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By Steve Stirling, a member of the Rotary Club of Atlanta, Georgia, USA
They are typical job interview questions: What is your greatest strength? What is your greatest weakness?
But in my case, the interviewer often hesitates. After all, how do you ask a guy who is wearing leg braces and using crutches about his greatest weakness? It seems both obvious and insensitive.
We all have weaknesses. Mine are just a bit more obvious. So I’ve learned to turn the uncomfortable moment around and confront the situation head on.
“My greatest strength is that I am what some people call ‘crippled,’” I say, purposely using the politically incorrect word. “Some prefer to call me ‘handicapped’ or ‘disabled.’ I’ve heard all the terms and I’m not upset by any of them. I’m not easily offended.
“I’ve learned that my physical limitations have helped me build my mental and spiritual strength. I have an Ivy League degree and an MBA from one of the country’s most prestigious schools. I’ve had jobs in top corporations and nonprofits. I have enjoyed great success and yet I never forget what it was like to be a child who couldn’t walk, living in an orphanage. My greatest strength is what most people assume is my weakness.”
My last interview was five years ago when a search committee was looking for the next president and CEO of MAP International, an organization that provides medicine and health supplies to those in need around the world. In some ways, it was a match made in heaven.
You see, I walk with crutches because I had polio as a child. My life would be very different if the polio vaccine – costing approximately $.60 – would have been available to me and my family in Korea where I was born. My passion in life is to help other children receive the medicine they need to avoid life-long illness or even death.
So when I told the committee interviewing me about my strengths and weaknesses, I could honestly say that I had a lifetime to prepare for the job of helping bring medicine to those in need. I knew first hand what it meant to suffer because an inexpensive dose of vaccine was not available.
But I also know that overcoming my challenges each and every day makes me a better leader. It’s true that my daily life is more difficult than most people’s. A simple flight of stairs, a rocky path, a door with a difficult handle … these are typical occurrences that are major obstacles for me. Yet I have to prepare myself each day to handle the unexpected.
Fortunately, I nailed that interview and now proudly lead an organization that brings millions of dollars of donated medicines and medical supplies to people in need around the world. It’s a big job and truly miraculous path for someone who spent his early years as a forgotten child.
During my earliest years, I didn’t even have crutches and had to drag myself around on the ground. At that point my greatest dream was to be able to go to grade school with the “able-bodied” children in the orphanage. I could never have imagined a successful life in the US or that I’d be able to write a book about my journey, “The Crutch of Success.”
It was truly a miracle that I was adopted by a generous American couple who loved me and provided for me, including my special needs. Their love and support changed my life, but, of course, the physical damage had already been done. I have had the wonderful privilege of growing up in a country where I received a great education, married a wonderful woman, raised two terrific children, and had a successful career. But my disability is often the first thing people see about me. I try not to let it define me in their eyes.
I try to put people at ease, explaining the I had polio as a child and while it affected my ability to walk, I am blessedly able in every other way. It’s understandable that they first see my disability as weakness. My goal is that once they know me, they see it as my strength.
I find that many people try to hide their weaknesses. They dodge the question in an interview and spend their lives hoping no one sees where they struggle. They feel sorry for themselves and focus on the injustice of their circumstance.
If you find yourself in that situation, I want to encourage you. Your weakness can become your strength. Whatever your weakness is – lack of education, the inability to speak clearly, a physical trait you consider unattractive, a disability – embrace it today. Decide what you can do to improve yourself. Take an evening class, join Toastmasters, ask for help.
Then dedicate yourself everyday to overcome the obstacles in your path.
About the author: Steve Stirling is president and CEO of MAP International, an organization dedicated to bringing medicine to the world. He is the author of “The Crutch of Success: From Polio to Purpose, Bringing Health & Hope to the World.”