It’s not a joke.
The only parts of my body I can move are my eyes and lips. My hands, feet, arms, and legs, are almost totally paralyzed, managing the occasional twitch and nothing more.
And yet… I have an amazing life.
Using speech recognition technology, I’ve written articles read by more than 5 million people. I’ve also built several online magazines that have, shockingly, made me a millionaire.
“This can’t be real,” you say. “You did all this, and you can’t freaking move?”
Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true. I do it all from home, sitting in my wheelchair, speaking into a microphone.
I’ve traveled a good bit too. I’ve lived in San Diego, Miami, Austin, and even Mazatlan, Mexico. Here’s a photo of me living the good life south of the border:
I look totally miserable, don’t I? Poor baby. 🙂
Not to imply it’s been easy, mind you. During my 34 years, I’ve had pneumonia 16 times, recovered from more than 50 broken bones, and spent literally years of my life in hospitals and doctor’s offices.
But I’m still here. Not only have I survived my condition, but I’ve built a life most people only dream about.
And starting today, I want to talk about how.
Over the coming months and years, I have a great deal to share with you, but I thought we would begin with the biggest lessons I’ve learned, lessons I’ve paid for in blood and tears, lessons that have saved my life, over and over and over again. Let’s begin.
Lesson #1: If You Can’t Win the Game, Change the Rules
About a decade ago, I was totally dependent on Medicaid, the U.S. government-run health insurance, to pay about $120,000 per year in medical bills. On the one hand, I was immensely grateful, because without it, I would’ve certainly died, but I was also trapped by their benevolence.
You see, Medicaid has income limits. If I made more than $700 per month, I would lose all medical coverage. Doctors, caregivers, medications, everything.
It was basically an ironclad contract preventing me from ever getting a regular job. I had a college degree, plenty of ambition, and even a few job offers, but I couldn’t accept any of them, because the government wouldn’t let me.
It seemed like a hopeless situation. If I got a job, I would lose my health insurance. If I didn’t get a job, I’d be forced to live in poverty forever. There was no way to win the game.
So, I changed the rules.
One of the job offers I received was from a small online magazine named Copyblogger, but instead of accepting it, here’s what I told them: “I’ll work for you for free. Don’t pay me anything. The only catch is, sometime in the future, I’m going to ask you for some favors, and if I do good work for you, I’d really appreciate your help.” They agreed, so I spent the next two years working 40-80 hours per week, mostly free of charge, although they did find ways to throw a few dollars my way every now and again.
During that time, I explored moving to Mexico. By moving there, I could reduce my health expenses from $120,000 to $18,000 per year. $102,000 in savings!
Eventually, I pulled the trigger. I called my boss and said, “Remember how I said I would ask for favors one day? Well, it’s time. I’m starting a consulting practice, and I’d love some help getting clients.” The next day, he allowed me to reach out to about 50,000 readers, and I filled my entire client roster within 24 hours.
Then I moved to Mexico, abandoning the U.S. healthcare system entirely. Within 30 days, I was making more than $10,000 a month, living in a beachfront condo, and paying for all my own health care expenses.
By not playing the government’s game. Instead, I created a different game, a game that worked by my rules, a game I could win.
“But Jon,” you say. “You don’t understand. My situation is hopeless.”
The options available to you right now may be hopeless, but you can always create new ones. It’s not easy, but if you’re strong enough, you can turn any situation to your advantage. The key is to develop that strength in advance. Here’s how:
Lesson #2: Pain is Power
At some point or another, life punches everyone in the face.
The punch may be hard, or it may be soft, but it’s definitely coming, and your success or failure is largely determined by the answer to a single question: how well can you take the punch?
Do you roll around on the ground, weeping and moaning? Do you rock back on your heels but then keep going? Or have you been punched so many times already you don’t even notice?
Personally, I’m a living example of the last one. If you want to know what it’s like to live with a severe disability, just imagine that every morning six big guys sneak into your room and beat the hell out of you. Most days, the beating isn’t so bad, and you can limp through your day. Every now and again though, they keep punching and kicking you until you’re bleeding and broken, lose consciousness, and wake up in the hospital breathing through a tube.
That’s the best way I know to describe my life. Since the day I was born, muscular dystrophy has given me a daily beating.
It’s made me incredibly strong. I can take any punch life throws at me without even breaking stride.
Lost $100,000 on a business deal? No biggie. Key employee quits? Yawn. Getting audited by the IRS? Wake me up when something important happens. Next to fusing my spinal vertebrae together, shattering my legs, or nearly drowning in my own mucus, none of it is honestly that big of a deal.
This, my friends, is the advantage of pain. The more you experience, the more you can handle in the future, and the less it knocks you off your game.
The way you respond to that pain is another matter, which we’ll talk about in a moment. For now, the point I want to make is this: if you feel depressed and weak, unable to cope with the difficulties of life, it’s not because you are a flawed human being. It’s because you were unprepared for the pain you are experiencing. The problem, ironically, is that you haven’t suffered enough.
The opposite is also true. If you want to become a stronger and more capable person, the smartest thing you can do is systematically (and safely) increase your pain tolerance.
For example, Tim Ferriss recommends lying down in the middle of a crowded public place like a supermarket or a coffee shop. You’ll feel like a fool, but the experience will condition you to deal with embarrassment and discomfort in the future.
The bottom line?
The degree of success you achieve in life is directly proportional to the amount of pain you can tolerate. If you ever want to accomplish big things like building a successful business, becoming the best in your field, or changing the world in some way, you need to start training yourself to endure the pain all those things require. It’ll also prepare you for the next time life punches you in the face, which is inevitable.
The only caveat is you have to keep the right mindset. If you respond to pain the wrong way, it makes you weaker, not stronger. Let’s talk about how to make sure that doesn’t happen…
Lesson #3: The Secret to Survival
In 2006, a teenager who we’ll call Bill was late to work at Wendy’s. Worried that his boss was going to fire him, he decided to floor it, driving through the city at 85 miles per hour, weaving in and out of traffic, running red lights, and squealing around corners. At first, everything went fine, but then something happened…
He plowed into my minivan going through an intersection. He was going so fast that it nearly ripped the entire front end of the van off, spinning me like a top in the street. My head went through the window, knocking me out, and when I woke up, I was stuffed underneath the dashboard, my 300 pound wheelchair lying on top of me, blood squirting out of my head, my legs shattered from my toes to my hips.
I spent the next month in the hospital. The bill was about $130,000, and not surprisingly, I discovered good ol’ Bill had crappy insurance, paying out a maximum of $20,000 for the accident. To top it off, doctors predicted it would take an entire year to recover enough to work or go back to school.
As if it wasn’t enough that I was already dealing with Medicaid, poverty, and muscular dystrophy. Life decided to pile on a little extra, just to see how much I could take.
And honestly? It was a miracle I didn’t crack.
How easy would it have been to sink into despair? Or rage against the unfairness? Or maybe even take a little bit too much morphine one day and end it all?
But I didn’t. Mostly, I was able to handle it because I’d been conditioned by all the other difficulties of my life, but it was also because I deliberately shifted my perspective.
The people who struggle most are the ones who can’t accept the incessant unfairness of life. They become so consumed with what should have happened, the way other people should have behaved that they become incapable of dealing with reality.
If I allowed myself to be angry at Bill for even one moment, I may have sunk into a pit of rage and despair so deep I would’ve never climbed out of it. Instead, I forced myself to say, “Okay, this is my life now. What’s next?” After all, I couldn’t change what happened. The only thing I had control over was how I responded to that change, and the first and most critical response was total and complete acceptance.
A lot of people view acceptance as weakness. They think that, if they accept what’s happened to them, they’ll be admitting defeat.
But it’s the opposite. It’s only by acknowledging reality that you can create a plan to change that reality. Acceptance, as it turns out, is the first step to victory.
Following the accident, I hired an attorney who fought the insurance companies, the hospital, everyone. It took months, but he eventually settled my medical bills and gave me enough money to purchase a new car, totally debt-free. Meanwhile, I focused on my rehab, completing it in six months instead of the year doctors predicted, and I resumed my life even healthier than I was before the accident.
We’ve all heard the cliché about turning lemons into lemonade, but to do that, you can’t be pissed off at the lemons, go into denial about the existence of the lemons, or get depressed because you’re tired of making lemonade.
Or better yet, just discard the lemons-to-lemonade metaphor entirely. Here’s a much better way to think about it:
Lesson #4: The Art of the Counterpunch
Remember how we talked about the importance of being able to take a punch?
Well, it’s only the first step. Once you’ve built some endurance, it’s time to learn how to fight back.
In boxing, every beginner learns the importance of the counterpunch. By attacking you, your opponent has to let his guard down, and it creates a brief but very real opportunity for you to sneak in a blow. You just have to train yourself to spot the opening.
Ironic, isn’t it? The best time to attack your opponent turns out to be right after he attacks you. In fact, the stronger the attack, the bigger the opportunity for a counterpunch.
And it’s true for more than just boxing. In life, every difficulty carries with it a corresponding opportunity of equal size.
For example, let’s go back to the car accident from the last section. I mentioned how I got an attorney to settle the medical bills and dedicated myself to rehab, completing it in half the time, but I didn’t tell you the best part of the story.
In between rehab visits, I had a lot of free time on my hands. A lot of people would’ve flopped down in front of the TV and zoned out, but thankfully, I had the presence of mind to recognize the opportunity. I’d always wanted to write more, but I’d never had the time… until the accident. So, I seized the opportunity and got my gimpy ass to work.
At first, it was only a journal, a way of jotting down my thoughts and emotions as a way to cope with the trauma. I enjoyed it so much I decided to start a blog, and within 60 days, it got nominated as one of the best blogs in the world. Following the nomination, I got an offer to help run an up-and-coming magazine, the one that eventually helped me launch my consulting practice when I got to Mexico, allowing me to live the life of my dreams.
Was it luck? A mere twist of fate that turned tragedy into triumph?
Not at all. It was a deliberate counterpunch, a way of taking the force of the blow life had dealt me and turning it to my advantage.
It’s just one of many throughout my life. Here are some more:
Punch: None of the cool kids in school want to be friends with me, because the wheelchair makes them uncomfortable. I become an outcast.
Counterpunch: I hang out with the other outcasts: nerds. They teach me how to code, and I’m writing my own software by the age of 12.
Punch: I can’t play sports, go swimming, or any of the other fun stuff kids do. I’m stuck inside, trapped in a body that can’t move.
Counterpunch: To keep from going crazy, I read half a dozen books a week. By the time I graduate high school, I’ve read more than most of my teachers.
Punch: I get accepted into MIT, but I’m dirt poor. For a year, I beg for help, but everyone ignores me. I have to turn down the offer.
Counterpunch: I apply to my somewhat crappy local university, and they offer me a full scholarship. I graduate debt-free.
Again, it looks like luck, but it’s not. The people we call “lucky” are ruled by the same fickle hand of fate as everyone else. The difference: when that hand turns against them, they look around, and they spot the opening.
The moral of the story:
The next time life punches you in the face, stop for a moment and ask yourself this simple question:
What’s the counterpunch?
No matter how bad the situation, no matter how hopeless it seems, there is always an opportunity to turn it to your advantage. You just have to discipline yourself to spot the opening, and then find the courage to use it.
Lesson #5: How to Find the Courage to Face Anything
The heart monitor flatlined.
I was lying in a shabby little bed in a nursing home you’ve never heard of. For years, I’d drifted toward death, and blessedly, mercifully, it was finally here. My heart stopped, my limbs quivered, and my bowels let loose, filling the air with a sickly stench. One last breath escaped my lips, and I was gone.
A few minutes later, a nurse walked into the room, wrinkling her nose at the stink. Pulling out her clipboard, she glanced at her watch and wrote down the time of death. Next, she pulled out her phone and called the morgue. “Got another one for you. Room 305,” she told them. With that, she pulled a sheet over my head and left the room. Two days later, they cremated me, and that, as they say, was that.
Pretty depressing, right?
Obviously, none of this ever happened. I wouldn’t be writing right now if it did.
But it could’ve happened. Years ago, if I’d made different decisions, I could’ve easily ended up in a nursing home somewhere. Crazily, it could still happen now. A few missteps, and I could lose everything, dying broken, useless, and alone.
And I’ll be straight up with you:
It scares the hell out of me. More than anything. You could pull out a gun, shove the barrel in my mouth, and start counting, and it wouldn’t even come close to scaring me as much as the scene I described.
Dying is one thing. A pointless death where no one notices or cares is quite another. To me at least.
Here’s why I am telling you this:
Every now and again, somebody asks me how I found the courage to move to Mexico with no money, no friends, and no backup plan. There are a gazillion different ways it could have gone wrong. I could’ve been robbed and murdered by thieves along the highway, scammed by immigration officials, or starved to death because I couldn’t afford food. Let’s face it, Mexico can be a dangerous place, and moving there in my condition was absolute insanity.
I knew this. I’ve never been one of those delusional people who thinks nothing bad will ever happen to them. On the contrary, I was pretty sure I was about to die, and I was scared. When we drove across the border, I was sweating and shaking so much I was worried that immigration guys would think I was on drugs.
So, why did I do it? Why didn’t I turn back to the relative safety of the U.S.?
Well, my thought process went like this:
Worry: I could be scammed by immigration officials.
Response: True, but that’s still better than dying in a nursing home.
Worry: I could be killed by robbers along the highway
Response: True, but that’s still better than dying in a nursing home.
Worry: I could starve to death because I can’t afford food.
Response: True, but that’s still better than dying in a nursing home.
In other words… yes, I was terrified, but a sad, quiet little death in a nursing home terrified me more. I consciously and deliberately harnessed that fear, using it to propel me to do things everyone thought were insane.
And that’s how courage works. The people we think of as heroes don’t have a mystical ability to transcend fear. To them, the alternative to taking action is simply unacceptable. They do what needs to be done, not because they want to, but because they feel there is no other choice.
Same for me. To get myself to take action, I didn’t meditate, clear my mind, and proceed to do the impossible with calmness and confidence. I woke up each morning and pictured what would happen if I didn’t act. I envisioned the heart monitor, the nurse, my body being pushed into the flames. I deliberately put myself into a state of such intense terror that everything I had to do felt manageable by comparison.
It’s dark, I know, but it’s also an immense secret. If you find yourself paralyzed by fear, the only way out is often to find something that scares you more. Imagine what will happen if you do nothing, make it so real in your mind that you’re about to jump out of your skin, and then harness that energy to do the crazy things you need to do.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting you live your life in fear. The moment you’ve faced down the impossible situation, stop torturing yourself. Adopt a positive attitude, and go about your life.
But if you’re just trying to survive?
Fear is fuel. So burn, baby, burn.
Lesson #6: Embrace the Crazy
Was it reasonable for me to give up all my government benefits and move to a country not exactly known for its stellar medical care?
Was it reasonable to work 40+ hours a week for a company that didn’t pay me a dime?
Was it reasonable for me to start a business when failure would’ve meant starving to death on the streets of Mexico?
Not in the slightest. It was actually pretty crazy.
Here’s the thing, though:
If you’re in a crazy situation, sometimes the only way out is to make a bold move that appears insane, but it’s not, because the alternative is worse.
For instance, I’ll readily admit that working for a company full-time without asking for a penny in return is a dumb idea most of the time. Compared to the alternative of not working at all though, it’s actually a smart move.
The problem is, we’re not used to thinking that way. We’re so used to evaluating options on their own merits that we become paralyzed in situations where all the options are bad.
The solution is to train yourself to at least acknowledge the crazy alternatives. Whenever you’re making a decision, ask yourself, “What are the options I’m not considering because they seem too crazy?” You don’t have to choose the crazy option, but you should still train yourself to recognize it, because there might come a day when you need it.
Here’s a current example from my life:
I cope with a fair amount of back pain. This surprises some people, because they assume I can’t feel anything from the neck down, but I can. My disease only affects the motor neurons, not the sensory ones, so I’m able to feel just as much as anyone. Most days, the pain is manageable, but sometimes it’s unbearable.
The typical treatment options: narcotics, anti-inflammatories, herbal therapies, surgery, exercise, stretching, chiropractic adjustments, acupuncture, a new wheelchair seating system, and lots of other reasonable things.
But what are the unreasonable options?
In order of increasing craziness, I could…
- Buy a $5,000 bed that’s like floating on a pocket of air, lie down in it, and never move again, conducting all my business from bed for the rest of my life.
- Destroy all the nerve endings in my back, making it totally numb. Believe it or not, this is an actual medical procedure. It’s called denervation.
- Sever my spine, losing not only sensation but also the ability to breathe without a respirator. Obvious drawbacks, and I’m not sure I could get a doctor to do it, but still better than the last option…
Am I seriously considering any of these options?
Hell no! The pain isn’t nearly bad enough to take such drastic measures.
But it’s also comforting to be prepared for the worst. No matter how bad it gets, I always know I have options. If I’m forced to explore those options, I’ve prepared in advance, so I’m not trying to figure it all out in the moment.
The bottom line?
No matter how impossible the situation seems, you’re never trapped. There are always options.
And that brings us to the final lesson…
Lesson #7: Never, never, never give up
My mother rammed her hands into my ribs, forcing the air from my lungs. I coughed, the mucus rattling deep in my chest.
And then I screamed.
A few weeks earlier, I’d caught pneumonia, a respiratory infection that’s dangerous for a healthy person and a near-death sentence for someone like me. I didn’t have the strength to cough the mucus up myself, so doctors taught my mother to thrust her hands into my ribs, supplying the necessary force.
And it worked, but then something terrible happened:
My ribs cracked. Worse, the bones would grind together and fracture a little more every time my mother helped me cough.
But we couldn’t stop. If we did, doctors were absolutely certain I would suffocate and die.
So, literally hundreds of times per day, my mother would shove on my broken ribs. I screamed, I cried, I begged her to stop. Still a child, I couldn’t understand why she had to hurt me so much. Even today, I marvel that she could bring herself to do it.
But she did. For weeks.
One night, when I was lying in bed, wheezing and whimpering, she brought this little plaque of a quote from Winston Churchill and put it on the table beside me. It sits on my desk now.
“Say the words,” she said.
I shook my head. “It hurts.”
“Whisper them, then,” she said, and so I did. Every night, she would push on my ribs a dozen times before going to bed, and every night, she would make me whisper the words…
Never, never, never give up.
Hokey? Yes, but it worked. I never gave up, not because I was strong or brave or special, but because my mother wouldn’t let me.
And now I want to do the same for you.
Sooner or later, we all reach a point in life where our trials become unbearable. Determination turns to despair, self-confidence becomes self-pity, and our hope for a better tomorrow dwindles and dies, replaced by a grim certainty that our life is over.
But it’s not. We simply need someone to remind us that triumph over adversity isn’t about being the strongest or the smartest, the “perfect” human being who can overcome anything life throws at them. On the contrary, the greatest victories are won by the weakest people, living in the darkest times, facing monsters that make even the stoutest heroes cower and run.
And yet they prevail. Not through riches or genius or even luck, but by setting their jaw, bracing their feet, and weathering the storm. They don’t defeat misfortune; they outlast it, clinging stubbornly to their spot, absorbing blow after blow, roaring their defiance into the wind until their lips crack and their voice breaks, and yet still they find the strength to whisper, “I will never, ever give up.”
You can be one of those people. I know you can, and so I came here to tell you…
Today, you might feel too poor or sick or unlucky to reach for your dreams, but you’re not.
Today, you might feel too tired or depressed or sad to even try, but you’re not.
Today, you might feel like an outcast, forgotten by your friends or family or anyone who might help you, but again, you are not.
You’re still breathing, my friend. That’s all it takes to stage a comeback.
So, say it with me now, would you?
“I will never, ever give up.”
Say it. Believe it.
And then recognize you’ve begun the journey to becoming totally unstoppable.