The crossroads of choice
Shelli Varela was a struggling artist working as a nail technician. This wasn’t her destiny, she knew that deep in her heart, but for the moment, she felt stuck in a loop.
Her friend Steve was a firefighter and he would regale Shelli with stories of breath-taking rescue efforts and of his team’s great fortitude when faced with the impossible. Shelli was enthralled. She’d ask him countless questions - not just about the details of each incident him and the team got called out to, she asked specifics about fire pumps, hazardous materials and even what each ‘dangerous goods materials’ sign meant on the back of trucks. Finally, the endless questioning led Steve to ask Shelli the inevitable: “Why don’t you just apply?!” Shelli’s answer was one of incredulity? “Apply for what?! I’m 5ft 2in. 108lbs. I’m not big enough, brave enough, smart enough, nor strong enough – and there’s no girls in firefighting. Steve’s reply: “There’s gonna be a girl one day. Why shouldn’t it be you?” Boom!
The gauntlet had been thrown down. That one question had set off a stream of consciousness in Shelli’s mind and she was at a crossroads in her life. To quote Abraham Maslow: “In any given moment, we have two options: to step forward into growth, or to step back into safety. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”
If not now, when?
So, Shelli took the bull by the horns and booked herself in at the local University for the firefighter physical. Running 10k a day, Shelli felt she was pretty fit. But she had no idea what the physical entailed and it was more a case of ‘fit for what?’ She failed every stage of the test and Shelli says she walked out there leaving her dignity behind. It was the first time she had ever emotionally engaged in something and she realised she was going to have to let go of that dream and go back to being a struggling artist working in a nail bar. Shelli cried for two whole days because that was her dream gone. Or was it?
Rather than tell the rest of Shelli’s amazing story of grit, absolute determination and belief in herself, not to mention the hilarious bit where she drags her Mum on a home-made sledge up and down the tarmac outside their house, watch Shelli’s awe-inspiring TEDx Talk . Suffice to say, the road to Shelli becoming her fire department’s first female firefighter and now a Captain, who leads young women in a junior female firefighter bootcamp, is quite something.
It’s not what happens to us, it’s how we respond to what happens to us.
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychologist and a prisoner of war during World War II. He lost his parents and wife in the concentration camps yet his book Man’s Search For Meaning explains there is one thing that could never be taken away from him – his freedom to choose his thoughts. What he discovered was that even whilst he being tortured, he still had the freedom to choose the way he thought about himself in his situation. He observed human beings at the very brink of death - some chose to steal food whilst others gave their last morsel of food away. Which means you can always choose your attitude and thus your response.
When Katie Piper was 24 and an aspiring model and TV presenter, industrial strength sulphuric acid was thrown in her face by a man paid to do so by her ex-boyfriend. Katie has had to have over 200 operations to re-build her face. She lost the sight in one of her eyes and understandably lived with constant anxiety. However, over time, Katie thought about her life and how she wanted it to pan out. She had already been robbed of so much, she refused to let this stop her choosing to rebuild herself a new life. It would be a new normal but she chose to do it and now, the Katie Piper Foundation helps burns survivors to rebuild their lives. Because Katie had the ability to choose one thought over another.
Why not me?
Was Viktor Frankl special? Is Katie Piper special? No, not inherently - no more than you or me. What we hugely admire in them is the response they chose in such horrific circumstances, circumstances which they did not choose. They chose to start a new chapter of their story, the second act of their play, wrote a new script for their film. What they did, can be done by each and every one of us.
Shelli Varela didn’t have devastating life-changing circumstances she fought back from. Hers is an everyday story that we can all relate to. A story where she had a goal, a dream, a burning desire which she had failed quite spectacularly at. Yet she chose not to give up. Hers is a story about choosing one thought over another. To be a can-doer.
That strength lies within all of us and we all have access to it. Maybe access to that strength is more challenging for some because they weren’t brought up to believe in themselves – maybe they’ve never had a cheerleader in their corner; perhaps hugely challenging circumstances means their self-belief is at its lowest; fear of failure for some is the key determinant in never pursuing an ambition. Whatever your perceived barrier, it is possible for everybody to achieve what Shelli has achieved – their dream. For within us all lies huge untapped potential and the ability to choose to succeed or to not go for it. The opposite of success is after all, to not try at all. Failure is the learning curve where we find out how not to do it, to refine what we do until we get it right.
The world makes a path for someone who knows where they are going
What it boils down to is having a goal, the desire to achieve it and the belief it is possible. Those three components together are an invincible formula for success – a sense of purpose.
There will always be the naysayers who like to point out why it won’t work – it’s like throwing a tyre stinger in your path to stop you in your tracks but history is littered with examples of successes laughing in the face of impossible. To achieve your desired goal may take many attempts. Take Thomas Edison as an example - he successfully produced the first commercially viable light bulb after thousands of attempts: "I've not failed, I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work," the man himself once said. A Japanese Proverb says: "Fall seven times and stand up eight." Never give up on your goal. It can be a winding and challenging path to your success but hold your self-belief dear to your ambition and be tenacious.
Be the hero in your story. Focus on one task at a time and then move on to the next and then the next towards achieving your goal. Have faith and belief in yourself and trust that you can do it. Keep moving forward. You’ve got this.