A Disability Ended My Corporate Career, But It Pushed Me to Build the Life I Really Wanted
Here's what I learned: Our success is never defined by our resumes, bank accounts, or physical abilities. It is defined by our outlook.
I was killing it in Silicon Valley as one of the top producers at a computer-consulting firm at the age of 22. I brought in more than $2 million in revenue and managed some 100 consultants throughout the state of California, all working on large tech projects for Fortune 500 companies. My future was bright and full of financial promise.
But just a year later, as the ink was about to dry on a promotion that would have increased my earnings to a quarter of a million dollars, I was benched by the universe.
A repetitive strain injury of my hands and arms left me ranked 40% disabled by the state of California. I was frightened, devastated, and physically suffering. I could not lift a fork to my mouth or hold a cup of water in my hands without excruciating pain. My ambitious corporate career goals came crashing down, along with my ego and my income.
Can you name a profession that doesn’t require the consistent repetitive use of your hands? It’s tough, but I eventually came up with a few: translator, public speaker, newscaster, actor, radio show host, and spokesperson. While these careers are possible with a major hand disability, none of these professions (despite how much you train for them) are guaranteed money-makers. They are also considered very competitive career spaces with no road maps.
As I struggled to process this sudden, debilitating change, I remember feeling like my adult life, which had really just begun, had ended at the age 23. I felt intense fear for my future and massive shame about being a disabled person. I was left reeling, trying to navigate a new way to be successful without any instruction manuals to guide me.
The pursuit of entrepreneurship is a path that the skeptics in your life (including you) will use to project a lack of confidence onto you. I have an alternative spin on a quote often attributed to a Finnish composer named Jean Sibelius, who said, “No one ever built a statue to a critic.”
My spin on it is, “No one ever built a statue of a skeptic.”
Have you ever seen a statue of a person where the description read, “This guy believed in nothing and was always skeptical of the stuff everyone else suggested was possible”? No, you haven’t, because we erect statutes to honor people who lead the charge and believe in something that others think impossible. We honor heroes in our world who go above and beyond what’s considered possible and prove to us that it can be done. They conquered something.
This goes for your life as well. The longer you continue to simmer in skepticism, the longer you hold yourself back from the unknown, unmeasurable, unforeseen probabilities that are possible in your life. There are likely several probabilities you have already missed out on because you were a skeptic focused on statistics and what the majority considers realistic. Let’s say you tell a friend that you want to start a business and they pull a skeptical warning like, “Be careful because 50 percent of new businesses fail.” My response would be, “I don’t give a shit about your statistics, because I choose to be on the side of the 50 percent of people who succeed at it.” (And anyway, that statistic isn’t quite true.)
One truth I have learned over these challenging years is that no one cares more about you than you. In order to prevail you must be your own cheerleader or hype man (choose your term), which requires true, intrinsic confidence and self-esteem—something that can be cultivated. Confidence is not some fixed, anchored quality within you; your levels of confidence are always the sum of the thoughts you think and the actions you take. It is not reflective of your actual capacity to succeed at something, but more reflective of your belief in your ability to prevail at life in general or a specific endeavor. Since you can change your thoughts and actions, confidence and self-esteem is within your power. Even the most shy people, crippled by fear, can attain it through self-awareness, intention, practice, and perseverance.
Another truth that only hindsight can reveal is that sometimes the biggest gifts in life come hidden in tragedy. My disability—more specifically, the lessons I learned and my growth as a result of my disability—became one of the greatest gifts of my life. When my plans were abruptly thrown off-course, and I chose the road less traveled, I discovered the fun and rewarding path of entrepreneurship. It’s a career I may have dreamt about, but not had the courage to pursue if I wasn’t, in essence, forced into it.
Although it took time, the shame I experienced around my disability diagnosis and the deeply personal mental work I did to overcome that shame and heal has made me more vulnerable, introspective, and ultimately at peace with myself.
Another critical realization I reached during the years I spent struggling to find my “plan B” is that my success was never defined by my resume or my bank account. It was — and is — defined by my outlook, mindset, and my happiness and fulfillment in everyday life. I began to appreciate and prioritize more than just my job or my paycheck; I focused on my health, my hobbies, my relationships and my work in equal measurements. I love everything that I do, and so I enjoy complete freedom in my life. I wish that for everyone, no matter what path your life takes you.
Many of my childhood dreams — dreams I convinced myself were pointless because I was once a skeptic banking on the corporate world as the sure bet — have come true. I have traveled widely, appeared in TV and film, become a bestselling author and award-winning screenwriter, and hosted a popular podcast with more than 500 episodes and 20 million downloads. Perhaps most importantly, I have come to understand myself and my values in a way that would not have been possible without the challenges I faced.
Had I not become “disabled,” I would probably still be thriving in the corporate world, but I have no doubt I would be bored and unfulfilled, searching and wishing for something more rewarding. Turns out I am not happy and successful despite my disability — I am happy and successful because of my disability. I would never choose to take back my hand injury because the entrepreneur life has brought me some of the greatest joys of my life. The unknown is where it’s at. Dive into it.
Elle Russ is the bestselling author of Confident As Fu*k and The Paleo Thyroid Solution, a book which has helped thousands of people around the world reclaim their health. Elle is also a TV/film writer, podcaster, and coach.