the rest of society overall, I believe there is a direct mapping from their triple package to the traits which tend to make individuals dealing with a physical disability excel dramatically beyond their previous selves or even their non-disabled peers.
The newly disabled initially feel pain, fear, and anger, quickly followed by the realization that the losses include significant physical abilities, perhaps friends, and he or she is now saddled with a social stigma that can manifest itself as staring and occasional finger pointing. The individual is surrounded by low expectations that pour out of people, maybe inadvertently. Even if it remains unspoken, the disabled person senses the pity that is coming from all around; pity that is most unwelcome.
The loss of the ability to do the most simple physical tasks, at least initially, much less their former abilities, leads to an almost catastrophic loss of self-confidence and self- esteem. As Gloria Steinem said, “It’s not that self esteem is everything. It’s just that there is nothing without it.” Humans cannot live without self esteem and so it forces us to fight back no matter what the disability. Still, we feel alone — we might not know anyone in this situation and many recently disabled express no desire to be in a group of similarly affected individuals anyway. So we begin to feel unique and, because the alternative is unconscionable, we have to fight back somehow so we start to try — something, anything physical that will make us feel better about ourselves. For someone physically disabled, relative to the low expectations all around them, it is not surprising they exceed those expectations. A small amount of progress is a big deal and once they see even a glimmer of hope, they are motivated to keep going and the virtuous circle begins. One feels relatively exceptional at this first accomplishment and so he or she feels highly motivated to achieve the next goal and pretty soon everything seems doable and the person truly does become exceptional.
Forty-four years ago at age 16, bone cancer and amputation made me disabled overnight.
I focused on what I had lost. Reinforcing my own negativity were those who said, “You can’t ski, you can’t skate, you can’t play football”. Once I had a modicum of strength, I started to crutch hike and as I got stronger, exceptionalism (“I’m hiking further than anyone said was possible”), kicked in. Skiing was my worst loss but I focused on conquering one-legged skiing. I spent three years, including one as a ski bum where I skied 100 consecutive days, until I did it. Then I would dramatically fly past two-leggers stopped at the brim of a hill as they nervously plotted their course. I knew they were staring at me and for once I loved it. I had been transformed from a scared teenager into having a feeling of exceptionality; trait one, check.
Chua and Rubenfeld wrote, “It’s odd to think of people feeling simultaneously superior and insecure. Yet it is precisely this unstable combination that generates drive.” Indeed, it is this same paradox that drives the disabled to overachieve after being so down and out. With a disability we are not “normal”, and are always reminded of that. We live in constant fear of failure: amputees fall an average of once a week their entire lives as just one example of “failure”.
There is only one way out: constantly re-prove oneself. I can ski down a steep bump run fast, but when I get to the bottom, I have to walk on crutches into the lodge and cannot easily carry my ski. The areas of high achievement are bookended by being severely limited. So we become dependent — even addicted — to the things where we have excelled because so many other aspects of life still reinforce the feelings of inferiority. I’ve done the Alcatraz Sharkfest swim from Alcatraz Island 1.5 miles back to Fisherman’s Wharf every year for 23 years. Most participants consider it a bucket list item and ask me, since I successfully completed it once, why do I keep coming back? The answer is that it is like a pilgrimage that re-builds the defenses against insecurity. That swim is hard; it requires extremely diligent focused effort to get ready for, but I can do it and most cannot. So it wipes away a lot of the insecurity but just for a while. The brave face of the exceptional disabled person has behind it the doubts and self-drive of the insecure; trait two, check.
Trait three is discipline. Self-discipline is the best friend of the disabled. Hard work is essential to conquer anything challenging. One must do things people consider hard and lonely; no problem for the disabled: it’s all hard and we are all lonely. Insecurity drives us so we keep at it. Strong work ethic leads to success: the virtuous circle kicks in again; trait three, check.
Chua and Rubenfeld wrote, “In isolation, each of these three qualities would be insufficient. Alone a superiority complex is a recipe for complacency; mere insecurity could be crippling; discipline can produce asceticism. Only in combination do these qualities generate drive.” For the disabled, they do appear in combination and help the individual not just survive but thrive.
In fact, Chua, Rubenfeld and I agree that any (able-bodied) individual can excel beyond what they normally might have:
The way to develop this package of qualities — not that it’s easy, or that everyone would want to — is through grit. It requires turning the ability to work hard, to persevere and to overcome adversity into a source of personal superiority. This kind of superiority complex isn’t ethnically or religiously exclusive. It’s the pride a person takes in his own strength of will.
Yes, anyone, even the able-bodied, can cultivate these traits, if they have grit. Grit the disabled come by naturally.
The triple package is the life blood of personal superiority for the disabled. And it is why so many physically disabled individuals achieve success beyond their (perceived) limits in everything they do.
In my TED talk I follow these three traits and illustrate them through stories both personal and of people I have worked with. Several shorts videos are included that demonstrate the sports I and others with disabilities were determined to excel at and which to this day represent the way we maintain a positive outlook, an outlook I like to describe as Thrivership.
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