Maximizing your Potential
Mark Twain once said “the two most important days in your life are the day you were born and
the day you find out why”
Hi my name is Jessica Lewis. I was born with a condition called Diastematoemylia which means a bone pierced my spine which split it and that left me paralyzed from the waist down.
I was born 2 months early weighing 3 pounds 8 ozs. Today, at 24 years old I weigh 67 pounds, I am a 2xparalympian, a gold medalist in Para Pan American Games, a bronze medalist in World
Para Athletic Championships in wheelchair track racing and I am here today to talk to you
about maximizing your potential.
Maximizing your potential is about getting everything you can out of your capacity to transform yourself into your unique qualities, goals, dreams or aspirations. It involves being aware of your intentions in life and gearing your attention to manifest your dreams into reality. It is about working hard to define and achieve your dreams as well as being self-reflective on what your strengths and weaknesses are. Through all of that you gain a clear understanding of who you are as a person and where you want your life to take you and once that is done you can formulate a plan of action.
I had the very unique and amazing opportunity to hear the late Stephen Hawking speak during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. As an individual who defied all odds and shared his incredible abilities with the world I took a lot of what he said to heart. A few statements he made that have stuck with me, and that I find fit well with our theme here today is that he said “Ever since the dawn of civilization people have craved for an understanding of the underlying order of the world. There ought to be something very special about the boundary condition of the universe. And what can be more special than that there is no boundary. And there should be no boundary to human endeavor. However difficult life may seem there is always something you can do and succeed at.”
Going after your potential can be daunting for a multitude of reasons so today I want to focus on 4 points that have helped me go after mine with hopes that they might resonate with you as well
or can help you achieve your potential. Each of these points I have had personal experiences
with and will include some parts of my story into them.
Believe in yourself / Standing up for yourself
I have this as my first point because I believe it is the most important to have before you even
begin to attempt anything in your life. Whether you think you can do something or you think that you can’t than you are going to be right.
People are always going to have an opinion about you but we have the power inside of us to
change peoples minds about what we can accomplish. People only hold us back if we let them.
If you believe you can do something then make a plan and work that plan to prove them wrong.
A huge part of believing in yourself also involves being an advocate for your strengths,
capabilities and what you are able to offer the world. You can’t expect anyone to believe in you
if you first don’t believe in yourself and put in the hard work to show for it.
I’ll share with you a little story from my life that has shown me the importance of pushing through people’s judgement on me and the importance of standing up for myself. When I first started training and competing in wheelchair track racing I had a lot of people think that I was just doing this for fun. You know to keep me active and doing things. Everyone thought that i would just be pushing in my day chair and i wouldn’t be like an able bodied athlete.
But through my years of competing and advocating for my sport people have started to realize
just how competitive the sport is and how much hard work I put into my training. While I was in Bermuda after competing in my first Paralympic Games in 2012 I had a gentleman come up to me while I was taking a rest break and he said to me “I wanted to come over and shake your
hand” and I said “ok, it’s great to meet you, thank you for the support!” he then went on to tell
me that he had seen me training over the years and he was happy to say that I have proved him wrong. I had accomplished so much more than he ever thought someone in my situation could.
I’m not going to sugar coat it because you will encounter moments of doubt in yourself,
everyone does, I sometimes feel it when I head to the call room before a race and I see girls
with bigger muscles than me. But during those moments of doubt is when you need to believe in yourself even more to help you see past those feelings and then overcome them.
The ultimate goal for me as an athlete is of course a gold paralympic medal. We do have to be
realistic however and understand the process of achieving those goals and set benchmarks we
need to meet in order to get there. This will then help us stay motivated and not discourage us.
Believing in yourself is always going to be an ongoing process, which is something you need to
take with you during everything you do in life. But that can make it hard to know where to even
begin. So let’s look at the word believe and use it to create the process:
If you want something that you have never had in your life before than you need to be willing to change something or do something that you have never done before. We are not owed anything in this life. Opportunities will present themselves to us when we are willing to work hard and open ourselves up to making some sacrifices and taking action. Nobody handed me the Paralympic games. It took a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and some tears for me to get there. It took a complete lifestyle change and commitment to my training, my eating habits and a lot of sacrifices such as moving away from home and my family and turning down some social events with friends because it would impact my level of training.
It is easier to have things just handed to you but if you sit around and wait for that I can
guarantee it won’t happen. A person’s level of determination, persistence and drive is what will
make them successful in the face of obstacles or barriers. Because I believe seeing can be
more powerful than just listening I want to show you a video of my ParaPan American race that
sums up going after an opportunity and having it pay off.
Sitting on the top of the podium with that shiny gold medal around my neck made all of that hard work worth it. I grabbed that opportunity because I went 110% into my plan of getting there and used all of my other races leading up to it as an opportunity to learn and grow as an athlete.
If your goal was easy to achieve it wouldn’t mean as much to you when you achieve it. Our
goals also become a domino effect where you are constantly achieving and setting new goals.
When you achieve them you can stand back and say to yourself “I did that” and then that will
turn into “I can do that again” or “I can continue to do it”.
Grabbing an opportunity also involves going after it no matter what happens. No matter if other people think you can’t achieve greatness. There is always going to be obstacles put in our lives but they are put there to show us a different way of living and succeeding. Obstacles are:
I can tell you for sure that I never in a million years thought that my life would take me down this path but it only happened because I believed in myself outside of my disability and I grabbed every opportunity I could through working hard and dedicating myself and my life to my goals. I have never let any obstacle stop me from living my life which brings me to my 3rd point.
Understanding but not focusing on your limitations
Sitting here in front of you today I am sure that at some point we all thought “oh her limitation is the wheelchair or that she cant use her legs so she probably can’t do much for herself” which I am not pointing out to make you feel bad. It’s part of our human nature to seek out what is wrong in the world or with ourselves because it is most often easier to use those to justify why we aren’t doing something or going after a dream.
These feelings are also partly to do with our society that likes to put labels on people that
automatically set off thoughts or feelings before even talking to each other. My biggest limitation was accepting that my life came with a disability.
I remember as a child I hated that I was different from my peers, I didn’t want to have my disability and I didn’t want anyone to ask about it. I would actually wish for the ability to walk for one day and then at the end of that day I could decide if I wanted to be in a wheelchair or walk. A huge part of accepting my disability also involved dealing with people’s attitudes towards me and their assumptions about who I am, which is solely based on my wheelchair. I have had a lot of experiences in my life where people don’t think I have a working brain and will talk to whoever I am with about me because they don’t think I can answer for myself or if they do talk to me…they… will…talk...like…this…. I’ve had a lot of experiences where people tell me I will be healed, as if I am broken. I’ve had an experience where I was wheeling with a friend in a chair and a total stranger wanted us to race and she would give the winner $5. I’ve had a lot of experiences where I have been told I would be forgiven for my sin of not being able to walk and trust me the list goes on.
I have overcome accepting my disability because I started getting involved in different things and started realizing I could be someone outside of my disability. I have 101 things that makes up who I am and my disability isn’t all of them. Just like your limitations are not all of who you are. I started to realize that just because my legs don’t work there is still multiple ways I can get
around. I can use my chair, I can crawl, I can walk on my hands. I also started to realize that I
am not disabled I am just differently abled.
I overcame people’s attitudes towards me by not accepting that’s how it is so I started educating people and advocating for people who are differently abled to show what we are capable of doing. We all have limitations of some kind, but those shouldn’t be the focus of who we are. Our strengths, our abilities and what we can bring to the world should define who we are and just because someone lives their life sitting down, or without a limb, or not being able to hear or see the world the way others do doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of living a meaningful purposeful life that deserves respect and recognition.
It is so important for us to understand what our limitations are but the key is to not focus on
them because that is what can hold us back. If I never discovered that I could be someone
outside of this wheelchair I would have never had the courage to be an athlete.
Through my experience of being an athlete at international competitions I have been exposed to a lot of different types of people who have all shown me more examples of the power of pushing through limitations and not focusing on them.
You see people like me racing with their arms instead of their legs. You see a person with one
arm and one leg cycling. You see a person with no arms competing in table tennis holding the
paddle in their mouth. You see a person who has a hard time controlling their bodies because of muscle spasms throwing a ball with precision. You see a person who’s all 4 limbs are affected
playing rugby. You see a person with one leg doing high jump. You see a person in the dining
hall with no hands eating with their feet. You see a person from a small poor country in Africa
using a stick as a crutch. You see people who are paralyzed from the neck down maneuvering
their chairs with their chins or mouths. You see people who are blind playing football. You see
an archer with no arms shooting the arrow with their mouth. You see a person who is unable to
see the track running with another by their side guiding them. You see the person for their
capabilities not their limitations.
I encourage you to find things in life that showcase and develop your strengths and capabilities. I encourage you to find things that can give you chances to find more capabilities as well. There is no harm in trying and as my late Coach Ken always told me “the word can’t is not acceptable, it should never be a word in our dictionaries. It is just that we have not done it yet!”
Giving back to others
Maximizing your potential isn’t just about doing it for yourself but about sharing what your
strengths and capabilities are with the world to make it a better more vibrant place. As well as
giving back to other people and helping them to get through tough times in their lives and to
help them realize what they can accomplish.
We are all on different paths in life which makes us all unique and special. It also means that
finding our potential, our passions or our greatness happens at different times for each of us.
This is also not something that just happens once in our lives but it can happen multiple times. It is about a continuous effort of improving ourselves and laying the groundwork for our future
plans and future versions of ourselves.
Giving back to others is also about building a support network around ourselves, and being a
part of someone else’s support network. There is a lot to be said about the power of “not feeling alone” in any given situation. We are all unique like I have said and therefore we can learn so much from each other to help us grow as individuals.
There is a stigma that receiving support means that you are not a strong person. It is not a sign
of weakness but a sign of strength that you had the courage to ask for help. Everyone can use
support in their lives in order for them to be 100% of who they are.
I have an incredible support team behind me and that’s why I try to be a part of that for
someone else because I know the amazing impact it can have on someone. I know for sure that
I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for my support team. Sometimes this support team
can be hard to find but that’s why if each of us starts to give back to others we can create it for ourselves.
I would really like to point out that everybody deals with a challenge in their lives. Even the
people that you see and think to yourself “wow their lives are perfect!” In my case my challenge is visible but that is not always the case for each of us. Some challenges are invisible to others and can take just as much of a toll on us. So I ask you to please be mindful of this. Comments and actions can be extremely painful. I sometimes like to think that each day we have a new clock reset on what percentage we will function that day. Meaning when we have great days we function at 100% and when we have not so good days that can be 50% so you never know what percentage someone may be at during that day. Our actions and the actions of others can greatly determine whether that percentage increases or decreases. Everyone is different. We don’t have to agree with each other but we should respect each others thoughts and opinions. This world would be a boring place if we were all the same.
Maximizing your potential isn’t based on not experiencing hard times but about continuing to
pursue it in spite of them. By giving back to others and having others around you during those
times can help you refocus and strive to be everything that you can and want to be while
improving the lives of others at the same time.
These four points then enable a chain reaction of maximizing your potential