Full text of wheelchair athlete Dean Furness’ talk titled “To Overcome Challenges, Stop Comparing Yourself To Others” at TED Talks conference. In this talk, Dean shares how, after losing the use of his legs in an accident, he discovered a powerful new mindset focused on redefining his “personal average” and getting better little by little.
Dean Furness – Wheelchair athlete
It seems we have been measured almost all of our lives. When we are infants, with our height and our weight, and as we grew it became our speed and our strength.
And even in school there are test scores, and today with our salaries and job performance. It seems as if those personal averages are almost always used to measure where we are in comparison to our peers.
And I think we should look at that a little differently. That personal average is just that, it’s something very personal and it’s for you. And I think if you focus on that and work to build that, you can really start to accomplish some really amazing things.
This idea started for me on a December evening in 2011. I had just stepped outside to do our evening chores to feed our horses. I hopped into our tractor, and a few minutes later, a five foot tall, 700-pound bale of hay fell from the loader, crushing me in the seat of the tractor and in the process shattering my T5 and T6 vertebrae.
I didn’t lose consciousness, but I felt this buzz throughout my body, and I knew what had happened right away.
My hands were reaching for my legs, but my legs didn’t recognize anything touching them. And in fact, I couldn’t feel anything from the center of my chest down.
So there I was, about 100 feet from the house, with my arms wrapped around the steering the wheel, trying to hold myself up, waiting for help.
And unlike what you see in TV and the movies, as much as I tried to get the dogs to go to the house and get help… they just stared at me.
Well, 45 minutes later, my wife came home, and I heard her step out of the house and, like, normal, if I needed help, “Hey, do you need help?”
And I said, “Yes.”
And there was a brief pause and then I heard her yell, “Do you need 9/11 help?”
And again I yelled, “Yes.”
Well, not long after I was enjoying my very first helicopter ride all the way to the hospital. Now, the injury wasn’t very dramatic or graphic. I simply broke a bone or two.
And in the process, I was told I’d probably never walk again. It became very normal for me to use a rope to sit up in bed, because my abdominal muscles no longer work. Or to use a board to slide out of bed into a wheelchair, or to even wait for people to reach things for me.
Everything that I had learned and had known about my height and my strength and my balance and my mobility was blown away. My entire personal average had been reset.
Now you could be sure in those days I was being measured more than ever, by the doctors and nurses for sure but maybe more so in my own mind. And I found myself comparing what I thought I was going to be able to do going forward with what I once was able to do.
And I became pretty frustrated. It took some very consistent prodding from my wife, who kept saying, “Get your eyes up,” before I could get moving forward.
And I soon realized that I almost had to forget about the person I was before and the things I was able to do before. I almost had to pretend it was never me.
And I’m afraid if I had not made that realization, my frustration would have turned into something much harder to recover from.
Now, luckily, a few weeks later, I was transferred to a specialty spinal cord rehab hospital about 10 hours from home, and wouldn’t you know, the first day of rehab and the first session we had something called fit class, and a group of us broke into teams to see which team could do the most reps in the weight machine.
Now, we’ve all been there, haven’t been to the gym in a year or two. Neither had I.
And so what do you do? You try to do what you did a couple of years ago, and you do a couple of sets. And then what do you do? A couple more. And you’re feeling even better, so you do more.
And the next two weeks you complain to your family about how sore you are. Well, my team went all out and we won, we won big, and for the next three days I could not straighten my arms, which isn’t that big a deal except when you’re in a wheelchair. And that’s really what you have to use to get around.
And that proved to be a very important lesson for me. It was one thing that I couldn’t compare myself to myself, but even around people in the same situation in that hospital, I found that I couldn’t try to keep pace or set pace with them as well.
And I was left with really only one choice, and that was to focus on who I was at that point in time with where I needed to go and to get back to who I needed to be.
For the next six weeks, for seven to eight hours a day, that’s what I did. I built little by little, and, as you might expect, when you’re recovering from a spinal cord injury, you’re going to have a bad day. You might have a few in a row.
What I found out is that good and bad really didn’t have a lot of meaning unless I had the context of knowing what my average was. It was really up to me to decide if something was bad or good based on where I was at that point in time, and it was in my control to determine if it really was a bad day.
In fact, it was my decision on whether or not I could stop a streak of bad days. And what I found during that time away from home is I never had a bad day, even with everything going on.
There were parts of my day that were certainly not as pleasant as they could be, but it was never an entirely bad day. So I’m guessing that all of you have been through a meeting that probably didn’t go very well, or a commute that wasn’t as great as you would like it, or even burned dinner at night.