Facing hard life lessons

A young entrepreneur learns from chronic illness

By Stephanie Lee

I started my own company when I was 31. By all accounts, I was a highly energetic, successful and driven individual.

I had a five-year plan. I had monthly goals. I had contingency plans. You know what I didn’t plan for? I didn’t plan for my active and healthy 35-year-old body to be rushed to the hospital with stroke-like symptoms. Weird, I know.

I was diagnosed with a chronic illness that has left me in a wheelchair and bed-bound for a significant chunk of the past two years. That’s when adaptability forced its way into my life.

From this experience, I’ve learned that the single most valuable trait for a business leader is adaptability. Not confidence. Not focus. Not optimism. (Although these all come in handy, to be sure!) But adaptability. Adaptability is how you weather the storm(s) and come out ahead.

The contingency plan that failed

Now, you get to do a lot of soul-searching when you’re trapped inside your head. The saying, “The only certainty is uncertainty,” really resonated with me. It dawned upon me that I was never really in control, despite all my planning. Sometimes, you get derailed and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Except, of course, adapt!

All the contingency planning in the world couldn’t have saved my business. Optimism didn’t keep my business going. My confidence was waning (to say the least), and I couldn’t count on that either. What saved my business was my ability to adapt.

I learned how to dictate emails because my arms weren’t working, had to think about how to walk because my muscles couldn’t remember. I had to rethink how to do the simplest tasks. Unbeknownst to a very frustrated me, being forced to do things differently because of my disease — to think differently — was a gift in disguise. It turned out to be awesome for business.

My disease resulted in new physical and mental limitations that forced me to learn new ways of doing old tasks. Needing to stop and think about the many ingrained actions I previously performed without thinking made me realize how habitual my mindset was. I wasn’t really thinking about why I did things, I just did them out of habit.

After struggling with and relearning simple physical tasks during my day-to-day, I realized I could use my newfound adaptability to rethink how my company was run. The result of this shake-up was a 68% increase in traffic to the website, revenue growth in the double-digits, and a restructured workload.

The science behind adaptability

Your brain’s ability to learn new things is called neuroplasticity. Just like exercising develops a muscle, using your brain in new ways causes it to grow. The brain’s gray matter — the cells that process thoughts — increases in the area of the brain that’s learning a new task.

While you once could have an edge by focusing on being great at [insert single talent], it’s no longer an advantage to be really good at doing one particular thing. More importantly, you need to be really good at learning how to do new things. Not only does this cultivate adaptability — which keeps your brain warmed up for unexpected changes — you’re also growing your brain, therefore training yourself to generate more creative solutions.

Rewiring your brain doesn’t just happen by partaking in the mental challenge of a Luminosity game, but through sustained cognitive tasks. Making a skill permanent requires the slow, steady work of forming new neural pathways — or making new thought processes a habit.

So, how can you work at consciously developing your neuroplasticity/adaptability to advance your career?

1)  Become aware of your habitual patterns. The brain can think itself into ruts. Something happens, you react. A certain stimuli comes along (a call from a potential client) and the deep neural pathway that has been formed from your hundreds of sales calls results in an automatic response (you give your spiel).

Exercise:  Make it a habit to know certain triggers and your responses. Come up with two other alternatives to your regular response.

2)  Meditate. It’s the hardest easy thing to do. As business people, we’re juggling a million things and our brains are never at rest. Meditation helps improve focus and studies have found meditators have stronger gamma waves — the fastest brainwaves associated with peak concentration — than non-meditators.

3) Be an early adopter. Change is easy to dislike. It requires learning something — hey, wait a second, that’s exactly what we want! While stability is important to a business, keep your mind open to new possibilities by trying out new technologies and processes.

The silver lining

I didn’t expect my daily life to be derailed by chronic health issues, and I certainly didn’t expect that it would result in a newfound adaptability I could apply to my business to help it grow!

The good news for you is that you don’t need a disease to help yourself see beyond the bandwidth of your own expectations — you can cultivate a sense of adaptability through a few easy steps and exercises. Small changes can lead to big progress! And why not give it a try?! Even Darwin is on your side.


Steph Lee is the founder of Host Agency Reviews, a website with nearly 50,000 visitors a month that connects and educates professionals in the travel industry. She’s received the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA)’s Young Professional of the Year award and was a Minnesota Business Young Entrepreneur. In her spare time, you can find her writing, walking her dog, Rigel, gardening and looking at the night sky.