Celebrate Every Victory. One of the greatest mistakes I’ve made in life is delaying the celebrations, and in effect, the feelings of accomplishment and self-worth that come from small victories until some future point in time. How many of us have said, “I’ll be happy when I have this much money in the bank?” Or, “I’ll feel like I’ve done something worthy when I have my PhD, or when I’m a Vice President or a CEO.” I’ve known people who lost thirty pounds of weight, but their goal was forty, so they felt like a failure for only losing thirty! Take the time to reflect on every step forward, and feel good about your progress.
As a part of our series about “dreamers who ignored the naysayers and did what others said was impossible”, I had the pleasure of interviewing William Jack Stephens.
William Jack Stephens is an author, a former Fortune 100 executive, and a lifestyle transformation advocate whose work is influencing the lives of people all over the world. Through both fiction and non-fiction, he provokes us to consider: what are the things that have real value in our lives, what are we doing to fulfill our dreams, and what would we do if the “unthinkable” happens? He’s now a successful novelist, and guides others through peer advising, speaking engagements, and published works.
Jack did what so many fantasize about … left his career as a top-tier executive in the pharmaceutical industry, sold everything he owned, and moved to the “End of the World” to follow a dream. The ultimate reset. Like a modern-day Henry David Thoreau, he ventured into the Andes Mountains to find out who he really was. He came back as an author and found immediate success. He has published five fictional works since 2017 and his first two novels, Where The Green Star Falls and Andalusian Legacy, have been acquired by a Hollywood production company for adaptation to film or a television series. He is also staying true to his professional roots, and is working on books devoted to Success and Achievement, Happiness, and Personal Transformation.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us your ‘backstory’?
In the early 2000’s I was a typically goal-oriented corporate guy, driven to succeed and doing a pretty good job at it. I was an executive vice president with a huge company, I’d been asked to give private industry counsel to the Vice Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, led a lobbying team in support of drug benefits for seniors, and I served as an industry representative on a committee that planned disaster relief in the event of a nuclear, biological, or chemical disaster. And like anyone else in the corporate realm, I was working massive hours, traveled continuously away from home, and my health was slowly eroding. It never occurred to me that I wasn’t really happy, but I was achieving what I thought a man in my generation was supposed to strive for.
Then I had my “wakeup call.” Actually, it was more of a hammer strike to the head. My wife and I left for work early one morning, she drove out just ahead of me and onto the freeway and I got stuck at the traffic light. Minutes later, a truck crossed into the oncoming lane and hit my wife’s vehicle head-on. I came up on the accident scene about ninety seconds later. It turned both our worlds completely upside down. My work, responsibilities and obligations, and everything that had dominated my existence before that moment, ceased to exist. My memory of the next several months is sketchy. The ever present smells of ER disinfectant and sickness are burned deeply into my olfactory memory, and the hollow echo of heels striking the linoleum floor as nurses and orderlies passed back and forth down the long hallways. And, a neurosurgeon telling me that I might have to find a facility to care for my quadriplegic wife (don’t worry, this had a happy ending). The bright side was that it gave me time to think about something other than my job. After I’d thought about it long enough, I decided it was time for both of us to follow our dreams.
When my wife was well on the road to recovery, we did what everyone told us we couldn’t do. I walked away from my career, we sold everything we owned and boarded a plane to Buenos Aires, Argentina. At the time, I couldn’t actually say that I knew what I dreamed of doing with my life. By that point, I’d lost touch with who I really was and what I wanted my life to be about. My search took me into the Andes Mountains of Patagonia, at the “End of the World.” The solitude and beauty of living on the mountain healed my soul, and revived a dream I’d long since forgotten, to be a writer. I was determined to do the impossible … to rewrite my own life story.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, I am. We’re all living through one of the most difficult times in human history, and many people are naturally beginning to question whether or not they are truly happy with their lives and how they’ve been living. Over the years, so many people have asked how I successfully navigated my own transformation, that I started writing a short non-fiction series focused on personal transformation and happiness. The first book will be published in early 2021, and the title is: The Four Tenets Of Happiness, Ancient Wisdom For The Enjoyment Of Living. I’m also wrapping up the third book in my International Thriller series, and then I’m scheduled to write another book in the (Where The Green Star Falls) series that was recently acquired by Hollywood.
In your opinion, what do you think makes your company or organization stand out from the crowd?
In my writing, I’ve gone completely against the grain of conventional wisdom, which is, “find one niche genre or a specific theme (for non-fiction) and stick to it.” The common voice tells you to find your tribe and build your brand within that tight space. But I’ve lived literally from one end of the world to the other — from the north in Alaska in my twenties to the far south of Patagonia, Argentina and a dozen places in-between. I’ve experienced innumerable things and interacted with people from many cultures. I’ve stood on the edge of the Arctic sea and heard the cacophony of the icepack breaking under the warm spring sun, and climbed mountains to cast ashes of the dead into the Pacific winds. I’ve been in the company of men who were President and men who wished to be, and sat quietly by campfires in the most remote part of the world with men who owned nothing more than their horses and the clothes they wore. I’ve loved and been loved in return, seen the newly born take their first breath, and the old take their last. I’m a man of many tribes, and many interests, and I have many different stories to tell. How could I compartmentalize my voice to just one?
When I work with executives in a lifestyle advocate capacity, I trend away from typical “coaching.” A traditional coach is someone who dictates actions and plans based on classic models of success. I’m a storyteller, sharing my own experiences and motivations and allowing people to develop their own insights and find their own path. I’ve learned about life by living it. I’ve learned equally from my successes and from miserable failures, and had to pull myself up out of the mud a few times and carry on with my journey. I can vividly remember being in the waiting room as my wife was undergoing a five-hour surgery, my mind suddenly flooded with the reality of my own condition, and whether or not I was actually capable of taking care of her when I struggled most days just to make it through a full day’s work. And all the while thinking, “How did this happen to me? Why didn’t I see this coming?” It’s the sharing of these experiences that may benefit people who are in the midst of reevaluating their own version of the human experience. Even most of my fictional novels carry these messages, so I suppose that’s what I’m here for.
Ok, thank you for that. I’d like to jump to the main focus of this interview. Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us? What was your idea? What was the reaction of the naysayers? And how did you overcome that?
There were several, but two particular instances come to mind.
The most personal reflection on achieving the “impossible” is my writing career. I dreamed of being a writer when I was young, and my dream was soundly crushed in my first year of college. My freshman English Literature professor, in front of the class, told me that I should find something else to do because I was absolutely talentless. She offered to give me a passing grade if I just made the effort to show up for class! It took me forty years to prove her wrong, but prove it I did. It’s the perfect example of why you shouldn’t let anyone else dictate what you can or can’t accomplish with your own life. The idea of what’s possible, or impossible, is often a matter of individual perspective. And accomplishing the impossible is sometimes just a matter of tenacity.
The second would be in 2001, four years before my wife’s car accident, I nearly died from a very rare strain of encephalitis I contracted in the wild farmlands of Missouri. I felt a stomach ache on a Monday, and was slipping into a coma on Tuesday. I never fully recovered, and many doctors told me they couldn’t explain or properly treat the lingering condition. When my wife and I first arrived in Argentina, she had to dress me every morning and tie my shoelaces, because my hands were too swollen and contorted to do it myself. I could barely walk. I’d come from the healthcare industry and modern medicine failed me. This was before most doctors were even aware of autoimmune diseases, and they didn’t have any answers except to take stronger pain relievers and inflammation reducing meds. But I didn’t want to just feel better, I wanted to be better. They all told me there was nothing that could be done to reverse the illness, but I refused to give in. I spent every waking hour researching, studying, journaling my food and drink intake, and focusing on the things that improved or worsened my condition. After two years, I had lost one-hundred pounds, was almost completely pain free, and felt twenty years younger. The doctors asked me to write a book about it. But even still, I occasionally run into those who refuse to acknowledge that what I did, reversing a rampant disease with nutritional and lifestyle changes, is possible. They prefer to call it an “unrepeatable miracle.” I think too much rigid institutional education confines them to a space where everything outside of their knowledge-box is simply impossible.
In the end, how were all the naysayers proven wrong? :-)
My life and health started improving the moment I questioned the validity of everything I had ever been taught. By professors, doctors … everyone. They all believed they were right, given their own training and education, but knowledge about so many things, like health and nutrition, science, and even the capacity of a person to transform their lives, are not constants. They are fluid concepts based on current methods, technological capabilities for analysis, and individual interpretations. They are also heavily influenced by political and economic forces, and charismatic personalities.
It was when I began to doubt what many so-called experts all told me and learned for myself, that I began to prosper. And now I climb mountains, both figurative and literal.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I wrote something many years ago — “We are nothing more than the sum of all our experiences, and everyone who has ever touched our soul.” The more I consider this question, the more difficult it gets to single out a particular person. However, my mother encouraged me to dream grand dreams, and more still, to abandon the demands of social pressure and chase those dreams, even though she was afraid to do the same. She wanted more for me than she was able to do for herself, and she was the one who inspired me later in life to write my first novel.
It must not have been easy to ignore all the naysayers. Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share the story with us?
I was born into a military family and my father was as hard as a coffin nail. Just being raised by my dad was an exercise in resiliency. When I was fifteen, my father had a massive heart attack. He survived against all odds, but he was never able to work again and all of our lives changed along with his. I had to take on responsibilities that were outside the range of a normal high school sophomore, but there was no other choice. I kept up with my obligations, I got a job working after school at night and on weekends, and kept moving towards my goal, which was to graduate from college. When I think about building resiliency, it’s an easy thing to remember the moments of positive reinforcement that keep us going, but I’ve learned to look back on the hardships and embrace them. Every fall, every failure, every bloody nose, left me with a lesson about successful living. The “trials of life” were just as crucial for shaping me into who I am, as every trophy and cheering crowd. The lesson to be learned was always the same … you have to pick yourself up and continue on, or life will go on without you.
Based on your experience, can you share 5 strategies that people can use to harness the sense of tenacity and do what naysayers think is impossible? (Please share a story or an example for each)
- Embrace The Power Of Daily Affirmations. Taking a path that few others are willing to take can be frightening, and you should expect that Fear & Doubt will be frequent visitors for a while. During my first two years abroad, after quitting a career path that I’d spent twenty-five years building, there were a lot of days that I stood in front of the mirror in a cold shivering sweat thinking, “What have I done?” But I prepared for those moments before I left, knowing that it would happen. It didn’t stop it from happening, but I was braced for it. My wife and I made a bargain before we made the leap, only one of us was allowed to panic on the same day; the other had to suck it up and be comforting and supportive! I found that starting my day with a ritual of affirmations, spoken out loud to myself over a cup of coffee, keeps me looking forward and positive.
- Big Journeys Are Taken One Step At A Time. Achieving a dream, in particular one that others have made you feel is impossible, has to be broken down to the granular level. Begin by defining it in the most detailed terms you can, and by that I mean, learn to interpret what it is you really want to achieve and then the (who, what, when, how) of reaching that goal. This past summer, I climbed a mountain in the Patagonian Andes to fulfill a dream for my mother. I published a short story about the adventure titled: Roses, Rivers, And A Wind To Heaven. It was a visually imposing, impossible looking mountain. I needed intimate knowledge of the approach to the summit, so I found a local guide to counsel me. I needed perfect weather conditions, so I enlisted an expert in the seasonal weather patterns coming off the Pacific Ocean, and I waited over two months for the perfect day. I needed the right equipment, and time to prepare myself. I succeeded because it was a well planned and executed event, with attention to the minutiae. Getting to the top was my goal, but accomplishing a thousand small steps, one at a time, was how I did it.
- Invest In Yourself. Don’t ever stop learning to do things … all manner of things. The Greek Philosopher, Aristotle, who lived around three-hundred and fifty years B.C., wrote, “Learning is an ornament in prosperity, a refuge in adversity, and a provision in old age.”
- Prepare For Contingencies. Pursuing something that feels like an impossible challenge will never be a simple straight line endeavor. There will be obstacles, challenges, detours, and things you’ve never considered that you’ll face along the way. Life itself is a highly fluid battlefield. So prepare for as many contingency plans as you can think of, and be prepared to switch gears or take a detour. It doesn’t mean you are giving up on your final objective, only that you may have to take a more circuitous route to the top.
- Celebrate Every Victory. One of the greatest mistakes I’ve made in life is delaying the celebrations, and in effect, the feelings of accomplishment and self-worth that come from small victories until some future point in time. How many of us have said, “I’ll be happy when I have this much money in the bank?” Or, “I’ll feel like I’ve done something worthy when I have my PhD, or when I’m a Vice President or a CEO.” I’ve known people who lost thirty pounds of weight, but their goal was forty, so they felt like a failure for only losing thirty! Take the time to reflect on every step forward, and feel good about your progress.
What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?
The timeless quote from the French-Algerian poet, Albert Camus — “Au milieu de l’hiver, j’ai découvert en moi un invincible été.” “In the midst of winter, I discovered in me an invincible summer.”
It means that when things feel the most desperate and dark, that’s the place where we find our indomitable spirit. The strength to face the trials of life, and rise superior to them.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would inspire people to focus on relationships, and consider that the people they choose to spend time with will be the most critical decision they ever make. Think of it as team building for a successful You. Surround yourself with people who encourage your strengths, rather than those who enable your weaknesses.
And remember — If you can dream a thing, you can do a thing.
Can our readers follow you on social media?
And I welcome connections on LinkedIn, https://www.linkedin.com/in/williamjackstephens/
Thank you for these great stories. We wish you only continued success!