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Get Your Gumption Back: Lessons From a Paralympic Medalist

Bonnie St. John's misfortune as a young girl become her lifelong leadership strength.
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When Bonnie St. John was five years old, a birth defect stunted the growth in her right leg. The doctor had no choice but to amputate it.

Rather than let it defeat her, St. John made a decision--with the help of a demanding nurse--to live resiliently.

She overcame tremendous odds--in addition to her physical challenges, her mother alone raised three kids on a teacher's salary--and went on to become a competitive skier. She took home three medals at the 1984 Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria.

She also graduated from Harvard, earned a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, became a top sales rep for IBM, and joined the Clinton administration as a director in the National Economic Council.

Today St. John runs her own leadership consultancy.

At the Inc. Leadership conference this week outside San Diego, St. John had sage recommendations for how to be successful--even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

The gold medal winner gets up the fastest.
In her first competition at the Paralympic games in Innsbruck, St. John had to win a combined time in two ski runs. After the first run, though she was ranked third in the U.S., she had the fastest time in the world for one-legged ski racers. In the second part of the race, she fell on an icy course. But because she got up, and finished, she landed in third place--because everyone before her had fallen too. The woman who won "didn't beat me by being faster, but by getting up faster," said St. John. The lesson: "People fall down. Winners get up. But the gold medal winner is the person who gets up the fastest."

The best-of-the-best tennis players recover better.
In her work as a leadership consultant, St. John studies why some people prove to be more resilient than others. She said researchers have looked at the skills that separate the absolute best tennis players from the rest of the best. They couldn't find anything different about the exceptional players "until they looked between the points," St. John explained. In the times between playing, they found that this group was able to physically recover faster in a quicker period of time. "They lowered their heart rate 25 percent to 30 percent faster than other players," St. John explained. And thus, stayed at the top of their game throughout the match.

You can do the same by recovering fast from your missed points during the day--things like deadlines, customer complaints, employee mistakes. Work on improving your recovery time so that you can quickly shift your physical and emotional responses. As St. John said: "Stress without enough recovery weakens. Stress with recovery builds strength.

You're going to get mad. Do it at the right times and places.
Of course you should get enough sleep, eat right, and exercise three times a day. But there are a lot of other small ways you can speed up your recovery, increase your professional energy--and strengthen your resilience to entrepreneurial challenges--throughout a day. Here's a few examples:

1. Focus on Joy
Sit back in a seat, close your eyes, let all the air out of your diaphragm, and take a deep breath. Then do it again a few times. Keep your eyes closed. Then focus on something or someone that brings you deep joy, appreciation, or gratitude.

2. Release Tension
In your office or even your car, sit with your shoulders back, and take two or three minutes to relax your muscles. Pay attention to a particular part of your body where tension has built up: your shoulder, jaw, or legs. Close your eyes. Breath deeply several times. Let the tension out of that part of your body.

3. Sensory Reset
Sound a tone--ring a bell, maybe--to break a tension cycle. You could do it to start and end meetings like Eileen Fisher does at her company. Certain smells can also interrupt the stress, and spur recovery: vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg. So eat a Tic Tac or a Mentos.

Turn pessimism into optimism.
St. John quoted the American psychologist and author Martin Seligman who said: "Pessimists are more often right, but optimists are more often successful." To shift to an optimistic mindset, St. John encourages you to not think of a negative scenario as "personal," prevalent," and "permanent," but instead as a "challenge," "choice," and "commitment." And use the same attitude and words to drive positivity among others around you.

And a last piece of advice for entrepreneurs from St. John, who now spends a lot of time coaching leaders at large corporations: "Everybody I meet would like to leave the company, and do what you're doing."

IMAGE: PN2 WENN Photos/Newscom
Last updated: Jun 13, 2013

ALLISON FASS | Staff Writer | Deputy Editor, Inc.com

Allison Fass is deputy editor of Inc.com. A longtime business journalist at Forbes and The New York Times, she has also held roles in venture capital and innovation at Hearst Interactive Media and digital strategy at a start-up consultancy.




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