Long-time friends and professional speakers Ben Pettingill and Mike Rolls truly are experts when it comes to adapting to new situations. Two successful, confident men at the top of their games, they have both had to learn to adjust dramatically to new ways of living.
At age 16, Ben was an aspiring helicopter pilot. Then he woke up one morning to the sudden loss of 98% of his sight, due to a rare genetic syndrome called Leber’s disease.
“The doctors actually said that I was going to be blind for life and there was no cure,” he recalls. “For a long time there, the adrenaline kicked in, the shock and confusion kicked in, because it was a change in my life that I wasn’t going to just be able to adapt to overnight.”
Mike was on a rugby trip at age 18 when his life changed dramatically. He contracted a rare strain of meningococcal disease that left him fighting for his life – and resulted in both legs being amputated below the knee.
“I went downhill very, very quickly,” Mike says. “I was rushed by ambulance to the Royal Hobart Hospital and then from there things deteriorated very quickly. They called my folks the next morning and said, ‘Get down to Hobart, Mike’s got an hour to live.’ The bacteria had entered my blood stream. It starts to coagulate your blood, and then all of a sudden causes massive organ failure. So, everything had shut down.
“It’s funny, because people look at my injuries and they straight away notice I don’t have any legs below my knees. But at the time, when I was 18, that was probably the least of my concerns.”
Ben, who has recently clocked Papua New Guinea’s gruelling Kokoda Trail, acknowledges that accepting his situation was key to moving forward.
“I was used to waking up with eyesight every single day,” he says. “It probably took two or three months until I literally ran headfirst into a pole, and that’s when the denial left me. I forced myself to accept this new situation as a part of my life.
“Adaptability is the ability to change the way you do things in order to continue to move forward. Resilience is really being able to work your way forward through tough times.”
Learning to adapt
Adjusting to the initial change is just the first step. New challenges will continually call on you to respond with resilience and find new ways to move forward. This is something Mike experienced when an expensive prosthetic leg designed for swimming didn’t deliver what he needed.
“I chucked it in my closet and it stayed there, I don’t even know where it’s gone now. So I went to my prosthetist and we started to brainstorm. I said, ‘Dave, I don’t want feet. I don’t have feet. Why do I need feet? They’re not essential for me to have them in the water. I don’t need to walk into the water, I’m happy to go and sit at the edge of the water, put something on my knees. What about if we just make a socket that is simply just a flipper, and I can use the strength in my quads and my hamstrings to power it? And I was able to swim faster than when I had legs,” he says.
“The more times you get challenged to develop resilience and adaptability, the better it gets.”
Resilience can be built
“The biggest question is – is resilience something that you can teach and build in people? And I think the answer is yes,” Mike says.
“I think you can definitely do things that can build resilience. I think one of them is to consistently challenge yourself and get outside your comfort zone. Because what that does, is it gets us really comfortable with this feeling of anxiety, which is essentially what we feel when we are thrown into a situation of turmoil or crisis.”
Ben agrees. “I absolutely believe that you can train, teach and develop resilience in yourself. And the more situations that you put yourself in outside of your comfort zone – whether that’s forced or whether you choose to put yourself there – that will ultimately result in building resilience for other situations in the future.”
A new outlook
Living with 2% of his vision has given Ben a unique perspective. “I’m now able to have this whole new view of the world. Which, oddly has really enhanced my life because I’m getting to know people from the inside out,” he says.
Mike offers this insight into his worldview: “I just think – what can I do to prove, not to other people, but to myself, that I can live a happy, fulfilling life, regardless of circumstantial situations?”