It's hard to imagine any greater spokesperson for the idea of overcoming obstacles than thirty-three-year-old Sean Stephenson, star of the Biography channel television documentary "Three-Foot Giant." Born with the genetic disorder osteogenesis imperfecta, or O.I. (which featured prominently in both the M. Night Shyamalan film Unbreakable and bestselling 2009 Jodi Picoult novel Handle with Care), Stephenson was expected to die at birth. As Sean puts it, "Boy, am I glad they were wrong."
And boy, were they ever. Despite his extraordinary challenges (suffering more than 200 bone fractures by age eighteen, Sean reached maximum height of just three feet and is permanently confined to a wheelchair), the diminutive speaker/author has become a giant in the world of personal development and professional achievement. He has shared the platform with such thought leaders as His Holiness Dalai Lama, Stephen R. Covey, former Vice President Al Gore, and Sir Richard Branson; has worked on Capitol Hill as legislative affairs intern for a U.S. Congressman and in the White House with President Clinton as a presidential liaison intern for the Office of Cabinet Affairs; and has appeared on dozens of media outlets including the Oprah Winfrey Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, CNN, and The New York Times. This year he completed his doctorate in clinical hypnotherapy and is a board-certified hypnotherapist.
President Bill Clinton has described Sean as "an amazing person with an important message." Jimmy Kimmel calls him "the Yoda of personal development ... with less pointy ears."
We recently spent a delightful hour on the phone with Sean talking about life, achievement, marriage, and network marketing. — J.D.M.
Looking at your incredibly diverse career, a question comes to mind: what led you to think you could do all these things? You must've thought you could do them before you did them.
Yes and no. There were times when I had to rely on that great quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, "You must do the thing you think you cannot do."
I don't know if this is a positive or a negative, but if I'm aware that I can do something, I kind of lose interest. Which is why I like to set goals and opportunities that are a bit farther out of reach than most people might be comfortable with. I want to grow and stretch. If I'm always doing things I know for sure I can do, it bores me.
Being born with O.I., there must be things that would seem simple for most people yet would be hugely challenging to you. What was it like to be you growing up? Did it feel like the deck was stacked against you, like "life is unfair"?
It depends on what day you'd ask that question! As a child, I had several plusses and minuses in my life.
The biggest minus was certainly the physical condition—for example, the sheer amount of pain I had to endure as a child. Something as simple as sneezing could fracture a collarbone; coughing too hard could break ribs. You can imagine waking up wondering, "Is today the day I'm going to be in excruciating pain?"
But life balances itself. The biggest plus was that I was born into an amazing family, with parents who believed in me and a sister who was always very supportive.
Sometimes I didn't deal with the challenges all that well and would get sad or frustrated. Whenever I'd go into a negative emotion, my parents would say, "You can only stay there for a little bit, Sean. You can't live in that negative emotion forever. We're not going to deny you that experience, but we're not going to let you wallow in pity and misery, either."
They bred into the fabric of my soul that there's nothing to be a victim about in life. Everything that happens, happens for you, not to you.
What a blessing, having parents like that.
I agree, and also have to add a caveat. I've had people say, "Well, it's easier for you, Sean, because you had a great parenting structure."
But if I hadn't had that, it would have just meant I'd have to go elsewhere to find that foundation, to reach out to neighbors or friends, or go find mentors. If you come from a negative background, it's your responsibility as an adult to fill in what's missing. You're not subject to someone else's choices and limitations for the rest of your life.
I also got great advice from my father, who would say, "Let's be honest, there's a lot you can't do—but there's a lot more that you can do."
That's the way I've always looked at life. There are a lot of things I can't do that you probably can—but there are a lot of things I can do that you probably can't.
How did your multi-faceted career path first take flight on this trajectory?
In high school, I was asked to speak at another school about what it's like to have a disability. Using some jokes, quotes, and props, I pieced together a presentation that I thought would keep high school students interested for a half hour.
I still remember that first speech very clearly, even though it was sixteen years ago.
And it just grew from there?
Exactly. A counselor in the school system who believed in me said, "You know, Sean, you are an incredible speaker. You should be doing this more." She and my parents were my champions and helped me put together my first brochure, which I still have today.
I started being asked to speak at other schools, then at hospitals, prisons, companies, and associations. I spoke throughout my college experience, traveling to do speeches and then hurrying back to class to stay caught up with school work.
After graduating from college I continued speaking, but I also realized that words and emotions of the moment evaporate, and I wanted to have something people could come back to later on. I wrote my first book when I was still in college, and have been writing ever since.
Later it occurred to me that books are great and speaking is great, but there are only so many people who ever hear speakers or read books—so I spent three years getting a television show on the air. From there it was on to the Internet, getting the message out online and developing a following in a community that is borderless.
I've got some exciting projects in the works now, consulting with corporations on the psychology of their marketing ... so it's continuing to grow.
A lot of people with a story like yours might be content to simply keep telling that story—but you've taken it a lot farther. I'm intrigued that you pursued postgraduate degrees and became a board-certified therapist. What prompted you to get yourself academically qualified?
I knew my story would carry me only so far in my career. I knew I could inspire some people by saying, "Hey, look at what I did, and what you could do, too"—but that's only going to be a one-trick show. I wanted to really understand what makes human beings tick.
I'll tell you what clinched my decision to get the professional credentials. One day a young girl came up to me, rolled up her sleeves so I could see the cuts up and down her arms, and said, "Why do I do this to myself?"
I was terrified, because I didn't know. All I could think was, what the heck would possess somebody to harm themselves like this?! I looked her in the eye and said, "I don't know the answer to your question—but I will find out."
And I did. I went back to school and have been back to school ever since. I swore that I was done when I completed my doctorate, but who knows. I'm flirting with the idea of getting another masters in another topic.
Continuing to learn and to grow seems like the theme of your life.
I'm getting married this year, and my fiancée has a great background in psychology and metaphysics. She reads more books than I do—and I'm a pretty proficient reader! She is always growing her heart, mind, and spirit—and to me that was important.
I know we become like those we surround ourselves with. If I chose to marry someone who wasn't invested in continuing to pursue her own personal growth and knowledge, that would eventually rub off on me.
To me, marrying a woman who is smarter than I am was the smartest thing I ever did!
Isn't it? I had always dated women who looked up to me as the brains, and to tell the truth, after a while it got boring. When I came across a woman I was learning a lot more from than she was learning from me, there was a whole other layer of maturity to the attraction. That may not be seen as sexy in mainstream media, but really is.
My wife says there's nothing sexier than a man who's willing to take direction from a woman.
I agree! And besides, if you pick the right partner, then why wouldn't you take their direction?
My fiancée and I agree with Carl Jung, who said your partner is your unconscious mind. If your partner is chaotic, that tells you something about what's going on in your life.
What drew you to the world of network marketing?
When I was in my early twenties I joined a health company with some incredible products. I became a product of the product, which is really the backbone of all network marketing. I adored what they were doing for the world and thought, "What if I sold these products?"
Soon I was making thousands of dollars a month.
From that company, I got into a technology company, and then another health company. As I worked my way through three or four companies, I saw all sides of it, the good and the bad. And I'm really glad I had that training. I learned a lot about dealing with people, and learned a lot about courage and commitment.
There are so many positive things that came out of these experiences. Out of all of my speak-ing engagements, my favorite is speaking to network marketing groups.
What is it that you like about those audiences?
I love the fact that they're almost always very committed to personal growth. If you want to do well in network marketing, you have to be. You're going to get a lot of rejection; people are going to fight you on your product; you'll experience infighting within your company, because anytime you get a lot of people together, you're going to have to deal with politics.
I like that they're not afraid to spend money on themselves, and they see their personal education as one of their most valued assets. When I offer something of value that I know can help their lives, they don't sit there saying, "Well, I don't know ... should I decide to commit?"—they just make the stretch and buy it.
And not only do they buy the materials, they also utilize them.
When you speak with these groups, what do you find yourself most often talking about?
I talk about how comfort zones are not what they sound like. Your comfort zone is not a bubble of safety, it's a straightjacket. When you're in a straightjacket you can't move around and hurt yourself—but you also can't interact with other people.
Comfort zones keep your dreams at bay.
I talk about what I do to keep myself motivated—because in network marketing, if you lose your motivation, you're done. In a regular job you can continue to get checks even if you're just skating by. Not in network marketing. If you want to make a good income in network marketing, you've got to be the brightest bulb on the string of Christmas lights.
For network marketers, it's essential to stay in the GAP and away from the FED.
The GAP is your goals, appreciation, and preferences: what you want, what you have, and what you like. When you go into each day looking at what you want, what you have, and what you like, it keeps you uplifted and inspired.
And the FED?
That's your fears, envy, and dislikes—the opposite of your goals, appreciation, and preferences. Stay away from your fears, envy, and dislikes and stay focused on your goals, your appreciation, and your preferences.
I also teach something I call living from your When Life Works List, which is simply a list of what you're doing when your life is working.
For me, that includes getting up at six in the morning and exercising every day or every other day. Remembering to take a shower every day, and drink enough water—cleanliness and hydration are important. Staying in touch with my friends and family. Meditating. Being out in nature.
Living from your WLWL means compiling your own list of the ten or twelve things you can return to whenever life is overwhelming.
When someone comes to my office to see me therapeutically, I already know they are living in the FED and are not living from their WLWL. They're looking at what they fear, envy, and dislike, and they're engaged in activities from a different list—the When Life Sucks list. They're sleeping a lot, not exercising, eating bad food, hanging out with depressing people, not getting out in nature ... and then they wonder why they're miserable!
Their problems may be perplexing and complex. But the solutions are often simple and hidden in plain sight—which is one reason people often overlook them.
If the solutions are complex, then you have an excuse not to get around to them. No, they're not complex. You need to face that that's an excuse. Stay in the GAP and do what works.
Often when people start out in a network marketing business, the environment is full of enthusiasm. But three months, eight months, twenty-four months down the road, that fades—unless you maintain it. It's a very self-maintaining context.
And not just self. I think it's the tribe you have around you, too.
I only let into my inner circle people who look at the bright side and are working on something bigger than themselves. I call this group my pit crew.
When you're in a race and pull off to the pit, you depend on other people to change your tires, fill your gas tank, and check your engine. If you pick the wrong pit crew, you're not going to win your race.
It's the same with network marketing. People join and get all rah-rah for a while, and then they stop going to meetings and rubbing elbows with the people in their upline who are successful. They lose the vision of why they joined.
If you want to make this thing work, you have to spend time with people who are really doing well at it and model them—not only what they're doing in their businesses, but also what they're doing in their lives.
Can you speak to your philosophy of delivering value?
Here's a principle that will work regardless whether you're in network marketing or in some other business: Deliver more value than people expect, especially before and after the transaction.
I was in discussion recently with an apparel company, looking to see if there was a fit for us to co-brand and work together. When I flew in to meet with them, I brought three high-quality, professional-caliber commercials I'd prepared, and said, "Here, this is what it would look like if I was your spokesperson."
They couldn't believe I'd done this. Actually, a few college interns and I produced the commercials in three days on a budget of $75—but they looked like a million dollars. I delivered value before they'd even paid me a dime, and I can promise you, it made an impact.
That's delivering value beforehand; then there's delivering value afterwards.
Most people make a customer transaction, get their money, then figure, okay, they're done. Not a good idea. You want to keep delivering value even after your customer has finished spending money on you.
Let's say you buy something online, and then six months later that company sends you a really cool gift—something usable, not a key chain or a mouse pad but something of value—and says, "Hey, thanks for being our customer. We're not looking for any more sales, but if you want to do business with us, you know we're here, and here is a token of our appreciation." Now you're really thinking about that company.
I was blessed to be on Jimmy Kimmel Live! three years ago. After the show was over, I called the producer and said, "I really want to thank Jimmy and all his camera and makeup people—can I deliver a gift?"
They asked me what I wanted to do.
I said, "I'd like to fly back out from Chicago to L.A., on my dime, and give a free one-hour motivational keynote for everyone there. If Jimmy's busy, that's okay, he doesn't have to be there, but if he can make it that would be okay, too."
My only stipulation was that I didn't want any cameras there; I didn't want it posted anywhere on their website or have any publicity for doing it. I just wanted to deliver value for value's sake. I just wanted to thank them for the great effort they put into having me on their show and giving me such an incredible opportunity.
They said they would love it.
I flew in and did the keynote, and people came up to me and said that in the entire history of doing the show, they'd never had a guest come back and give them something like this, without cameras or publicity around it.
Now, when I'm in Los Angeles, guess how easy it is for me to get people into the audience to watch Jimmy's show, or go over to his place and maybe have coffee with him? Because I'm the guy who delivered value and asked for nothing in return.
When you're in sales, you've got to deliver value before and value after—not just during the transaction itself.