We all experienced pain as kids. And we were never the same. In a good way.
I didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur. I initially became a respite worker because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids who were dealt a tough hand. My education and experience comes from the frontline - one on one care in the community. That’s my comfort zone.
I’ve always been passionate about business and trying new things. Still, when I started Spark, I was pushing myself well beyond my comfort zone. I knew I would need to learn, as often as I could, from the best. After a few years on the roller coaster of starting up a small business, I realized I needed more than just education. I needed inspiration.
Inspiration is what I got at the iCONIC tour in Los Angeles a few months ago. The iCONIC tour is an incredible, multi-city conference for entrepreneurs. A chance to connect, think outside the box and be re-energized by some incredible business leaders and visionaries. There were countless moments and interactions that inspired me. The one I want to tell you about came from Tony Robbins.
First of all, Tony Robbins is self taught. He has no formal training. That alone was incredibly encouraging to me. He has this rasp to his voice. It’s like you can hear the wear and tear on his vocal chords from the years of relentlessly sharing his story and encouraging people. It’s like seeing a retired athlete with a limp. You can tell they’ve given everything to pursuing their passion.
Second, he is a massive dude. When you shake hands, his completely envelops yours. Imagining him being bullied is almost unfathomable. The fact that he’s so big and so gentle made it even more shocking to learn that he had an absolutely horrible childhood. His father abandoned him. His mom would routinely hold his mouth open and pour dish soap down his throat until he threw up. As punishment. Seriously.
The world has a way of pushing people who suffer that kind of abuse to the margins. Yet, against many odds, he somehow knew he was more. And he’s since built a remarkable life out of helping and motivating people.
So, I’m listening to Tony speak. Every once in awhile when I’m reading an article or listening to a podcast, I have this wild, cinematic, almost mystical experience. Everything suddenly slows right down. And, it’s as if the idea I’m reading or hearing about is being drawn in the sky in enormous, bolded letters. As Tony was telling his story, I had that hyperfocus moment again. I’ll never forget what he said.
“If my mom was who I wanted her to be, I wouldn’t be the man I’m proud to be.”
Wow. Incredible, right? Hard. But, so true.
A few days ago I was reading an article about Joni Mitchell that brought me back to that moment. To quote the article:
“[Joni’s] development as an artist was born from an experience of intense physical pain. An only child raised on Canada’s Saskatchewan prairie [...] she developed polio at the age of 9. She spent several months in the winter of 1953 quarantined in a local hospital and barely able to move; her father never visited and her mother came only once to bring her a small Christmas tree just before the holiday. [...]
Looking back, Mitchell now recalls it as a transformative, character-building episode—one that caused her to develop self-reliance and a slow, almost meditative way of being in the world. “I would have been an athlete,” she said years later. But after polio, “I lost my speed, so that I was never gonna win a swimming contest. I turned to grace. I turned to things that didn’t require such speed: water ballet, dance. And I think that it was a blessing in a way because it developed the artistic side.”
Just like Tony, Joni may not have been the incredible creative force she was if it weren’t for her “transformative” experience of pain as a child.
This is pretty radical stuff. We don’t want to suffer. We don’t want other people to suffer. And yet, as painful as the wounds of our childhood can be, there’s a way they can be redeemed.
Reading about Joni Mitchell got me thinking about my own story.
My dad struggled with alcohol, anxiety and depression for my entire childhood. I wasn’t that aware of it as a young kid, but it was an ever-present part of my teenage years. I remember walking downstairs in the morning being afraid that he hadn’t made it through the night. Even when I went to Thunder Bay to start University, it was always in the back of my mind.
I relate to Joni and Tony. Once you experience that sort of thing in your life, the other stuff doesn’t bother you very much. Business is tough. It’s cutthroat. People are trying to eat your lunch. But it’s not a living, breathing human. It’s not irreplaceable. If your business dies, you can always start a new business. Joni couldn't become the athlete she was before polio. Tony couldn't forget and replace his abusive mom. I couldn't get a new dad.
Going through that has given me a resilience. It takes more for things to affect me than it used to. The more pain I go through, the higher my threshold becomes. My dad’s struggles, his death, as hard as they were for me, helped me become who I am. Someone who takes risks and isn’t afraid to lose or to fail. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without that.
So my question for you today is - how has something painful in your life ended up transforming who you are?