“Take these broken wings and learn to fly.” – Paul McCartney, Blackbird

I learned a lot from a broken leg. It’s the kind of thing that comes without warning, like a hard breakup or a lost job. Those types of challenges can be painful, but they can also serve as a catalyst for personal growth. They may knock us out of our comfort zone, but that’s where we grow. “The things which hurt,” as Ben Franklin wrote, “instruct.”1

This is a story about a busted bone, but the lessons can be applied anywhere. I wasn’t ready for it to happen, but I’m grateful that it taught me so much.

From Fast to Slow

Around a year ago I was in the best shape of my life. I had just posted my first sub-six minutes-per-mile pace at an organized race and was thinking about training for an Ironman. Those plans changed a few weeks later when I made an aggressive challenge during a rec-league soccer game and earned both a yellow card and a broken right leg.

I split my tibia just beneath the kneecap, wrecking the platform that the knee sits on. It was an injury more common in car accidents than sports, requiring surgery to re-arrange the bone pieces and install metal hardware to hold everything in place. I wouldn’t be able to put any weight on the leg for two months, and the doctors estimated it would be another 18 to 24 months before I was fully recovered – if ever.

Over the next couple of months my scar healed, and my leg muscles shrank. By the time the bone was strong enough to put weight on, there was 15 to 20 pounds less of me to support – but I was ready to rebuild. I attacked physical therapy, and six weeks after being told I could start walking again, I did a pistol squat.

Fast forward to last week and the annual running of the Chase Corporate Challenge, the race where I had previously posted my best pace. Now, it was the event I was using to measure my recovery. Although I didn’t quite get the new personal best I was hoping for, I still finished the 3.5 miles in 21:42, for a 6:12 pace. I’m looking forward to next year. :)

Here are the biggest lessons that I learned from the experience.

Lessons Learned From A Broken Leg

  • Appreciate the little things. It’s easy to take things like walking and showering for granted, but after I could no longer do them, I realized what a gift they were. During recovery, that perspective helped me to focus on the amazing things I could do – things like see, hear, and breathe. Now that I’m able to walk and shower every day, I try to remember to be grateful. As Thich Nhat Hanh shares, “the true miracle is not walking on water or walking in air, but simply walking on this earth.”
  • Practice gratitude. Similar to above. Gratitude practices were a big part of my life, and they helped get me through the more difficult days. I was (and am) grateful for the medical and physical therapy teams. I was (and am) especially grateful for my wife, for putting up with me and shouldering most of the chores plus all of the dog walks.
  • Our bodies were made to move. Getting your blood moving through your body does wonders for your energy and mood. During the period of forced inactivity, I was tired, grumpy, and not able to think as clearly. Once I started being able to move a bit, those things went away. Exercise = wonder drug.
  • Rest and fuel. It takes way more energy to repair a broken bone and recover from surgery than I expected. I felt like I was eating enough, but I wasn’t even close. I also needed an extra one to two hours of sleep each night to keep up. Lesson learned.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And don’t be too proud to get it.
  • Small actions done every day have a big impact. It takes discipline, but it’s the way to get better at anything. While recovering, I put my daily exercises on the calendar and set alarms so I wouldn’t miss them – part of the reason my physical therapist said I improved faster than anyone he’d worked with. I also kept repeating a mantra borrowed from Brian Johnson and Satya Narayan Goenka: “Work diligently, diligently, work patiently and persistently, patiently and persistently, and you’re bound to be successful, bound to be successful.”
  • Bonus: When you’re on crutches, everything takes longer and is harder to do. What was typically a 10-minute round-trip adventure took me over an hour. If you see someone on crutches, help them out. It might not be a big deal to you, but it will be a huge deal to them.

Challenges Are Opportunities

The challenges we go through can make us stronger, and help us discover new things about ourselves. Next time you encounter an obstacle, approach it as an opportunity. Go diligently, patiently, persistently, playfully, and gratefully. Let me know what you learn!

If you’ve grown a lot from a recent challenge, I’d love to hear about it. Send me a message via email or in the comments below.

“You will come across obstacles in life—fair and unfair. And you will discover, time and time again, that what matters most is not what these obstacles are but how we see them, how we react to them, and whether we keep our composure. This reaction determines how successful we will be in overcoming—or possibly thriving because of—them.” – Ryan Holiday in The Obstacle is The Way

  1. from The Obstacle is The Way, by Ryan Holiday []