Stephen's Manifesto: the inside scoop
If you want my standard bio, please click here. Otherwise, if you want the detailed (and long) story, you’ve come to the right place.
The way I look at this – NOT telling you the real story would be a major disservice. We’re human and not all our lives are carefully curated Instagram stories to share with the world.
I want you to be inspired to overcome barriers so that you can have the life you deserve.
First of all, let me tell you that it really REALLY helps to be a stubborn son of a b***. Pardon my language (and it isn’t language I would use in a PR kit or speaking to an audience full of professionals) but it is the truth and it’s helped me do a lot of cool things (and I think it will help you too).
What we do after we get kicked in the gut is what makes us get to where we are now. The inspiration comes in realizing that we are all not alone in our struggles.
SO HOW CAN I HELP YOU?
I know lots about overcoming barriers, and can show you how to overcome them. Here are a few barriers I’ve overcome in my life so far:
Overcoming a hearing impairment where the doctors told my parents I would never be able to speak;
First deaf student in the business program at my university, and graduating with the most outstanding student award;
Being a lawyer (although I got fired when a senior partner told me I was no rocket scientist).
Growing a business from near bankruptcy to a national presence;
Conquering my fear of public speaking to go on to do stand up comedy and appear on national television across North America; and
Doing a TEDx talk.
There’s a framework that I’ve followed – sometimes by accident, and other times by plan, that really helps me overcome barriers, and I am eager to share with you what I’ve learned.
BUT BEFORE WE GET INTO THAT, I WANT TO WARN YOU UPFRONT THAT I HAVE QUITE A FEW QUIRKS.
First of all, as I mentioned earlier, I am a stubborn son of a bitch.
I absolutely hate, and I mean it, getting up early in the morning. I am useless at that time. But I have no choice as my son goes to school early in the morning.
My speech clarity improves when I drink alcohol. But it is a very fine line as my lipreading skills get worse.
I have an insatiable curiosity about the world, am a voracious reader, and am a huge information whore. I need to know everything about everything. I’ve failed miserably numerous times to go on information diets. The flip side is that I am a endless source of useless trivia information.
I love getting the crap scared out of me, whether it is single track mountain biking down a steep hill, bungy jumping, or skiing through trees. It helps me clear the chatter in my brain as I focus on the moment.
I slay sacred cows, question conventional wisdom, and never take anything at face value. Partly due to growing up with a hearing impairment and people sometimes having a bias regarding what I can do or cannot do. This can cause uncomfortable conversations at times.
I have an ambiguous and schizophrenic relationship with my deafness. I’ve managed to do great in spite of it, and often forget I’m deaf or dwell upon it, but when I do public speaking and stand up comedy, I default to talking about issues that come up with it, as people find it interesting. Otherwise I don't like to talk about it.
AND HOW DID I GET TO WHERE I AM TODAY?
I promise you that this is not a bleeding heart nor a Timmy telethon type story I am about to tell you. But I need to tell you about my struggles because a lot of it was NOT easy and I think it will save you a lot of headaches (and heartaches) down the road.
First, we’ll start with the deaf thing. I was born with a hearing impairment, and the doctors told my parents that I would never be able to speak. I am just about as deaf as it gets. A 95 decibel hearing loss.
To put this in perspective, if I am not wearing any hearing aids, you could scream at me at the top of your lungs, and I won’t hear you (and I could be ignoring you on purpose as well).
I got my first hearing aids when I was 18 months old. They consisted of two boxes strapped to my chest with wires going to my ears. Yes, I looked like a suicide bomber in training pants.
I hated them so much that I’d hide them or flush them down the toilet. The only way they could tell how loud to make them was how much I cried.
Learning to lipread and being able to have somewhat comprehensible speech is one heck of a battle to the death that I continue to fight to this day. A lot of the words look the same when you read lips. Eg. “Bat, mad, bad, pat.”
Thus, it is like doing the jigsaw puzzle from hell trying to figure out the missing pieces. But instead of dwelling on not being able to hear, I focussed on what I could do – using clues I could use to figure out the missing pieces. Clues such as body language, facial expression, and the context of the conversation. At that age, I was already realizing that hearing the words was only a small part of the communication puzzle.
Me at five when I looked like a suicide bomber
Back then I was determined and stubborn as heck to fit in with my peers. However, lipreading is not a foolproof system and I got screwed over many times with numerous misunderstandings.
And lipreading isn’t exactly going to help with phone calls….obviously?!
Thus, I had to get my mother to help me make phone calls when I asked girls out on dates. How embarrassing and uncool, especially when my mother gave me unsolicited advice, when I was stumbling over getting the right words out.
Yes, it wasn’t easy for me at times. The academic part was a lot easier for me than the social part.
Although I could not follow the classes for the most part, I adapted.
I went to a regular school for hearing kids where I was the only deaf student, and then after graduation, I went onto university, and graduated with a degree in business and won the most outstanding graduating student award.
I also took a year off, and backpacked around the world. And it rocked for the most part. Except for the part where I got lost in an underwater cave scuba diving and I nearly drowned but that’s another story.
When I travelled, a miracle occurred and people could understand me much better. After trying to figure out why, I realized that they didn’t know I was deaf. They thought I was German, and the Germans I met thought I was French. And it made me realize how much of communication is psychological.
I came back to Canada, and started law school.
I got a cochlear implant when I was 27 years old, and it helped me have better hearing. Unfortunately, it was also when I discovered that I am very noisy and people can hear everything I do, and I mean everything…
I graduated from law school and got a job at one of the best law firms in town. I had the world at my feet so it seemed. But it was an unmitigated disaster. I shuffled paperwork, and I was terrible at that part, and I had minimal client contact. Back then, the technology wasn’t as good as it is now.
One day the senior partner calls me in, and tells me “Stephen…we build rocket ships. You are no rocket scientist. You no longer have a job here.”
I would like to say that I gave him the finger for saying that to me. That I brushed it off, and didn’t care what he thought. But if I am being honest, it really hurt me to my core. And made me doubt myself in a huge way.
I felt humiliated. That I failed my family.. my friends… all of the people who had helped me over the years, and deaf people who look up to me as an example.
It was a deep dark secret that I never wanted anybody to know. I put on a façade and acted as if everything was fine on the surface, but it wasn’t easy. I felt like a big failure.
Yes… I left law altogether.
I did a stint in South America as a leader of a community development program. I ended up in a tiny village with no running water nor electricity, where the biggest concern everyone had was whether they would have enough food for the next season because of a drought.
Talk about perspective.
I did some serious navel gazing when I was there.
After coming back to Canada, I was somewhat renewed but still wounded. I got a lucrative management consulting gig and loved the work there. Only problem was that my future wife was back in my hometown.
I left my job as a consultant and joined forces with her in her food manufacturing business. And I thought I was on my way back on top again.
But I was wrong. We were chronically very tight for cash, and hung on by the skin of our fingertips.
I ended up being a jack of all trades, baking at 3 am in the morning, doing deliveries at 5 am, cleaning toilets. You name it. I did it. Our delivery van was full of rust stains and had a coat hanger keeping the muffler in place.
Sometimes I did deliveries downtown, and was terrified that I’d run into someone from my old law firm or one of my classmates. I hid if I saw anyone I knew.
We stubbornly clawed our way through, and our business flourished to a national presence with our products sold across Canada.
And how did that happen? We knew we wouldn’t be able to compete with the big dogs. However, we flew in under the radar. We focussed on what we could do, not what we couldn’t do. In our case, we knew how to do a few things very well.
In our case, things like making healthy baked goods for a few key customers. Really listening to them about what they wanted. Being nimble in our response to our customers’ needs. We also figured out how to save costs. Getting rid of eighty percent of our product lines and eighty percent of our customers. Getting rid of complicated finicky products. Simplifying everything. Sounds crazy, but it worked. We made kick ass products, and went on a hell of a ride.
I also did stand up comedy on a lark and to conquer my fear of public speaking. To keep this in perspective, I turned down an opportunity to be class valedictorian when I was a student as I could not bear the thought of speaking in front of a crowd of people. The very first time I did my show, I was petrified. My legs felt wobbly, I felt lightheaded, and I could barely stand. My throat was tight, and I felt like puking, but I muttered out a few jokes, and people started laughing. I realized it wasn’t that bad.
Before I knew it, I was the subject of a documentary on my stand up comedy which aired across North America.
How was I able to overcome my fear and get the audience on my side? I knew that it would be harder for people to understand me because of my speech impediment, but I focused on what I could do, instead of dwelling on my speech impediment. Finding out many other ways to listen to the audience and communicate.
In my case, I worked hard on my physical act outs, and always asking for feedback after each show I did. I also knew that my hearing impairment in some ways is an advantage because my material is unique, and less forgettable. After all, as the lame joke goes, "I am the only deaf comedian – if there’s another one out there, I haven’t heard of him or her."
This focussing on what I can do, instead of what I can’t do thing, and working hard to listen thing helps me overcome numerous barriers.
One thing drives me absolutely batsh*t
It drives me absolutely batsh*t that people don’t listen well. My hearing is sh*t, and I listen much better than others. And if people could hear as well as I listen, the world’s their oyster. For they’d get along much better than others. Understand other perspectives. Be much more inclusive. Have fewer biases. Have better business success and more influence. Maybe this is one of these unicorn situations where if we all listen better, we can all hold hands and sing Kumbaya, and everyone lives happily ever after.
But the stone cold hard reality is that we don’t do this.
SO WHAT YOU REALLY NEED TO KNOW THAT I LEARNED
Try it for yourself. Really listen to others.
And focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do.
Oh.. another thing – it really really helps to be a stubborn son of a b****.