For Mike Shaw, gratitude means appreciating the little things
Motivational speaker and recovering quadriplegic reminds us how lucky we all are, every day.
For Mike Shaw, practicing gratitude is a way of life, and has been since he broke his neck in a skiing accident. In 2013, Mike went from a professional ski coach to a recovering quadriplegic in a moment: a moment that changed his perspective forever.
What has followed since that day is the story of Mike’s miraculous recovery, grounded in his realization of what he truly values, including an ability to be grateful for everything from the important to the seemingly unimportant.
Now an inspiring motivational speaker, Mike is using his experience to remind us to celebrate every moment by connecting, healing and inspiring those around us. We sat down with Mike to learn more about his journey from spinal cord injury to a life filled with appreciation, starting with the moment he wakes up.
Every time I get up in the morning and I put my feet on the ground...I know that I’m lucky to be able to stand up. We all are.
Change can happen in an instant
Take us to the day of the accident: what happened?
As a competitive downhill skier, you know that every day on the mountain is a day you could be injured. You also know that there’s no feeling quite like hitting the apex of your jump and launching yourself into the air.
The day of my accident, I went bigger and I travelled farther than I meant to, then landed and pitched forward onto my face. When I skidded to a stop, I realized I couldn’t feel anything from the neck down—I had dislocated and broken my neck. It was heavy.
Take a step back
What was an unexpected lesson you learned through the process of your recovery?
Someone told me there would be gifts that came with spinal cord injury. Although it didn’t seem like a gift at the time, they were right.
I remember taking a mental step back while I was in hospital. I was lying in my bed while my friend was feeding me because I couldn’t use my own hands to eat. I looked around and saw all the smiling faces of the all the people in the room. We were laughing, telling jokes, having fun, and I was being supported by a such good medical care. On a larger scale, I realized how lucky I was.
Oftentimes, before the accident, I would have clear and conscious thoughts about heading out for a day on the mountain and being grateful for all these conditional things that were right, like the weather, the snow conditions and my physical abilities.
After my accident, I went from a macro level of thinking to the micro. I would think: “I’m so grateful I can brush my own teeth again.” I was grateful for things that previously didn’t even show up on my radar of things to be grateful for at all. I had completely taken them for granted.
What is the most important step in learning to be truly grateful for our lives?
Before my accident, if you were to ask someone “who is Mike”, they would probably give you a list of titles, like adventurer, adrenaline junkie and skier. After, I was stripped of these titles and felt like I had to completely rethink my identity. I had become Mike the quadriplegic, Mike the accident survivor. What I realized through that process was that all of these titles were just on the surface, and they didn’t really define who I was on the inside.
I learned that you have to look inwards for the real you. A lot of people search for happiness on the outside, but as soon as you get in touch with your true self, it changes how you portray yourself on the outside. Now, I identify myself with words I feel describe the unchangeable parts of my life, like integrity, honesty, humility and happiness.
It doesn’t have to be serious
What do you recommend to someone who is struggling to stick with a practice of gratitude?
Maintaining a gratitude practice doesn’t have to start with personal tragedy. Finding a positive way to start your day can be easier than we think. For example, when the mirror in your bathroom fogs up after a shower, just draw a smiley face on it. It might sound silly—and it is— but it works to put a smile on my own face every time I do it. It’s also a great reminder that gratitude doesn’t have to be serious.
There are so many beneficial things we can do when we’re establishing a gratitude practice, like writing letters, keeping a journal or meditating, but it also doesn’t need to be that formal. If you notice yourself organically thinking about something or someone you are grateful for, just stop right where you are and focus on that thought for a minute longer. Just doing that will start to shift your perspective.
We all have the power to choose
How can the concept of gratitude support us when our life isn’t where we would like it to be?
I still miss my old body and what it could do. That feeling of grief is probably never going away completely. When I am in a darker place or feeling that sense of loss, my gratitude practice reminds me that I have so much to be thankful for, today.
We can make a choice to stay upset or angry, or we can move forward by accepting the amazing gifts that life is offering us right now, in this moment. No matter what, there will be points in all of our lives when we feel low, and when we feel challenged in our lives.
I don’t think you can live a full life without experiencing the ups as well as the downs. When you’re feeling down, it’s even more important to give yourself reminders that you still have a lot to be thankful for. It’s the first step to climbing back up the mountain.
Learn more about Mike’s incredible story and his movement, #gratefuleveryday.