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Personal Engagement - 10 November 2009

The extraordinary teenager in this photo is Ben Underwood. When he was two, Ben was diagnosed with retinal cancer, and before long, both of his eyes were removed. Despite being blind, Ben progressed through life engaging in activities just like other kids with full eyesight. He learnt Japanese, played video games, wrote a novel, rode bikes, and climbed trees.

Most managers have impediments nowhere near as serious as Ben’s, but they’re significant nonetheless. You’re expected to motivate your employees when it’s hard enough to motivate yourself, and you’re expected to engage your team when it’s tough at times to even like your own job. Ben’s life teaches us four lessons that can be used to engage ourselves and be self-motivated no matter what happens at work.

Lesson #1: When a scared Ben told his mum he could no longer see, she took his hands, put them on her face and said, “Yes, you can see. You can see me with your hands”. She put her hand on his nose and said, “Smell me. You can see me with your nose”. She placed her hands on his ears and said, “Hear me. You can see me with your ears.”

She chose to solve rather than complain. It’s easy to whinge over what’s not right. Anyone can find fault, but not many source a solution. If there’s stuff bothering you at work, think about whether you’re talking the problem up more than you’re doing something about it.

Lesson #2: Ben mastered echolocation. By making clicking noises with his tongue, the sounds bounced off surfaces like an echo, enabling him to recognise his surroundings. He was so good at it that he could even tell a fire hydrant from a rubbish bin without touching it.

He chose to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. Discover your natural talents – the stuff you love to do and are great at, and then find some way to incorporate these into the work you do. Even the smallest exposure to your talents will amplify your job satisfaction.

Lesson #3: Whenever Ben heard friends talking badly about others, such as when they’d refer to people as ‘ugly’, he would retort: "That's what’s wrong with sighted people. You all look at one another and judge what you look like." He liked to be guided by a person’s spirit.

Ben chose to become rather than to have. When it’s hard to get through the laborious or challenging parts of your job, it’s useful to take your eyes off the goal for a moment, and instead acknowledge and appreciate what you’re becoming as a result of it.

Lesson #4: Ben spent a lot of time travelling to schools and seniors centres, talking to kids and adults about how they could overcome their adversities in the same way he did. He considered it his purpose in life to help others learn from his experiences.

He chose to give rather than to get. One of the most rewarding things to do when you’re feeling unfulfilled is to help others get fulfilment. By helping people achieve what they want, you’ll end up getting more of what you want.

Ben’s cancer eventually spread to his brain and spine. He died in January this year at the age of 16. By using the four personal engagement lessons above, he and his family never let his disability become disabling. Each lesson is determined by a choice.

 

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