I know I’m addressing women and men with these words, not girls or boys or newborns unaware of how the world works and what civilization expects, so in detailing common topics like motivation and success, I’ll avoid tidy fortune cookie platitudes such as “Believe in yourself!” You’re adults, professionals who work. If you didn’t understand the value of belief and perseverance, you wouldn’t be given the responsibilities and rewards that define professionalism. Keeping this in mind, then, I think I have some information relevant to assisting professional men and women who maintain an open mind when it comes to expanding their potential and realizing their ambitions.
Working as a professional with a disability, there is one advantageous prospect allowing for the proliferation of working possibilities that I believe is unique to those within the disability community. Allow me to illustrate it with an example: Not so long ago, I was out having dinner with a friend, and this friend has a disability. His disability is profound enough that he needs assistance with eating and drinking, so I helped him to do these things, while intermittently allowing myself to indulge. We’re a few minutes into our meal when a woman comes to the table. She is a stranger to us. She doesn’t introduce herself, choosing instead to announce, “I think that’s great.” She looks directly at me, possibly and incorrectly assuming I’m the only one who can understand her, because I can lift food and liquid to my mouth without assistance. I say nothing, my friend goes on eating, but, dear readers, I’d be lying if I said my brow wasn’t deeply furrowed in perplexed confusion, perhaps even irritation at having my meal interrupted by someone I’ve never encountered before in my life. The interrupter of dinner continues without qualification from her audience, saying, “Wow, seeing you out here, eating at this restaurant, that is just great. I hope you really enjoy yourself.” She solemnly rested her hand on my shoulder. “You should be very proud of yourself,” she proclaimed, before leaving as suddenly and randomly as she arrived.
This is my favorite part of the story; my friend and I look at each for the space of a deep breath (perhaps a prolonged sigh), then go on eating without saying anything. Because what do you say, once bequeathed and burdened with the misbegotten pride of a woman who certainly meant well (at least, I’m optimistic enough to hope she meant well) but was so ultimately insulting that truly stressing the extent of her rude character and comportment won’t be done immediately, in speech, with a mouth full of grilled chicken? What was she proud of, and why did she feel the need to express her pride, to strangers? All we were doing was sitting in a restaurant, eating good food and drinking overpriced drinks. That’s called living life. Okay, we were doing so publicly, but I’m not so arrogant as to assume my dazzling presence ignites the hopes and dreams of the populace wherever I choose to tarry. To be so badly underestimated by a stranger, and then to have her underestimation dressed in gentility and favor, almost ruined my dinner. Almost, because, as I said, the food served on this particular occasion was good.
Underestimation of the disability community on behalf of able-bodied individuals and organizations may be the single most powerful tool a professional with a disability has at his her disposal. If the bar for general accomplishment expected from those who are disabled is set as low as it was in the example I illuminated above, how eager and prepared are you as a professional with a disability to blast through the low expectations set for you by the ignorant and the patronizing? Make no mistake, this comical underestimation transfers easily and directly to the workplace, particularly if your co-workers and administrative staff are not disabled, or do not have regular contact with people in the disability community. The opportunity to seize and emphasize power, legitimacy, and dependability within the workplace is never more attainable than when you can utterly flabbergast your supervisor simply by meeting his or her likely low expectations, then transform those expectations by defining the extent of your capability, and demonstrating professional accomplishments you can absolutely be proud of.
So if I believe motivation is exemplified by cunningly allowing yourself to be underestimated by people who don’t know any better, and then dictating how your potential can be perceived, activated, and appreciated based upon your ability to supercede, what do I think success is? I have no one answer, because success is initially made possible through confrontation, and every confrontation is subject to its own participants and limits. Harkening back to my earlier story about having dinner with my friend, I think I succeeded in that confrontation because I didn’t legitimize the saccharine insults the woman chose to levy upon me. I didn’t rage at her, laugh in her face, or storm out of the restaurant in indignation, because that would’ve put the focus on her, what she said, and what she did. I framed this specific confrontation by figuring what would be the best outcome for me, based on where I was, what I was doing, and what I wanted to continue to do. I was in a nice restaurant, with a friend, enjoying myself. I decided to continue doing these things, because the point I’m making, the success I made for myself in that moment, is that I defined and expressed what my success was, how it was realized, and why it mattered.
Success then, like motivation, comes down to control, both of expectation, and definition. Each evolution in a career, every professional prospect and project, is its own confrontation, an individual test in a series of qualifications, and each with their own conditions. I can’t and won’t write a bullet-pointed list outlining the steps to success, because that would be a worthless exercise in dishonesty.
I’ll simply say this; few things in life are as personal as success. It can mean anything, to anyone, whether it’s as basic as pile of money or as abstract as making the world you leave better than the one you arrived in, success’s only meaning comes from your expectations, decisions, capabilities, and accomplishments. As professionals, working women and men, I believe we are obligated to make our success a point of pride, and to ensure that the pride felt because of our success is completely earned.