Who inspires you? Who has encouraged you by their example to be more, to be better? Who can you point to and say, “I want to be like that person”? Maybe it is your professional mentor who came from nothing and is now a titan of industry. Maybe it is a former colleague who was unfairly knocked down but came back even better than before. Maybe it is a friend who stared down a terrible illness and found a way back to good health. In each example, the root of inspiration is not in the outcome but in the bravery, the tenacity, and the dignity to forge ahead. Those are the kinds of attributes that inspire us to do more with the life we’ve been given.
In my life, that inspiring person has been my son Sean. Sean was born with intellectual disabilities, but it never prevented him from living a full, rich life. His life was cut far too short with his sudden passing on Father’s Day 2019; however, in his 29 years with us; he taught me more than I could have ever imagined. When Sean was born, I foolishly assumed that I would have to teach him about the world, and then I woke up one day and realized he was teaching me what was most important. Sean taught me to think differently and that has ultimately made me a more successful businessman and all-around better person.
Here are Sean’s lessons that resonated most for my business:
Be genuinely friendly. Make a connection. Share a smile, a hello, and a short but genuine conversation with others. During travel, many people tune the rest of the world out by putting on headphones or never breaking eye contact with their phone. That was most certainly me; however, in hindsight, how many opportunities do we miss when we put on our blinders? When we take the time to truly connect with another person, even a stranger, our lives are enriched in ways we could have never imagined. You also never know when the next business idea may develop, and it just may be from a chance encounter with a new friend.
Pay attention to this moment. This person. This activity. How many times do we enter a social setting and are already looking towards the next conversation rather than focusing on the current one? I often find myself thinking about decisions I made yesterday or last week, or even years ago. I am equally bad at obsessing over what I will be doing tomorrow, next week, or five years from now. Of course, it is prudent to set goals, but if you spend so much time thinking about the next step, you never enjoy the journey to get to that moment. Enjoy each victory before moving the goalpost for the next one.
Do not wait for your happiness to come through some accomplishment in the future. Bring it into your life each day, and strive to be happy for other people without jealousy or comparison.
Banish the “can’t” mindset from your life. Decide to achieve something and take one step at a time, no matter how small, then keep walking. Set goals that will bring you further along your life journey. I left a secure job to launch my own sports marketing company, and a year later, the economy plummeted. As a result, that first year, our losses were immense. However, we rallied. Fifteen years later, my firm was the third-largest college sports marketing company in the country and was presented with an incredible offer to sell, which I accepted with trepidation, but I am happy I did.
When the big picture is too difficult to handle, break it down into smaller parts. If you bravely choose to make a change in your life, like starting your own company, don’t overthink what will happen in the next 20 years. Go for it. My son Sean didn’t get another 20 years, so you need to seize the opportunity when presented, even when scary.
Do not wait for your happiness to come through some accomplishment in the future. Bring it into your life each day, and strive to be happy for other people without jealousy or comparison. Executives with an A-type personality, like me, have a competitive nature and high expectations of achieved accomplishments to make us happy. It took me years of climbing the competitive ladder of success to learn that happiness is not a destination to be reached in the future. A life built on the expectation of future rewards makes it challenging to enjoy the journey because the end is never reached. The choice is ours to appreciate what we have and look for ways to give happiness to others which in turn will make us happy.
Sean touched so many lives. Since his death, I have received countless letters, cards, emails and texts about the positive effect he had on all who were lucky enough to know him. Many mentioned that Sean was an inspiration to them and that they now aspire to be better people because of him.
If you can make even just a few of these “like-Sean” actions a part of your life, you will be a happier person and an inspiration to others.
An entrepreneur, advocate, and former Chairman & CEO of the Special Olympics 2014 USA Games, TJ Nelligan is a man of action who has made it his life’s mission to benefit others. Inspired after his son’s sudden passing, Nelligan authored Live Like Sean: Important Life Lessons from My Special-Needs Son. An Amazon Best Seller, Live Like Sean, provides a first-person perspective of seeing the world through the eyes of his special-needs son, who taught the world more than it could ever teach him.