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Overcoming Adversity: Career Curveballs

May 5, 2014

 

 

“Alright, now raise your hand if you left a job to come here”, asked Peter Diamandis, who was standing in the center of the room at NASA Ames. About 97% of the 80 international “bright minds” that were accepted into the Singularity University GSP program raised their hands. I sighed with relief.

 

A few months earlier I had been sitting in Producer Red-One's office while he had Lady Gaga on the phone excitedly screaming, “We are going to change the world”, so going to NASA for three months meant there was no regrets. It meant only looking forward and focusing on creating something new.

 

Towards the end of the three month program at NASA, I was ready to move to the Bay area, had a team of bright minds willing to turn our team project into a Start-Up and had the contacts from Singularity, NASA, Google, X-Prize, and global partners to take my career to the next level.

 

However, the disruption we so eagerly planned and chased after did not come in the process of business and innovation. It actually happened as a career curveball stemming from news that my grandfather was in the hospital. I went back home the day after the program ended and he passed away three days later.

 

My grandmother was in unbearable sorrow and my parents were both having health problems that led them to be hospitalized shortly after. There are no words to describe how lost I felt in the middle of this storm. I walked away from Silicon Valley and everything I just described above because at that point in my life, it was time to step up to the plate and use my experience, education, training and heart to fix a situation that involved the people I loved most.

 

When Dan Roth, Executive Editor at LinkedIn, contacted me to suggest that I write a story about my “Career Curveballs”, I thought about this story. Life had thrown career curveballs at me many times before. I had always adapted and moved forward quickly. However the curveball described in this story is the greatest mountain I have ever had to climb. This is because things went from bad to worse.

 

Three months after my grandfather passed away, I ended up in an accident that resulted in a fractured vertebrae in the back of my neck and a torn Achilles tendon. I knew that after surgery and the half-year (or more) it was going to take to recuperate from the injuries, my career would most likely be over. Even if I had managed to put pieces back together with my family, the probability of making it past this professionally, was slim to none. As the saying goes: “When it rains, it pours”.

 

In the midst of trying not to not loose hope, I laid in my bed and stared at the ceiling for days (which was about the only thing I could do). After weeks of frustration, I realized that I had to try to master my mind and do something constructive to keep my mind engaged. I began to meditate, multiple times per day. I learned to clear my mind of the chatter, to not fall asleep, and to control my breathing. This helped me to reflect on previous events and see life from another perspective.

 

The real breakthrough came when I was able to sit up 15 minutes at a time. My father set me up with an overbed orthopedic table where I was able to place my laptop in front of me and finally log into Skype. On the other end, and on my first call after the accident, a friend from my network reached out to me. His name is Ken and we had met in early 2011 while discussing a book project. Ken realized how broken I was when he talked to me. Everyone knew me as a strong woman, a mover and a shaker. Yet every person, despite of who they are and how brave they might appear, has their moment of extreme adversity. Ken smiled and patiently walked me through one of the greatest teachings that life has to offer and said: “Patty, you have to turn adversity into opportunity. You can't give up. Use what you have to make the best of your situation”, and I did just that.

 

In time I was able to sit for longer periods of time and drag myself across the bed. Then came the day I had to get off the bed and figure out how I was going to get downstairs to open the front door for my boyfriend who had locked himself out. I learned to also elevate my leg while pushing myself backwards and up the stairs at my house. I won’t lie, it was excruciating pain! After I got my wheelchair, I felt a tremendous sense of freedom because I could finally move close to the window and look outside. At times I was discouraged by the monumental task of learning how to walk again, but I kept trying with the help of my family and future husband, hoping that one day it wouldn't hurt anymore. Family was the glue that kept me sane and love is what helped me overcome.

 

With more time online, I was able to research and learn about Open Source tools and resources. I also learned how to make websites, joined Udacity.com, watched tutorials on Youtube, learned how to edit on Final Cut Pro and make motion graphics. My mind was running at 100 mph and I refused to watch TV. I made it a point to learn something new everyday. I watched TED talks and read books - the “Start-Up of You” by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha was a shot of adrenaline when it was most needed!

 

Throughout the journey I came to meet others like me - people with disabilities who had found a way to create projects, build community, and actually make a living using the virtual world. I watched for a long time and then began to participate. Ken introduced me to his friend Steve who had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and had a last wish to ski again. Ken showed him a video of the research I did, with my partner Alaina, at Singularity (NASA Ames) with the Emotiv brain-computer interface. The research showcased an integration between an Emotiv headset and the Second Life virtual world. While most people wouldn't think to ski virtually, I figured that for a man who barely had the ability to move his hands and turn his head, this NeuroGaming experience might be his only chance.

 

I teamed up with a virtual producer to simulate a ski course. The project was completed along with virtual powder snow, unscripted skis, and a long windy course down a beautiful virtual mountain. A friend of mine sponsored the Emotiv headset and a week before the integration was ready, Steve passed away. I took a hard hit on that one because we were so close to making it happen. "If only I had a little more time," I thought while the tears ran down my face. Life does not wait for anyone.

 

My time in the virtual world was a full education using gamification and free tools that I probably would not have discovered had I not come to a complete stop . When you are immersed in a certain reality, focused only on work, living in routines, convinced that life only functions under a certain set of rules, you limit your capacity to achieve and move beyond barriers. When I thought the world had come to a stop, it was actually because I believed it to be so: “What you think, you become”.

 

I learned valuable lessons on how to use words and stories to create Social Change and help to empower women, how to shoot for the stars and land on the moon, how to stay positive, and the number one most important piece of advice that I received: "How to take the tools of innovation and scale them beyond Silicon Valley to impact my own community.

Innovation does not require millions of dollars and immediate critical mass impact. Disruption in a small community can be something as simple as a man creating a light bulb from a recycled water bottle (true story).

 

Impact can happen at a local level with small budgets, like addressing health by creating a food garden in an impoverished community. There is a way to create a life of possibility for many people if you just stop, breathe, meditate, and use the tools and resources that are available.

 

 

Thank you for taking the time to read my story. For some of you, it might ring a familiar bell. I hope that by sharing how I overcame adversity, you will find words of wisdom and inspiration to do the same when life throws you a Career Curveball.

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