Our hosts, Erik and Dave, sat down with J.R. Martinez the night before our No Barriers Summit began in a conference room at Lake Tahoe Squaw Resort to talk about his journey.
Background on J.R.:
J.R. Martinez is an actor, best-selling author, motivational speaker, advocate, and wounded U.S. Army veteran. He hails from a small town in Georgia, where he grew up as the son of a single working mother who emigrated from El Salvador.
After high school, he joined the army and in 2003 was deployed to Iraq. One day his humvee hit a roadside bomb, ejecting the three other soldiers and trapping J.R. inside. He suffered smoke inhalation and severe burns to 34 percent of his body. He spent 34 months in recovery and had 34 different surgeries, including skin grafts and cosmetic surgery in the eleven years since his injury. During his recovery, he discovered the power of sharing his experience and listening to others. He now travels the world spreading his message of resilience and optimism.
He has spoken to troops at various bases around the world, universities, non-profits, and Fortune 500 companies.He’s starred and co-starred on a number of shows including daytime drama All My Children and in 2013, on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars he and partner, Smirnoff, were named season champions.
Martinez is also the author of the New York Times best-selling book, Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength, and Spirit, a memoir about how he was able to take his own personal tragedy, and turn it into an inspiration for others.
To book J.R. or to learn more go to his website. Follow J.R. on social media at @iamjrmartinez
Make sure to check out his latest book. To stay up to date with No Barriers and get updates on our 2020 Summit in San Francisco go here.
Erik: It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no-barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. Part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. In that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in and the summit exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call no barriers.
Dave: Today we meet JR Martinez, an actor, bestselling author, motivational speaker, advocate, and wounded US Army veteran. You may know JR from his performances on ABC's Dancing with the Stars, where he and his partner, Smirnoff, were named season champions. He starred and co-starred on a number of shows including daytime drama All My Children. He's spoken to troops at various bases around the world, universities, nonprofits, and Fortune 500 companies. Martinez is also the author of the New York Times Bestselling book Full of My Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength, and Spirit.
Dave: We are here in Lake Tahoe at our No Barriers Summit, which happens every year at a different location, and we are thrilled to have JR Martinez with us, longtime member of our No Barriers community. It's going to be a great conversation. Erik, you want to kick us off and get us started? You'll be speaking here at the No Barriers Summit and JR is going to be a part of our experience as well.
Erik: We have Whitney tomorrow teaching dance classes, right? Is that tomorrow or the next day?
Dave: That is.
Erik: No, that's on Friday.
Dave: Whitney [Waysor 00:02:43] will be teaching dance classes Friday and Saturday.
Erik: I'm going to jump in on that class. I've been called out so you have to come with [crosstalk 00:02:51].
Dave: The video we have of Erik dancing is pretty funny.
JR: I want to be there to see this. I'm going to judge you. I'm going to critique. I'm going to be like Bruno on Dancing with the Stars with his [crosstalk 00:03:00] colorful commentary.
Erik: Oh no. Oh, it's awful. Dancing, for me, is so incredibly awkward because I can't see what other people are doing and so I'm just in my own and I'm so crazily self-conscious. But I just have to let go, and then once I let go, I'm happy, until people start commenting later.
JR: I think that's the key. You just have to make yourself believe that what you're doing that feels incredibly awkward is exactly what everyone else is doing, because that's exactly what's happening. Everyone else is incredibly awkward.
JR: I've always been a fan of dance. I've always been a fan of it. I remember I was a senior in high school and I was at one of our dances. They were supposed to shut down the dance at whatever hour it was. Everyone was having such a good time. The principal, she was pretty stern. She kind of marched around and if there was any inappropriate dancing or... "Hey, cut it out." Then I remember she came around and started telling everyone "Okay, we're stop soon," and I went up to her and I grabbed her hands and I started dancing with the principal. It wasn't one those things where she was this incredibly attractive principal. She was like the... what's the movie I watched with my daughter... Matilda and the lady that's the head of the house. She's like that: this tall woman, really strict looking. And I grabbed her hands and I started dancing with her. I started moving her around and... "Come on, can we stick around?" And we were able to stick around another half an hour or so.
JR: I've always been the kid that... create a circle. "Everyone get a circle! And then everyone get in the circle one at a time." Then you'll get the one or two people that actually know what they're doing and have prepared for this moment their whole life and all of a sudden they're like, "Oh, look what they're doing! Look what they're doing!" But then you'll have the person that this is Erik that is incredibly awkward, has no idea what they're doing, and we're like, "Yes! He's letting go! She's letting go! They're afraid of the judgment," and to create this energy where you're encouraging this person. So instead of a person that's doing that hearing silence or like, "What are they doing?" Instead they hear "Yes! Yes! Go!" If you know their name, say their name, say their name, say their name.
JR: I think that's such an empowering thing. For me, having the opportunity to go on a dance competition, Dancing with the Stars, it was just organic for me. It was just like, well, I'm just going to dance with a lot of my friends here. They weren't my friends: there were a lot of strangers, the audience, that was brought in, but to me that night they were friends. So I just let go and just had fun. That's the beauty of it.
JR: If you put me on a dance floor right now... This is seven years post the fact that I was on the show... I would just go back to the running man, go back to the sprinkler. I would go back to the shopping cart. I would go back to all of those very basic moves that we [crosstalk 00:06:15].
Dave: Tried and true. Tried and true.
Erik: Is there really something called the lawn mower?
JR: Oh yeah, the lawn mower. Yeah.
Erik: I remember this.
JR: See, that's what you could pull out. Just go to that.
Erik: I'm going to do some of this, because that I can relate to.
JR: Just do that, man. Everybody can relate to that.
Erik: Walk the dog. I can start just making stuff out.
Dave: You do some that are themed to be being blind.
Erik: The cane tap. I'm doing motions right now for every one, by the way. All right.
JR: The cane tap, I love that.
Erik: Yeah, right? I'm going to make all this stuff up.
JR: But hold on: can I do that?
Erik: Oh yeah, you can do that.
JR: Because then other people would say, "Why are you doing the cane tap, JR? You're not allowed to..."
Erik: You can close your eyes when you...
JR: I just close my eyes, okay.
JR: All right.
Erik: It sounds like you didn't let the pressure get to you, you just were having fun and didn't take it super seriously, and that probably seemed like a big advantage, right?
JR: It was an incredible advantage.
JR: I always believe now, post the fact a lot of the major trauma that I've been through in my life... The biggest trauma that I went through in my life was in 2003. Here we are 16 years later. But 16 years after the fact I'm able to say this because I'm in a different place. I'm in a great place in my life. I really believe that there's all these incidences that take place throughout the course of our life that ultimately... I like to use the metaphor, the analogy, of they're like punches to the stomach, right? All they're doing is essentially strengthening your core. So when that big moment comes, that big incident... which for me was my injury in Iraq... and just hits you so hard it knocks you down, well luckily you've taken enough punches to the core where you have the core strength to sit up and then to get up and proceed and move forward.
JR: I believe that there were a lot of incidents that took place in my life that prepared me for the grandest stage that I've been on, which is Dancing with the Stars. One, when you survive almost losing your life... when you are a narrow survivor and you've made it on the other side of that, everything else seems easy. But two, I was, to some degree, thrust into the acting space. I got this audition to become an actor on a soap opera called All My Children. They were launching a storyline about a veteran. They thought, "What are the odds of us finding a real life veteran that has some acting experience?"
JR: So they sent out this huge casting call and I got the email and I thought, well, why not? Suddenly, when they told me I got the job, I had to move to New York City immediately. I had all of these scripts stacked in my hotel room because I didn't have a place to live yet. Literally, it was just like episode after episode after episode and you had to remember all of this dialogue. I got into my own head, you know? So many times I got into my own head where I'm like, "I don't belong here. I'm not as qualified as the rest of the actors that are on this show that are trained to be in this space."
JR: And I survived. I made it through and I was able to mentally get myself into this space of saying, "You know what? If I'm only going to be here for three months, it's going to be the best three months ever." That was my approach. Because of that mentality, because I was willing to listen, because I was willing to be vulnerable and say, "Hey, I don't know what I'm doing. Help me," and I watched a lot of the other actors on set, I was able to turn what was supposed to be a three month stint into a three year opportunity.
JR: Suddenly, I get thrown onto Dancing with the Stars. There's really no pressure, Erik, because when they made the cast announcements they were talking about, for example, Metta World Peace the basketball player... he was a Laker at the time. Everybody knows who he is, right? People are cheering for him. David Arquette: everybody knows who David is. Cheers. Ricky Lake. Nancy Grace. Everybody is cheering for the rest of the cast members. Rob Kardashian. JR Martinez... and it was almost like dead silence. Nobody knew who I was, because although I was on a soap opera for three years, not that many people watch soaps anymore, and certain ones too. Not many people knew who I was.
JR: There was a thing... it's not a thing anymore... in Vegas you could actually bet on who you believed was going to win the competition.
Erik: It's crazy what you can bet on.
JR: I didn't know! Because I would've bet everything... I would've made more money from the bet than from what I did on the show.
Erik: Like, who's going to get knocked off first and...?
JR: Yeah. And the odds were against me. No one thought that I was going to make it past week three. Nobody thought that. For me, I've always been in this position where I've been an underdog and, to some degree, people boxing me into something because... as you're aware, Erik, because I'm sure to some degree in your life you've dealt with this and probably still deal with this. I'm sure David and you guys have seen this with other participants in No Barriers. There's a label that's placed on individuals by outsiders that don't understand. It's almost equivalent to like when you're moving into a house and you're like, "Honey, what do we do this?" "I don't really understand this. I don't really know what to do with this." So we just put it in a box, label it, and push it off into the corner of the house and maybe one day we'll open it and figure out there's actually some hidden jewels in this, some diamonds and beautiful things, that we can actually utilize in our home that would make our home even more of a comforting place.
JR: For me, I've always had these labels placed on me ever since I was injured, that-
Erik: That's a human thing. You want to stick people in categories and boxes just so everything is neat and tidy.
JR: And because it doesn't require much energy and effort from us. I may not understand Erik's world, but instead of trying to spend the time and energy to ask you and be curious and listen to what you have to say, it's easier for me to label it and move on with my life and go do something else. That's where I believe people miss so many incredible opportunities to learn from other people's experiences: that ability to sit down and truly listen. There's a difference between listening and hearing. Hearing is what you do with wife or your husband and you're like, "I hear you, gosh, I hear you." "Yeah, but you're not listening to me!" Those are two very different things.
JR: I believe that I have been shaped into the person that people are listening to right now because of the amount of listening that I have done over the course of 16. Just picking something from Erik, from Dave, from all the No Barriers ambassadors and participants and everyone else that I've come in contact with, they, to some degree, have left something with me because I've been receptive and open to receiving whatever it was.
Erik: Yeah. You've met some crazy cool people along the way, too.
JR: I have, and a lot more crazy than cool. And people would classify me as the crazy or the cool, and I have.
JR: Dave mentioned that we're here at the summit in Lake Tahoe and I'm excited to get out and meet more people, people that this is maybe their fifth time at the summit or maybe their first time at the summit. I'm anxious to meet those individuals to see where they are from where they were a few years ago and to meet those new people that are first timers: "What are you expecting to get out of this?" I think the biggest thing is that I'm curious to see how many are going to be vulnerable in this space, because this is the space to be vulnerable and be open and receptive to something completely unexpected that is going to change your perspective, that is going to influence you, that is going to inspire you, that is going to give some sort of challenge and a call to action to say, "I have to do something."
JR: I can't tell you how many times, even to this day, people expect to be this... and I am. I'm a positive guy, but I'm still a human being. I've had people in the past... not recently... who would say to me, "Say something positive for me right now." What does that? I mean, look around. Literally, look around. Look at that child that is incredibly innocent play. Look how that child fell and got back up. Look how that child ran to their parent. Look at the birds. Look at nature. Look at the mountains. Just look around.
JR: I have my moments where I'm in my own head. I repeat that vicious cycle that I think all of us take part in from time to time.
Erik: That's refreshing for people. You project as a really confident, studly dude and...
JR: Thank you. Is this the awkward part where you start complimenting me?
Erik: Yeah, exactly.
JR: Because I'm cool with it, but just cut the interview off and just go down that road.
Erik: But you do that self head talk. It sounds like you were saying when you got the soap opera: "Do I fit in?" Everyone does that probably, right?
JR: Everyone does, and if you say you don't then you're not being honest with yourself, which is... the first and important person you have to be honest with is yourself. And there's so many facets of my life. Obviously we could talk about my injury in Iraq, but just from a family, a personal, dynamic, there's so many interesting elements to my life: that I've had to break cycles and I've had to, first and foremost, understand what those cycles are and where I fit into those cycles and understand do I want to be a part of that cycle? And if I did not want to be a part of that cycle, how do I break it, and who's going to help me break it?
JR: I think that's what's beautiful about No Barriers. Peoples' willingness to come here, their willingness to be vulnerable, their willingness to take a deep look at themselves and say, "Okay, what cycles am I part of? That I've given so much power this one thing or multiple things that have controlled me and, to some degree, has labeled me, yet now I want to meet other people that are going to be a part of my [inaudible 00:16:52] my support team forever and helped me climb that mountain of life and obstacles, that are going to help get through it."
JR: It's incredibly important to be vulnerable to be vulnerable and to be open and honest with everybody regarding the day-to-day challenges. As I mentioned, a couple of months ago I had a speaking engagement in Atlanta and I was flying back home to Austin. I just remember on the plane I started thinking about some stuff... the mind, man... and my life and I just got a little bummed. I got to the airport in this attitude and this great energy and then something was the trigger. I went to that place, and I've never been shy about going to whatever that place is, because I believe that's where the true fruits and the juices are. When you're willing to immerse yourself into that wine barrel, you get some good stuff that you want to have glasses of.
JR: Here am I sitting on the plane in this funk. I get off the plane. I go out to my car and I go out to the cashier. Pull up to exit the airport to pay and the lady, as I give her my ticket... she was probably in her late 70s, early 80s. Asian woman. She sees my hand... and for those listening, my hands are burned... and she says, "Can I ask you what happened to you?" Now, right there I could've shut it down and said no, or I could've said, "I prefer not to talk about it." In whatever way I could've shut it down. But I said, "No, that's fine. This is what happened to me." And she said, "Can I touch your scar?" Second opportunity: shut it down. Instead, I've learned to receptive and open to wherever this is going.
Erik: Let it roll.
JR: Yeah. I said all right. She touched it and she was like, "Wow, that's incredible." We talked about the recovery process and my injury. Then she said, "I want to share something with you." I've tried to find information to piece it together, because she had a bit of accent so it was really hard to understand everything that she was saying. But she said, "[Imetoba 00:19:16]. It's a Buddhist term. Imetoba essentially means infinite light: that you provide light for others, that you..." And she goes on and on about this in depth description of what this... And yet there's cars behind me that are probably like, "What's going on, man? God, pay your ticket. Let's get out of here." And having this really intimate moment with this lady.
JR: After she shares that me she says, "Can I say a little prayer for you?" I said sure. Again, I could've shut it no. Sure! She closes her eyes, holds my hand, says a little prayer. Afterwards I just felt this wave, like she had taken all my energy that I had that was negative and this dispersed it somewhere, that I no longer had it inside of me. When that gate was opened and I was able to pull out, I just felt great. I put the windows down, I put on some music, and I just started jamming on my way home. I got home to my girls and I said, "Babe! Imetoba!" She was like, "What?" I said, "This is what she said. I got to look it up. I got to ask some friends about what it means."
JR: Again, I was willing to be vulnerable and willing to open myself up to a source that, honestly, I haven't even come in contact with since that day, and I fly all the time.
Erik: To let that light connect.
JR: Yeah. She was the igniter to something inside of me to allow me to find that thing that I needed. The point of me sharing that story is that there are countless amounts of triggers that exist in my life every single day. I have a beautiful seven year old daughter, and what happens when you have kids? I'm around her friends. And what happens when you're around her friends who do not understand this: someone who has a facial burn that people will label as a disfigurement. I catch looks all the time from kids. I get the questions. There are the kids that incredibly respectful, and there are the other kids that are like, "What happened to you?" Straight up honest.
JR: Those are triggers. All of us have a scar or a wound that's still open to some degree, and we all have to be honest with ourselves that there will be a trigger. There will always be a trigger that will find its way in, that will surface to the top, and will present itself eye to eye with you. You have to do the work to give yourself the tools and the resources so when that moment presents itself... because it will... you know how to get through it, and it's not going to send you into this relapse where now you're back to where you were when you were a true victim. You've become a survivor, but if you don't have the tools and the resources, that moment will trigger you to go back into where you're a victim again and you have to start over.
Erik: What are some of your triggers still? I know I have some weird triggers. It's hard to even figure it out because you're blind to it at first, sometimes.
JR: Like I said, people looking at me.
Erik: That's a big trigger, right?
JR: That's a big trigger.
Erik: You have to fight that a bit.
JR: I do, but I also have to catch myself, Erik, because not everybody is staring at me for the same reasons that they did eight, nine, 10 years ago. Now people sometimes stare at me because they recognize me and they're like, "Is that him?" I have to remind myself of that. JR: I had a moment one time where I felt, "Okay, I'm the bad guy." I was getting off of a plane. I went to a CVS and I was with my buddy, and I wasn't feeling well. So I went to the CVS to get some medicine. I'm in the aisle and I'm reading what medicine to pick up and this guy comes down the aisle and he's standing in the same aisle further down from me. I can feel it, and I'm sure you have the same instinct, Erik, where you can just the eyes on you. I just kind of look over my shoulder a bit, we made eye contact, and I turned back. I was just like, "Okay, what am I going to get? What are my symptoms?"
JR: Then I went to another aisle and sure enough he came around the corner, just looking at me. I was like, "Does he think I'm going to steal something? What is going on? Is it my scars? What is going on?" I go up to pay. He's about two people behind me. I say to my buddy, "That's it. This guy. Come on." I walked up to him and I said, "Can I help you?"
JR: He was startled, because I was like breaking the fourth wall, and he was like, "Yeah. I'm sorry if you caught me staring at you. You just look like that guy that was on Dancing with the Stars and that guy is my hero and means this to me and he meant that to me..." He goes into this long, deep story that... I immediately just feel like I'm melting, like god, JR. Then I was like, "Well, yeah, I'm that guy."
JR: But that's one of the biggest things.
Erik: That's what we were doing. My wife was sneaking glances over, like, "I think that's JR."
JR: "It might be him!"
Erik: You probably get that all the time: "Yeah, there he is, oh my god. That's so cool."
JR: Yeah. I think part of it is I never prepared to be what people would label as a celebrity. That wasn't something I got into this space to do. I got into the space because I thought it was an exciting opportunity for me personally, but then I started to learn that this is an incredible opportunity for the community that I represent, which is not limited to veterans like I thought early on: "I can only speak to veterans and that's the only person I can connect with." But that's not true. There's a whole community I represent. I started to realize that there's a lot of individuals that me having this opportunity is going to benefit and hopefully make it easier for someone to interact with them.
JR: Thank god that I have had people come up to me and say, "Hey, listen. There's somebody that we didn't know how to interact with and after seeing you on that show we were able to interact with them easily." I've had people come up to me and say, "People now come up to me and say this instead of this, and they say it because they saw you." Erik, you probably don't realize the effect and the impact you have on people's lives because you're too busy living your own life and trying to take care of your family's life to think about "What effect am I having on somebody else?" I think when you have those reminders that come, it's a beautiful moment.
JR: Not everybody in this world is in the incredible position that you or I are in. Not everybody has somebody that comes up to them and says, "Great job. I want to thank you and tell you how that was impactful." There's people every day that go to 9:00 to 5:00 and never hear a thank you, never get a pat on the back, never get any sort of acknowledgement professionally and personally. For you and I to be in that position... More importantly, I don't do it for that. But if there was something I do it, that's why I do it. I don't do it for the notoriety; I do it because I want to feel like I'm helping people realize something in their first chance at life from my second chance at life.
Erik: You have this incredibly authentic story and it becomes a strength in your life because you're, quote unquote, imperfect, right? And that becomes the thing that people look at you and they respect. That's a crazy thing.
JR: Yeah. It is. What I've been trying to figure out over the last few years is... The story now, to some degree, precedes me, right? To some degree, how are we able to take the conversation where it's about fatherhood or being a husband or sports or... But I understand the power that comes with the story. I understand the importance of sharing the story.
JR: Someone asked me recently, "You're able to talk about what happened to you so nonchalant. It doesn't bother you? Do you ever have..." obviously, the three letters that are always going to surface when there's a veteran in the room... "PTS? Post-traumatic stress? Do you ever deal with that when you talk about it?" I said, "I don't, because I've talked about it so much that I can talk about the day I was injured in great detail, no different than I got a pepperoni pizza at the deli earlier and it was delicious and I probably way too much of it." It's just in passing. That's kind of how it is.
Erik: When I talk about going blind in front of groups sometimes I still get a little... I feel a little energy, you know what I mean? There's these moments in your life that the energy never quite goes away.
JR: Yeah. I don't know about you, but I know that I've recently had these moments where I've thought to myself... I forget what I've been through, to some degree. Not that I purposefully have tried to bury it and lock it away in a safe and forget the code, just more so that I'm too busy living and trying to survive and trying to build that I'm not thinking about what I have overcome. When I have those moments, when I do talk about it, when I have those moments where I am reminded, I then suddenly become pumped and I'm like wow.
JR: I think the statement that we've all heard people say, "Always look forward, never look back..." I disagree with that. I think it is important to look back. I think it is important to be reminded of how far you've come, what you have overcome, where you're coming from. I think it is important to look back, but I think sometimes, for me, I'm not really looking back as much. I'm just too focused on where I'm going and trying to accomplish.
Erik: Especially because you have a family now, right? That keeps you busy as a dad. How did you meet your wife? After your injury was it harder to meet people, to meet women?
JR: Absolutely. I met her after my injury. We started dating in 2010. At that point, I had never gone to therapy or really dealt with my emotions, per se. Like, my emotional and mental wounds. I had talked about it a bit with my best friend Dan and he kind of helped me navigate through a lot of that stuff. But I never really sat down and immersed myself and sat in it. Then, when her and I started dating I got on Dancing... her younger sister unexpectedly passed away... then our daughter was born. And I was gone. I was always gone. I was always on the road. I was writing the book. If you looked at my life, everything was amazing. If you looked at her life, everything was not, because here she was trying to nurture and take care of our daughter, yet still mourning the loss of her younger sister who she was incredibly close to. We were both in LA and my wife is originally from New York, so all of her family and friends were in New York and she was in LA by herself.
JR: There was tremendous challenges. Both of us needed something completely different from one another. What it did is it stressed our relationship to the point where we ended the relationship. That in itself was challenging because it became very public. That was not something that we both prepared for it. It became very public that, "Oh, they split up." But then, what I had to do was look at myself and figure out what role did I play in this? Because I know I had some role in this.
JR: I went and found a counselor and I sat down and I just did an intensive bootcamp with this counselor, this lovely lady. I said to her, "How often can I come to you?" She was like, "Once a week?" I was like, "I have six weeks and I'm free. Can I come to you twice a week or three times a week if schedule permits?" She's like, "If you're open to do the work. I don't know what we're going to get into, but it can be pretty heavy and draining on you. If you're okay..." I said, "No, I'm good."
JR: I did it. Literally, those six, seven weeks gave me so much insight into... When you talk about barriers... obviously we're talking about no barriers... what that taught me was in certain elements, in certain environments, it's important to have barriers. I think so many of us think that it's like, "No, this is the way it is." I had to learn, in certain environments and circles, in certain cycles that I was a part of with my family and my parents, a lot of underlying issues that stem from my childhood, from my injury... There were certain things that I needed to create barriers. I needed to understand what I needed to say no to. I needed to understand how I needed to prioritize better. I needed to understand all these different elements to ultimately be a good partner and to be a great father.
Erik: Is that like having more empathy? Because I'm trying to put myself in that situation. You're getting a lot of attention at that point, right? Do you kind of forget about all the things that she's struggling with?
JR: You're absolutely right. Look what I'm struggling with. It's hard to be on the road. It's hard to have to do this every single night. I had to learn that a big part of it was not necessarily always knowing, it was more of just your willingness to listen: listen to listen, not listen to respond. I think a lot of what I did prior to us fixing our relationship and getting back together to now we're married and it's a beautiful picture. It's the picture that I think all of us strive for, but in order to get to that place I think I had to learn, as well, that I don't always have to have the answers. I'm always the guy that's like here's the solution. Fix it, fix it, fix it. Tell me the problem: okay, let's stop talking about the problem because I know what it is. Here's a solution. Let's move forward.
JR: I had to learn, wait a minute, I'm not here to always find the solution, create the solution. I'm here to listen to you vent and listen to you process and find the solution for yourself. When that moment presents itself, I'm here and you will tell me, you will verbalize, "This is where I need you, JR," and I'm ready. That was such an incredible component of our relationship that has allowed us to grow and I think is going to allow us to continue to grow from this point on.
Erik: It's like an awareness thing, isn't it?
JR: It is. It is an awareness, yeah.
Dave: The last time I spoke to you on the phone you were heading to Disney Land with your family. One of the things that I'm curious for your perspective on is... Everything you were talking about here, whether in your personal relationship or your own journey... You talked about this idea of being able to handle the gut punches that come so you're ready for the big guy punch. As a father now and seeing your kids interact with all the other kids that they interact with, how do you think you prepare kids for that? There's a lot of talk today about the rates of depression and suicide and kids and the anxiety in kids and how do you prepare kids to embrace the adversity that they might face, to take the gut punches? What do you think about that in your own life and the things that you've seen?
JR: Doing what I'm doing today, and that's bringing my daughter to the summit. I like to believe that exposing her to all of these different communities and cultures and differences, that when she gets older and she finds herself in an environment that she feels like, "Maybe this is not the best environment," she doesn't have to settle for that. She has the wherewithal and the knowledge to understand that there are all of these worlds and communities that she can be a part of, and it doesn't have to look like her. It doesn't have to be the community that she grew up in. She will know to look outside of that comfort zone and to seek outside outside of that comfort zone and look outside of that box. Then she'll find that community that is right for her.
JR: I've spoken to a lot of parents, because parents have asked me, "What should we do with our children, because we feel like our children are failed to some degree?" I'm just like, "Get them out. Help them find that purpose in their life. Get them involved in service, some sort of service, whether it's volunteering at the Special Olympics or volunteering at if there are No Barriers, volunteering at school, volunteering at the soup kitchen. Just get involved."
JR: I think for me, that is something that I know my wife and I are incredibly passionate about, is exposing our seven year old daughter to the world.
Erik: Yeah, she's going to meet people here that are incredible. My kids, when they were little, they'd come to the summit and they'd shake somebody's arm and they'd reach out and they'd have a clamp. You just shake their clamp. Hey, some people have clamps, some people have hands.
JR: I always think about two-fold. I think no parent every wants to think about it this way, but in the back of my mind... not that I live in fear and expect the worst... but I always know that that's a turn-away. I get it. I know what happened to me and I know how quickly it happened to me, so I know that none of us are safe, unfortunately. But I think about that in two ways: I think about as she gets older if she comes into contact with somebody that has a clamp, she'll shake that like it's a hand and give it the nice, firm handshake that we're teaching her to give it and make eye contact and speak firmly and have a good conversation.
Erik: And if something were to ever happen to her, she'll have that gut punch, maybe.
JR: Exactly. God forbid.
Erik: Because things happen to people.
JR: Exactly. She'll be able to say, "I remember going to a summit in Lake Tahoe, California, and I met this girl or this guy that had X, Y, and Z, and I remember hearing he or she did this and they were going to go do this. Huh." Maybe that recovery is faster because of that exposure.
Erik: You talked about giving your kids more than you had and that strength and so forth. I was fascinated, reading your book, by your mom. Your mom is incredible. She's an immigrant from El Salvador, right?
JR: That's correct.
Erik: She's like four foot 11?
JR: Yeah. She's four foot 10. She claimed four foot 11 and then a few years ago she tried to say she was five feet. I was like, you're not five feet tall. It just so happened that where we were there was that scale where it's like the weight and height measurements. I said, "Let's just settle this. Perfect." She stepped on it and she was four foot 10. I said, "See, you should've just ran with the four foot 11. You had this your whole life."
Erik: It seems like so much of your strength comes from your mom.
JR: It does. It does. But a lot of the good and a lot of the bad. I'll explain, I'll clarify. My mother has faced tremendous adversity in her life. She was abused. She was given away by her mother. She was neglected. Her father, she witnessed him being murdered. She witnessed that. She had my two sisters and their fathers bailed on her. She came to this country...
Erik: Did she swim across the...? And like the coyotes they got her across and all that kind of... Crazy story.
JR: It's insane, and you're absolutely right. She gets here only to find out a couple years later that one of my sisters passed away from an illness that she was born with. My mother was never allowed to... because at that point I was born. She never went back to El Salvador to see her daughter, to bury her daughter.
Erik: And that was your sister who was born without bones or something and feet, right?
JR: Yes, exactly. Again, my father bails, and just this horrible luck. Of course at that time, she was just trying to survive and get through and she's not understanding what is her role in all of this? What are her choices that she's making that is ultimately, unfortunately, finding these men, because in the midst of her trying to find a solid relationship for herself but a solid male father figure for me, fell into some really bad relationships, to the point that it was physical and she was abused. I remember being five, six years old and her walking me through the routine that, "When he decides to drink, this what you do." And I would grab the phone and dial those three numbers and hide in the closet until they arrived. And that's unfortunately too common of a story.
JR: I get my strength in the fact that she always smiled. She always found a way to put a smile on her face. This little frame would just get beat up in life and always pull herself back up and find a way to work and provide for me and my other sister.
Erik: She was like cleaning houses and taking care of kids and cleaning toilets.
JR: Yeah, in hotels and houses and baby sitting. Then she worked in restaurants. She was doing everything she could. That's the fighter that I witnessed, that I inherited. That's who she is: a fighter. She is an optimistic person, this bigger than four foot 11 frame, this laughter that she has that will fill a whole ballroom. I got that from her: this incredibly optimistic way of looking at life and approaching life. I got that from her.
JR: Also, what I did get from her is that my mother never dealt with it. My mother just kind of: "No. Everything is fine. Everything is fine." Always trying to push it to the wayside and never deal with it, never address it. That was something that I know that I got from her that I did for a very long time. I know for a long time I didn't listen well, to go back on that. In doing that work and figuring out who I am as a person, who I want to be, and who I want to become, I would recall a lot of conversations with my mother. The one thing I said is, "I don't want to not deal with the things that happen to me."
JR: I understand that we have two very different lives. I have the fortune and the opportunity to be in this country that it's encouraged. Now, I feel like we're getting into that space: "Go and talk to somebody. Go figure this out." She didn't have that luxury, so I understand that we're in two different places. However, I see my mother now... she's not the person that... I wish I could report to everyone listening that she is this individual that has this incredible laughter, and she's not. My injury was ultimate trigger to everything that had happened in her life.
JR: My mother tried to... because of fear, because all of the loses that she had experienced in her life... control every element of her life, to keep it there, because she was afraid of being abandoned and losing again. In the midst of me, when I suddenly decide I'm going to join the military and after my injury I'm going to go live here and I'm going to do this and I'm going to do that, and almost, to some degree, my mother felt like she didn't have me. I kind of left her too, even though it wasn't on purpose. It was just me as a young boy trying to find myself and I had to find myself everywhere.
JR: That something for me, that I take notice of, and...
Erik: She felt abandoned.
JR: She felt abandoned. And it makes sense. That was the beautiful thing about me going into therapy, was literally being able to have compassion and being to look at it from your perspective. I understand what's happened in Erik's life and I understand why he may have this opinion. I understand why Erik may act this way or why Erik may say certain things because of his history. Because I'm willing and curious enough to learn about your history, I'm able to have this interaction with you on a different level now, versus before I would be like, "God, that Erik guy. I can't talk to him. I can't deal with him. I got to get away from him." Now, I'm able to have a conversation with you.
JR: My mother taught me to fight. My mother taught me to have have faith. My mother taught me to believe. My mother taught me to be incredibly optimistic. My mother taught me how to be a survivor. And not verbally: literally by the most simplest form of being a leader modeling the way. Her behavior, the way she carried herself every day, taught me. But then she also, on the flip side, taught me these elements that weren't the greatest traits that she carried. But I acknowledge them, and I know that they exist in me as well, but I also know that I have to do something to change that bit of tradition and cycle so that doesn't get passed down to my daughter and to my grandkids and et cetera.
Dave: JR, you've had this incredible journey that started... well, you're starting it way back at the very beginning, but the public part of your journey we know is your injury and then Dancing with the Stars and the shows that you were on. Where...
Erik: All the work you've done with that and with all kinds of people.
Dave: Where are you headed next? Where are headed now? You have so much to teach and share with folks and I'm excited to hear where your journey is taking you right now.
JR: I don't know. I really don't I know there's things that I'm interested in and things that I want to continue to do. I do motivational speaking like Erik. I still want to be in that acting space. The entertainment space is something that's still alive.
JR: Erik, you mentioned something on one of the previous podcasts. You talked about... or maybe it was the opening... You mentioned how we always talk about the successes but we never talk about the failures and we never talked about the challenges. After Dancing and after the book, after speaking all over the world, like everything it just slowed down, immensely. I was like, "What happened? What I have done wrong?" You can take this now to a business model to where I found myself, during Dancing and a few years after, I was just reactive. I wasn't thinking ahead and I wasn't thinking of planning and I wasn't thinking of preparing. I was just reactive. So suddenly, when people stopped being active and there was nothing for me to react to, I panicked. I was like, "What do I got to do differently? Oh my god." I literally panicked because I was just too immersed into it to think that this was ever going to stop.
JR: Then, I decided that this is a great opportunity for me; what am I going to do? What do I want to do? And I wasn't quite sure of that. In order to help figure that out, I decided a couple of years ago I was going to go to college. Not that I necessarily need it for my field of work, but I wanted to pair the textbook knowledge with my life experience and see what I came up with. I'm still in that journey, embarking, and obviously as an adult, as a parent with a job, it's a bit slower, but I'm still on that journey. I've learned so much in that space and I've learned it from 18, 19, 20 year olds when a lot of people are looking at, "Oh, those millennials." I'm like, there's actually incredible insightful, intelligent, aware millennials that are out there and I'm learning from them, as I think we all should to some degree.
Erik: Do you do online classes, by the way?
JR: No, I don't. [crosstalk 00:49:42] do that.
JR: No, I do. I did both online and in campus, in class, on campus. I literally did both and I found myself going between 12 to 15 credits a semester, sometimes throwing in a summer course, an intensive, in there. And I was really immersed in it and things picked up. But then of course things have slowed down, but it's okay, because you know what this has done? Now this has forced me to look at, from a business model, what am I doing? What am I not doing? What should I be doing and who should be partnering and doing it with to help me figure it out, because I don't have all the answers?
JR: Many people, as outsiders looking in, would say, "Oh my god, what are going to do JR?" and panic, and I'm just like, "I'm good." This is actually an incredible time and incredible moment for me to figure out and figure out what space I want to go to. The speaking thing is always going to be there. The entertainment element of things, that's still... believe it or not, there are barriers that exist there, and people still look at me and say, "Because of your scars we have to talk about it." The majority of the writing would be focused on that. I was like okay, so we're as innovative as we thought we would've been in that space if you're telling me this, and I've been told this on countless occasions.
JR: I don't know Dave, and I'm okay with that. I'm okay with being in a space right now where I'm at the fork and there's a right and a left; I might go down right a bit and figure out no, that's not it. I just know that whatever road I go down at this juncture in my life, I have the team, which is my wife and my daughter and my best friends and my family, to help me get through that path, and I have enough exposure and life experience that'll give me the knowledge to be able to adapt and ultimately conquer whatever it is I'm setting out to conquer.
Erik: So when you fall into that, quote unquote, rut, you have the tools, you have the foundation now to think, "Okay, I'm going to back up and try to figure out where I go and how I reinvent myself."
JR: Yeah. Now it's not that 20 year old approach where it's like pedal to the floor and it's like, go! Now it's this really slow 25 mile per hour methodical approach and just really like, "Okay, instead of sitting in standstill traffic or trying to rush through that red light and end up getting a ticket in the mail and maybe hurting myself or someone else, I'll just take a left right here. Or maybe there's a right." And then suddenly I end up on a shortcut that cuts off three minutes off of the ways and I get there safe and sound and maybe I've taken this detour that has introduced me to something brand new.
Dave: And where can our listeners go if they want to book you for a speaking engagement.
JR: Well thank you. My website, jrmartinez.com. There's a lot of junk up there. It rambles on about all the incredible things that I have done. But also on social media I am JR Martinez, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, I am JR Martinez. I find that I tend to be more active on Instagram. I guess that's kind of the new platform now to be active.
JR: But thank you guys so much for having me on. This is really cool. I'm an incredible fan of all the work you've done, Erik, and how you've inspired so many people. You don't even realize it. Dave as well, you as executive director and how you're kind of pushing this thing forward and getting the message, getting all the ambassadors and participants, out to the world, and getting people to understand who's in that box and how we can remove that label and how this No Barrier mindset applies to everybody in the world.
Dave: Thank you JR.
Erik: Thanks for being a part of it.
JR: Thank you guys. It was a pleasure.
Erik: Thank you so much.
JR: I enjoyed listening.
Erik: And you got more rhythm than I do.
JR: How would you know?
Erik: Well, my wife has [crosstalk 00:53:52].
JR: She's lying to you.
Dave: She has called that out specifically.
Erik: She gives me the play-by-play.
JR: She's lying to you, Erik. Don't believe her. It's the running man that I'm doing out there.
Erik: I'm going to do the lawn mower tomorrow.
JR: You got to work on that. But you got stretch though, because that can get pretty aggressive and then suddenly you pull a muscle in your shoulder, in your lap. You got to make sure you stretch, okay?
Erik: All right.
Dave: Thanks again JR for being us. Erik, as you reflect on that conversation, what stands out for you?
Erik: I think one of the interesting things is that when something happens to you, it's just like a second of your life that this thing happens. Then you have to figure out how to move forward, as JR did, and kind of roll with that, but also at the same time not allow it to define your whole life. I think what's really cool that JR teaches our community and everyone out there is that you can be a very expansive person. You don't have to be one-dimensional. You can really expand your life and become aware and do therapy and really become a multidimensional person.
Erik: That's inspiring to me.
Dave: For me, the enduring image from the conversation was the story JR told about the woman who asked if she could touch his scars. What that symbolizes for me, that I hope I can teach my kids, in that moment there was the bravery of the woman to reach out and ask and be curious and that's a bit bold and probably not something that many people would do, and then the ability of JR to say, "This is a moment that I want to embrace." If I could teach my kids to be brave enough to go out and ask those people who are different than you, people you don't know, to be brave enough to go up and ask to learn and to engage in meaningful conversation and to not make assumptions going into those conversations, but go into them listening and learning.
Dave: What a great thing to teach my kids and to teach other people.
Erik: Those are things that you always remember. Those are the connection points when you take the time to be open like that.
Dave: Yeah. When I go put my daughter to bed tonight, I'm going to talk to her about what conversations did you have while I was away and were you nervous about any of them? Did you meet anyone new? What are you going to do tomorrow? The summit is a great ground to do that because everyone is so warm and welcoming and it's such a special place to have that opportunity. It's a safe place to do it.
Dave: Thank you everybody for listening, as always. We encourage you to share this podcast with your friends, family. Please like the podcast. If you'd like to learn more about No Barriers: nobarriersusa.org. Thank you.
Erik: Thanks. No barriers.
Dave: Thanks to all of you for listening to our podcast. We know that you have a lot of choices about how you can spend your time, so we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcast.com.
Dave: Special thanks to Dan Ryan Band for our intro song, which is called Guidance. The production team behind this podcast include producers [Didrick Johnck 00:57:25] and Pauline [Chafer 00:57:26]. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cotman. Graphics by Sam Davis and marketing support by Laura Baldwin and Jamie Donnelley. Thanks to all of you amazing people for the great work you do