Paralympian and Speaker Oz Sanchez Shares 5 Life Lessons
Oz Sanchez is on a quest to seek knowledge and answers.
For Ashford University’s spring 2019 commencement speaker, that journey has presented some of life’s greatest challenges – and some of the greatest occasion for change.
His journey began as a youth growing up in Los Angeles, where as a teen he was involved in drugs and gangs. However, he altered his course and joined the Marine Corps, ultimately becoming a member of the Special Operations Forces and later training for the Navy Seals. But the road to transferring between the two military branches ended abruptly in 2001 after a hit-and-run motorcycle accident resulted in a spinal cord injury that caused paralysis and neurological complications.
Despite suffering post-surgery depression and struggling with his new identity without the use of his legs, Sanchez resolved to turn adversity into opportunity. First, he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from San Diego State University. He also began competing in the adaptive sports of handcycling and Triathalon. He even pursued opportunities as a public speaker.
Today, the 43-year-old is a five-time world champion Paralympian and a regarded motivational speaker. This year, Sanchez also earned a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from SDSU and is embarking on a new voyage to help others cope with change.
“My vision of myself is to be an educator or lecturer speaking to the concepts around identity creation, identity shifting, emotional understanding of values and thought management, all these different ideas that plague and really help most of society marginalize and/or oppress themselves by not understanding how these phenomena work so my goal is to provide that education and insight to the masses,” he says.
Before heading to Europe to compete in a world cycling event, the decorated athlete sat down with Forward Thinking to share some insights on facing fear, remaining steadfast, and adapting to circumstances.
Ashford: What is the greatest lesson you have learned from your journey so far?
Oz Sanchez: Any and all of life’s challenges and adversity is yet another opportunity to learn from those experiences. It’s not to say that suffering leads to enlightenment but it can, should we make the space to find the silver lining or the lesson. You don’t always learn from adversity, strife, and tribulation. We have to be willing to seek out the message. Adversity and challenges are good for us because it is the substance of which helps our mind grow. Much like when we go to the gym and grab the heavier weights and add more resistance to our efforts, we recognize that it will make our muscles and body grow and in very much the same way, the mind grows through that resistance from life.
Ashford: What is your greatest recommendation for someone who wants to reach a goal?
Oz Sanchez: Have a clear understanding as to why you’re doing what you’re doing. Most of us have a good understanding of the ‘what’ component of life: what degree we want to have, what GPA we want to have, what job we want, what car we want, what house, what spouse. We have that all sorted out, but we rarely stop to think about the ‘why.’ When you start to make the distinction between what you are doing and why you are doing it, you have an ability to develop willpower, but that only leads to relative success and can drive us to achieve many things but never lasts, especially when life starts to push back. When we only have willpower or the ‘what’ we are more susceptible to quitting and walking away from our goals and dreams. When we have a very clear ‘why,’ we are driven by inspiration and vision, and vision is a great way to use one of your strongest resources, which is emotion because emotion drives almost every decision we make in one way or another, and when you start to really understand the resource of emotion then you can really leverage it in your favor.
Ashford: You’ve faced major change multiple times in your life. What advice can you offer those who fear or do not know how to best deal with change?
Oz Sanchez: Resist as I may, it was a futile effort because once I broke my back and I was forced into this new way of existing, it was reality, despite my attempt to run from it for the better part of 10 years. The problem is that when we get to not accepting reality or change, we lose that argument 100 percent of the time. At some point, we need to make change our friend and realize that change is the natural process of evolution, growth, and development and is the cycle of life for Mother Nature and life as we know it. Change is something we need to embrace, plan for, and thrive in. Understanding value systems and that they should be distinctly different from identity and identity beliefs makes change more accessible, but knowing that change is a natural part of life prepares us for when the inevitable change happens. For example, with the development of AI and biotechnology, there is going to be a large shift of people put into unemployment because they will be replaced by machines and AI. Those folks will be forced into understanding that their identity is no longer accessible, and in the coming decades there will be large portions of our population forced into an identity shift because they will be put out of a job and they will need to retool, reskill, and reeducate. This is going to happen exponentially more and more as technology develops, so knowing how to understand how to work through change will be a big commodity.
Ashford: How important is it to have a positive and strong support system?
Oz Sanchez: I learned how to be relatively autonomous early in life unfortunately due to extreme neglect and abuse, and we had to learn to lie to survive and fend for ourselves. Doing for oneself has been engrained in me, so I became a master of not being reliant on other people. My struggle actually has been how to open up and drop these old narratives and allow my wife to enter the deepest parts of my soul because it doesn’t come naturally to me. Through my experiences, I have developed a really strong healthy relationship in personal faith, in my abilities to succeed independently of what others think, and this has allowed me to succeed to some capacity pretty well and pretty effectively. Once I learned that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with, I learned that the quality of the people you surround yourself with affects your capacity for success or tolerance for life’s challenges and adversity. But it’s also about the relationships we establish with them because when we see our peers being stagnant or complacent in life, in and out of jobs or relationships, and that they are the victims of their circumstances, that sets a very low benchmark for ourselves, so the quality of those individuals is important. There is a collective energy that can be leveraged that couldn’t be done when working as an autonomous individual and I didn’t know this for a very long time but know this now.
Ashford: What does failure mean to you, and how do you come to terms with the concept of failure?
Oz Sanchez: The term failure instantly has a negative connotation. So, I think it is beneficial to clarify what failure looks like or means to the individual. If I went for a goal of say losing 20 pounds and didn’t meet it by an arbitrary date and I quit, I would agree that that is a failure in so much as if you don’t attempt it again, but if we see failure as something we can take away so that when we revisit and attempt that thing again and not make the same the mistake, then failure is just another way of learning and growing. As long as we attempt over and over, they are not failures; they are just lessons and insights so we can make another attempt. If failure is not an option, then neither is success. None of us learn how to ride a bike on the first attempt. How to drive, study, take a test. They all require habitual and repetitive failures until we get it right. The first six times you fall off your skateboard, you weren’t failing, you were just trying to succeed at something. If we change the scope and understand failure is a process of eventually succeeding and is an inherent and organic step in the equation of success, then we no longer see failure in the same way.
Written by Erin Ansley, Content Specialist for Zovio