Mr. Potato Head taught me, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but …’

Being successful in life requires a sense of humor. Let’s be honest, the world is full of hurtful people who want nothing more than to bring you down and crush your dreams. Often times it’s because of their own insecurities and need to be validated by others. As kids, we are taught to ignore the hurtful words of others. In theory it’s great, but we all know it’s not quite as easy to practice.

Reality check… life is tough and people will say and do things to hurt you. The sooner you accept that the easier life is.

Many aren’t aware of the impact of their comments and actions while others simply don’t care and have no filter.

Kids can be cruel

I learned as a kid the importance of believing in yourself and not relying on the opinions of others to determine your self-worth and I am thankful for that hard lesson. I distinctly remember as an 8yr old schoolmates whispering behind my back about my burn scars. Trust me, you know when people are staring and talking about you. Then there were those more brazen who would call me Freddy Krueger to my face, in tribute to Wes Craven’s main character from ‘Nightmare on Elm Street.’

Then there were the hundreds of kids, and even adults, who would stare at me and make comments such as “ewww gross mommy, look at him.” Unless you’ve been in that situation, it’s hard to comprehend what it’s like for people to stare at you everywhere you go… and I mean everywhere – school, church, restaurant, movies, grocery store, etc…

There comes a time in your life, as it did for me, that you finally realize you have 2 options:

  1. Do nothing. Feel sorry for yourself and avoid going to public places. Play the victim card and fear change.
  2. Do something. Accept reality and learn to embrace your shortcomings. Commit to being the best version of yourself.


With the help of months of crying myself to sleep and praying for the scars to go away, I came to terms with the permanent nature of my scars. Call it faith or social evolution, I learned I needed to adopt a sense of humor about my scars if I wanted to be successful and have any hopes of living a normal life. I realized things wouldn’t change overnight nor would anyone do it for me. The evolution of my acceptance is no small feat and required years, even decades, of refinement. It’s a constant balance between overplaying your acceptance (and practical jokes) with being humble and thankful for your blessings. I have learned to just be myself and not worry what everyone else thinks. People respect genuineness and admire those that are comfortable in their own skin.

There will always be haters and I can’t control what they think so why bother. I learned to live for me and focus on my happiness.

From age 8-35 I had no right ear, not even a hint of one. You wouldn’t believe how many times people, often times kids my age, would come up and say “hey, you have no ear, where’d it go?” Finally, I started saying “what do you mean?” Then they’d point at it, or where it should be, and say “your right ear. It’s missing.” Continuing the role play, I’d reach up and feign shock and say “oh my gosh, where is it? You have to help me find it.” That story line never gets old and was best played out at a neighborhood swimming pool where I had kids diving into the deep end for 20 minutes believing it was stuck on the drain.

Evolution of Mr. Potato Head

At 35, I received a prosthetic right ear that literally snaps onto a metal bar that is anchored by permanent screws that are drilled into my head. As a result, I’m officially known as Mr. Potato Head by those who work in my industry and have witnessed it popping off at inopportune times. The beauty of meeting new people is they don’t know your story and form opinions quickly – i.e. the 2 ears on your head are real and won’t fall off while we’re talking, etc… For the most part those assumptions hold true unless I’m introduced to a dance floor. I absolutely love my dancing and always game for showing off my mad skills regardless of the venue. Most recently, I was working the floor in a dance off at an HFMA event in Atlantic City. Not to brag, but I owned the floor. I gave it everything I had and finished with a nice backspin – throwback to my 80’s upbringing. As I walked off the floor, fully expecting to receive applause and chants of ‘we want more’, instead I was faced with dead silence. I was stunned and thought what more could they possible want. It was then that a colleague pointed to the dance floor and said “your ear is still on the dance floor.” Not missing a beat, I strolled out onto the floor, grabbed the lonely prosthetic ear and quickly snapped it back into place. Needless to say, I don’t think the audience was prepared for an ear to pop off one of the dance competitors. I say competitors because everything is always a competition or at least to me. I believe you do everything with 100% of your ability and never hold back. I never do anything half ass and rest easy at night knowing if I lose any of my abilities I will never have regrets for not using them fully.

32 years removed from my injury, I think the single biggest accelerator for my healing and resuming a meaningful and fulfilling life is due to embracing my situation and learning to laugh at myself. Time continues to reinforce my mantra – age has a unique way of forcing us all to come to terms with our shortcomings and learning to focus on the things we can impact and not losing sleep over those things we can’t. I would like to issue a formal apology to the TSA agent working the security scanner at the Hartsfield Atlanta Airport when I decided to pull my latest prank. I can assure you it gave him something to talk about in the break room and you know he probably walked in and said, “y’all ain’t going to believe this…”

PS. Yes that is 2 right ears. I have to replace them every 2-3 years and carry the old one for grins and giggles. Perhaps I’ll have a warrior necklace in 20 years of all my old ones.


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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