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Why This Work?
The camera stared me in the face. I sweated for an answer. She had some nerve to ask the question. "Years ago, people with disabilities joined the circus to make money. Are you exploiting your disability?" My instinct was to shout, "HECK NO!" Instead, I held my tongue, inhaled, and drooled a puddle of doubletalk that didn’t answer the question.
Later that day, I debated myself. Of course, I wasn’t exploiting my disability. Then again, I was a great story, a news headline begging for ink: Man born without arms teaches people to reach for their dreams. The clichè of it all made me cringe, frankly, but that is what I was doing. I knew people were hiring me to speak, in part, because I was a good show. I held a coffee mug with my toes; I gestured with my legs; I showed videos of me driving with my feet. My disability was a convenient gimmick and I was leveraging it as a motivational speaker.
Days later, the emotion of the debate wore off and I was resolved to this conclusion: What I did was no different than a professional athlete, recording artist or fashion model, paid to showcase natural talents. In my mind, I was doing nothing different. I was born without arms so I could make no mistake marketing myself as an armless man.
Still, the debate lulled along inside me until it was stirred to the surface again. This time the experience changed everything and it was a catalyst for learning what I can now confidently teach you.
Man in the Mirror
I had finished speaking to a group in Olney, Illinois, when a silver-haired woman toting a leather album approached me. She introduced herself as Mildred and then opened the album and uprighted it toward me. Inside were yellowed newspaper clippings with headlines like: ARMLESS WONDER WORKS WITH TOES or ARMLESS MAN WITH CARNIVAL DOES WONDERS."You remind me of him," she said.
I skimmed the clippings as she flipped the clear plastic pages, and I fielded her conversation to show I appreciated her motive. Still, I wasn’t moved like she wanted me to be. Then my eyes locked on a photo of the man sitting at a parlor table, his left foot holding a tea cup. It was the same pose countless photographers snapped of me as I sipped water on stage. I was looking in a mirror.
The man’s name was Charlie Tripp - the first armless performer with the Barnum & Bailey Ringling Brothers Circus. He was me in one of those sepia, turn-of-the-century-style amusement park photos. The "Armless Wonder," as P.T. Barnum dubbed him, grew up in Olney. The town now boasted a small museum in his honor of which Mildred was curator.
I’d met other men without arms, but this Charlie Tripp hit close to home. Standing there staring into the newspaper reflection, comparisons swirled. We both were from southern Illinois. We both used our feet. We both were painters. We both traveled the world making a living. We both worked from a stage.
The last comparison bothered me. The Dutch reporter’s question reverberated in my head. I began to see her point. Europeans don’t understand the self-made ideals that drive American work ethic. And they see no need for motivational speakers. To her, and possibly many of her countrymen, what I did echoed the work of American showmen like P.T. Barnum and the Ringling Brothers, parading oddities throughout late 19th century Europe.
Deep down, I knew motivational speaking, unchecked, can be nothing more than a sophisticated circus act: a showman on a black-skirted stage parading metaphorical gimmicks. I also knew if I was not careful, I would fit in with the fire-walkers and house-party hypers that embellished corporate platforms every week. I wondered if I already did. People listened to my teachings, but they leaned forward when I talked about my how I managed with my feet. This was not why I spoke. Had my credibility become overshadowed by my condition? Was I nothing more than a performer? A circus side show?
The analysis was simple. I could dive deeper into my disability and become the next armless wonder. As such, I would continue to teach on topics like resilience, perseverance and attitude but my seminars would be typecast - "armless man teaching people to reach for their dreams" - and people would have no compelling need to hear what else I might have to say. If they didn’t want to be inspired by a guy without arms, they’d have no need to hire me. This unnerved me. John Foppe - a 20th Century Armless Wonder - was on the verge of becoming a one-hit-wonder.
A new vision for my career was required and task number one was rebranding my product. This was a frightening gauntlet because I was the product. It isn’t an offense to be typecast as something you are; that I accepted. But my experience has taught me more than clichèd rah-rah principles. What did these other lessons offer corporate world? I was in the midst of a career mid-life crisis, but the show had to go on.
I was in Budapest, promoting the release of the Hungarian version of my first book, when I found an answer that set me on a path to research and develop this new work. A former high-ranking Coke exec confided in me about his experience with the soft-drink giant. "We were great at developing strategy," he said. "We were great at creating innovative products. We were great at marketing. But there was always some damn excuse why the people couldn’t hit their numbers." I realized he summarized the sentiment of organizations throughout the general marketplace - and nearly every organization I have worked with. Great vision. Poor execution. No outcome.
We seem aware of our ineffective condition and thus much is said about re-casting vision and some is written about effective execution but, still, not much has changed in the corporate climate. Isn’t it true? Many visions still fail to inspire and most still fall short of outcomes. Why is this? Over the past five years, I’ve dedicated myself to discovering the answer. It might surprise you.
As a business owner who had to change his vision or become another cliché, my perspective is as a colleague and co-learner. I share nothing that personal experience, clinical study, field testing and common sense has proven true. I cannot grow arms so my perspective is also that of an unsentimental individual who may understand vision differently and approach execution from an unconventional angle. What you will absorb from my work then is not hopeful hypothesis. It is the reality I see in companies I help; it is the reality I know in my life. Working together, you will own the tools to take your great vision to its great outcome.