A Tribute to W Mitchell, Master of Adversity

W Mitchell looks out the window of his rehabilitation hospital room in Santa Barbara, and proclaims, “This time next week, I’ll be out of this place for sure.” But the complications of daily dialysis and other medical issues may hinder the return to normal life for one of the world’s great speakers on adversity.

Here is a man who, in his 79 years, has not experienced much of what might be called “normal life.” A survivor of two accidents which could have easily brought his demise, Mitchell persevered, and turned life’s lemons into lemonade. His ability to tell captivating stories, his mastery of the pause, his self-effacing humor combined with a powerful message that often caused audiences to weep and, when he was done, to rise to their feet and cheer mightily made him a category of one, fostering huge demand for his speaking services.

Even today, conference producers who heard him speak years ago seek him out. They want him to share his inspiring message with their teams and organizations.

“I’m still not sure what happened to me,” he tells me during a recent visit. “The next thing I know I was lying in a bed at Cottage Hospital, with tubes in my body, and they said I needed to go on dialysis.”

A Succession of Tragic Accidents

Born William Mitchell in 1944, in a small Colorado town, Mitchell’s life was to take a succession of unexpected turns. In 1971, on his way to work as a cable car operator in San Francisco, he was broadsided by a milk truck running a red light. Severe burns disfigured his face and charred over 65 percent of his body. But in the arduous months of recovery, Mitchell showed uncommon courage and a sense of humor that inspired his medical team through numerous operations.

Finally Mitchell and his young wife — a nurse named Annie who’d been a vital helpmate in his recovery –moved to Crested Butte, Colorado. For a time, life was magical. Flush with an insurance settlement, he invested in a company that manufactured wood-burning stoves, earned his private pilot’s license, and became involved in local politics. When a mining company sought to mar the beauty of nearby mountains, Mitchell became an activist. He testified before Congress, and soon became known as “the man who saved a mountain.” He ran for mayor of Crested Butte and won in a landslide, and later Congress (he lost). Still, national journalists couldn’t get enough of his story or his charm. Sudden prominence led to him being feted by Washington politicians, including Bill Clinton and many others.

It was not to last. In 1975, Mitchell’s life took an even more tragic turn one chilly morning when he attempted to take his friends on a picnic flight in a Cessna. Inexperienced, he didn’t notice the ice that had formed on the plane’s wings. Lifting off from the runway the plane climbed to 40 feet in the air, then suddenly stalled, dropping like a stone. His passengers were able to get out, but Mitchell discovered he was unable to move. The crash had left him paralyzed from the waist down. He would never walk again.

Yet Mitchell was determined to battle back from this tragedy as well. He’d been a radio announcer as a young man, and his deep and resonant voice drew others into what he had to say, especially when he spoke of overcoming obstacles in life. He soon came to realize how hungry people were for his message of resilience and hope, no matter what. He billed himself as the “burned-up guy in a wheelchair” and began receiving invitations to speak all over the United States, and then the world.

One day, a youth approached him after a speech and asked how he managed to stay positive despite all the setbacks in his life. “It’s not what happens to you,” Mitchell recalled telling him. “It’s what you do about it that matters.” This simple declaration would become his mantra, in life and on the platform. In other words, refuse to let circumstances, no matter how dire, determine your destiny. Adversity need not be a roadblock but can become an opportunity for self-transformation, for mastering resilience. As demand for his message surged, Mitchell held audiences spellbound from Sydney to Dallas to Johannesburg, giving them a new window in which to view the setbacks and the disappointments in their lives. View them as stepping stones, instead of stumbling blocks, he urged. See them guiding you towards new paths, new potentialities.

It has been my privilege to call Mitchell a friend these many years. We have both been members of a mastermind group here on California’s Gold Coast for over three decades, and we share the same airport limo driver in Santa Barbara, who keeps us informed on the other’s travels.

If you would care to share your favorite Mitchell story, I’d love to pass it on to him, and I’ll share it on my website.

And meanwhile, just remember, it’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do about it that matters.