Excerpt: Comeback by Todd Burnham

Small Wins Total Up to Big Wins

Jerry was a client of ours who survived a near-fatal auto accident. His car was T-boned by a commercial truck. He nearly died, found himself in the hospital with a dislocated hip, two torn ligaments in his legs, and a broken knee-cap. He couldn’t walk normally even after he got through the surgeries and the initial physical therapy. In addition to his pain and disability, his injury meant he wouldn’t be able to get affordable health insurance. Now he had a pre-existing condition. He couldn’t work again, couldn’t earn an income, and the medical bills were already piling up. Jerry had hit rock bottom.

We took Jerry’s case. We worked to ensure that Jerry won a huge settlement. We wanted to make sure he would be taken care of for the rest of his life. The insurance company, not surprisingly, didn’t want to pay him a dime. We did not rest until we were able to hand him that giant check. When I gave it to him and said, “Congratulations! We did it!” I felt fantastic. But Jerry was just pissed off.

He said, “Todd, I’m 30 years old. I’m never going to walk normally again. For the rest of my life, this is going to be my reality. I can’t work. I can’t take a shower without help. I have three kids and a wife. This money doesn’t fix anything.” In fact, no amount of money is enough to “fix” circumstances like Jerry’s. Life as he knew it was over. You can’t buy it back.

Jerry was pissed that this happened to him, pissed that at age 30 insurance companies deemed him permanently disabled, pissed that the insurance company made us sue them and go through a long, drawn-out case to get the money he rightfully deserved from the start. He was furious that the guys in suits who put him through all those legal hurdles could now just hand over a check that they KNEW they were going to have hand over at the beginning (but they fought it anyhow) and just walk away and get on with their merry lives. The whole thing was over for them. It would never be over for Jerry.

The money at least meant he could pay his mortgage and get the health care he needed, but he wanted more. He deserved more. And he was determined to get it.

The Art of Brick Laying

Jerry knows how to stack bricks. Jerry took that insurance check and started doing the largest amount of physical rehab his therapist allowed. This was his revenge. He was going to turn out better than before just to show those assholes what he was made of. He made huge strides in his recovery. I asked him how he found the motivation and drive to do it. He said, “I’m just stacking bricks.”

Jerry explained his plan to me. He said, “Every day, I have a choice. I can either stack more bricks towards the life I want to achieve, or I can use the same amount of time, effort, and energy to remove bricks. Given those two choices, I’m going to stack bricks every effing day until I get to where I want to be.”

Jerry had a goal, and sitting around moaning about how far away that goal was would not get him there. He intuitively knew that small, individual steps were the means to the end, stacking one brick on top of another.

Small Victories Accumulate

Jerry’s approach was entirely new to me. Jerry’s plan was to collect small wins. Every time he got out of bed was a brick. Every time he went to physical therapy was a brick. Every time he made a slight improvement in his physical ability, he recognized it as a win and added it to the structure he was creating. Jerry homed in on the small wins. He aimed only for one small piece of progress at a time. When he achieved it, he had reached his ultimate goal. Because the only goal in front of him was placing the next brick. Each step forward boosted his confidence. He was getting somewhere. He was capable of moving forward. He didn’t expect to recover in a couple of weeks, or months, or even a year. He didn’t care when he got there. All he cared about was that next brick.

It was genius. Instead of pressuring himself to completely recover and run a marathon, Jerry worked for a single improvement at a time. He was achieving multiple goals a day. He didn’t get up and say to himself, “I want to be able to go rock climbing.” He said to himself, “I want to do five more reps of that new exercise.” Because the goals were small, he was constantly achieving things. He almost never set a goal he couldn’t meet. Yeah, some days were harder than others, but in general each thing he asked himself to do was possible. And when he achieved it, he felt awesome and strong, racking up another medal on that mental chart. He was a constant winner.

Trauma Is Not an Olympic Sport

The thing I love about Jerry’s story is, he’s a real guy who was in a really terrible spot. A lot of the time when you hear about motivation and achievement it’s always about Olympic athletes and CEOs and how they achieve amazing things. Yay for them, but try learning how to walk again after a truck mows you down. . . THAT takes motivation and strength. Try learning to go out on a date with a new person after you’ve been raped. Try being able to build a productive, happy life after your child dies of a brain tumor. Try being able to live a normal life after you’ve gone to rehab, been homeless, lost custody of your kids, been to jail, or lost everything at the blackjack table. Try going through a nasty divorce or getting sued for millions of dollars, or being charged with a crime as you are escorted from your workplace in handcuffs. It isn’t the Olympic athletes and CEOs that impress me. I want to learn from survivors.

Coming back from trauma takes fortitude, bravery, and mental toughness. Just putting on your shoes after trauma, then building on one tiny piece at a time, to eventually end up living your absolute best life ever is heroic and amazing. Jerry showed me the secret ingredient: the stacking bricks mindset. It made sense to me as I understand the 'one day at a time' concept. But bricks are heavy. It gives weight (a brick) to actions. I survived one day at a time, but I stacked a ton of bricks.

Jerry’s approach circumvents fear. If you step back and take a look at the big picture, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with fear. What if I fail? What if I can’t get there? That kind of anticipatory dread and doubt can be paralyzing. If odds are you’re just going to fail anyhow, why even try? But with Jerry’s method there is no fear of failure. Challenging yourself to go to a counseling appointment or to do one hour of your court-ordered community service is a cinch. There’s almost zero risk of failure. When you set goals you can’t fail at, you are guaranteed success. FEAR, again, is simply False Evidence Appearing Real.

Bird By Bird

There’s a well-known writer, Anne Lamott, who tells a story in one of her books about her brother. When she and her brother were kids, her brother had to write a report for school about birds. He kept putting it off. He couldn’t sit down at the kitchen table and write that report. He couldn’t even start it. It seemed like a completely insurmountable task to write down everything he had learned about birds.

Finally, their dad told him he just needed to go bird by bird. Just write about one bird. When you’re done, write about another one. Anne’s brother no longer had to write some massive report. He just had to write what he knew about owls. Then what he knew about hawks. Then what he knew about sparrows. The report itself was overwhelming, but once he broke it down into pieces it became completely doable. It’s the same with life. Bird by bird, brick by brick. Focus on one single step. Don’t even think about the next one until you are done with the first. And don’t let yourself look at the big picture. You’ll be there soon enough.

Chunking

This is also the concept behind the time management strategy called chunking. If you’re at work one day and have twenty things to do on your schedule, you can end up accomplishing almost nothing. You jump from phone call to email to meeting to Zoom to a spreadsheet. By the end of the day, you look at the remaining fifteen tasks you have yet to do and just decide to skip out early. It’s impossible. Might as well try again tomorrow.

Those savvy in time management know how to get every task done. By chunking. Say you have an eight-hour workday. Divide those eight hours into 15-minute increments. Set your timer for 15-minutes, then focus on a single task during that 15-minute block. Put your phone in a drawer, close your email program, and complete that task. Now set your time again and take the next 15 minutes to answer emails. Then set up a time to respond to voicemail. Stop trying to multitask, breaking your job down into small manageable, focused pieces, and watch how much you accomplish.

Brick laying is the same concept. You can’t build a new life in a day. But if you make a list of small, easy tasks, or “bricks,” and set aside a block of time to focus on a single task, you will make real, valuable progress. Don’t focus on your list. Pick a task, put the list away, and focus.

Climbing Mount Everest

Eight hundred people a year make the climb to the summit of Mount Everest. Up on Everest, at the cruising altitude of a passenger jet, the atmosphere is thin. There is not enough oxygen to support life. Most can’t make the climb without an oxygen tank, and even with supplemental oxygen it takes eight to ten hours to climb just 3,000 feet. You do not reach the top of Mount Everest by focusing on the summit. You get to the top by focusing on your next step. For this reason, thousands of folks become addicted to the climb. They want to try it over and over. That extreme level of focus is freeing, a form of meditation, where the mind is focused solely on one simple task, that next step.

If you know, you know. Setting small, achievable goals and celebrating each individual win is a way of life. Stacking bricks works. The technique will get you anywhere you want to go, no matter how impossible it seems. A single brick is the only goal you should be focusing on. A single win. To maintain momentum, you must home in on the trees. Forget the forest. It shows up.

Remarkable Rebounds: Gabrielle Union

“I had to hit rock bottom, I had to lose everything. For me that was my first marriage, going through the divorce process. I lost my show, my show was canceled. And I was having difficult relationships with my BFFs.”1

After dropping out of high school, actress Gabrielle Union was working at a Payless shoe store when the store was robbed. She was sexually assaulted and beaten. She survived but developed PTSD from the experience. She became an advocate, speaking to victims of assault. She went to college and became a model. She eventually began acting on television shows and then in films including Bring It On and The Birth of a Nation. In 2006, she divorced NFL player Chris Howard and hit rock bottom. In addition to the sexual assault and the end of her marriage, she experienced a variety of career failures. “It just felt like every so many years, there was some major catastrophic event that was happening in my life. You know, divorce, career setbacks, relationship issues. There's always something that just lands you on your ass and you're like 'There's no way I can move on from this, I'll never recover, I'll never be the same.'" She characterizes each setback as a mini death that she had to come back from.

End of Excerpt

Footnotes:

  1. Red Table Talk – Girls Trippin’ with Gabrielle Union. Facebook series. May 28, 2018.

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