What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.
It’s a beautiful and powerful statement and no one believes it more than David Shurna and Tom Lillig, co-founders of No Barriers USA. In 2003, they launched an award-winning nonprofit with the mission to help people reach their fullest potential, no matter the obstacles they face.
Now, after helping tens of thousands of people overcome their challenges using the No Barriers framework, they’re releasing this book to share their step-by-step process on how to break through challenges and live a driven, purposeful life.
In this episode, you’ll be introduced to world-famous barrier breakers like the first blind person to summit Mount Everest, as well as the deaf jazz vocalist who captured the hearts of half a billion people on America’s Got Talent.
Their book is titled, What’s Within You: Your Roadmap to Living Life With No Barriers. And despite barriers both big and small that each of us face, we can learn how to push past them, reconnect to our purpose and unleash the best in ourselves and others. In this episode, Tom and Dave share with us how.
Miles Rote: Hey everyone, I’m excited to be here today with Tom Lillig and Dave Shurna, coauthors of What’s Within You: Your Roadmap to Living Life With No Barriers. Tom and Dave, I’m excited you’re here, welcome to the Author Hour podcast.
Tom Lillig: We’re very excited to be here, thanks for having us.
Dave Shurna: Thank you so much.
Miles Rote: Let’s start by giving our listeners a bit of background of who you are and what inspired you to write this book?
Tom Lillig: Sure, Dave and I have worked with No Barriers, a nonprofit organization that’s focused on unleashing the potential of an individual and helping that individual break through their barriers, for several years. I’ve served as the board president, Dave has served as the executive director and over the course of a number of years, this organization grew in both size and partnerships and impact. We got to a point where we realized that we were doing something that was touching so many lives and transforming lives for the better–really helping people overcome their barriers, people within challenges and disabilities, people that were wounded veterans, people that were trying to find their purpose in the world. But there hadn’t been a book.
We had created this curriculum and we’ve been bringing it to people in all forms, all types of experiences. But we felt that there needed to be an opportunity to clarify what our curriculum is, what our framework is.
I was nearing the end of my term as board president and I wanted to give a gift to the organization and we felt that this book could be that gift that could both help explain and give access to so many people what the No Barriers framework is all about and also something that could sort of serve the organization for many years to come. I should note that 100% of all the proceeds go to No Barriers.
No Barriers USA
Miles Rote: You know, No Barriers has quite an inspirational story as well, from the founder and everything. Maybe, Dave, you can share a little bit about your story and how you came to all of this as well as the founder of No Barriers?
Dave Shurna: The organization was founded actually by a small team of folks and I was on that team, so I’m one of the founders. Another founder that listeners may know is a guy by the name of Eric Weinmeier who was the first blind man to reach the summit of Mount Everest. He went on to reach the seven summits, kayaked the Grand Canyon, and has lived an incredible life of adventure. Eric and I, as well as Tom who was actually there at that time, and a bunch of other folks got together and said that we need to create a movement that unites people around the barriers that we all face.
The organization was founded on this belief that, one, part of being human is that we all crave purpose and meaning in our lives, and the second part of being human is that in our quest for purpose, we encounter a lot of challenges, and it is not easy to live a life of purpose and meaning. Adversity gets in our way and so our organization operates at this very interesting intersection between our human quest for purpose and meaning and the reality that that quest is quite difficult over the years. For nearly 20 years now we’ve worked with tens of thousands of individuals, and we have teased out some of the principles that people who face incredible adversity can use to get through it and be stronger on the other end.
Miles Rote: Before we jump into how to overcome it, let’s get into purpose a little bit and how people can discover it. The book does a really good job of, as you were saying, the interplay between purpose and persistence, and getting through those barriers. Let’s start with purpose. It can be hard for people to discover their purpose, so do you guys have advice on how one can go about finding their purpose?
Dave Shurna: I think that it’s important to recognize, although it may not be intuitive, that the quest for purpose and the discovery of your own purpose and the ability to write that purpose down is actually, in my mind, the most critical fuel for getting you through life’s challenges.
First and foremost, just to set the stage for listeners, purpose has many values but one big important role it plays is that once you’ve clearly defined your purpose and your vision for yourself, it is literally the thing you go back to in both your greatest times, as well as some of your darkest times.
There’s a great value in spending time discovering your purpose. Lots of people talk about purpose and meaning but don’t talk about how hard it is actually to get to that. If you sit down and say, write down your purpose, write down your vision for the next five, and the next ten years, most people struggle. So the first piece of advice I would have is recognize that it’s not easy, it’s not something that you’re going to do in ten minutes, it’s going to be a bit of soul searching and it can take time for some people, it can take days, weeks, months, or years. Your purpose is going to be this guiding force that will evolve, but you have to dive deep.
A second piece of advice I would have is don’t confuse a goal with your purpose or your vision. For example, Tom and I set a goal a few years back of doing our very first Ironman triathlon and we decided to do it in an extraordinary place in Croatia, Pula Croatia. In some ways, you could say, “Gosh, our vision was to do this Ironman race together.” But that’s really a goal.
Purpose transcends a bunch of different goals so in this case, the broader purpose was to live a life surrounded by friends, to live a life that was healthy, to be athletic. And health, athleticism, being around friends–that’s starting to form some sense of purpose. Whereas running a triathlon is not. Understand that there’s a big difference between setting individual goals and setting a broader purpose.
Then the final thing I’ll say is that the most important thing is you’re getting started to start taking some steps. Don’t get too locked up in your head around, “Gosh, I have to make this thing a beautifully written, eloquent statement.” Start exploring things that fuel the light inside of you, that give you energy and that purpose can evolve out of your desire to just get started somewhere. Tom, what would you add?
Tom Lillig: Well, I’m someone that would defer to some of the legends that have tried to tackle this question because you did such a nice job, Dave, of describing the messy process of trying to discover what one’s purpose is, how to get there, and be compassionate on yourself as you try to uncover what that is. There’s a great line that we utilize in the book that comes from Nietzsche that is something like, “He who has a why can get through any how.”
Many times, we’re all in a constant state of struggle and many of our participants are in a very deep state of struggle. I think that more than anything else what this book tries to do and what we try to do as an organization is to encourage people to find their why. Try to find what that is that they want to live for, more than all other things and let that be that light that comes from inside them but also illuminates their path through their journey, through their travails, through their struggle, and let that why burn brighter and brighter both within them and to guide their way.
I think that when you think about this on a very practical level, it’s something that we wake up every day, the decisions that we make, the relationships that we forge, the work that we do and the way that we lead, all of that should come back to what that why is that’s within us. So, when we encounter those struggles, we hope that there is this sort of sense of resilience and sense of a higher purpose that one is really led by and we’re hoping that people can really uncover their why first and foremost as they continue in their struggle because adversity will be everywhere. But with a why, it should be something that we can harness and move through.
Seven Core Principles
Miles Rote: I really love that quote as well and you’re right, it’s as though challenges can seem insurmountable but as long as we have that north star that we can attach ourselves to, it really gives that extra fuel to push through. You guys also talk about seven life elements, can you guys give us a little bit more detail on what those are and why they’re so important?
Dave Shurna: Over the 20 years of working with tens of thousands of individuals, we’ve teased out these seven core principles that we teach. Whether you’re a middle school student, whether you’re a corporate leader, a veteran, it doesn’t really matter, these seven principles are the way that you can live this life of purpose and meaning despite the barriers in your way.
So, the very first one is vision, which is about establishing your purpose and then the next one’s flow from that, once you have a working vision for who you want to be in this world and what you’re striving to accomplish.
The next one is called reach, which is built on this climbing principle–when you’re rock climbing, you’re always reaching for your next hold and you’re often reaching up into the darkness, you don’t know what you’re going to find, but you’re stretching outside your comfort zone to reach for something grander. And so, reach is the process of setting a series of goals for yourself that stretch your comfort zone and that are tied to your ultimate vision.
As I told the story about Tom and me, one of our reach goals was to do that triathlon and that was built into a bigger vision for ourselves, which is much more about health and athleticism, and friendship. As you get through and start to push yourselves outside of your comfort zone, what you realize is you need help.
So, the third of our principles is called rope team, which is all about the team around us and how you surround yourself with people who are going to fuel you to success and you try to get rid of those detractors who might be the ones that we always encounter, the naysayers. Surround yourself with the strong rope team.
Learn to pioneer, that’s the fourth one. Pioneer is this idea that no matter what challenges we encounter, we need to figure out a way to innovate through it. There’s a story in the book about a pioneer, about Hugh Herr who is a professor at MIT who lost his lower legs in a climbing accident when he was young to frostbite, and yet he became a better climber as a result and went on to found the MIT biomechatronics institute, which develops some of the most advanced prosthetics in the world. How can you learn to innovate or pioneer through your challenges?
You’ve got your vision, you set your reach goal, you’re building a rope team around you to help you fulfill that part of your reach and you’re learning to pioneer through some of those adversities. What we turn to at that point, I’ll let Tom go through alchemy and summits and elevate as we turn to this concept that we call alchemy. Tom, do you want to talk about that?
Tom Lillig: Yeah, I’d love to. Alchemy is this element that’s all about when we encounter challenges, we have this choice, this choice to approach that challenge with hope, with optimism, even in the face of incredible adversity. One of the things that I like to think of when I talk about alchemy is the Japanese tradition of Kintsugi. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that but Kintsugi is essentially the art that comes out of mending broken pottery with gold. It’s not just taking that pottery and gluing it back together and trying to pretend that nothing was damaged. It’s mending it with gold and showing how precious this crack is and the healing that came of it. Not just to the person itself but to others in the world. That’s the concept of alchemy.
This is especially important right now. I think about COVID times and how much suffering is going on and how often we need to pivot during these times in order to survive both physically but also financially. One of the stories in the book has to do with a woman who is a bakery owner and COVID hits and she’s forced with the reality that she needs to shut down her small business. In this moment of shutting down her small business, she had been a nurse for 20 something years, and she decides that her calling of serving people is going to take the passion that she had as bringing joy to others through her bakery, and now she’s going to use that to help heal people in this time of crisis in a temporary way. Then she returns to her bakery and really tries to get that started again. I think that alchemy is such a critical element for all of us to remember now during these COVID times and something that is especially important within our life elements.
Another element is something that we call summits. Summits is the idea of we have been on this journey and there are moments that we’re so focused on what’s in front of us, we forget to stop and reflect on what got us here and how far that we’ve come. Summits is all about reflecting on your journey, even when you’re in the middle of it because, in this moment of reflection, that’s when you recognize that you have come not just the furthest, but you’ve learned so many gifts along the way. There’s so much to be thankful for in your journey.
The final element or the seventh element is one that is especially important to us as an organization and that is the notion of elevate. Up until this point, you have been focused on a lot of inward work. You’ve been focused on helping you grow into a better version of yourself but there’s this point in which you have to pivot and acknowledge that there’s this world around you, that there are others around you and that part of your vision should be in fact elevating others. Your perspective changes from one that was all about me to one that’s not all about we. It’s no longer just a self-help book. It is a selfless-help book and what I love about elevate is I think that we will all live in a better world when we get to a place where we’ve moved through the seven elements and we are all both cheering and supporting each other across our respective finish lines.
Miles Rote: I love those, honestly, it’s worth buying the book just to go through those elements and read these stories. I feel like it’s such a wonderful set of principles to really align yourself with to help with your life. How did you guys forge these and come up with these? I know you mentioned working with tens of thousands of individuals, helping them overcome barriers, so is this really just a result of that and seeing that these were the most important things to focus on along that journey?
Dave Shurna: Yeah, you got it. That’s a big piece of it, you know? This is one of the things I love about this book is although there is theory and history and we go back to the ancient wisdom that these principles tie to from thousands of years ago, really, the seven principles are forged out of work with real human beings, trying to live and struggle and fail and flail and get through life and we’ve done that with people from all walks of life over the past 20 years.
We’ve done extensive research with a team of researchers currently out of BYU–they were previously out of Texas A&M–to learn what these principles are and how people are applying them to their own life. So, it’s really forged out of real-life experience with people who are trying to get through struggles and live lives of purpose.
A few years back, it is probably almost 10 years ago now, we sat down and said, “Geez, we have been doing this work, what are the principles that are guiding us?” And we had our staff, as well as Eric Weinmeier, who I mentioned earlier, was one of the co-founders and board members, start to talk about what is this life that we are trying to help people lead? There is something deep and meaningful here that is more than just taking people out, exploring the world, which we do in many of our No Barriers journeys. This is really a set of principles that will help people in any situation live that life that they want to live and to get through the hardest of times.
The Old and The New
Miles Rote: One of my favorite things about your book is you just don’t share the personal stories that you guys have seen. You share the inspiring stories, yes, but you also share regular stories, but you also share the cutting-edge science when it comes to this stuff and the classic foundations of age-old wisdom and philosophy. I think it is such a good mixture that I highly recommend people check out because you really bring everything together in a really unique way. To take it back to a specific example, do either of you have some examples of people that you’ve worked with that just really inspired you?
Tom Lillig: I think that so much of the book is personal. Dave and I know the great majority of the people that are portrayed in this book and the stories that they’ve lived through. So much of the book is this living inspiration of stories of friends and contacts of ours that we saw in mid-struggle and that we saw utilized these No Barriers elements to change their own life around.
The person that I really carried close to my heart throughout the journey of writing this was the subject of chapter two and a No Barriers ambassador. Her name is Mandy Harvey. Mandy first came to our organization, I will never forget, she came to one of our No Barriers Board of Directors’ Retreats and she opens the retreat by telling her story and sharing a song.
Now the unique thing about Mandy is that she’s deaf yet she has a pitch-perfect voice. At that point in Mandy’s journey she’s still learning and understanding that she could still sing because she has gone through a sudden hearing loss in college. That left her not just deaf but also deeply depressed and in a huge rut but by following the No Barriers life elements and truly embracing this will to always step outside her comfort zone and always be reaching for that next goal, she was able to not only able to gain confidence but she was able to touch millions and millions of people. In fact, it was on America’s Got Talent when she earned the golden buzzer from Simon Cowell in a video that’s now been seen by a billion people or half a billion people around the world. So, Mandy is a perfect example of someone that truly has inspired by her life story. I’d say at the root of it is a lot of the No Barriers framework and people within No Barriers, including co-founder Eric, who Dave brought up before.
Dave Shurna: And I would say with that story, in particular, it’s a great example of how the principles come to life because when Mandy was in Music School and started losing her hearing, her vision had been to be a lifelong musician and singer and then suddenly she goes completely deaf. She’s lost, she thinks, “Gosh, that whole vision I have for myself just is not possible. I am deaf.” How do you go from having that kind of vision to hitting this huge barrier in your life?
To then going back to that vision and embracing it and becoming a more successful singer than she was when she could hear. Well, that vision was a powerful part of her. It was rooted deep inside of her, and her vision was not just about her own career as a singer. It was about how music might change the world and how she could change the world through her music and inspire others.
Lo and behold, that vision was strong enough to develop a new set of people around her. What we call the ‘rope team’, who could support her challenges that she now has, to come up with lots of pioneering ways to still play music despite the fact that she can’t hear herself. So, her story is a really good example of the power of the life elements to really guide you through the darkest of times.
Miles Rote: Yeah, you guys gave me chills several times during that story. Thank you for sharing that. I think you really touched upon something that is really important and that’s really that we can’t do this alone. Especially in these weird times with people being quarantined and really shut off in the world in a lot of ways maybe can you guys can talk a little bit about the importance of community, building a community, and why we need that to really live our purpose and even find a purpose.
Tom Lillig: Yeah, that is such a great question and something that is really at the heart of our work. On a very personal note, it’s at the heart of friendship that I have with Dave. In the book, we talk mainly about all of these incredibly inspiring people that have helped shaped No Barriers and helped inspire millions of people, but then in chapter five, we do spend a couple of paragraphs just talking about our own friendship and the importance of that.
Dave and I grew up in the same town outside of Chicago and it was a friendship that was forged on the basketball court of our high school team. Through that very innocent game of basketball, we developed a certain trust in one another that led to a friendship that even though we didn’t go to any other schooling together through the years, we stayed in touch and further tested the friendship.
In fact, there was a time when I visited Dave in college. He was working at a zoo and he invited me into the cheetah’s den. I am scared of a house cat, let alone a cheetah and Dave thought that this would be a moment where he could help me push outside my comfort zone and man, I was pushing big time as he had the cheetah kneel down before me and guided my hand into the mouth of the cheetah. You’ll have to read the book in order to know how that story ends, but it is just an example of the sort of trust that we built over time.
On a more serious note, when you developed that trust in another person and you seek out people in your life to give you that sort of level of emotional support or that level of expertise, whatever it is that you need at that point and at that moment in your life, you then are able to lean on those people to help overcome whatever that next barrier is that you are facing.
Sometimes we have this vision for ourselves and we are working toward that vision, so we know the types of rope team members that we need on our team, whether they’d be experts or whether they’d be supporters or whether they’d be emotional supporters. But sometimes life has a different plan. And sometimes adversity chooses us. I think that for me personally, I know that I could not have made it through enduring the death of my mother if I did not have my rope team and Dave and a strong group of friends that were there to provide me emotional support.
I think that when we think about rope team that sometimes it is working towards this vision but sometimes it is also knowing that life is going to give us some blows, some adversity, and that we’re going to need to make sure that we are able to find our way through it. Dave was certainly able to be that person for me and that is why I am glad we were able to spend a little time in the book just talking about our own story.
Miles Rote: I love that. Dave, did you want to say a little bit about that as well?
Dave Shurna: To your question about in these times of COVID where we are more and more isolated, how important a rope team is a big element. A rope team is your ability to be vulnerable with others. I think that in today’s time that sense of isolation and fear that accompanies the unknown, for most people the natural response when they experience fear and isolation and unknown is to retreat more and more into themselves.
It is dangerous to be vulnerable in front of others and so we project this sense that we are okay to others when internally, we may be devastated. We may feel completely lost in today’s time of COVID. We’ve worked with people who feel completely lost after terrible things happened in their lives and one of the most important things that you can do at a time like this if you are feeling that sense of uncertainty and loss and unknown, is to not retreat solely into yourself. The simple act of inviting people into your pain and your suffering will help you get stronger and that is part of what a rope team is. It is acknowledging that this is better done with others than it is to be done alone.
Miles Rote: Yes and I love that you touched on the example of just one person. I think the idea of building a community can feel intimidating to people, but we have to remember that just reaching out to that one person can make such a difference. Towards the end of the book, you guys discussed living and you mentioned it a little bit earlier in the podcast, but living a No Barriers life, can you tell us a little bit about what that means and what that looks like?
Tom Lillig: So you know I like to go back to I think it is an Aristotle quote, which is that “The sum is greater than the individual parts.” When we say living a No Barriers life, it’s putting all of these life elements into practice and putting them into practice in harmony with one another and also with everything that is going on in your life. So, it is taking all of these elements, taking what you have learned from them, internalizing them, and finding a way to bring them to whatever it is that is your struggle or whatever it is that is that vision that you are carrying for yourself.
Dave Shurna: Yeah and I would just add, Tom, that the important thing to recognize is that while there are books written about ‘go find your vision, here are the steps’ or ‘here is the way to get through the adversity in your life right now,’ this book is really meant to be a set of tools that we can use throughout our lives. They are meant to be the guiding principles for how you can approach life if you want to live that purpose you dream of, despite the challenges in your way. So, we don’t see it as this one point in time like ‘this is what I learned to help me through X’ or ‘this is what I use to give me my vision’. The No Barriers life is a way of living that is embracing that light inside of us that knows we can live that purpose we desire despite how hard it can be.
Miles Rote: What does that look like as far as day to day living? So, for example, I personally have done a lot of self-work and there is very much a before and after moment of what your life can feel like–before you apply elements like this and after. Can you guys maybe touch a little bit about what you have seen with the tens of thousands of people you have worked with when they are able to overcome their situation, they are able to apply these things and start to live a No Barriers life? Just to maybe give some motivation, and inspiration for people because I feel like it’s important right now to really share some hope. So, what could life feel like living like that?
Tom Lillig: Well, we have so many examples of this. I’ll just tell one story that is about a participant by the name of Carrie-Anne who was a veteran, who was really a bit lost before she came to our program. She was struggling to figure out, after her career in the military, what her path and direction were. She was not in a good situation in her life and she came through one of our programs. And our programs, a lot of them take place in person. But what they really do is they go through these life elements and they force you in an intense period of time to grapple with these things in practice. For Carrie-Anne, it was actually a program that took place over about six months and included a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. We do, in our No Barriers programs, believe that getting outdoors to spectacular places can help channel that energy that we need in order to create some of this vision for your life.
But what Carrie-Anne came to the conclusion of, and she lived in Texas at the time, but she wrote down her vision as, “I want to live a life of peace and strength in the mountains.” So, here is Carrie-Anne, she lives in the plains of Texas. She is in a really rough situation. It is not a life of peace. She goes through this program and she clarifies that vision. She writes it down on our No Barriers flag, which is just a tool we used to put that down. From the moment she put that ‘live a life of peace and strength in the mountains,’ down on her flag. She shared it with her new rope team.
Her life changed forever. Within months, she had left Texas, she had left the darkness of her life behind and she said she quit her job, she sold her house, and she moved to the mountains, which had been her dream. It was not a safe decision for her. I was talking to her just a few weeks ago as we were exploring the book and the section that we wrote about her. It’s the thing that she says saved her life, that the simple act of doing this changed the path that she was on forever and that now she is leading this fulfilling and peaceful life that she craved.
Miles Rote: Yeah, so much of it really comes to claiming that first vision and that purpose, and then, as you said, it can feel scary, but when you have that rope team and you have that community it is a lot easier to lean on. Well, writing a book I know is no joke at all. So, first of all, congratulations to you both. If readers can take away maybe just one thing from your book, what would it be?
Tom Lillig: Well, I think that for me this book can be daunting to somebody that hasn’t thought about these questions or at least not deliberately thought about these questions. What I want most for people is to embrace this book with an open mind but also embrace it with compassion for oneself. One of the quotes that we use in the book is Lao Tzu, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” and I would love for people to know that hey, while we are tackling some pretty big ultimate questions in this book, what we most want people to do is to start that journey with us and to take that first step with us because often the most challenging, most difficult thing to do is that first step in the direction of a No Barriers life. But we so badly want people to do that, simply because we have seen how much it has helped people and change people’s lives for the better.
Dave Shurna: I would just say for me, the thing I want them to take away is the thing that resonates with the tens of thousands of people who have been through our program probably the most, which is the statement that what’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way–no matter what you are facing right now you always have to remember that what is within you is stronger than what is in your way.
Miles Rote: Tom and Dave this has been so much fun. I am so excited for this book and for people to read this book, for all that you’ve done, all that you are doing. Everyone, the book is called What’s Within You: Your Roadmap to Living Life with No Barriers. You can check the book out on Amazon and besides finding your book on Amazon, where can people find you?
Tom Lillig: They can go to .
Miles Rote: Thank you so much for everything guys, this has been wonderful and everyone, definitely check out the book just for the seven life elements in itself. It’s worth reading. Thanks again, guys.