Sitting in a coffin-tight bobsled waiting for the crew to push me off, my chest tightens. They give me a shove and suddenly I’m flying. The first part of the concrete track covered with ice is straight, and in a sport that’s recorded in the hundredths of seconds – I know that our speed may soon excel 75 miles an hour. There’s no time to think. We round three quick turns and I’m blasted with snow.
Reflecting on that bobsled run, and the Kamikaze Skeleton Run in Norway, I still get goose bumps. But as an adventurer with a few world records under my belt, such as flying the English Channel in an open-cockpit microlight, driving a Lotus in the Malaysian Grand Prix, and climbing some of the world’s largest mountains, the sled runs are meaningful not because they’re record-setting “firsts”, but because I set another challenge for myself and I did it!
I am blind. I lost my sight when I was 25 years old from retinitis pigmentosa – a genetic hereditary eye disease. The loss was traumatic, as I had just a few years previously joined the Air Force with the dream of becoming a pilot like my dad. As my sight gradually decreased, so did my confidence and the quality of my life.
I resigned myself to the fact that I could never again be fulfilled or happy. After all, how could a man with such a huge handicap ever expect to be happy?
Then something happened that transformed my life. My brother Geoff, who is also blind from the same disease, set sail in his yacht to cross the ocean from Durban, South Africa to Fremantle, Australia. Aided only with speech output navigation equipment, he sailed alone for 51 days, and overcame what everyone said was impossible odds. It was the first solo ocean crossing by a blind person. When I flew to celebrate with him, I was amazed by the response of other sailors.
These seasoned sailors were in awe of Geoff and this phenomenal human achievement. It was a revelation. I realized that having 20/20 vision wasn’t the secret to happiness, and that like Geoff, I too had a life filled with choices.
After the crossing, Geoff and I teamed up and ran in the toughest foot race in the world – the Marathon Des Sable. It’s a grueling 144-mile trek across the Sahara Desert in temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit with a 25-pound pack on your back. Here I was, running with the strongest and fittest athletes, and I hadn’t run since I was a kid! And during the race, these tough and rugged marine types kept coming up to me to tell me they thought I was special. It was a remarkable leap in my confidence and self-perception!
Since then, I’ve taken on challenges that I never imagined possible. I’ve participated in brutal competitions, like hauling a sledge 250 miles across Antarctica and crossing the Qatar Desert non-stop in 78 hours without sleep.
It was during this crossing with Major Jay Turner, when I first heard T.S. Eliot’s insightful quote, “Only he who is willing to risk going too far will discover how far it is possible to go.”
We dragged a third of a ton of water and supplies with us through deep sand, endured temperatures up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit and 50% humidity. We started on Tuesday morning and reached the other side of the desert on Friday evening – some 78.5 hours later. How did we do it? One step at a time! As Eliot said, you can keep going long after you think you can’t.
I’ve also learned that there are two parts to life. There’s the part of living that we can’t control; like my blindness. But there’s also a part we can totally control, made up of our thoughts and emotions. When I took the focus off of my blindness, I stopped having a victim mentality and stopped accepting what society thought being blind meant. That’s when I began to embrace change.
I’m now privileged to spend a good part of my life connecting with people and sharing my story. In the last two years, I’ve given motivational talks in over 66 countries. It’s wonderfully inspiring for me to help people go beyond self-imposed limitations and show them that the quality of our lives is often not determined by circumstances, but by our response to them. I’m living proof. I’m happier in my life right now than I’ve ever been before.
Fulfillment is achieved by working towards dreams and focusing on the things you can do, not the things you can’t. Take a moment to draw an imaginary circle around yourself. The circle represents everything you’ve done to date. And every time you try something new, the circle grows bigger and reforms around you. The more new experiences you try, the bigger your circle grows.
People have said, “Look at that silly blind man running off to climb mountains!” But climbing those frozen slopes of Kilimanjaro at 19,000 feet, in the icy moonlight, has hugely expanded my circle. It’s easier than you think to step outside of your comfort zone and try something new.
For me, making a decision to attempt something new and then following through with the commitment of, “Come hell or high water; I’m going to do it!” makes me feel like a success. I’m just like everyone else with my own fears, phobias, and failures. But anything that makes me step outside of my circle is an opportunity for growth and allows me to explore how far I can go.
Reading the biographies of people who have achieved great things in their lives has taught me that the journey to greatness is often paved with adversity. Louis Braille was blinded at the age of three, playing with a spiked instrument. Many years later, he invented the Braille alphabet, giving back to millions of blind people the ability to read once again. Do you know what he used to make the raised dots on the paper? The very same spiked instrument that blinded him!
My dear friend Mike Mackenzie and my adopted Irish sister Caroline Casey are two of my own personal heroes. Although paraplegic, Mike has an unstoppable spirit. And Caroline, who is legally blind, completed a three-month, 621 mile trek across India on an elephant to raise money for charity.
Of course I don’t expect everyone to try the things I’ve done. But I know from experience that taking risks – however small, and building on them, can make a positive impact on your life. The basic life plan I refer to is this: “Dream, Decide, Plan, and Persevere.”
Start dreaming big and then make a decision to act. Once you put a plan in place, persevere and then surround yourself with loving people who will support you in reaching your goals. I’ve been married to my wife Stephanie for 34 years, and I’m more in love with her now than ever. All that I do is a product of her love.
I often have people send me notes and emails telling me how my story inspired them to make a positive change in their life. It’s exciting to hear from business professionals who’ve decided to pursue their passion because of something they’ve heard me say. These are folks who did the same work day-after-day for decades – and secretly longed for change. Just recently, I received a heartfelt note from a woman who was in a long-time abusive relationship, and after hearing my story, she found the courage to change her life.
Last month, an eight-year-old girl came up to the stage, and when I asked her what she learned from the presentation, she looked up at me with complete confidence and said, “I learned that the only one who can stop me, is me.” Smart kid!
So, whether you’re boldly defying convention or taking small, calculated risks… have fun in all that you do and strive for. You’re an amazing person with untapped potential. Life is a rollercoaster, not a rocking chair; so we might as well sit at the front!