Here is the full transcript of cancer survivor Connor O’Leary’s TEDx Talk: Focus is a Muscle at TEDxUIUC conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: focus-is-a-muscle-by-connor-oleary-at-tedxuiuc
So when I was asked to give this TED talk, I really had to think about my topic. I mean, I’m not Jeff Bezos, and you guys can see that I’m obviously not Sheryl Sandberg. So what can a 22-year old kid tell a smart group of people that will actually change their lives?
So I decided that I would talk on focus, not because I can change your lives but because focus has actually saved mine. Focus is a muscle. Standing here, looking out at all of you, a lot of you look pretty comfortable. And I can see some of you sitting with your arms folded. So try this for me. You have a natural way that your arms fold. Everyone, fold their arms. OK, now unfold them and try folding them with the opposite arm on top. You have to think about it, don’t you? It’s harder than you would have guessed. It takes a little focus.
But if you decide that you’re going to start crossing your arms with the opposite arm on top, pretty soon it won’t take any effort at all. And that’s because you will strengthen your focus muscle.
When I was little, I loved riding my bike. Walking seemed like a waste of time when all I had to do was hop on my freedom machine. And I didn’t know it at the time but cycle would ultimately become my passion and the singular focus of my time and energy. Now I began racing bikes when I was 13. And I immediately fell in love with the sport. And I quickly worked my way up the cycling ladder, going from the junior national team to the U-23 national team and ultimately racing for the best professional development cycling team in the world.
And as I progressed in the sport, my days were filled with hours and hours of training. I usually spent between four to six hours in the saddle a day. I had to concentrate on not only riding but eating well my nutrition, resting. I know that sounds really hard. And an overall focus on improving my performance. And that doesn’t even include the races themselves. While my high school friends would be living it up, I had to make myself get in bed at a decent hour so that I could wake up early, go down to the basement and ride for a few hours before school started at 7:30.
All my friends would go out to a movie and they bring this big bag of candy and I never ate it. Well, I almost never ate it. Because I knew that if I did, I was going to feel it on my ride the next day. Now it sounds pretty extreme and, to be honest, it is. That’s because you have to be focused every second you’re in a bike race.
Let me paint you a picture. This is you in the saddle. You’re riding down this steep narrow road at over 60 miles per hour, on tires that are 23 millimeters wide. That’s about the width of your thumb. And it’s not like you’re on an awesome newly paved road. The ground is full of unknown obstacles. There’s rocks, potholes, gravel and occasionally wildlife. You guys may think schools are harmless but you really have no idea. And it’s not like you’re alone. There could be as many as 200 other riders, all just riding inches away from each other. And we haven’t even factored in the weather.
If you lose focus for even one second in this race, you could not only potentially harm or kill yourself but others in the peloton. It was a necessity to force me to hone my focus muscle for these races. And so I worked and worked out for years. And little did I know that my ability to focus would not only help me in my cycling career but it would ultimately end up saving my life.
I was 19 years old and I was racing with the US national team in Europe. And everything was great. Our team is doing really well and I was living in Belgium. I mean, how could things not be great? But I had this nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. And I thought to myself it’s probably just the intense race schedule wearing me down. And so I brushed it off. But ultimately I did end up going to the doctor. And the last thing on earth I expected to hear was ‘you have cancer’. There’s something that happens when you get news like that. It’s like your heart stops pumping blood for a second, making your blood freeze in place, making your entire body feel like it’s completely dead. Just for a split second you go numb and then it hits you. Your new reality is cancer — a word so foreign, you have no idea where to even start.
Now I really felt like my body had betrayed me. For seven years, I had focused on training well, eating well, putting all this time and enduring all of this pain. I had focused on being healthy and fit. And at first, I was determined to keep training, to do it have been working for me for so many years. But not long after I started my treatment, I felt like I couldn’t think it all, never mind focusing on racing, training or even getting strong. I mean, I could not focus on anything. But I was determined that cancer wasn’t going to change me.
So I tried to keep going, with school, with racing, and with getting well. The days really did seem never ending. For seven hours a day, five days a week I set tethered to this chair in the infusion room at the Huntsman Cancer Center while I watched the chemo drip through my veins through this port that I had surgically implanted into my chest. I desperately tried to hang on to that awesome life that I’ve had just five months earlier but my focus was diminishing.
Chemo and cancer had really robbed me of my ability to focus, which is sometimes known as chemo brain. And I learned that if I was going to get better, if I was going to beat this disease, I needed to identify the essential and eliminate the rest. So that’s exactly what I did.
I stopped riding. My body was really becoming too weak anyways. I dropped all my classes that semester and I focused all of my time and energy on to one thing: beating cancer. And eventually my treatment was almost over, and I was like this hallelujah moment. I could see the end of the road. It was my second to last round of chemotherapy, and I started to experience this really crazy pain in my left collarbone. It was kind of a dull pain and it was not something I never experienced before. But trust me I had been experiencing a lot of new pains that year. And so I brushed it off as another indication that the chemo was probably just doing its thing.
But then a few hours later, that pain moved from my collarbone into my chest and shoulder blade. And at that point I was like okay, what’s going on? But again I self-diagnosed it, claiming that I must have pulled a muscle or that it was just another reaction of the chemo drugs.
But that night, that pain moved from those other places to my back and my rib cage. And I literally felt like I had been shot. Now I’ve never actually been shot. But I’m assuming that it feels something like that. It literally felt like I’ve broken every rib I had. So that night I remember sleeping in this chair in my parents’ living room. And I scoured the entire house for any painkiller I could find. The pain was absolutely excruciating. I couldn’t drink, eat, sleep or even lay down. The pain was so bad.
In the next morning, my parents came into the living room and saw me sitting in that chair. And at that point they knew they needed to get me to the ER, so they rushed me to the ER. And at that point I was literally on the verge of passing out. My pain level was through the roof and my heart was racing out of control. In the ER, the doctor came in and he told me, “Connor, you’re lucky to be alive”. He explained to me that I had pulmonary emboli which are basically big blood clots, and that they had exploded in my lungs like hand grenades, and that I still had one large plot hanging off of that port in my heart. And that they were still extremely worried that it could break loose and go to my brain. And trust me we definitely did not want that.
So I spent the next week or so lying in a hospital bed, coughing up blood, while the blood thinners ran through my veins trying to break down those clots. Hands down it was one of the scariest experiences of my life. But ultimately I was released, I was able to go home and I was able to finish those last few rounds of chemotherapy.
Now it wasn’t until I got home from the hospital that I realized it was my focus that I had to thank for being alive. It was those sometimes endless thankless cold terrible hot days of training that it served an even greater purpose than a spot on the podium. It was my focus that saved my life.
Now eventually after my chemo and my blood clots, I was able to get back on the bike. And I was able to start really training again. And eventually I did get back to the top of the sport. But before that, when the chemo and the blood clots were over, I was starting from Ground Zero. And I knew that I couldn’t just start riding immediately. So I focused on the lowest impact sport I could possibly think of, which at the time was swimming. And I remember going to the local community pool and it must have been seniors night out or seniors get half off because the place is absolutely crawling with bald-headed old guys. And I’m not going to lie, I fit right in.
So at the pool they had this kind of resistance track where you walk against the current. And so I decided okay, I’m going to start there. So I hopped in and started walking against the current. And I quickly realized that I was getting lapped by a 90 year old man, not 19, 90! Granted he was a really fit 90 year old. But I remember thinking to myself, man, this is what I’ve become. I went from being in a lead level athlete to now getting lapped in a community pool by a bunch of old people. I’m not going to like crush my soul but I remembered that focus is a muscle and it has memory — muscle memory. Although my body wasn’t cooperating, my mind hadn’t forgotten all of my cycling and training. And I could still remember those stories that I would tell myself. When I’m really hurting in a race it is key to compartmentalize. I can’t think of the big picture in the moment.
So if I’m on this climb with 10 kilometers to go, I’m thinking of the challenge or in this case the climb, in the smallest increments possible. I focus on 30 seconds, I tell myself OK, Connor, you can do anything for 30 seconds. And then I tell myself that same thing 30 seconds later. And I do this again and again and again until ultimately I’m at the top of that climb.
I’ve learned through cycling that our minds really do tend to give up before our bodies. And focus is about being able to tell ourselves the story, whatever story that may be. Now like I said, I was ultimately able to get back on the bike, really start training and get back to the top of the sport. And I didn’t know it at the time but I had one more big race ahead of me. Now anybody who knows me knows that I love traveling and I love exploring. And so when I heard that CBS was accepting applications for the Amazing Race, I knew there was no question I had to apply. So I grabbed my dad, we went into the garage and we shot this quick five-minute application video. And then before I knew it, less than six months later there we are: land upon the start line, ready to go, 10 other teams on a race around the world.
Now anybody who’s seen the race or has watched a few episodes knows that you have to read the clue. The entire clue. Those that don’t usually get eliminated quickly. So there my dad and I are. We’re on the second leg, somehow we are in the lead and we’re in Bora Bora. So we ribbed that clue open and we take off, headed to dive for pearls. So we get to the dive location and we realize we don’t have our dive bags, which we needed for the dive challenge. We hadn’t read the entire clue and we hadn’t followed the rule that we set for ourselves before the race even began, which was to read the clue slowly, thoroughly and focus on what the clue actually said. But instead of letting ourselves get distracted by our huge stupid mistake, we knew we had to refocus and get back on track immediately. So that’s exactly what we did.
You have to be able to adapt on the Amazing Race. There are so many variables that can really hinder your ability to focus, just like everyday life. In this case you have a camera in your face, you’re very sleep deprived, you’re in who knows where and you’re racing for a million dollars. So like I said you have to be able to adapt. But focus isn’t just about being singular in mind. Like I said, it’s about adaptability. And if you’ve learned how to focus, when you need to change directions in your life, you will do so much easier and quicker if you strengthen this mental muscle.
Now even though you may never be a professional cyclist and I hope that you never have to go through cancer and I really wish that you could all go on The Amazing Race. But even if that doesn’t happen for you, whatever you decide to do in your life you will do it better because you’ve learned how to focus and you never know it might just save you one day.