Give yourself the chance to actively and consciously look for moments to say “thank you,” and let those small moments contribute to growing the hope for future happiness.
As part of our series about 5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country, I had the pleasure of interviewing TJ Nelligan.
A sports entrepreneur, published author, and former Chairman & CEO of the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games, TJ Nelligan is a man of action who has made it his life’s mission to benefit others. As a father of a child with special-needs, TJ was filled with anger and disappointment wondering how he would raise a child with so many issues. It was not until after his son’s sudden passing last year that he realized his son taught him far more than he could ever teach him. TJ chronicles these lessons of gratitude, acceptance, and being present in his upcoming debut novel, Live Like Sean: Important Life Lessons from My Special-Needs Son. The experience of being Sean’s father changed TJ’s life both personally and professionally for the better and he wants to offer others the chance to let Sean’s lessons of love, kindness, and gratitude touch their lives too.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in a middle-class family in Montville, NJ as the oldest of five children. I have three sisters and a brother. My family is quite large with over 38 cousins that primarily lived in New Jersey when I was a child. I always remember participating in sports and continued playing throughout high school. Entrepreneurship began for me at a young age, much to the dismay of my mother. She was horrified when she was alerted her 12-year-old son was charging neighborhood kids $5 to play in a baseball league on our side yard. When reprimanded and told that this was wrong, I responded that I was the league’s Commissioner so it was okay. Clearly, I got my business acumen from my mom because without skipping a beat, she replied that she owned the stadium (our side yard) and my lease has been canceled. This was just one of many examples of my industrialism. My business skills were further developed while attending the University of Richmond in Virginia.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I always liked Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie. It was one of those feel-good stories that made you think about the people in your life and how they may have influenced you. However, it was not until I started writing my son Sean’s eulogy that ultimately became the basis of my book, Live Like Sean, did I realize the person who influenced me the most was my son Sean. I was going down a completely different path in my life — business-driven, very competitive — and Sean made me re-evaluate everything I was doing. For Mitch Albom, Morrie Schwartz helped him realize what is most important and that spreading compassion and love is what truly will make us happy. Sean was that person for me, which was quite surprising as I thought I would be the one teaching him. He taught me more than I ever could have imagined, including living in the moment and appreciating those around us because we never know how long we have.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
My favorite “Life Lesson Quote” is “Live Like Sean.” While writing Sean’s eulogy, I noticed an underlying theme of genuine happiness through all the anecdotal stories I wanted to share. Although Sean was born with special needs, I continuously advocated that we try to live more like him. Sean lived to make lives better, and in return, he lived an incredibly happy life. What society considered to be limitations turned into assets for Sean who taught by example how to be kind, brave, honest, and accepting. Live Like Sean shares these lessons and preserves my son’s memory whose legacy is not counted in assets but in love.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is guiding by example, not just barking orders to colleagues to do something, especially if you have never performed that role. It is so important to be an effective communicator and to get the team on the same page. Before making decisions, gather input from your team. Ask them to buy-in, agree to the goals and the best route to achieve them so that everyone feels ownership and is working towards a common objective. My mantra has always been to “dream big, work hard, and good things will happen.”
In life we come across many people, some who inspire us, some who change us and some who make us better people. Is there a person or people who have helped you get to where you are today? Can you share a story?
I know I am repetitive in my answers, but my son Sean is indeed my inspiration. When he was born with special needs, I was resigned to the fact that I would have to teach him about the world, and then one day, I realized he was teaching me what is most important — kindness, love, family, and friends. He did it in a humbling way, by example, and inspired not only me but also so many others through his actions.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a series of unprecedented crises. So many of us see the news and ask how we can help. We’d love to talk about the steps that each of us can take to help heal our county, in our own way. Which particular crisis would you like to discuss with us today? Why does that resonate with you so much?
This past year, 2020, was undoubtedly a year of turmoil between the pandemic, the election, racial tension, and so much more. What became abundantly clear from all of these issues is the lack of compassion and understanding of each other and how all of this negative rhetoric is divisive. We need to be unified and learn to compromise as well as get along with people with different backgrounds and beliefs.
This is likely a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
A country divided impacts every action moving forward. The lack of acceptance of views different than our own has put this country at an impasse. I am not sure if there has been one boiling point or just months of frustration of not communicating effectively with each other on the issues that most affect us. When I say acceptance of others’ points of view, I am saying that sometimes we need to agree to disagree. We need to acknowledge each other’s viewpoints, recognize the differences, and then forge a path forward to our mutual benefit, and more importantly, the benefit of the country.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience either working on this cause or your experience being impacted by it? Can you share a story with us?
Helping those who are marginalized gain acceptance is personal to me as my son battled this all of his life. I became involved with Special Olympics New Jersey as a parent of an athlete and then as a board member so I could use my sports marketing experience to its benefit. I ultimately spearheaded the effort, along with Marc Edenzon, to bring the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games to New Jersey so more than 3,500 remarkable individuals could not only be accepted but celebrated on a grand scale of more than 70,000 spectators and national media attention. Sean taught me to be accepting of everyone, and that is his legacy. He never judged someone on their skin color, the limitations of their body, or the way they spoke. Sean knew every individual was a human being, just like himself, but maybe packaged differently. I hope that our country can adopt these views and learn to live more like Sean.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
My “5 Steps That Each of Us Can Take to Proactively Help Heal Our Country”may appear simplistic in approach, but I genuinely believe that when combined, it can lead to a kinder and more united country.
Be Grateful: Give yourself the chance to actively and consciously look for moments to say “thank you,” and let those small moments contribute to growing the hope for future happiness. In my experience, gratitude is one of the most challenging emotions to learn, and yet is the most enduring. When the doctor said my special-needs son Sean was never going to be average, I was far from grateful. However, in retrospect, gratitude is now the foundation of my happiness. I am truly grateful for every memory — painful and joy-filled — of the life we shared and the lessons he taught me. And I am grateful to the doctor who underestimated Sean. It is true Sean was not average; he was exceptional.
Be Friendly: Be genuinely friendly. Make a connection. Share a smile, a hello, and a short but genuine conversation with neighbors, colleagues, forgotten friends, strangers, kings, and paupers. When most people travel, they tend to put on their headphones and shut out the world. That was most certainly me; however, in hindsight, how many opportunities do we miss when we put on our blinders? I remember waiting to board a plane a few years ago, and I encountered a family with a daughter with Downs syndrome. No-one acknowledged her. When we lined up to board the plane, I ended up standing behind her and started a conversation with her. Her face lit up when she told me about her vacation, even going into detail about the dolphins she saw. I was sorry I did not approach her sooner. When we take the time to truly connect with another person, even a stranger, our lives are enriched in ways we could have never imagined.
Be Proactive: Banish the “can’t” mind-set from your life. Decide to achieve something and take it one step at a time, no matter how small, until you succeed. Set goals that will bring you further along your life journey. I left a secure job to launch my own sports marketing company, and a year later, the economy plummeted. As a result, that first year, our losses were immense. However, we rallied, and fifteen years later, my firm was the third-largest collegiate sports marketing company in the country. I was presented with an incredible offer to sell, which I accepted with trepidation, but am happy I did.
Be Happy: Do not wait for your happiness to come through some accomplishment in the future. Bring it into your life each day, and strive to be happy for other people without jealousy or comparison. People with an A-type personality, like me, have a competitive nature and high expectations of achieved accomplishments to make us happy. It took me years of climbing the competitive ladder of success to learn that happiness is not a destination to be reached in the future. A life that’s built on the expectation of future rewards makes it difficult to enjoy the journey because the end is never reached. The choice is ours when we can appreciate what we have and look for ways to give happiness to others, which in turn will make us happy.
Be Accepting: Learn to accept all people with charitable judgment. If the person has a kind heart, accept them. In the end, that is all that matters.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but what can we do to make these ideas a reality? What specific steps can you suggest to make these ideas actually happen? Are there things that the community can do to help you promote these ideas?
These ideas are the first steps of many more steps that need to be taken in order for our country to heal, but the healing won’t begin unless we are accepting of one another. The pandemic has isolated us both physically and emotionally. It is only when we are proactive in accepting others through grateful measures and friendly outreach can we truly be happy with the direction in which our country is heading.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Sometimes we have to go through the darkness before we can see the light. I learned this through the grieving process. I am optimistic; I have to be. It goes back to the five tenets outlined on how to best heal the country. Happiness comes when we do for others, rather than just for ourselves.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I would tell them to” Live Like Sean.” Having a child with special needs, I thought I would have to teach him about the world, and then one day, I woke up and realized he had become the teacher. Sean not only taught me what is most important in life but did so by his actions. As a result, he has inspired so many others. So now I hope that by living my life like Sean lived his, I will inspire others to be grateful, friendly, proactive, happy, and accepting.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
My two favorite authors are Harlan Coben and Mitch Albom. I have always enjoyed their writing, but now having written my own book, I am in complete awe of their talent. Writing is hard work, and they both made it look so easy. Through some mutual connections, both authors also took the time to endorse Live Like Sean, and for that, I am incredibly grateful for their support.
How can our readers follow you online?
For most of my career, I have posted under the companies I have been associated with and assisted Sean with his social media accounts. I am now posting as myself, and it is both exciting and scary. Please follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and sign up for my newsletter at tjnelligan.com as I would love to genuinely connect with more people.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!