Tune in to the Power of Blind Ambition
Many of us start a new year with a list of resolutions and aspirations. Those goals can quickly disappear as we replace goals with excuses. A regular diet of motivation helps me redouble my efforts, so I regularly look for inspiring people, books, speeches, and songs.
That’s why I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak with Patricia Walsh. Talk about overcoming obstacles, pursuing dreams, and not letting an excuse derail goals.
At age five, she was blind from a brain tumor. Later, fighting depression and hopelessness, she made a decision to reclaim her quality of life. Now, she has written an inspiring book, Blind Ambition: How to Envision Your Limitless Potential and Achieve the Success You Want . She has a successful career as an entrepreneur, a software engineer, and a professional speaker. And I almost forgot to mention she is a champion athlete.
Don’t listen to the voice telling you to give up on your goals. Don’t settle for mediocrity. Don’t limit your potential.
Instead, tune in to the power of Blind Ambition.
I’ve interviewed another female Ironman, Chrissie Wellington. Reading her book was the closest I’ve come to understanding what it takes to compete. It’s a grueling challenge. And you’re blind and you did it. What motivated you to shatter expectations?
I stumbled into shattering: I think my friends and family assume that I set out with a determination to turn the world on its ear from the get go. Truly the spirit of the initial events was more of a, “What could possibly go wrong?” to which the response was. “Everything could go wrong,” to which I then responded, “Even if everything does go wrong, this won’t kill me.”
My initial motivation was to reclaim my quality of life. When this all began, I had a smoking habit, was the life of the party, and as a result was overweight and feeling lost in my own skin. As my dad started struggling with his own health, I realized that my habits and patterns not only emulated his, in many ways they were worse than his. I started running as an attempt to reclaim my health. The result after months of trial and error and continuous improvement was not only a betterment of my physical health, but it had become a lifeline for what had been a shattered sense of self.
In completing my first marathon, I proved to myself that I was not and never have been damaged goods. My sense of ability was through the roof. When proposed the opportunity to take on ever increasing challenges I jumped at the chances. After years of marathoning, a friend dared me to do an ironman. When I took on ironman it was out of a curiosity and a wonder for my own capabilities. I was in way over my head. I had never swum or biked. The amount of help and coaching I needed just to finish was daunting.
There is a thriving prejudice of reduced expectations of persons with disability. I feel it every day. People are surprised when I am able to order for myself at a restaurant. People approach my friends and congratulate them on their generosity for taking the blind kid out for an adventure. People do not see me as an accomplished adult. The challenge for me every day is to fight the impulse to become a defensive person. When faced with these reduced expectations, my want is to rattle off my resume. My want is even to make that person feel lower, but what good would come of that? I know better. If I were to ever really have that honest reaction, everyone would walk away feeling awful. I acknowledge my role has to be that of a gentle educator. After my initial success in ironman, I had the opportunity to race with a hero of mine. It was then that I saw the gleam of light that I could be a competitive athlete by any standard.
I believed that if I put in the time and effort to be among the top finishers for my age group, then I could offer up an example of appropriate expectations of the blind. That is to say blind and disabled people are not lesser than, they are equal to, and in some cases even greater than those without disability. Truly it isn’t about the comparison, it is about the assumption. The efforts of persons with disability should be taken on their own merit, absent of the expectation of diminished value.
Finishing my second ironman in 11:40 was groundbreaking for me. In 10 months I had reduced my own time by three hours. I had set an example of an athlete with disability who two years into the sport could be ranked among the top 10 finishers for her age group. I was then recruited to compete at a different distance for the US National team. My secret hope is to come back to ironman after Paralympics, as I left wanting more. I know I could be among the top finishers in following my own fuel-fire-blaze hierarchy with the emotionally intrinsic goal of continuing to chip away at the reduced expectations.
Limitations and Excuses
You’ve overcome so much that I’m curious what you think when you hear others complaining about their limitations. Let me be a fly on the wall, listening to you talk to a friend over coffee. That friend is giving you excuses. What do you say?
You can never go wrong by lifting someone up: Personal accountability is something you mature into. Excuses are a mask for fear and self-doubt. If someone is married to their excuses, then they likely are also experiencing high degrees of fear, self-doubt, and their own sense of being damaged goods.
When I am introducing the idea of eliminating excuses and becoming married to personal accountability, I lead with the spirit of compassion. If you lead with someone who is having an honest heart struggle with their own sense of capability by shaking your fist at them and yelling, “No More Excuses!!” you will serve to drive that person further into doubt, you will only make that person feel increasingly lesser than. My hope is to make each person feel more capable. So when faced with someone offering excuses, I say, “Let’s take a baby step. Want to improve your quality of life by embarking in exercise? Let’s start by first finding something you enjoy doing. It should be fun. Once we find something you enjoy, let’s set a baby step goal and practice our fuel-fire-blaze.” Remember the intent here isn’t really to achieve the goal, it is to practice achievement. Consider this practicing to be the process that will support this individual in future endeavors. The intent isn’t necessarily to improve health; it is to spark a sense of capability. Once capability is cultivated and nurtured lovingly, achievement is a natural side effect. With some cultivation of capability and achievement, excuses vanish on their own. Simply put, achievement and capability are remarkably more fun and exciting than are excuses and justifications.
Bet on yourself
In one section of your book, you admonish readers to “Believe in yourself.” And you have that incredible self-determination and self-confidence to power through. You also say not to worry about what others think about you, only what you think about you. What should someone do to boost self-confidence and set higher goals?
Take a bet on yourself: When I started, people were well intentioned but intended to protect me from failure. They said stay here where it is safe, don’t risk failure, this is the best that can be hoped for blind girls. Any attempt I made toward a better future was seen as evidence of denial of my condition. Your breakthrough may appear to others as a breakdown. My intent to pursue higher education was seen as powerful denial. I cannot tell you that I knew I was capable of more. Truly there was never a moment in time where I believed it would all work out. I knew that time was going to pass one way or another. I wanted to spend my time exploring opportunities. I wanted to know for myself one way or another what I was capable of.
What is really set in stone? Very few of our actual attributes and circumstances are really final. When cultivating a sense of determination for a better life, I think the first big hurdle is to embody the understanding that change is possible. Who do you want to be and what is stopping you from being that person? What attributes and core values do you want to be known for? What attributes do you admire in others? What is stopping you from having those? The universal answer is that nothing is stopping you. The trick is, in order to implement those changes, you have to first identify the attribute and associated supporting behaviors and then start the baby steps and the fuel-fire-blaze to see those changes to fruition.
Change is possible. Your hope for a better life is not evidence of denial. Your capabilities may exceed your own expectations. The accountability is on you to first identify those changes and second start exemplifying the behaviors to ignite that change.
Your chapter on resilience was something I could relate to, when what was bad gets even worse. Yet, you learned to power through. How do you build resiliency?
Blind ambition over blind optimism: Blind optimism is the intentional ignoring of the negative. This is what I refer to as the cult of positive thinking. Blind ambition is the hope that your own ambitions are possible in spite of all obstacles. In order to build resilience we have to be realistically optimistic. That is to observe the positive and the negative, do our best to problem solve to a realistic conclusion, all the while acknowledging that our ambitions are possible.
For example, in April of 2014 after having learned of a serious health condition of my father, I received a phone call to alert me that my apartment was burning down. I lost about 80% of everything I owned, was forced to displacement, and generally speaking had suffered a severe attack on my sense of safety. That spring I felt like every time I blinked things got worse. I had a strange realization that while I was the recipient of so much generosity and kindness to get me back on my feet, I still felt so violated. I felt tremendous gratitude and anger on parallel tracks. The positive and negative seemed disjointed. I took from this situation that we cannot just focus on the positive. We must address the negative all the same. To only focus on the positive is to leave half the equation unsolved. To cultivate resiliency we have to recruit some help and insight into getting to the root of the negative impact.
Of course I want to be behind positive thinking, but not at the expense of not allowing the grief process and the healing process to get appropriate attention. After learning of my father’s health and the fire, I immediately signed up to see a great counsellor. I spent my hour explaining my situation and my hope to get out in front of this, to take the inevitable emotional avalanche on….. To which my southern gentleman counsellor responded in his thick drawl, “Honey, this doesn’t work like that.” Blind optimism in my world view is glossing over the negatives. This puts a lot of pressure on a person to pretend something is what it isn’t. In order to facilitate true resilience you need to cultivate the ability to bounce back. Expressing gratitude is a wonderful place to start. This expression of gratitude has to exist in parallel with the true appreciation for the emotional processing and grief that has to go hand and hand with it. To cultivate resilience takes a realistic optimism in conjunction with the hope inspired by your own blind ambitions.
Throughout your book, I wondered what you thought about willpower. Was it something that some people just have, inherently built-in, or was it something you learned or fought for? You answered my question in your book saying it is something you develop. How do you encourage people to develop willpower?
Willpower is the ability for your will to do work: When I reflect on my own excitement for my own feeling of empowerment, I break down what it means to me. 10 years ago I was timid and uncertain; today I have a feeling of command of most situations. That being said, I don’t think I feel I can force my will on most situations, rather I feel that I will make an attempt and hopefully advance the situation, but even if everything doesn’t work out I won’t be any worse off. My empowerment comes from the awareness that the attributes you hope to exemplify require practice and development. If you want to be brave don’t expect to wake up tomorrow and be a person of heroic proportions. An appropriate expectation is to first decide to exemplify bravery, and then seize an opportunity of low risk that pushes you just a tiny bit out of your comfort zone, execute on that opportunity, and regardless of the outcome, recognize that it was an exercise in bravery. Then keep practicing. Remembering that this will take some adjustments along the way, this is not an overnight transformation.
Set yourself up for success: Willpower is a muscle that can be fatigued. Imagine a finite resource. Each exercise in willpower costs one chip and you have a total of 10 chips in a day. Your best chance at success is to reduce the number of decisions you have to make. If avoiding cookies costs one chip, your best bet is to reduce the number of cookies available. Reduce the number of decisions you are required to make by creating an environment that sets you up for success. Keep those decisions for instances that are unavoidable and will require good willpower. Don’t exhaust your willpower on situations that could have been avoided.
Practice: Just like strength training can improve that ability of work for muscles, training can improve the strength of willpower. If you have a finite number of decisions made in a day, making a good decision can become muscle memory. Practice making the choice that is in your long-term best interest. Practice making a decision that advances your fuel-fire-blaze goals until it becomes second nature.
The side effect of practice is that in the not so distant future you will trust yourself to make the right decision. You are practicing the belief that your values are supported by your willpower.
Willpower is something no one understands. Everyone says what about me? What if I wasn’t born with that strength? Live as an example to others of the path to becoming self-possessed.
What’s next for you?
Eye on the prize: My only focus is to procure the resources and train with my heart and soul every day to represent my country in the 2016 Paralympics. After that I have a ton of exciting ideas for what is possible. For now I am focusing on this blaze goal as my only vision for the future.