As we face unusual challenges this year, I thought it would be good to focus on someone who achieved his goals despite facing enormous odds.
For most people, Stephen Hawking is the only living physicist they can name. He is well-known as the scientist in the wheelchair with the iconic, computerized voice. He is the man who wrote A Brief History of Time, a bestseller that introduced millions to concepts like spacetime, black holes, and quantum mechanics.
But Stephen Hawking wasn’t born in a wheelchair, nor was he always a world-renowned mind. To become the latter, he had to learn to live with the former, and it’s that aspect of his life—his own personal journey—that I find particularly inspiring.
Hawking was born in 1942. Like Albert Einstein, the man to whom he is so often compared, he initially struggled in school. Learning to read was particularly difficult. But as he grew older, Hawking became increasingly fascinated with science. When he was sixteen, he even built a computer out of a telephone switchboard and pieces of a clock. Eventually, he decided to focus on mathematics, because for him, solving math problems was as natural as breathing. Said one of his teachers:
“It was only necessary for him to know that something could be done, and he
could do it without looking to see how other people did it.”
While Hawking spent most his time in a world of numbers, he also enjoyed being outside. He particularly enjoyed rowing in college. Despite being viewed as a brash and somewhat lazy student Hawking graduated with a first-class (or “Honors”) degree in natural science at Oxford.
For Hawking, the future seemed bright. But there was a shadow falling over that future.
The symptoms started during his final year at Oxford. It began with a sudden fall down a flight of stairs. Then, rowing became increasingly difficult. What at first seemed like a simple case of clumsiness quickly worsened, until even his speech was affected. During a trip home for Christmas, his family noticed the changes and immediately sought the opinions of several doctors.
The diagnosis was one of the worst imaginable: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS. Lou Gehrig’s Disease. With ALS, the neurons that control voluntary muscles die out. Symptoms start with fatigue and muscle weakness before progressing to the point that even simple things like speaking, swallowing, and breathing become impossible. Most people die about two years after diagnosis, as Hawking was expected to. There is no cure. When Hawking was diagnosed, he was only 21 years old.
It would have been so easy to give up, to admit defeat, to rage against his condition. And indeed, Hawking initially fell into depression, thinking there was no point to continuing his studies. Within a few years, he lost the ability to walk. The ability to write soon followed. Eventually, he even lost the ability to speak. But he did not die, and he did not give up. Because during that time, Hawking made possibly his most important discovery.
“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”
Instead of focusing solely on what he had lost, Hawking instead focused on what he wanted to become. He wanted to be a scientist. He wanted to contribute to the understanding of the universe. As he put it:
“My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as
it is and why it exists at all.”
So, he put his intelligence to work and adapted to the changes life forced upon him. He taught himself to see math equations in terms of geometry. He learned to drive his wheelchair first by hand, and when that, too, was taken from him, by moving his cheek muscles. He communicated by raising his eyebrows to choose letters on a card, and later by controlling a small computer on his wheelchair. And he made discovery after discovery: on general relativity, on black holes, on gravity and quantum mechanics. Because even though the disease could take his body away from him, it could not rob him of his mind. It could not rob him of his will. It could not rob him of his desire. It could not rob him of his goal.
Most of us will never have to face the same physical challenges Hawking does. But challenges will come. The good news—the amazing news—is that no challenge is insurmountable. Like Hawking, we only have to know that something can be done in order to do it. Like Hawking, we only have to remember that true intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.
I believe that if we follow his example and adapt to all the sudden and difficult changes life has in store for us, then we, too, can become what we want to become. We, too, can overcome the odds.
After all, life can rob us of many things. But it can never rob us of our goal.