By Jeff Butler
Everyone has defining moments in their life. It is at these inflection points that goals, perspective, and motivation will be altered forever.
For some people, these moments are an incredibly positive experience; for others, it’s a wake up call after hitting rock-bottom. My life changed when I was involved in a severe car accident at the age of 13. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that moment helped set up me up to achieve some pretty cool things.
When you break your neck the first thing you lose is your independence. I went from a strong young athletic kid to being confined in a hospital bed with round-the-clock care. I couldn’t dress myself, feed myself, or even go to the bathroom without help. With guidance from my parents I recognized the importance of regaining my independence and being able to survive on my own. I had about 25 life skills I had to master before college and I didn’t know where or how to start.
Thankfully, serendipity intervened and I was connected with someone who had been using a wheelchair for 20 years. From his wealth of experience, he knew what I needed to do and how to begin. With his help, I was able to methodically check off each item on my list and get back to independence. He was my first true mentor, and was also how I realized the importance of leveraging individuals who have more experience. Now that I was surviving (just barely) I needed to learn how to thrive.
That same mentor introduced me to the sport of wheelchair rugby when I was 15. I began to excel at the game, and set a lofty goal of making Team USA and representing my country at the Paralympics. A familiar problem stood in my way of achieving this goal-- I had no idea how to get from where I was to where I wanted to be.
I did however know two things. First, I needed to get out of my hometown, and second, if I wanted to be the best I needed to learn from the best.
I saw an opportunity when the head coach of Team USA led a clinic for mid-level athletes. Toward the end of the clinic, I introduced myself and told him my goals. I asked him what I needed to do to grow as an athlete, and he gave me a lengthy list of feedback and areas for improvement. I took his critiques and used it as my roadmap.
In 2010 I moved to Austin, Texas to play for his club team and was invited to Team USA tryouts. I was confident heading in, and was certain that I had what it took to make the next step as an athlete-- after all, I had the list of critiques from my coach and now mentor. I was cut on the first day. I was completely deflated. My well thought out plan had failed and I felt like I was back at square one. My coach reached out to me after tryouts and helped talk me off the cliff. His message was, “Yes, this was a disappointment, but no, the world is not ending.” I was young and had plenty of opportunities to tryout ahead of me.
Sure enough I was invited to tryout again in 2011, and the outcome was the same. I wasn’t selected, but I was gaining valuable experience and learning what it was like to play at an elite level. I was invited back again in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and the result was the same each time. I was told “You’re right there, but not quite ready yet.” I was becoming seriously frustrated and more than once contemplated just throwing in my hat. Something had to change or else my dreams of an international athletic career were over.
Once again I leaned on my coach’s wisdom. He had seen many athletes fail to reach their potential and he implored me to give it one more go. “You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
Finally, on my fifth try at making the team, all the hard work paid off and I heard my name. Eleven years after setting my goal, I became a medalist at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. The lesson here? Make sure you have someone to lift you up when you’re eyeing defeat.
Throughout my athletic, personal, and professional pursuits I have put many principles to use. Among these, there is one simple life hack that can change your trajectory: successful people develop a support system of experienced mentors to help guide their path and ask for advice. It’s absolutely true that no one gets to the top by themselves, and surrounding yourself with smart and knowledgeable people is an easy way to tip the scales in your favor.