Bonnie St. John grew up in San Diego, California, the youngest of three children of a single working mother. At the age of five, her leg was amputated, because of a birth defect. But 10 years later, after a friend invited her to go skiing, she decided to pursue competitive skiing. While in college, she participated in the 1984 Paralympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Despite falling after hitting an icy patch during one of her races, she went on to win two bronze medals in the slalom and giant slalom. She also received a silver medal for her overall ranking as the second-fastest female amputee skier in the world. Before becoming a motivational speaker and coach, she had a successful career in sales for IBM and was on the National Economic Council under the Clinton administration. She is also the author of three books: Succeeding Sane: Making Room for Joy in a Crazy World, Getting Ahead at Work Without Leaving Your Family Behind, and Money: Fall Down? Get Up! In November 2007, she published her fourth book entitled How Strong Women Pray, featuring interviews with Maya Angelou, Barbara Bush, Edie Falco, and others.
What drove you to do more than an average teenager?
My brother once said it was because I had so many obstacles. I’m missing a leg. I’m black. I’m a woman in a society where you don’t see the leaders being black. You don’t see the leaders being women. You don’t see the leaders having one leg. You’re born representing something that looks like you’re not going to go far, or you’re behind the starting line and everybody else is starting five yards ahead of you. He said the energy and skills I had to learn to catch up to other people propelled me. In a sense, when you start off with a bunch of burdens, either you sit down and give up, or you work 10 times as hard as everyone else. I chose the second option.
At what age did you consciously decide to take that option?
I remember really making a choice at the age of 13, because before that I had been much more shy and introspective and passive. I made a decision to say, “You know what? I’m just going to go out and do a bunch of things; try a bunch of things.” It was a real turning point for me.
You said your mother was a big motivator, but did your family baby you?
[Laughs heartily.] I am the baby of the family. And you would think, being the disabled baby in the family, that I would have gotten pampered a lot. But I always laugh when people say “Oh, you were the baby”—because I did everybody else’s laundry. I even started cooking dinner for the whole family when I was 10 years old. My mom had enrolled us in a private school that started when you were in seventh grade. When I was ten, I was in fifth grade; my brother was in seventh grade. I also had an older sister. My mom had to drive all the way across town after work to pick up them up from school.They would all come home at 6 or 6:30, tired and exhausted. And I would have been home for three hours. I was a latch key kid, and they said, “Why don’t you have dinner ready for us? We’re hungry.” I felt like Cinderella!When I finally went to college, I was so happy. Other kids said, “Oh my gosh, I have to survive on my own. What am I going to do without mom?” I was like, “Oh great, I don’t have to do the whole family’s laundry. I don’t have to clean the whole house. I’m free.”My mom was a working mother. She was a single mom and she worked really long hours and really hard. There was no being pampered. It didn’t work that way.
I saw your mother in an interview and she talked about fear being part of her background, possibly her motivation. Meanwhile, you’ve been mainly fearless.
Yeah, that’s interesting. I would say it’s slightly different than that. My mom had a lot of fear and she said fear sometimes stopped her, or held her back. She said I was fearless, but I was not fearless. I was actually very, very full of fear, but it didn’t stop me.
How did you overcome it?
I had so much fear. I was sexually abused as a child from ages two to seven. I was very afraid of life. Having to go to gym class with one leg and swim was scary. I had to take off my leg and all the other kids were going to see how my stump looked. I had to hop to the pool. Everything was hard. Nothing was easy. I was always afraid.If there was a beach party, I thought, “What are the other kids going to think? I’m black. My hair is kinky and it’s going to get wet.” Everything wasn’t easy. I was so used to being afraid that it didn’t matter. Fear was my best friend, so fear and I went skiing. Fear and I went to the beach. Fear and I went to parties. Fear and I in whatever I was going to do. It just became so normal to me.I think in a way fear allowed me to do a lot of things. To work in the White House and to give presentations to Cabinet members is scary and the stress of national crises and the Rhodes scholarship interviews, too. There are a lot of situations you can be afraid in—to go from San Diego, California to a ski racing academy in Vermont and to be 3,000 miles away from home with no money. I showed up in Vermont with $20 in my pocket and broke my leg on the first day of school. Fear went everywhere with me.I remember talking with a girlfriend once. She said, “You know what I admire about you? You never back down from fear. Sometimes when I get afraid, I back down.” When she said that, it just hit me so hard; I looked at her and I said, “You mean I can back down from fear? You mean people have that option?” Wow, what a concept that was! What a luxury to be able to back down from fear. I didn’t know you got that choice.That [viewpoint] probably came from my mother, too. She really pushed us. She sent us to a private school across town, which was really intimidating. All the kids were rich. I was regularly humiliated for not having enough money. It would have been easier not to put us into that situation, but she was the kind of person who wanted us to take on challenges, to try things. She tried to toughen us up.
So how did she push you, yet still be caring without being overbearing?
I’m sorry. My temptation is to say but she wasn’t a very caring person. She just pushed. [Laughs.]She was not a terribly sympathetic person. She had it really tough in her life. She didn’t get a lot of sympathy growing up. In fact, by the time she was 14, I think she was pretty much abandoned by her parents. She was living in her uncle’s house, while he was overseas in the military. She didn’t get that kind of sympathy, so she tried hard to give it to us. But she didn’t give a lot of it.What she did do was be very optimistic. She was a big dreamer. She encouraged us to dream big. When we did that, she wanted to support it, even though we didn’t have a lot of money. My brother wanted to be a photographer, so she went to a pawnshop and got an old developer. I remember we went to a garage sale and she got him a 35 mm camera. He then got panels and built a dark room in the corner of our garage.She would support our dreams and desires. She did what she could to help me with the skiing, whether it was to give me a ride to a bus at 4:30 in the morning so I could go to a ski area, or give me advice on how to raise money. But we didn’t get a lot of sympathy, a lot of coddling.
[A high school friend, Barbara Warmath, invited Bonnie to go skiing for the first time when she was 15 years old.] How did your friend Barbara know that you would be able to ski? Was it because you had shown you could go swimming and do other activities?
Yeah, I think she saw that I was willing to try everything at school. I had this attitude my mother gave me, which was “don’t back down, just do it.” Whatever they do in gym don’t say, “Oh, I can’t do it.” I really didn’t know I had the option. I would always try as hard as I could, so Barbara must have seen that and she really believed in me.
Let’s talk about time management. By the time you had won the Rhodes Scholarship, you were well ahead of the average person.
I think of life as like having a portfolio of goals. When you invest your money, you don’t just invest in one thing. You have some high-risk investments, some low-risk investments, and you put the bulk of your money in the low-risk things — but you also put some money in the high-risk things.That’s the way I’ve always done it. I’ve always had multiple things going on at the same time. An example: I had just come back from Oxford and was working at IBM, working to create a new program based on things IBM wanted to do. So I was building and envisioning things at work, and on the weekends I was putting together a proposal to write a book and become a speaker. As I was doing that, I got the opportunity to apply for a job at the White House.I applied for the job and then forgot about it, and I kept working on the book proposal and the speaking stuff while still working at IBM. What ultimately happened is, I got the job in the White House! And after a few weeks there, one of the first book agents I had contacted a while back got in touch with me and said they wanted to sell my book.I said, “I’m working 90 hour weeks in the White House, and I don’t think I’m ready to do the book.” They didn’t care – they said, “Tell us when you’re ready to come back and do the book and we’ll do it with you.” So I worked for a year and a half at the White House, and then I went and wrote the book.
So to me … I’m always having multiple things going on. I’m skiing, but I’m also pursuing college very intensely. And I’m juggling and kind of saying, “Whatever works — If this works, then I’ll do it. If that works, I’ll go do that.”Some motivational speakers will tell you to do one thing — burn the boats behind you. It’s from an explorer (I can’t remember which one) who sailed to the new world, and when his army landed on shore, they burned the boats behind them. You know, “You’ve got to fight and win, because you ain’t going home.” So it’s that attitude — do one thing, an all-in commitment, and never say die. I don’t believe in that.
And I’ll tell you this: notivational speakers who say that are usually from a more advantaged background than mine. And it’s like “You may feel that way from your end of the world, but in my world it doesn’t work that way.” I have to have a plan A, plan B, and plan C. In my world, you don’t always get what you want. You juggle. In the neighborhood I’m from, you have to have a plan B. If you burn the boats behind you, then you burn the boats. People don’t do stupid things like that in my neighborhood. Don’t burn boats, because you don’t have any other boats.It’s important to dream and to have a lot of dreams—to have a portfolio of dreams. The day that I was going to redo my resume for the job in the White House, I really didn’t want to do it. It was a Saturday. It was my weekend. I worked all week. It was going to take four hours to do and I was thinking “What were the odds of getting the job in the White House? And my husband has a job in San Diego. He’s going to have to quit his job, or I’m going to have to move away and live separately.” Most people would say “Oh, it’s not a good idea, so I’m not even going to try.”
Part of the portfolio of dreams idea is the willingness to put irons in the fire, even though you don’t really know how they are going to play out.And the skiing was just like that, because I had one leg, I’m from San Diego, my family had no money, my mom a single parent schoolteacher with three kids. It wasn’t very practical to dream of trying out for the Olympics, but my attitude was more, “Why not try?” Instead of “I shouldn’t try,” it’s “Why not?” And make the dream, start down the path, even if you don’t have everything figured out. If you subvert yourself before you can start, then you don’t have a chance. You can’t figure out the obstacles, because you didn’t even try. What have you got to lose? You’ve got nothing to lose by trying.
What are you most proud of?
The problem is there are so many different things. When people ask me, obviously, I’m really proud of my daughter. But she’s not an accomplishment to me. She’s her own human being, so I wouldn’t compare her to my accomplishments.
I used to say that writing a book was the thing that I was most proud of, because I loved books. In my darkest hours as a child, books inspired me. They gave me a safe and exciting place to escape to…to hope. So I loved being able to write and give hope to other people. But now, I would say I’m most proud of the speaking and coaching I’ve done. Everything I’ve done has been around giving other people hope and the tools to make their lives more joyful no matter what happens. It’s not the circumstances. It’s how you choose to live. Giving people the ability to live that way is what I’m most proud of.
So what led you to become a motivational speaker and a coach after working at IBM and in the White House?
It’s what I feel I was born to do. When I worked in the White House I was doing economic policy and somebody else could have done my job, but what I’m doing now, no one else can do. No one else can tell my stories. Nobody else can give people the same inspiration I can and so it feels like it’s an important thing.On the inspirational speaking circuit, there aren’t many women and there really aren’t very many black women. So it is an important role I play. I think when people have a speaker who’s disabled, African-American, and a woman, it resonates even for people who are different in some other way. They appreciate the differences.
What are the three things you love about what you do?
I love my sense of purpose. I feel like I make a positive difference and I have a clear, good purpose. I love the flexibility I have to be a mom and to work on the projects that I want. And I love the people I get to surround myself with. I make friends all across the country—fascinating, wonderful people who also believe in what I believe.
What would you say to anyone, young or old, about leading a fulfilling, rich life, not just a conventional, mediocre one?
You have to dream big and creatively. You have to work really hard and put the right amount of work into the right things. I don’t put ridiculous amounts of work into low risk things when I’m not seeing any returns. Most people aren’t even willing to put in a little bit of work into something that’s high risk. When something is risky, they get so discouraged; they don’t even start. So put in a little bit of work into high-risk things and if it looks like there’s an opportunity, then you can pursue it some more. It is about taking calculated risks—not ridiculous amounts of risk, but intelligent amounts—in planning your life and your career.Get lots of help. Ask lots of questions. Be open to learning, growing, and changing.