7 lessons learned from 35+ surgeries over the last 32 years

In my short life of 40 years, I have been fortunate to have 32 of those years filled with surgeries, physical therapy and an endless pursuit to become the best version of myself. I won’t say it has always been easy or that I never had doubts, but I will say it has been an amazing journey and I thank God every day for allowing me the opportunity to experience things 99% of the world will never face. I cherish the pain and the joy, as I truly believe you can’t have one without the other.

My journey taught me to never fear failure, never fear pain, never fear isolation and never fear uncertainty. In retrospect, the lessons of my journey are applicable to all and I pray my children, as well as your children, can learn from my experiences without having to experience those pains firsthand.

7 Lessons Learned

  1. I learned losing one gift means I need to be more thankful for my other gifts and make the most of every situation, regardless how small or insignificant it may appear. With every setback comes an opportunity to grow. At 8, I was physically unable to use my right arm for 3 years or hold my head up straight. As a result, I learned how to write left handed to finish the 3rd grade. I also learned how to throw left handed, as well as do the daily things such as brushing my hair, brushing my teeth and even buttoning my shirt left handed. Once I regained use of my right arm, both my arms were equally dominant. This became quite an asset when I boxed in college and more importantly, it helped me to realize there is never just one way to do something. It doesn’t mean the new way will be easy, but adapting is what we do best. People underestimate how resilient we are as humans and unfortunately it often takes a major hardship for us to realize our full potential. If you really want to be inspired, read the story of Dick and Rick Hoyt – father/son team that redefined “anything is possible.”
  2. I learned we all have scars, mine just happen to be on the outside. Everyone faces adversity and everyone has insecurities. For some it’s physical (their looks), others it’s financial (lack of money) and some it’s emotional pain (family turmoil). I have learned everyone is dealing with something, some are just better at hiding it and many are just in denial. I strongly believe in the simple CEO aphorism: You either apply pressure or you feel pressure. The key is to take undo stress and apply it towards productive actions. We all feel pain; we just react differently. Recognize pain as growth opportunities and ask yourself during those troubling times “what am I learning from this?”
  3. “The impossible just takes a little longer,” as a hero of mine Art Berg said. Art set a world-record by becoming the first quadriplegic to race an ultra marathon of 325 miles. Perhaps Art and other challenged athletes would have lived ordinary lives of no significance without their disability. Most people in life never attempt life changing events because they’re fearful of failure, lack the confidence in themselves or believe what everyone is telling them. If you always listen to the advice of others, you will always be limited to mediocrity. Believing in yourself and really pushing yourself, refusing to ever quit even when it seems the walls are caving in, you will be amazed what you can do. When you dare to be great you will realize that others will rally to your cause and want to be part of your success. Never be scared to do the impossible.
  4. We don’t get to where we are without help. While some of us have had a harder road to success than others, we have all had a helping hand, a comforting voice and someone who believed we were capable of greatness. It’s easy to confuse our hard work and personal sacrifices as evidence of our self made success but I assure you there has always been someone in the shadows providing support when you weren’t looking (how many prayers have been said on your behalf). As you climb the corporate ladder or attain your inner happiness, reach down and help out those who desperately need a pick me up. The smallest acts of kindness can have the greatest impact.
  5. You realize things worth having require hard work and sacrifice. Dreams are not realized overnight, despite what you see on TV. We never see the years of hard work entrepreneurs, athletes, musicians, etc… that made those dreams come true. Hard work also means you have to give up things you like in order to have what you really want. Unfortunately, you can’t have your cake and eat it too but you can have the important things in your life if you prioritize. Sacrifices are painful but if you embrace pain as part of the journey, you will never see life the same again. People I admire don’t make a big deal of things when they don’t go their way. They accept the good with the bad and keep moving forward. The biggest compliment I was ever paid is when a friend said “Shay, you are so lucky. Things just come easy for you.” I smiled and said “Thank you. I am glad all my hard work behind closed doors makes it look effortless.” If you love what you do, it really isn’t work.
  6. You can’t be complacent with where you are today. It’s human nature to celebrate our achievements and take pride in them. That’s great but you can’t celebrate too long as life will pass you by as others are vying to make a name for themselves. The game of life is a series of races and challenges that last a lifetime with no finish line until we stand before God on judgment day. Fortunately for some and unfortunately for others, no one will remember what you did 10 years ago, 5 years ago or even a month ago. That is what’s great about life. Each day is a new start to be your absolute best. As the Olympian Steve Prefontaine said,”Success isn’t how far you got, but the distance you traveled from where you started.” There is no greater satisfaction than to continually test yourself and work on becoming the best version of yourself. The satisfaction of knowing you can and will get better every year with a focus on self-improvement is something you wish everyone could experience. How much harder would people work if they were guaranteed to get better.
  7. Confidence is powerful. Without it, you will never do what you were created to do. With it, you can do more than you will ever imagine. Imagine if we spent as much time building up people as we do breaking them down. I’m all for tough love, but I’m also for instilling confidence and the will to succeed. I believe Mark Twain captured it best when he said “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right.” We have the ability to program our brain to achieve or underachieve.

People often ask if I could turn back time, would I do things differently on Aug 4, 1982. I can proudly say no way. Why would I? What have I missed out on in life as a result of my burns? Absolutely nothing. Did I have to work harder than most? Did I experience pain, ridicule, and endless rejection? You bet, but that’s what made me who I am and for that I am all the better. We so easily forget that our biggest disappointments and failures in life give us the greatest blessings. How could I ever trade my experiences that have afforded me an amazing wife, 5 healthy kids and the excitement to wake up each and every day ready to take on what lies ahead. As you reflect on my lessons learned, be careful not to remove all the pains in your loved ones lives as you could be preventing them from experiencing one of God’s miracles. Without pain, we may never know joy.


Shay is an All American and World ranked triathlete, burn survivor with scars over 65% of his body and is a sought out national motivational speaker. Despite being told he’d never compete in sports again at the age of 8, Shay is living testament to “Anything is Possible”: 4x Ironman, 4x member of Team USA, ranked top 1% of Ironmen worldwide and has competed in 9 triathlon world championships, including the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. His mantra has always been to not merely be a “finisher” but to be a “competitor.” If you enjoyed this article, I encourage you to check out my other posts.

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