If you woke up tomorrow without the use of your arms and legs, would you think life was fair? The answer might just surprise you.
Independence found, and lost.
When I was 19, I landed a job that would be a turning point in my life and teach me not only that life isn’t fair, but that it shouldn’t be.
At the time, I was basking in my newfound independence, living on my own, paying my way through college and looking for work, which back in the 1970s meant scouring through obscurely worded “help wanted” ads in the newspaper. Kind of like Twitter’s 140 character limit but without the benefit of webspeak abbreviations and emojis.
It’s still not clear to me how I came across this particular ad. It was a position as a nurse’s aid in a spinal cord injury unit (SCIU) at a local hospital. I had no experience for it, I wasn’t interested in the medical field, and the only thing that even drew my attention to it was that it was close to my school and it paid well. What it didn’t advertise were the unusual demands of the position or the dividends it would pay for the rest of my life.
“By the end of my first day on the job I was physically and emotional wasted. Waves of nausea washed over me…”
The patients were between the ages of 18 and 25. Each one was a quadriplegic, meaning they had sustained a spinal cord injury in the C3-C6 vertebrae range, paralyzing them from the neck down, and had virtually no use of their arms or legs. Some used straws attached to servo controls to guide their electric wheelchairs with their mouth. The luckier ones had enough use of their hands to operate a small joystick, which did the same.
My job was to pick them up and out of bed, help with all those things you and I would never think twice about doing on our own–from tooth-brushing to eating–then put them back in bed again at the end of the day. There was much more to it, but you get the idea.
By the end of my first day on the job I was physically and emotionally wasted. Waves of nausea washed over me as I tried to cope with the reality of seeing kids close to my age sentenced to a lifetime of depending on someone else for everything–at a time when I was at the height of my physical conditioning and ego, and celebrating my own newfound independence. But I stayed on the job. I’d like to say it was because of some deep sense of altruism and desire to give back–it was because of the money. But that quickly changed.
With each day I became more humbled by the almost superhuman attitude of these kids. They had pretty much everything I cherished taken away from them. And not in a slow degenerative process they had time to think about. Each one had suffered their spinal cord injury in either a motorcycle or diving accident; most during the summer before going to college–the transition from youth to adulthood. One day they were frolicking with friends, diving into a swimming pool, riding with the wind in their face, and the next day they were incapable of scratching an itch.
Yet their ability to adapt and not give up was so strong.
I spent six months in that job and then four years as the full-time aide for one of these incredible young men, Ali. At the time I was thrilled to have a job that paid my way through college, to share an apartment in the heart of Boston and even get a car. But I learned much more than I earned.
What Ali taught me were invaluable lessons we all need to learn: that life is not supposed to be fair; that complaining about our situation is wasted energy; that we always have a choice about how we play the cards we are dealt; and that our attitude is not determined by anything other than our own thoughts.
I can’t even begin to recount all the memories from those four years, but there’s one that sticks out in my mind.
One morning I was late for school and rushing to leave the apartment I shared with Ali. I had to get him out of bed, into his wheelchair, and set up with breakfast, which meant seating him in front of a small table with a bowl of steaming hot oatmeal and a spoon Velcroed to his right hand. Ali had some very limited use of his biceps and could manage to lift the spoon from the bowl to his mouth. It wasn’t pretty but it was functional and gave him at least some independence. When he was done he’d use his wheelchair to pry off the Velcroed spoon and then spend his day watching TV, on the speaker phone, or having friends over. But on this particular day he was going to be alone until I returned eight hours later.
My last words as I ran out the door were, “Careful with the oatmeal, I didn’t have time to let it cool off.”
When I came home I saw Ali in the same spot I’d left him, but now he was slumped over and laying on top of his bowl. His head was cocked and facing the door. I immediately ran over to seat him upright. Apparently in my haste to get out that morning I’d forgotten to tighten the strap that kept him upright in his wheelchair.
“…he refused to allow his circumstances to define his dignity…”
“How long have you been lying here?” I asked him. He looked at me with a smile and said, “Pretty much since you left!” At this point Ali had every right to lay into me. He didn’t. I started to apologize profusely. This wasn’t just a job, this was a friend I’d left face-planted in his oatmeal for eight hours! As I spouted my gibberish he looked at me and simply said, “Hey, nobody is to blame. But I think the oatmeal is cold by now.” He laughed and, although mortified with guilt, so did I.
That one moment sticks out in my mind because it captured the essence of Ali. He chose how he felt, he wasn’t going to waste time bemoaning his plight, he refused to allow his circumstances to define his dignity, he wasn’t going to give in to self-pity, and he sure as hell wouldn’t allow me to do that as his proxy.
If I could list all of the lessons those years taught me I’d be writing a book, not an Inc.com post. So here are the seven most important ones. As you read them think of your own life experiences and ask yourself how you measure up.
1. How you think is how you will feel.
When we find ourselves in situations that cause us to feel depressed, anxious, or angry, our first response can be to find someone or something to blame. We look outside for something to change to make us feel different inside. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be in the company of supportive people and in pleasant settings, don’t ever confuse that desire with the way you feel. How you feel is determined by how you think about yourself and whatever situation you find yourself in. When I first met Ali, I thought there was something wrong with him. How could anyone in his situation actually be happy about life? No, there was something wrong with me for not appreciating the power that our thoughts can have over any situation we find ourselves in. Tough one to swallow, right? Much easier to curse a person, thing, or divine being than to take responsibility for the way we feel.
Lesson: Own your feelings or the situation owns you!
2. Others ultimately see you as you see yourself.
We all experience the moment of first impression. You meet someone, and before they have uttered a word you start to size them up and put them into a category; sharply dressed, good posture, eye contact, must be someone accomplished and important. But we’ve also experienced that moment of revelation when the person turns out to be nothing like that first impression. Why? Because the way we think about ourselves is illustrated in myriad subtle ways that we communicate in our attitude, words, and actions. Ali refused to allow anyone to pity him.
Lesson: You will be to others who you first are to yourself.
3. Complaining is like trying to get out of a hole by using a shovel instead of a ladder.
We all complain. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you understand complaining is not the way out of whatever situation you find yourself in, and complaining too much just cements you in place. Ali taught me that no matter how dire the situation there is always a choice to wallow in it or fight back. Notice that I didn’t say you had to accept the situation. In fact, being upset is a great way to motivate change, but that’s not the same as complaining, which simply puts off change.
Lesson: You can try to change what is or you can curse what could have been, but you can’t do both a the same time.
4. Life isn’t fair and it’s not supposed to be.
How many times have you heard, or uttered yourself, “That’s just not fair!” If you’re a parent, it’s the soundtrack of your life for a good 18 years. Well, let me challenge the notion of fairness. Why should life be fair? Is fairness even a desirable state? Does fairness challenge you to be creative, to evolve and grow, to reinvent yourself? Is fair always a matter of your perspective, or should everyone’s view of fair result in the same outcome? Do you see where this is going? Not only is there no universal constant for fairness, but if we could somehow magically achieve it there would be no need for discomfort or pain. Nothing would be worth the effort of fighting for because we’d all just deserve to win. Ali’s plight wasn’t fair, far from it, and yet I never once heard him say it.
Lesson: Instead of labeling events as fair or unfair think of everything that happens in life, no matter how hard, as an opportunity to learn and grow?
5. Giving up is always an option.
Ali didn’t give up, but he always had the choice to, and that’s why he inspired me and so many others. When things get really tough, it’s easy to lose sight of how important the simple conscious choice of not giving up really is. Saying it’s not an option is simply untrue. Many people would give up in the same set of circumstances. Heck, that’s why you’re running a business and they aren’t. I recall during the worst of the dot-com meltdown having a company-wide meeting in which I handed out lottery tickets to every employee along with a note that said, “The chances of your winning this lottery is greater than our chances were in building a business of this size and surviving this long!” My point was, don’t ever take for granted what you have achieved.
Lesson: Give yourself credit for not giving up because many others already have.
6. Courage is understanding the only thing you control is how you respond.
We’d all like to believe that good fortune favors us, and that to some degree we can cajole fate into shining on our little piece of the universe–it’s why casinos are so well decorated. The people I most respect are not the ones who are smiling broadly as the chips stack up in front of them but the ones who’ve just lost it all and keep coming up with reasons to smile. Within my limited and naive 19-year-old worldview, I thought I had it all figured out; I was proudly sitting on top of Everest. It took seeing what real courage was to realize I’d barely made it to base camp. Stop and think about it for a minute. When you call someone a hero and applaud their courage it’s because they chose to respond to a tragic situation in a way that allowed them to shape the future rather than just observe it.
Lesson: The situation is not always yours to chose, but your response always is.
7. The greater your discomfort the greater your opportunity to grow.
Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from my time in the SCIU, and with All, was that for all the time and energy we put into avoiding pain and discomfort, the only way we learn is when we find ourselves smack in the middle of it, in those situations we would never have dreamed or dared to ask for. Think of these as the elective courses in life that nobody in their right mind would include in the core curriculum, but which ultimately teach us the most about ourselves and give us the opportunity for the greatest growth.
Lesson: We learn best and grow most when we are challenged and uncomfortable.
In what was one of life’s greatest acts of unfairness, Ali came down with an infection and passed away just weeks before my college graduation. In so many ways, some that I’m still just beginning to realize, I learned lessons from him that have endured longer than those learned in the classrooms and hallowed halls of my alma mater.
On my nightstand for the past four decades has stood a tiny plastic statue that Ali gave me. It me reminds me every morning and night that I have no reason to complain, that life’s greatest lessons about courage, strength, and dignity aren’t learned when we are comfortable, but taught in the midst of life’s greatest discomfort and adversities, by circumstances that none of us would call fair, but which, in the end, are the circumstances that shape and define who we are.
You know what? That’s fair enough!
This article was originally published on Inc.
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.tom