“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
The Eleanor Roosevelt quote certainly sets the tone for today’s guest: the incredible Jessica Cox.
In 1983, Jessica was born without arms. Just last year, she explained to CNN: “My mom had a normal pregnancy. And then on the day of my birth, it was an absolute shock to both of my parents, especially my mom, who was devastated when the doctor brought me over saying, ‘your baby doesn't have any arms.’”
While there were many doubts as to whether Jessica would be able to live a “normal” life, her achievements since then have been anything but normal. In fact, she has made it her mission to prove the doubters and naysayers wrong.
Jessica can do all the everyday things that might seem impossible for someone in her situation, such as driving a car, putting in contact lenses, and playing the piano — and she's even a fourth-degree black belt in taekwondo.
But her most famous accomplishment occurred in 2008 when she was recognized by Guinness World Records for gaining her pilot’s license and becoming the first person to fly an airplane using only her feet.
Today, Jessica's unconventional views on how to achieve impossible feats have earned her invitations to speak at companies like Boeing, NASA, IBM, and even the US Air Force. She is also the subject of the award-winning documentary Right Footed that aired on National Geographic in more than 80 countries.
Jessica teaches that only when we’re true to ourselves are we able to face challenges head on and experience the extraordinary growth that comes with it.
If you’re feeling a little low on motivation, this is the episode for you!
What drives you the most — the pursuit of the goal, or actually achieving the goal?
Well, I have been a goal-seeker my whole life. One of my earliest memories is being in swim lessons at the public swimming pool and wanting to jump off the high dive. The biggest challenge was climbing up that ladder to get to the top, but I knew I could figure out a way to do it. Sure enough, I made my way up there and then jumped off!
I enjoy the pursuit of a goal. It's something that has always pushed me to try new things. It's the challenge of figuring out how I am going to do this without any arms.
You were born without arms, yet your parents never doubted your potential or your ability. They never said that you couldn't do something. How did their involvement shape your younger years?
Well, my parents were phenomenal and they had such patience and grace. My father has said on a number of occasions that he never once shed a tear about my birth condition. He never saw me as a victim of a handicap — or a victim of anything for that matter — so I grew up not with the mentality of being a victim but instead with the realization that yes, I am different, but I am not a victim of anything. And that created a foundation that allowed me to accept my difference.
It's also helped me, through my speaking and coaching, to empower other people to rise above whatever it is in their mind that's created their victim mentality.
One of the things you talk about is that everyone has a difference, whatever it might be. And it's generally when we start to runaway from that difference, or we try and be someone else, that's where a lot of these struggles come from.
Everyone has a difference. Sometimes it can even be harder for those who don't have a visual difference. For example, I was born without both arms and it's very obvious from the moment I walk out my front door and go into public that people know "She's different." But we're all different in some way, and we all feel different in some way.
And that's the truth of the matter. Sometimes we just have to embrace that difference — to celebrate that uniqueness — instead of doing everything we can to mask it. All of us have times in our life where we want to hide it. It becomes so overwhelming to have to deal with being different, which I know from experience — it's hard! And some days are harder than others, especially being an adolescent because you get singled out.
But what you don't realize is that difference — the uniqueness that everyone has — is really what makes us very special. It means we have something to contribute to the world that no one else can, in our unique way.
One of my favorite parts of your story is the Taekwondo instructor who said that you had all the physical attributes you needed to succeed. It was only your attitude that could hold you back. And then at the age of 14 you earned your first black belt in Taekwondo, which is awesome!
How different would your life have been if you didn't have people like your parents and your Taekwondo instructor giving you that confidence and that support from a young age?
Well, my mom was a phenomenal cheerleader. She was the one who went into the Taekwondo school and approached the instructor. Even before my sister, my brother, and myself went to our first day of class, she went up to the instructor and said, "Can my daughter join your Taekwondo class? She doesn't have arms." And that's when the instructor said, "As long as she has a good attitude."
"Sometimes we just have to embrace that difference — to celebrate that uniqueness — instead of doing everything we can to mask it."
Having someone to be that cheerleader, to be an advocate — especially during the younger years and during the times that we might not have a voice — it's so important. Then, eventually, you learn how to become your own advocate. You learn how to stand up for yourself and be confident, to voice your needs and voice your opinions, and that's just a process.
And then you stand up for someone else if you have to! Someone who is not being heard. You are able to use your voice to stand up for them.
People who are born with some type of visual difference have people around them, such as a family member, who doubt their ability to live a normal life. But did you ever want a "normal" life or was there just so much excitement in doing the impossible!?
Oh, well I have to admit, there were times in my life that I wanted normality and I wanted to be like all the other girls or blend in with the crowd and not stand out like a sore thumb, or I should say, sore toe!
There were so many times when I wanted that, but what I realize now is that it's really a gift. And it's a gift that's been with me my whole life. I just didn't realize it. Often we don't realize our greatest gift until later on in life.
It was interesting what you said during your TED Talk at Tel Aviv in Israel, that "pity prevents progress." What is it about pity that can be so damaging?
Unfortunately everyone can look through a lens of pity. You see someone who's different — and you might want to pity them and immediately want to bend over backwards to help them — but to feel like they can't do it on their own disempowers an individual. We tend to pity someone because they may not live life in the same way that we do, but we really shouldn't.
"We should all look through the lens of empowerment and not pity."
We should all look through the lens of empowerment and not pity, because the moment we look through a lens of pity is the moment that we disempower the other person.
How is life different for someone who lives as their authentic self, versus someone who spends all their days trying to fit in (and just do what everyone else is doing)?
I know one thing for sure — when you're trying to fit in and do what everyone else is doing, and not living your authentic self, it takes a whole lot more energy! It takes more energy and it requires more effort.
It's so liberating when you're able to embrace your own authenticity and say, "You know what, world? This is who I am! Take it or leave it."
The whole world might not agree with who I am, but it doesn't matter. The best thing I can do is be the best version of myself each day. We all have ups and downs, but just commit to being the strongest and most confident version of who I am.
You've traveled to more than 20 countries to share your inspirational message. You've appeared in films and you've written books! You have done all these incredible things and spoken to people from all walks of life.
Some people reading this might be wondering how they can find their authentic self if they're much earlier on in their journey than you. What advice would you give them?
They should have introspection about why they're doing the things they do. Are they doing it because they want to please other people, or are they doing it because it's an expression of their own passion? And that introspection allows us to think through the motives of what we do in our life; to see if we're living authentically.
We have to reflect on those things and say, "Well, why am I doing it? Why am I living for someone else?" Understanding it and taking action are the essential first steps to living as your authentic self.
Society seems to place a greater emphasis on physical capabilities, but your amazing story and all your incredible achievements underscore the importance of mental strength, which is also the theme of my latest book Think and Grow Rich: The Legacy and what you and I both spoke about on our recent speaking tour.
Do you believe mental strength is the best asset anyone can have, irrespective of what adversity they face now or in the future?
Yes. I believe that all falls under mindset. It's about attitude and positivity, and all that comes together into mindset. That's what I coach about as well. We all have a choice every single day of how we want to live our life. We can choose to start with an empowered stance to make this a positive experience so we can come out of it stronger than before.
What about in 2008 when you became a pilot? Which was incredible in itself because, as a kid, you were terrified of airplanes! Then in 2011 you were recognized by the Guinness World Records as the first person ever to be certified to fly a plane using only your feet.
What was it that attracted you to flying? Was it the thrill of being up in the air, or was it more of a metaphorical aspect of knowing the journey that you'd been on?
I love that question because we talked earlier about the pursuit of a goal and the pursuit of a challenge. For me, the pursuit of flying meant overcoming something that I was terrified of. It was my greatest fear to lose contact with the ground, be in an airplane up in the sky, and not know what was happening.
"The best thing I can do is be the best version of myself each day."
So I needed to overcome that personal fear. Doing that helps me empower others to make sure that fear doesn't stand in the way of an opportunity. As a speaker, I have to walk the walk, and for me to overcome that fear and become a pilot - what better way?
I have not done pilot training. You have. Janine Shepherd has. From the outside looking in, there is a massive focus on safety, but obviously you have some limitations, such as how you put the seat belt on. How difficult was the experience? Can you walk us through what that journey was like to get qualified as a pilot?
Well, I don't even know where to start because there were different aspects of my journey to becoming a pilot. The emotional aspect — overcoming the fear. The physical and the logistical aspect — how do we get an airplane that will work for my situation because I use my feet as my hands.
No to mention whether the Federal Aviation Administration would be okay with a woman flying without arms. Would other people feel comfortable knowing there is a pilot behind the controls of an airplane who doesn't have arms? Would they feel safe even being on the ground?
"Would other people feel comfortable knowing there is a pilot behind the controls of an airplane who doesn't have arms?"
There are a lot of different aspects, even trying to determine who would instruct someone without arms to fly. We had to go through these kind of hoops, these challenges, and we had to go through them one at a time and over the course of three years.
It took three different flight instructors, working through three different kinds of airplanes. Finally, after numerous hours — more than the average student pilot who could probably set their life aside to learn to fly and could accomplish it in probably six months' time if they pursued it to the extent I did. But for me, it had to be spread out over three years because of all those obstacles and challenges.
But, in the end, it was definitely worthwhile because the harder you have to work for something the more you appreciate it when you've accomplished it; and that's how I felt about flying. That moment I flew an airplane by myself for the first time was the most empowering feeling. It was the greatest physical feat that I had accomplished in my life.
Can you take us through that moment when you're alone in the plane and thought, "Oh my god, here I am by myself, after three years." How was it after the rollercoaster journey to get there, and everything else you've done in your life?
I remember it like yesterday! Well, just for reference, I went flying on Monday and every time I go flying it gives me that memory back to my solo flight; but the first time you ever do this alone, there is just no greater feeling. You will never forget it. And it's just the moment that your instructor turns to you and says "Okay! Now you can fly the airplane on your own!"
You're almost in disbelief because knowing that you are going to fly this airplane by yourself —it was this empowering sense of independence. After my instructor climbed out of the cockpit, the moment I took off ... I just didn't even recognize I was doing this on my own.
"The harder you have to work for something the more you appreciate it when you've accomplished it."
I was so focused and set on doing this correctly. I didn't even realize it until I did my first turn. The moment I did that first turn I realized "I did this all by myself! I am in this plane without anyone else in here." I literally have my own life in my own feet at this moment. It was so incredible to know that I did that. The moment I landed that plane, I got out feeling like I was Pilot in Command of my own life! It was wonderful.
While that's the achievement you're most famous for, you've done so many other things — whether it's playing the piano, scuba diving, driving a car, or getting a black belt in Taekwondo. How did the pilot experience compare to your other achievements?
It was definitely a moment of accountability to the highest degree. I found that accountability so empowering, much more than in any other thing I had accomplished.
"I literally have my own life in my own feet at this moment."
Getting a black belt in Taekwondo was the culmination of four years of hard work, but when you're in that airplane and you're knowing you're doing it by yourself, it reinforces the accountability you have for your own life. It was so empowering to be able to do that.
Most people today want things now rather than working for them. They want the juice without the squeeze. What does it teach you about yourself when you put in the work that leads to those outcomes?
The process and the journey to accomplishing something is where we experience our growth. It's where we find out what our strengths are and what we need more of, such as: do we need to persist more, do we need to learn more, or we need a more positive mental attitude.
We learn so much about ourselves in the process. That discovery is what helps us understand what our strengths are and just how strong we can be. What we experience in the process of accomplishing any goal is always profoundly helpful.
Being so driven by the challenge — and going from achievement to achievement to achievement — how have you learned to be happy in the present? Does always being focused on 'what's next' take away from your joy and happiness in the present?
That is something I always have to remind myself of because I am such a go-getter; I am always after the next challenge, the next obstacle, and wanting to push myself. But sometimes I have to stop, reflect, and appreciate. I have to remind myself to do that more often because if we can't really enjoy the moment and the journey, what we've gone through to get there makes it hard to really appreciate.
So true. And it makes it tough for personal relationships too.
Well, there are people who are watching this on YouTube and listening to the podcast who are dealing with a lot, especially in the COVID world. Maybe they have lost a business or lost a marriage or had some other type of relationship breakdown. Maybe they're dealing with depression.
Whatever it might be, what advice do you have for people who are going through a really difficult time and can't see a way out?
To anyone who is going through a difficult time — because many of us are through the present challenges — you need to stay strong. You're going to get through this. We will all get through this. While it's a struggle right now, we'll come away from it stronger than we ever were before.
"Disability doesn't mean inability."
It's important that we tough it out, stay strong, and never give up. That's how we come out of it stronger than before.
Well said. Many people who look up to industry experts and seemingly superhuman individuals such as yourself want to know if they have bad days. I'm sure you do have bad days, like everyone does! How do you handle them?
Naturally, I am a human being and I have bad days! Everyone has bad days. Some days are worse than others, some days are better than others. We just have to recognize that our current day might not be as good as once we had recently, but if we didn't have anything to contrast our good days with, how would we know what was a good day?
We have to learn to appreciate some of those tough days, so that we have something to compare the good days to.
Outside of your family, who inspires you the most?
Outside of my family, I have an inspiring mentor who has been a part of my life since I was a teenager. The reason that she has inspired me so much is because she lives her life without arms and I, at the time, didn't know of anyone else who lived their life without arms. When we first met, it was this wonderful understanding and experience that someone finally gets what it's like to be different in this way.
To see everything that she did with her own life — being a mother, taking care of her children — and she continues to do that. It inspires me to stay strong, to keep having goals, and to always aspire to be better.
It's so important, isn't it, to have that accountability and companionship, rather than feel like we're going through all this stuff alone. Even though for most of us, when we're in that real darkness of deep adversity, it feels like we're alone. But the whole world's connected and we're never alone, if our thoughts are properly calibrated.
Is your professional work, including what you do with your foundation, a way to help people feel connected and empowered, no matter what they're going through?
Yes, definitely. I have been so gifted with wonderful blessings in my life and now I want to do everything I can to share that with other people —whether it's with my book, or the documentary that was done about my life...
However and whatever way that I can help touch someone's life, it's just a wonderful way to give back the blessings that I have received and to see others excel, to see them achieve their own impossible.
You have achieved so much already, and you're a huge inspiration to me, as you know. Dare I say it, but what's the next big goal on your list?
Well, I always have various goals that I shoot for and I am thinking about the present goal right now.
I half expected to see you on the SpaceX rocket launch the other day, going into outer space!
Yes! Wouldn't that be cool? I mean, that's crossed my mind. One of the goals right now is to be able to fly the airplane that my foundation (which helps people with disabilities) has — I would like to fly that airplane across the country to share the message that disability doesn't mean inability.
So that is my current goal, and to achieve that I need to get compatible and to up to speed with my flying skills so that I can do that great of an endeavor and fly across the country.
Check out the podcast or YouTube version where Jessica does the Win the Day Rocket Round, answering questions about her favorite quote, what advice she’d give her 18-year-old self, her favorite book, and a whole lot more ?
Final question. What's one thing you do to win the day?
I start my mornings with a motivational jam where I have a really loud song playing, some motivational music, and that for me is what allows me to get into the mindset of "I am going to have a wonderful day. I'm going to win today." That really helps me start off the day right.
Connect with Jessica Cox and learn more about the resources/links mentioned in the interview:
Get out there and win the day! Until next time...
Onwards and upwards always,