by Michael J Gelb © 2012 All Rights Reserved
Since 1979 I’ve been traveling the world on a mission: to inspire people about their potential to change, grow and learn throughout life. We are all gifted with the same cortical endowment as Leonardo da Vinci and my goal is to help people learn the practical skills for accessing and applying that gift. I love inspiring others and I love meeting people who inspire me. On my recent Creativity and Innovation World Tour (Lucca, Florence, Rome, Carlsbad, Adelaide, Canberra, Sydney, London, Paris, Basel, Miami, New Orleans!) I met 3 very inspiring people, here’s the story:In October I spoke to a group of 1000 women in Rome at the Women’s International Networking Conference. The theme of WIN is “Women [and a few men] inspiring Women.” Of the many impressive women I met, Anne Grethe Solberg from Norway is the most inspiring. Anne is a beautiful, upright, clear-eyed gender consultant. I met her when we appeared together at the pre-conference press event and then was lucky to enjoy a drink with her on the final gala evening. Six years ago, Anne’s former husband tried to murder her when they met to sign their divorce papers. He shot her twice with a shotgun at close range crushing her right hip and blowing off her entire left arm. (He then turned the gun on himself and died shortly after the murder attempt).
She adds, “In spite of the doctor’s verdict I thought: Heyyy Heyyyy – I will aim to be the most fancy and coolest lady with one arm in Norway – WATCH ME!”
Anne now runs her own successful consulting business (she received the Norwegian Consultant of the Year Award 2012), and she also runs marathons! She recently completed the Oslo, Berlin and New York Marathons. Anne also completed her PhD in Sociology. She quips,” I refused to quit my Doctoral project. I started it with 10 fingers and finished with five.”
Although traumatized physically and emotionally by the horrific assault Anne impressed and inspired me with her poise and positivity. She still has nightmares about the incident but has developed a method for freeing herself from painful thoughts. Her method is simple and elegant: Mindfulness. Anne states, “I am not my thoughts.” While we were enjoying flutes of Prosecco overlooking the illuminated dome of St Peter’s on the gala evening she explained, “I consciously focus on the positive.” She said this with a steely resolve and freedom from any discernible resentment or self-pity. As we spoke I felt a renewal of my own experience of inner freedom, emotional courage and deep gratitude.
A few weeks after my Italian trip I flew to Sydney, Australia where I spoke at a conference entitled Mind and Its Potential another extraordinary event with many inspiring presenters including Sam Cawthorn. In 2006 Sam’s car was smashed by a huge truck and he was pronounced clinically dead at the scene. Miraculously, EMTs helped revive him. They brought him to the hospital, where he spent 5 months recovering from 2 collapsed lungs, multiple broken bones and the loss of his right arm. Doctors told Sam, “You will never walk again.”
I first saw Sam as he walked on stage to address the group of 700 conference participants. He explained how his positive attitude in the face of crushing adversity enabled him to regain his ability to walk and to live a fulfilling and active life. (Sam is the CEO of Empowering Enterprises, a successful consulting firm focusing on Leadership, Resilience, Crisis Management and Future Trends.) Sam, who playfully boasts that he is the world’s greatest one-armed guitarist, serenaded the group with a beautiful song entitled “I am Blessed,” as the audience sang along eyes moistened and hearts opened. He then shared the story of meeting the Prime Minister of Australia in Canberra when he was honored as “The Young Australian of the Year.” Apparently, the PMs handlers hadn’t briefed him on the status of the hand he’d be shaking (prosthetic!) and it came off during the meeting. Tears turned to laughter as Sam quipped that this “was a disarming moment.”
What I like most about Sam, besides his winning smile and delightful sense of humor, is his genuine desire to help the audience in the best way possible. I felt a deepening of my own commitment to help others and was honored that I was able to speak to this group from the same stage.
The highlight of the second day of Mind and Its Potential was an interview with Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California in San Diego. Nicknamed “Rama,” he’s been hailed as “The Marco Polo of neuroscience” by Richard Dawkins and Time listed him as one of “the most influential people in the world” in 2011.
Rama is one of the world’s greatest neuroscientists and it just so happens that he’s best known for his work on phantom limbs. What is a phantom limb? When people lose an arm or leg they often continue to experience the sensation of the missing limb as though it were still present. These sensations can include extreme pain, itching and other unpleasant phenomena that make the phantom limb problem more than just an area of academic interest. Rama has devised an approach to “remapping” the missing limb in the brain in a way that has provided profound relief for many patients.
Rama was interviewed by Natasha Mitchell an award winning science writer who serves on the board of the World Federation of Science Journalists. Natasha, who I had met on a previous occasion, is an appropriately skeptical, tough-minded science journalist. She asked Rama point blank: “ Isn’t neuroplasticity being oversold?”
I must confess that I held my breath a bit as I waited for his answer. My experience of meeting Anne and Sam had touched me deeply, and, at this point I’d been on the road for most of the year ( and much of the last 33 years) aiming to empower others to apply the principle of neuroplasticity to their lives. Was I overly enthusiastic about neuroplasticity? Did I go too far out on a limb? Had I oversold human potential to my audiences?
I sighed with relief, as Rama answered, “No!” He went on to explain that most of us underestimate our potential to change, grow and learn.
Anne and Sam choose, every day, to consciously “re-map” not just their missing limbs but their minds and hearts to focus on the positive and to help others. They didn’t need Rama’s research to help them, as Sam expresses it “ Bounce Forward.” And, the combination of the examples of these two paragons with the validation of contemporary neuroscience can inspire all of us to be more grateful for our blessings, more resilient in the face of adversity, and more focused on change, growth and learning every day.