“The real story, in my mind, isn’t how I got out of the World Trade Center, it’s how I got there in the first place.” Michael Hingson
I am honored to present to you Michael Hingson, a most inspirational man who lets nothing get in the way of his living life to the absolute fullest. Indeed he’s had challenges but he’s taken them on as opportunities and experiences from which to grow and adapt in most positive and meaningful ways.
Blind from birth, his parents encouraged him to live a ‘regular’ life, bike riding around his neighborhood (yes, you’ve read this right – bicycling), mainstream classes and fun and games along with everyone else. Given this all important foundation of “I can do it”, he grew up with a fierce sense of independence and high functioning capabilities to adapt, cope, integrate and create a ‘normal’ life of advanced schooling (master’s in physics), careers, marriage and a life of meaning and impact.
He miraculously survived 9/11 with the assistance of his guide dog, Roselle, as together they walked down 78 flights of stairs (1463 steps) to safety and then ran for their lives.
Michael is the author of Thunderdog, a best-selling memoir about his life; he’s a motivational speaker and has had a strong career in computer technology.
- What personal qualities have helped you carry on and move in a positive direction?
I think Persistence.
I think being able to focus.
And I think also the fact that I believe very strongly in teamwork. I like to feed off of other people. We all feed off of each other; sometimes we recognize it more than others.
More than anything, we all need to be self-starters and self-motivators. I just don’t like to be down; I can get angry as much as the next person but I also know it’s my job to keep me motivated and focused.
I love to enjoy life and to do that as much as I possibly can. A lot of times I hear people saying things like, ‘I have to go do this speech today’; I much prefer saying, ‘I have this great opportunity to go do this today’. If you adopt this kind of mind-set, it helps you have a much more positive outlook.
You have to set the stage for yourself. You either do it or somebody sets the stage for you. And then if you don’t like the stage or the players on the stage you have nobody else to blame but yourself because you didn’t make the choice; or the choice you made was to be inactive.
- Did you go through a period of self-pity? If so, what helped you out?
I don’t think there is any one of us who at one point or another in our life doesn’t go through some form of self-pity. The issue is how you deal with it.
One of the things that helps me get out of things usually is that when I’m down my wife isn’t and when she is, I’m not. Occasionally it happens that we both are; and after a little bit of crying time, kind of the philosophy is, ‘it is what it is’, and I’ve gotta move forward and so I come out of it. Again it gets back to, I set the stage.
You have to have control over what you do.
There are a lot of things in our lives that we don’t have control over. But there also are a lot of things that we do, many of which we don’t think that we do. For example, the World Trade Center happened. No doubt, we had no control over that. What I did have control over was how I dealt with what happened. Like any change in our lives, any tragedy, what positive things we have control over how mentally we deal with the change. That’s the important thing – don’t worry about the things you can’t control, focus on the things you can.
- Was there a specific moment, thought or epiphany that helped guide you to a better place mentally and psychologically, or did it evolve?
It was a kind of evolution. I’ve also had epiphanies along the way.
Blind people typically aren’t considered for jobs. The unemployment rate among employable blind people in this country, according to the social security administration, is nearly 80%. And that’s not because blind people can’t work; that’s because people who have eyesight, or as I talk about them, light-dependent people, tend to think we can’t do stuff. They think sight is the only game in town; which is why I say in Thunderdog, “Don’t let your sight get in the way of your vision.”
There’s always the debate – do you tell people in a resume or cover letter that you’re blind or do you not. I’ve literally had interviews cancelled when I didn’t mention I was blind and somebody figured it out because of things I mentioned in the resume. I’ve had interviews cancelled at the last minute before I left for them.
My wife said to me once, “You took the Dale Carnegie sales course. That course always preached about turning liabilities into assets.” That was an immediate epiphany and when I applied for a job, which was a sales position, the last paragraph in my cover letter basically said:
“The most important thing you should consider about me when you’re hiring someone for this job is that I happen to be blind. As a blind person, I’ve had to sell all my life just to be able to live and function. I’ve had to sell just to be able to rent or buy a home, get on an airplane; so when you’re hiring someone for this job do you want to hire someone who just has sales in their life as a profession or do you want to hire somebody who understands sales for the art and science that it is and has had to use it as part of his daily life 24 hours a day.” I got the job. At least I got the interview because of that and that did lead to me getting the job.
That was a pretty amazing epiphany. It is a big debate – do you say that you’re blind or do you not? The reality is, there are a lot of ways to spin that for a lot of different jobs- to be able to say that I have the same qualifications, that you should consider me because I have more to bring to the job than other people. Now you have to make that point and prove it. But the fact of the matter is in our society three out of every four people fear blindness over any other disability according to the Gallup poll. One of the top five fears people have in this country is being blind, not physically disabled, but blind. Because we put such an emphasis on eyesight. So it’s a real challenge. It’s so very frustrating that people don’t want to deal with that. We’re hoping that Thunderdog helps.
- What are your day-to-day coping skills that keep you afloat?
Relying on my wits, listening to input from other people, and smiling.
- What thoughts propel you forward?
It’s always about what keeps me going. The answer again is, ‘So what am I going to do next?’ What opportunities are open to me right now? But I think that for me it’s that I’ve made choices in my life that have put me in a position of needing to do things.
I have a business and we just started Roselle’s Dream Foundation to raise money to help provide technologies to blind people. A lot of the technology we use is very expensive; and we have nearly 50% of blind people living below the poverty level because of the fact that we can’t get jobs and there aren’t a lot of financial resources available for us. We’re talking about $5,000-$6,000 just to get something to be able to take notes on the job. We’re hoping to provide scholarships and we’re hoping to be able to get more money through the foundation to do that. So this keeps me busy.
So for me, part of it is I’ve put myself in a position of needing to move forward because that’s what I do.
- In general, how have you managed to rebuild your life?
Life is a constant rebuilding for all of us. Certainly after 9/11, and there’s been other times where I’ve had challenges that have come up.
I worked for a company back in 1984 that was purchased by Xerox and they decided to get rid of all the pre-Xerox sales people and I was the last to be let go. I looked for a job for six months and couldn’t find one. Finally what I decided to do, with a friend, was start my own company.
Again, it was ‘What am I going to do next?’ I tried a few things; they didn’t work. We started doing the Cad (computer-aided design) systems and that kept us afloat for four years. What I learned along the way was, I didn’t need to operate a Cad system to be able to sell it; what I needed to know was how to run it so I could tell others what to do.
Again for a rebuild it was still dealing with the positive – you gotta do what you gotta do to move forward. And we went through a very tough financial period during that time, which is why I eventually went back to the work force in 1989 and got a job and we’ve been able to move forward.
It still starts from within when you want to rebuild your life. It’s your choice as to what you do.
If I were to suggest to other people what they ‘should’ do if they’re going through a tragedy or any kind of unexpected change- you must start with accepting the fact that the change happened, especially if you didn’t have control over it. And even if you did and it took an unexpected turn where you’re left in a quandary, you must start with, ‘all right, where am I, get over the fact that it happened, now where do I go from here’? I don’t care what the challenge is, we all can start with that.
We had a lot of people displaced in Hurricane Katrina. We had a lot of people killed in the World Trade Center and I worked in the WTC on 9/11. I lost my office that day; lost the space where all of my employees worked, because I had a staff. We were suddenly left without an opportunity to go in to a place to work. What we needed to do was to figure out how to go forward. We all had laptop computers and worked from home. We worked out ways of getting together. We continued to thrive and sell above goal. That was because we made the decision to go forward and thrive.
You can wallow in self-pity or you can decide at some point, ‘I’ve done enough of that, now what am I going to do?’ Things may not work out as planned. We wanted to move back to California before 9/11. And that obviously didn’t happen. Then after 9/11 I was offered a job to come out and work for Guide Dogs for the Blind in California to be their spokesperson. We did that. And then my job was phased out in 2008. That was an abrupt change because I expected to stay there the rest of my life; I’d been getting guide dogs from there since 1964.
I had a choice; and what I decided to do was to continue doing what they said nobody was interested in doing and nobody was interested in hearing about and that was continuing to tell my story and to be motivating. And so I started my own company to do that. We found a couple of other sources to help with income and we’ve moved forward.
For me it’s always a matter of ‘what do I do about it’. Well, we’ve moved forward and we’re moving on. We got Thunderdog published. It’s been a New York Times bestseller; and it was #1 on E-books for New York Times on the bestseller list. We started a foundation to help other people which is very small right now but we’re hoping to raise money for it. I literally travel the world speaking about trust and teamwork and moving on after change.
- What advice do you have for others going through difficult situations?
Don’t worry about the things you can’t control; focus on the things you can and the rest will take care of itself.
Thank you for reading this motivating piece. I hope you have a lot of take-aways, as I surely have. Please share on twitter and facebook. Please comment thoughts/feelings.