Finding Resilience with Janine Shepherd

May 31, 2022
James Whittaker

Check out this episode on the Win the Day Podcast

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it.

Brené Brown

Today is all about resilience – how you can acquire it, how you can maintain it, and how you can leverage it to own your story and unleash that spirit you have within.

Our guest, Janine Shepherd, is one of my closest friends, and I can’t think of anyone better to guide us on resilience than her.

If you’ve read my book Think and Grow Rich: The Legacy, you’ll remember Janine’s story from Chapter 1. She is the greatest personification of resilience I’ve ever seen and I knew as soon as she shared her story with me that it would be the first thing people would read to inspire them as they ventured into the book.

Janine was a national champion skier and one of Australia’s best hopes for the Winter Olympics. But an accident while training destroyed her athletic dreams, and nearly ended her life. Paralyzed, Janine spent 10 days in a coma and then the following six months in the spinal ward.

She defied the odds by not only learning to walk again, but by creating an entirely new life in the most remarkable way.

Janine’s story has been featured all over television, including 60 Minutes and This is Your Life. Her first book, Never Tell Me Never, was made into a feature length film, and she has since written five other books including her recently-released memoir, Defiant.

Her TED talk has more than 2 million views and continues to be a featured favorite on

Janine has been awarded Australia’s highest civilian honor, the Order of Australia, in recognition of her tireless work to raise awareness of spinal cord injury and research. She also serves as ambassador for Red Bull, Wings for Life, and Spinal Cure Australia, and is one of the world’s top inspirational speakers.

In this episode, we talk about:

  • Finding the gift in adversity
  • Coming to terms with your identity (and fitting in)
  • Understanding shame – and the importance of owning your story, and
  • Becoming a resilience machine so nothing can stand in your way.

Let’s WIN THE DAY with Janine Shepherd!

James Whittaker:
Janine, it's great to see you in person. Welcome back to America!

Janine Shepherd:
Thank you! All of one day, slightly jet lagged.

It's been 34 years since the accident. How has your perspective on that moment changed over the years, and how do you feel about it now?

Well, gosh, my journey has been constantly evolving. Even in the last few years, since COVID, I've taken another crazy direction in terms of taking on a PhD.

So, I'm always learning. I'm always learning about myself, about life, about the journey and about resilience. I always say, resilience is not a line we cross over. It's a journey we take every single day. So, that continues for me. I'm loving it. I'm savoring it and saying yes to it.

What is your reality now, in terms of chronic pain? And how are you managing that?

Well, most people are surprised when I tell them I'm a paraplegic, because they see me walking and they say, "Well, hold on, you're walking!" 

I say, "That's right, because paraplegia is not just about walking. There's a lot of injuries that go along with that, a lot of hidden parts of spinal cord injury."

Resilience is not a line we cross over. It's a journey we take every single day.

I've always had chronic pain. I think I have a really high pain threshold. When I left hospital, after all of the injuries I had, I had a broken arm. I left hospital with a broken arm, after almost six months in hospital.

For six years, I did all the things that I did. I learnt to fly an airplane. Did aerobatics, pulling G-forces with a broken arm, before I had it fixed.

A lot of people suffer from chronic pain. It's a real challenge in life. So I've learnt ways to deal with that, to deal with pain. It's like turning down the radio in the background, so I can get on and live with my life.

I've learnt a lot of that through acceptance and commitment therapy – which is saying, okay, I have this thing in my life, but I'm not going to let it stop me from doing all the things that I want to enjoy.

So that can help combat the irritability, anger, and frustration that comes in?

Yeah. It's not like you put up with it, but in a way, you accept it, that it's part of life. You still do the things that can help, of course.

In acceptance and commitment therapy, we hold up a board and we say, if you keep holding that, eventually you're going to get tired. That is your pain, for example.

So if you put that down, you can then go on and do all the things that you want to do in life. You can paint a picture or make a coffee, or play with your kids or learn an instrument. Do the things that you want to do, without letting that stop you. It's still there, but you can get on and enjoy the other things in life.

Help us understand more about the daily struggles that people with disabilities have, that other people might not be aware of.

Well, living with disability, for me, is like getting up every morning and having to recommit. Having to say, as you say, win the day. Having to say yes to life. When you say yes to life, it's all of life.

Life is like the hokey pokey. You do the hokey pokey: you put your left foot in, you put your left foot out. But the best part of the hokey pokey is the end, where you put your whole body in and you shake it all about. That's what life is about.

Life is painful and joyful. You've got to say yes to all of life.

I mean, for everybody, life is painful and joyful. You've got to say yes to all of life. So for me, I commit every morning to saying yes to whatever challenges I'm going to face in life.

There's very painful days and there's joyful days, but it's all of it. We know you can quote Brene Brown here too. You can't turn off part of your life and expect to have joy in the other. You've got to take it all.

Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Janine Shepherd does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about her favorite quote, what advice she’d give his 18-year-old self, the one thing on her bucket list, and a whole lot more. 🚀

Got to take the rain and the sunshine?

Yeah. So for people with disabilities, depending on what that disability is, and there are lots of hidden disabilities – there's physical disabilities, psychosocial disabilities. A very high percentage of people in the world live with disabilities of some sort.

Often, people talk about the gift of pain, but they probably haven't faced something like the ordeals and things that you've experienced.

How do people who are in the midst of some type of tragedy or horrific trauma, find the gift when they're still in such a dark place?

It’s such a challenge. I can only talk about my own experience.

One of the first books I read when I got home from hospital was Viktor Frankl’s Man's Search for Meaning, which has been a seminal book for me in my life and sits by my bedside.

Viktor Frankl was a prisoner of war in the Nazi concentration camps. He talks about the things that he did in that camp, finding humor, for example, in the most atrocious conditions you can even imagine.

I commit every morning to saying yes to whatever challenges I'm going to face in life.

I remember reading that book and thinking, wow, it's possible. And I've written a resilience course about this, for example, finding humor even in the painful times.

Even almost six months in the spinal ward, there were things that were funny. There were things that we laughed at. There were funny movies that we watched. 

Humor is such an important part of life. So I mean, that's one thing I would suggest people do, try to find the humor. Try to do the things that you enjoy in life.

There are things that we all savor, even the small things. For me, having a coffee in the morning, I really love doing that. We had a coffee this morning, and I really enjoyed that!

It's something I look forward to every morning, with my partner. We have a ritual of having our coffee together, where we turn everything off, and we just sit down and listen and talk to each other.

In terms of mental health, I've noticed that I enter into a dark place when I start to resist the feelings. I guess the opposite of acceptance is resistance.

Is that a big part of all the work that you've done with the School of Resilience and all the resilience things that you lead?

Well, that's a great insight you have there because acceptance is actually the first step in my 12 steps to resilience. Acceptance is so important because I call it the doorway. You've got to get to the doorway. You've got to accept whatever is happening in life.

For me, the point where I got to it, when I got home from hospital in a wheelchair, plaster body cast, as a paraplegic, having to accept that all of the goals I had in life, going to the Olympics and all the other dreams and goals I had were gone.

I really had to accept that before I could move on. It was almost like life was saying, let go of those things, and then I'm going to show you something better.

Life was saying, let go of those things, and then I'm going to show you something better.

I always say that life is a series of loosening our grip on how we think life is supposed to look. It's a challenge because we live in a world with social media. We see everyone else's life. Oh, they're all doing so well.

It's smoke and mirrors. They're not. Everyone is struggling with something. I mean, I urge people to just limit their time on social media and really spend time in their own circle of influence, what they can control.

Yeah. The things that bring joy, rather than allowing yourself to benchmark someone's perfect shot of an imperfect day.

There's a lot of those out there!

The Brene Brown quote that I read out earlier for this episode, "Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it." What comes to mind when you hear that?

Well, I heard another quote recently that was out of the Bhagavad Gita, which was a similar quote.

It's something along the lines of... I don't remember it exactly, but it's about, "It's better to live your life imperfectly, than to try to live someone else's perfectly."

I think it's important, as I said, going back to social media, we see other people's lives. We think it's perfect, and we chase those things. But often, we do that to our own detriment, of really owning our own story and all of it. Which is something that I've had to do recently, which is about integration.

We can push those things away, but they're going to come back. They will come back. I mean, I guess that's a rule of life. We can avoid something, but it never really goes away. We're sort of pushing it underneath, like the beach ball under the surface, but eventually it's going to pop up.

A lot of the pain that we feel is self-inflicted. We talk about things like shame, which can be so debilitating. We allow ourselves to be constricted by things like shame.

In your work, you also talk a lot about the stigma of disability. Can you talk to us about the burden of shame and the stigma of disability and how people can really start to embrace who they are?

Well, I realize now as I'm diving into my disability studies for my PhD, that there was a lot of shame around that. I think that comes from the human desire for belonging, wanting to be like everyone else.

So, any sort of condition that we perceive as being different from how everyone else is, there's this sense of shame. Like, I'm meant to be like them. I'm meant to fit in, because we have this human need.

I mean, it goes way back in time, when hunters and gatherers had to... that's how the tribe survived, being like everyone else. So, I think we need to normalize differences and disability is one of those.

It's better to live your life imperfectly, than to try to live someone else's perfectly.

I look back and there were so many experiences that I had in hospital that gave me that sense of, there's something wrong with me. Which is, and I know we've talked about this in the past, the medical model of disability.

I've subscribed to the social model of disability, which is saying that there's nothing wrong with having a disability. It's the outside world that needs to change.

You mentioned Disability Theory there. If you map that out, 10 or 20 years in the future, what are some changes that you would like to see happen?

Well, I think changes in medicine, changes in architecture, so that we're very inclusive. 

Sometimes I go somewhere and there's no lift, for example. I now am able to speak up. There was a time, not that long ago, when I would go somewhere and there'd be no lift, and I wouldn't say anything. I'd just struggle, trying to get up the stairs.

Now I'll say, "Well, where's your lift? Well, I think you should think about getting a lift."

I know that a lot of buildings are old, but I think as we're building new buildings now, these are givens, that we will include that.

I think we've spoke a little bit about this in the past, the medical model. If someone turns up in a wheelchair and there's no ramp, then there's something wrong with that person. The medical model says disability is something that we need to fix.

The social model says, well, if there's a ramp there and the person can get in, then there's no disability. They're just like everyone else. I think that's what we need to move towards.

There's so much conflict in the world. I feel like it's because, generally, people stay in their silos.

But being able to get out there and ask questions and embrace that genuine curiosity with people from really diverse backgrounds, and about what they're going through.

So we can start to move forward together and remove a lot of those barriers that people might have, whether it's something like accessing an event space or a cafe, as well as more inclusive products and conversations.

It's normalizing disability. I mean, this is part of the human condition. That's what makes it so beautiful and so rich. These differences are what makes life interesting.

So I think for me, right now, I want to normalize mobility aids. I have a walking stick. As I told you, I'm just getting a scooter and a wheelchair, which I'm really excited about!

I think people feel like there's something wrong with them if they need one of these. I mean, I know people think, "Ooh, I'm getting old. It means that I'm getting old." Well, we're all getting older.

I told you the story of the lady who was in her nineties. Her granddaughter said, "Nan, you need to get a wheelchair." She refused because she felt like it was giving in. She had a fall and broke her hip and went to hospital and ended up dying.

Something recently that happened, do you remember, for Prince Phillip, they had a ceremony in England? The Queen walked down the aisle.

Now, the Queen's 96. They asked her if she wanted a wheelchair. Apparently, the headlines were all, “No, she's not going to give in!” I thought, that's a really sad message, because we shouldn't view it as a weakness. 

It's not a weakness. Why would it be a weakness to use something that makes life easier? That's what I see. If I'm struggling to walk a long way and there's something there that's available for me, that will make my life easier so I can save my energy for something else, then why wouldn't I accept that? That's freedom.

Yeah. That should be more empowering, for other people to see her in that situation.

Exactly. It would've been nice to have seen her embracing that, for other people.

The Queen is probably watching this right now. So please, Your Majesty, start using a wheelchair from now on!

Yes, and get someone to pimp your ride!

You mentioned your PhD earlier. Can you tell us a bit about the work you're doing with that?

Yeah. Well, that all started when COVID hit, again. That word ‘pivot’ … we all know about that.

I'd written a resilience course. My partner David and I had worked on this course together. They were the 12 steps that I took in my recovery.

My daughter, who had studied psychology said, "Mum, you should do a PhD." I thought, that's ridiculous. At my age, who does that?

Plus you've had life's PhD as well!

I know. I thought, I already have a PhD, really! 

Well, firstly, I spent a whole year working on my proposal and trying to find where I would do this. I landed at Griffith University up in Queensland, which is just a wonderful university, up in your part of the world.

Queensland. God's country!

Really concentrating on disability and rehab as well. I have wonderful supervisors. At first, the journey was really putting my resilience course, which is based on positive psychology interventions into spinal injury units. Because I know as a spinal cord patient myself, that's something that would've been really valuable to me.

So I give people a toolkit to take them through life. These interventions are science-based. They work and I use them.

I started off at that. And in the interim, I fell over and broke my finger. I realized that my daughters... and one of them is a doctor said, "Mum, you need to go and see someone about this. You're falling over a lot."

I revisited the spinal injury unit. That's when my occupational therapist said, "Well, have you thought about a wheelchair?"

This is when this feeling of shame came in, because it actually was this sort of existential crisis. I went home. I was in tears, and I felt like I'm giving up.

In that process of doing this deep dive into why I had these feelings of shame around getting a wheelchair, my PhD completely changed. My supervisor said to me, "Wow, now that's a PhD!"

So it's now changed into what we call an autoethnography. It's really an exploration of what it has been as someone who's got lived, and bodied experience of disability, in a wider cultural, societal and political context. So, that's the PhD now.

I want to make sure that's really clear for everyone. You resisted, but then found strength in the acceptance of going to the wheelchair. 

You've been around the world, speaking to the most accomplished and most successful companies on the planet, teaching them about strength and resilience. But strength for you, in the present, has been about leaning into those feelings and accepting the wheelchair.

Exactly and accepting all of the parts of me, like the hokey pokey.

There'll be times when I won't be able to walk, and I'll be in my wheelchair. That's a choice I'm making and that's a strength.

The feelings of shame, one example is when I was in the spinal ward, very early on, when I was about to leave the spinal injury unit. I was sitting outside in my wheelchair, on the grass. People would come in to visit. They would look at me and walk straight past me and didn't want to look.

It's about owning and embracing and honoring our differences.

So, I internalized these feelings of shame around, well, there's something wrong with me. These sort of internal ableist messages, I've carried my entire life, which is it's bad to be disabled or there's something wrong with me. So, try and fit in.

I realize now, that it's sort of caught up with me as I've gotten older, and that I don't need to fit in. What I need to do is say yes to all of the parts of me.

That relationship with others starts with the relationship you have with yourself.

Yeah, absolutely. That's what integration is all about. I think it's really an important message, not just for disability, but whether it's gender or race or whatever it is. It's about owning and embracing and honoring our differences.

Check out the YouTube or podcast version where Janine Shepherd does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about her favorite quote, what advice she’d give his 18-year-old self, the one thing on her bucket list, and a whole lot more🚀

Do you have anything you've incorporated into your morning routine or daily routine, that helps get you primed or in the right headspace, or even something that you do before you do a really important keynote?

Well, my go-to, which is my last step in my resilience course, is gratitude. Of course, I'm a big fan of gratitude.

Thought you were going to say coffee!

Well, yeah, that too. I'm grateful for my coffee! 

Gratitude, it's probably one of the most researched aspects in positive psychology – and it works. There's science behind it and it's easy.

Gratitude, it's probably one of the most researched aspects in positive psychology – and it works. 

Even a simple thing, like waking up in the morning. This morning, in a comfortable bed in your house, I woke up and I thought, oh, this is such a comfortable bed. I'm so grateful for this. I'm grateful for my coffee.

Your TED Talk is exceptional.

In The Day One Mastermind, recently, you shared your response when someone asked how long you need to prepare for. You said, “How good do you want it to be?”

I'll never forget that response – and I feel like it's so transferable across so many different areas.

You're preparing for another TED Talk right now. What are you doing to prepare for that occasion?

Well, it's part of my PhD as well. I'm spending a lot of time in, what do I want my message to be?

With my first TED Talk, which is called A Broken Body Isn't a Broken Person, the original title was You're Not Your Body. So, that was the message around that.

For those that have seen it or will go and watch it, I had five chairs on stage, based around Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, because I'm a big fan of that.

In the same way, I'm going to take my time with this, in terms of deciding where I want to do this TED Talk, what stage I want to do it on, what my message is going to be. I'm planning to do it in a year's time. I will be working on this for a year. So, I spend a lot of time really constructing the message and working out the most powerful way to tell this story, which will be around the disability paradox.

What are you thinking about, when you walk out on stage for these really important events?

Always about serving the audience. I worked on my TED Talk with my really good friend, Dean Kerry, who was Hugh Jackman's drama coach. And he gave me this great tip for when you walk out. 

He said, "Before you even start talking, pause, look out into the audience and say silently to yourself, I see you. I honor you. And then look to the other part of the audience and say the same thing. Do that three times," which is what I did.

Being a great speaker or a TED talker or presenter is about connecting with the audience.

To me it's about connection. Being a great speaker or a TED talker or presenter is about connecting with the audience. I always say, you've got to be able to reach in and grab their heart. You've got to connect on their level.

Clearly, based on the number of views, you’ve done an amazing job, not to mention all of your other speeches as well.

We've spoken a lot about resilience today. What about parenting? What can we do to raise strong, resilient children?

Well, I'm a mother of three myself, and I know that my kids are incredibly resilient.

If I look back, I wasn't formally studying resilience when my kids were young, but they watched me. I realized that that's how we learn resilience, from the people that are around us.

Hope Theory, for example, says that hope is built on goals, pathways and agency. I think that for me, learning to fly and having goals and working out ways to make that work because things don't always go to plan, so you've got to be able to problem solve and shift and pivot and change and have a new goal or a new way of approaching it.

Work on the skills yourself because your kids are watching you very, very closely.

So, my kids have grown up watching me do that. They're incredibly resilient. So for anyone that's a parent, that's wondering, well, how do we raise resilient kids, I say, well, work on the skills yourself because your kids are watching you very, very closely.

Start wherever you are.

One exercise that I actually do, I did it with a corporate group a week ago in Sydney, which is 10 Good Things. It's something that I adapted from a Viktor Frankl book. So, it's a way to, I guess, cultivate optimism.

Optimism is another step in my course. Optimism is a very important part of positive psychology. Martin Seligman says it's a great buffer for anxiety and depression.

So a great exercise, I say you can do with your kids. You sit down. You're around the kitchen table. They've had a bad day. You say, "Okay, let's think of 10 good things about that."

I give an example. I say, well, 10 good things about the toilet paper shortage! It's fun. Make it fun and just make it crazy as well. With the corporate groups, I'll say write 10 good things about the pandemic. I get people to write that down and share it. It's really wonderful.

It's a way of shifting our perspective, and that's really what optimism is about. It's our explanatory style of anything that we're going through in life.

You're still doing amazing things on this planet, but if you had to narrow your success to this point down to a single decision, what would that be?

Learning to fly because that was the moment that I let go. That was the moment that I let go of the dreams, the goals of going to the Olympics, of seeing myself as an athlete and accepting the challenge of life. Okay, Tell me what I'm meant to do. I'm not in control of this, but I am in control of what's going forward.

I couldn't change the fact that a speeding driver had run me over, but from here on, this is up to me. I'm taking responsibility.

I love that. Extreme ownership.

We're now two and a half years into COVID. Crazy time for the world. What have you learned about yourself during that time?

Well, I've learned that I'm capable of doing a PhD!

Just that I have a great sense of my own resilience and connection with other people. So, I guess that I'm able to accept, in an even deeper level, the parts of myself that I've been trying to hide.

We're always peeling back the layers of the onion.

On your best day, what's an affirmation that you would write on a flashcard, that you could show yourself on your worst day?

Yes you can.

Final question, what's one thing you do to Win the Day?

Express gratitude every day.

You’re a superstar. Janine, thanks so much for coming on the show.

It's been a pleasure.

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James Whittaker

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Resources / links mentioned:

🗝️ Download your free Resilience Checklist.

⚡ Janine Shepherd’s website.

🎤 TED Talk: ‘A Broken Body Isn't A Broken Person’.

📝 Janine Shepherd’s Facebook.

📷 Janine Shepherd’s Instagram.

📚 ‘Defiant: A Broken Body Is Not A Broken Person’ by Janine Shepherd.

💡 ‘Man's Search for Meaning’ by Viktor E. Frankl.

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