Challenges are a very real part of daily life. Some challenges are very apparent, like having one finger on each hand. Other challenges are less apparent, but no less of a hurdle that must be jumped. As someone who was born different and has been challenged through life, I have a very interesting view on hitting challenges head on. I also like to laugh as I deal with these challenges. In this session we will joke our way through having an attitude of iteration in how we deal with challenges in our personal lives AND in our work lives. Prepare to laugh, commiserate, and face your challenges!


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Eric Johnson: Well, how y’all doing? All right, good. I said “y’all.” I spent some time in Texas. There it is. My wife is Texan. My name is Eric Johnson. I am a Principal Developer Advocate for Serverless. And yes, you’re right. Most times when I’m on stage, I’m talking about step functions. I’m talking about lambda functions. I’m talking about, you know, I could go through the list. But today, we’re not going to do that. Today’s gonna be a little bit different. In fact, for the next 30 minutes, I don’t work for AWS. I’m just me. After the 30 minutes, if you have questions, hallway track me. I’ll answer anything. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find the answer. Or I’ll tell you, “I don’t know.” I’m okay with that. But today, we’re going to get into something different, kind of a passion for me, and talk about how do you attack challenges? How do you deal with challenges?

Now, before we jump in, there are a couple rules when I’m speaking – has anybody ever heard me speak before? Okay, good. Brand new room. A couple of you raised your hands. Here’s the rules for if you’ve never heard me speak. But it helps you understand. So rule number one is, this is any number I want it to be. I’m gonna hold this up. And I may say seven, I may say fourteen. And I do that because it never fails. I go into a restaurant, they say how many I say table for seven, please. And I’m by myself at the bar. The second rule is, these are quotes, not apostrophes. And I know that okay, because this looks better than this. Because people are like, “is he doing a bunny?” I’m not doing a bunny. Unless I am. It’s contextual, right? And the last thing is, these are thumbs. Okay?

You gotta learn as you go through life, right? Just so you know, I was born this way. I didn’t wake up this way. I did wake up this way this morning, but not for the first time. All right. So throughout this next 30 minutes, you’re gonna hear, you know, some one finger jokes, you’re gonna hear, you know, all that kind of stuff. I’m very comfortable with that. But if it makes you uncomfortable, I’m also comfortable with that. So in case you were worried, I’m good. So thank you.

All right. I looked down and my clock says I have 12 seconds. So we’re gonna go fast. So all right now I think they’re resetting it. So a couple things I want to tell you now. Let me ask you a question. And raise your hand. Be honest. How many of y’all remember your first date? Okay, okay. Well, that’s kind of scary. Let me change the question for this crowd. I know I’m in a tech room. How many y’all are waiting for your first date? Okay, okay. I’m gonna tell you about my first date. Now, this was in high school, you know, and this is gonna shock you: I was much skinnier in high school. Right? Much skinnier. Scared my kids to death. Oh, I used to be skinny. Oh, my gosh, you know, I have five kids, by the way. Okay, so I have five kids. And we’ll talk about that in a minute. So my first date was in high school. And I was in love with this girl, because obviously, since I was in high school, I knew exactly what love was. And I was in love with her. And so I was gonna call and ask her out, so I called her house. And her mom answered, and I hung up, because you know, it’s hard. So we went through this a couple times. And finally, we talked and I said – and I won’t say her name, in case you ever see her. She doesn’t need to know I’m telling the story. “Is so and so there?” We talked and I said, “I’d like to take you out on a date.” Her parents insisted that I come to the house first. Now, as a dad of five, I think this is fantastic. You want to meet the people your kids are going out with, right? But as a high school student, I was terrified, right?

So our first date was going to be dinner with her family. Her mom and dad were still going to college. So we would go to college with them, use the library when they were in there, and come back. This is great, because I’m the son of a teacher and a music minister. We didn’t have any money. So I’m like, Yeah, you want to feed us. That’s great. So I go over to the house. I show up. We go in. We’re having dinner. We’re having beans and franks. And I remember like it was yesterday. Okay. And so we’re sitting around the table, and I’m drinking all my lemonade, and I asked for more lemonade. Say, “Hey, excuse me. Can I have some more lemonade?” Now? How many y’all remember Tupperware? Okay, all right. So let’s see if you say remembered it’s not dead. It’s still around, but back in the day. Okay. If you remember they had this liquid jug. And every time I tell the story, it gets bigger but it was like this wide. It was this tall, and it was filled to the brim with lemonade, right?

And so they said, you know, they handed it to me now, here’s where I kind of like, “oh, oh, you want me to pour it? Have you seen me? Okay, okay, I’ll pour.” So I take it and I pour that lemonade into my cup. And that lid, that lid didn’t even try. Okay, the lemonade, like a slow motion goes to the back, goes to the front, and the lid, literally, I heard it scream and jump out of the way, and lemonade went all over the table. And I’m like, “Oh my gosh.” It had nothing to do with my hands. I’m just clumsy. Alright, that’s how it works. But if you’re different in any way, you’ll know about this. Now, I got two looks. Okay? The first look I got was from the dad, and it was: you’re not good enough for my daughter. In fact, you’re an idiot. And he was right. Come on. I have daughters. So he’s right. Okay.

But, the second look, is the one you get if you’re different. You see this, and it’s the look that has no words. But I hear in my head: “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. Look at him. That’s so sad.” That’s what the mom was looking at me like. Alright, so there it is. We’ve had our first date. This is our first incident on the date. Everything else should go great, right? So we get in the car, we go to the library, Mom and Dad go to school. We’re in class, we’re in the library itself. They’re in class and they come out and the dad gets out first, and the mom’s still in class. And he says, “I’m gonna take you and get some ice cream.” Now, this is Phoenix, Arizona. There’s a place called Mary Coil’s ice cream. It’s very good ice cream. It’s down by the college. So, we’re gonna go now.

Here’s the story now – something that you need to understand about me. So, pause for a minute. My feet are just like my hands. Okay? No, I don’t have fingers on my feet, but I have one toe on each foot. Okay, now how that affects me is my balance is horrible. If you watch me, I never stand still. It’s because I actually warned the camera person before, I’m gonna walk around a lot. I will fall down if I don’t. I just have bad balance, and that especially affects me if I’m running. I have to slow down before I stop. That’s important to the story.

So, we’re going and she’s got her arm in mine because it was our first date. So we were walking. My strut wasn’t any better than it is now, but we’re strutting. We get to the street and we’ve got to cross to the median. Okay, and there are cars going this way, but none going this way. I just told the story in London a while back and I had to re-explain this to them – the whole thing got kind of confused. Anyway, we had to run to the median and stop before cars came. So her arm is still in mine, and we run to the median. And I had no room to slow down. So all I could do was stop. And this is where I learned the transfer of energy. You feel it? You hear? I threw her in front of an oncoming car.

And I literally stand to go look and help her get up. We didn’t get the ice cream. We went back to the car. The mom comes out. The dad’s explaining. I sat behind the dad so he couldn’t reach me. And the dad explained to the mom and the mom literally looked at me: “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.” She didn’t say the words, but I can hear. So finally, I figured, okay, it cannot get worse. Right? It cannot get worse. This is, you know, this is as bad as it gets. So we go home and we get back to the house and my truck is sitting out in front of the house. The house is on a little service road on a major street. Now, back at this time, this was in 1986. My dad had a 1976 Ford F-250. It was Mountain Dew green. Okay, yes, shocking that I was single, right? And this is what I drove. And this was his midlife crisis truck. He could almost pull the front tires off the ground. It had a 390 in it. I have no idea what that means. But it sounds big, right? So it was big, loud.

Let me let me say what happened. This makes sense. We get in the car. And I’m leaving, the whole family’s out front. She’s standing there. It’s mom, dad, brother, sister. They’re all standing in the front yard watching me leave. I get in the truck. I start my turn, and I realize that it’s dark and I don’t have my lights on. I’ve got to turn on to the major road like this. And like, you don’t have your lights on. So I crank the wheel. I’ve got the wheel cranked all the way this way with my left hand. And I turn like that, you know? How cool does that look? Right? Yeah, so I’ve got it cranked all this way now. In a 1976 Ford F-250, the light switch is a big knob on the left side of the steering wheel and you have to pull it out. So I’ve got the wheel cranked all the way this way. I’m already holding it. So what could I do? I reach for the light bulb light switch like this. Now, if you notice that finger, that’s a big ol’ fat thing. I got under there and I pulled it. My finger got stuck. And in pure fear, I punched it all the way, and that truck went out around onto the main street over the medium through their yard. And back out on the street.

I drove the whole way home like this. In tears, I get home. I’m like, Oh my gosh, oh, my gosh, I go and I tell my dad – my dad was a teacher at the school. In fact, he had the girl on his basketball team and in his class. And I told my dad, I said, “First. I threw lemonade on the table. Then, I threw her in front of oncoming traffic. I risked her life. And then, I drove through their yard. My dad was crying because he was laughing so hard. So my mom came and consoled me. My mom was the more sensitive one, right? She came to console me. But it was that night. What’s kind of interesting is that it was that night that I realized I was different. Now, you’re like, really? That’s the first night? No, it wasn’t the first time. And I really kind of understood, man. There’s challenges we deal with. Sometimes we can’t help it, and this is the same for all of us.

Here’s the first thing I would have you go away with this morning. I know you’re taking notes.So write this down.Okay, the first thing I would tell you is: we are all challenged.Now mind, you may look at me go wow, this is not my biggest challenge.This is probably the smallest of my challenges.My challenges are much bigger, and on a list that my wife keeps in her purse.Okay, I have plenty of problems.And I’m sure we’ll talk about that.But this is the most visible challenge that people see.Right ? And yeah, it does cause some issues, it does cause some things.But here’s the other second thing. This is number two, right? I’ll give you that one, I can actually get to four, but I have to take my shoes off and it gets really weird for everybody.Okay, so I’ll do two for you.

So number two is: how you deal with the challenge is the model by which everybody else will deal with that challenge. Now, this doesn’t just apply in personal life, this applies in our business life. You managers out there: how you deal with the challenge, how you look at it, is how your team is going to deal with that challenge, right? You’re the model, right? Oh, hello. You think we can handle this? I’m good. I think we can handle this. Right? So they look at that. It’s important that when we do that, we don’t, you know, we don’t just go, “it can’t be done.”

Now, I told you, I’m talking about my kids. Just to give you a little history. My mom is the first one to be this way. Okay, not in the world, I don’t think, but the first in our family, right? There’s other parents, it’s very rare. It’s, it’s turned the name of it, if you want to know it’s called ectrodactyly. In fact, it’s called monodactyly. It’s part of the ectrodactyly family. And when I saw the doctor, he said, I have severe monodactyly, which means, “really bad one finger.” Okay, there could be worse. Or there could be more. I mean, you don’t get less than this. Right?

So I have monodactyly, right? And that’s okay. But how I deal with that is how you’re going to deal with that. Now, obviously it’s the stories I’m telling, but one thing to understand is that if you spend a little time with me, you quickly forget I’m this way. So my mom and my brother are this way, and four of my five kids are just like me. I’m gonna tell you about them because they’ve seen me kind of model this in their life. They’ve seen how I do it. They’ve seen how, you know, how I approach life. They know I do what I do. They know I’m technical. My original degree was a drummer, believe it or not. And I know some of you like really? Yes, I was a drummer. I played drums I played in college. And here’s what I learned. Just quick side on that. Turns out, I’m a phenomenal drummer, for one finger. Past that I’m pretty average, and nobody’s gonna ask me to play. I used to hire out at churches a lot back in Phoenix. Churches will hire me. It’s always fun to show up. And you can see him going. Oh boy. Because they don’t know. I show up and it’s like, “Hey! Oh my goodness. Bless your heart.” Which is Southern Baptist for “Oh my gosh.” I love that. So, I go in and take one stick, kind of pick up the stick and I go, “okay, let’s rock!” Churches can’t say anything. Just, “bless your heart.” That’s awesome. Really I use wristbands and I can hold them and it’s a whole different story that I’ll tell another time. But nobody’s gonna pay me to do it. I’m fairly average past having one one finger.

But the kids have seen this. The kids have seen this model of “you can do whatever you want to do.” In modeling that, I can show them, but in reality (and here’s kind of a sub point of that) you have to decide on your own to deal with that. I can tell my kid, “You’re alright, that’s perfect. You were made that way, everything’s great.” But they have to adopt that for themselves. And that’s how they become the model of how other people will treat them. And it’s the same thing for y’all. As you’re dealing with challenges. Where is it in your head? Is it defeating? Or is it just something you deal with? Right? A big statement in our house is, “it is what it is.” It’s not what it should be. It’s not what we want it to be. It’s not what it was. It is what it is. And so we deal with what is and we deal with it head on.

My oldest child, who is about five years old. Well, let me explain the background of this. One of the jokes. People ask me about my hands all the time, and depending on the mood I’m in, you know, I can say, “it’s the way I was made”, or whatever, and stuff like that. Or, “they’re at home in a box in a freezer.” And that’s always fun to say, because nobody argues with that. Nobody has gotten that and said, “No, they’re not.” Most people just go, “Oh, ok. You have a good day.” Right? So my son, number one here – I have five kids, I don’t remember their names. So they have One, Two, Three, Four, and Five. So number One, he’s probably about five years old, and we’re driving down the road. It’s just him and number two, they’re sitting there. Number Two, that’s his name. So he doesn’t like it. But sometimes he is number two.

So, we’re driving down the road, and he’s finally clicked: I’m different. And he says, “Dad, where are my fingers?” Folks, it’s muscle memory. You don’t even think about it: “At home in a box in a freezer.” I can’t believe I just said that. I look in the rearview mirror while I’m driving and you see the wheels turning. “Could I have them back?” No, your mom said no. So we pulled over and we had “the talk.” This is life. So, it’s a couple of years later, we’re going to McDonald’s, we’re playing around, you know, and he says he’s playing with this little boy we’re over here eating and they’re playing for like 20 minutes. Everything’s great and all of a sudden this little boy is in the corner crying his heart out. Right just ah, so I want to know what happened. So he asked me where my fingers were. What did you say? I said, they’re at home in a box in the freezer, with my dad’s. Good job, Noah! And then I had to go, you know, and I went over to talk to the dad, and he’s looking like, “that’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.”

But, Noah has decided he’s gonna be alright. Now, it’s not every day. It’s not, you know, I don’t get on my knees and thank God that I’m this way. I’m gonna be real honest. It is a daily choice to say, “it is what it is.” And there are some days where you wish it wasn’t.

My Number Two son – “Number two,” that’s gonna stick with me now – I’ve never thought that out but he’s so my “number two son.” He’s weird. If he were standing right here, he’d tell you, “I’m weird.” He’s about six two and about 220 pounds, so I don’t say it to his face. He could take me any moment. He’s a great kid, he’s great. Currently studying business at ASU. But, I remember the day where we kind of went, “Jake’s gonna be okay.” We were out trick or treating. This is in Colorado so you never know what the weather’s gonna be like. Could be hot. Could be cold. Could be whatever. So we’re out, and when we get to the very last house we’re exhausted. This last house has a sidewalk going up the side and it’s got a big plate glass window in the door. So this house is like a fantasy house. It’s all decorated. It was pretty. These two little girls were like five years old. They were twins. They were fairies for Halloween. They had the wings on and they were dancing to the door. “We’ll get it mom!” You know, it’s just like a little fantasy. A beautiful place, you know. So the girls get to the door and I do not know what possessed my child. But, right when they get to the door, he looks in the door, and he goes, “I got two fingers!” Right in the glass. Let me tell you, the dream was over. The girls are screaming. The dad comes running out. The mom is running out. The girls are screaming hysterics like we’re trying to break in and Jake is standing in the window. And the mom gave me a look and you would expect that it’s a sad look. It wasn’t that look. It was the “what’s wrong with your child?” look. I said, “I, too, have two fingers. You have a good day. We’ll be without your candy.” And we left. But, I remember thinking, Jake’s okay. Again, it’s not a daily thing. Sometimes, it’s tough.

One of the words we hear all the time, “you’re such an inspiration.” All right. That’s cool. I’m glad. I’m glad to be an inspiration. That’s great. Sometimes, I just want to be normal. Right? There are those days. I’m gonna jump to my last child for a moment just for time, but my number five is Gracie. Gracie. I always get emotional telling this. So bear with me, right? Gracie got one finger just like I do. Or number four does not she’s got the five fingers. Not her fault. Don’t blame her. She is what it is. But she’s got five fingers and honestly, she feels like the minority in the house. She is right.

But, my youngest child, I remember we were at my father in law’s funeral. And on the way to the funeral (this will tell you a little bit about my wife) my wife saw a Payless shoes sign, and they were having a going out of business sale and she went, “we’re gonna stop there.” As if we should go to a funeral. No, I don’t mean this moment. We’re going to come back there. And we did. And of course for my number four, because she’s got the five toes. She’s got the regular feet. There were all kinds of shoes. We had stacks and boxes of shoes, but for my youngest, we couldn’t find one pair of shoes. And I remember sitting there and she crawled up on my lap and she said, “Dad, this sucks.” And, you know, it is what it is. But it isn’t what we wish it was. This sucks. And she actually said the word she goes, “I don’t want to be an inspiration. I just want to be normal.”

You see, sometimes we have to endure challenges, right? We have to endure those things. And I challenge you with that. Because it is what it is. If we can change it, we change it, but sometimes we can’t, and we just need to love on each other for a while. That’s why I just hugged her. Yeah, it’s not fun. It’s hard. But, it is what it is.

And the next day we choose to go, “okay, how do we face this challenge head on?” The number three point I would tell you, and in our house we’re big on, is: no excuses. We don’t allow our kids to go, “I can’t.” We allow them to hurt. We hold them in our laps. We hug on them, we love on them. But then we say, now you go on. Now you step up. Now you face it.

Are you doing that with yours? Think about the challenges that you have. Are they beating you? Or are you stepping up to it? It’s okay to take a day. Take that day. But, don’t take a year. You step back into it. The third thing like I said is, we don’t allow excuses. Tying shoes in our house isa big deal. That was a tough one. That and potty training, but that had nothing to do with the hands. But we made them learn, because see, here’s the reality in the workplace. We learned that people aren’t gonna go “oh, you know what, you can’t do it like us, we’ll go ahead and pay you the regular amount” and stuff like that. We teach it doesn’t work that way. We expect you to be productive doing your job. Right.

We don’t have handicap stickers. We don’t park in handicapped spots.I don’t have a problem with that, but we don’t need it.Okay, we don’t, but the only place I’m ever handicap and allow us to be handicap is customs in London because that line is long.You stand there and go, “We’re handicap.” We were awkward through, right? I’m not proud of that.But we did it.I remember I left the kids.I took my boys to London.We can be handicap for 10 minutes.I had a teacher when I was a kid.One of my best friends in high school was a a little person.I think that’s what he prefers He’s 36 inches tall to this day. And we became best buds and I remember he always finished assignments before I did. So I said, Why don’t you finish the assignments? Well, I told the teacher till the teacher met it hurts my hands.So she only makes me do half the assignment.So I was brand new to school.So I remember coming around and she came around every time she’d come by and I’d go, “ooooh owwww”. And she said, Eric, does that hurt too? Right? I said, Yeah. She said, How about you do half the assignment? Okay, so for half a semester or for a semester, half a year, I did it. I did half the assignment. And the teacher came and we did that.

I learned this as a parent. When parents ask questions 99% of time we know the answer before we ask the question, right? My mom says that it really she says if I’m not there to see, God tells me. Which I didn’t believe, but now I believe as a parent. But anyway, she said, Eric, let me ask you a question. Are you doing half the assignment in English? Yes, Why is that? So well, so I explained the whole thing, man, she told me a new one, she up and down, I got chewed out. And then we went to school and then the teacher got in trouble. And she tore the teacher apart. And then we went to Mark’s house. And then she told her mom, or she told his mom and then they took turns yelling at us. I mean, it was like tag team. Tag, you’re in. And then Mark was so mad at me. I didn’t know how she knew, God told her. We had to do all the assignments. Because in my house I was raised, you do not use it as an excuse. No excuses. We’re big fans of the word “yet”. I can’t tie my shoes. You can’t tie them yet. You’ll get there. I can’t, because you can’t yet, you’ll get there. There are some things I will never do. I will never be great at pull ups. But really, honestly, who wants to do pull ups? Okay, I’ll never be a great sax player.

Reality is, there are some things I cannot do. But, it’s very limited. And I won’t know until I try. And we make our kids try to encourage with that. Try.

Okay, and I know we’re running out of time. So, there’s one more point I’m going to give you and that is: have fun. And my family, we still have fun. You have to have fun even with the challenges. In 1984, my brother, who’s just like me, he went to SeaWorld with a band. This is a band from Arizona. They drove to SeaWorld with about 120 kids, and they’ve done their competition stuff and were gonna go to SeaWorld for a day. While they were there, they went into the killer whale petting tank. They thought this would be funny. They went into the killer whale panning tank, they put ketchup all over the squid you feed the killer whales, and they threw him in the tank and they put ketchup all over my brother’s hands and he came up screaming

they closed part of SeaWorld for roughly four hours until they gathered him up. And they kick the whole band out. You see? You have to have fun. I mean, come on. What’s funnier than shutting down SeaWorld for a couple hours?

You could sit and go, am I cursed? Or am I blessed? I like to go blessed. I love making the joke. It’s not your fault. You have five fingers. It’s just the way it is. You know, and I make that joke a lot. But the reality is, you have to have fun because it is what it is. Have a lot of fun. If you sit around with our family too long you believe we laugh. We play. We’re morbid. We tell like, I mean, I have tons of stories. If you want to catch me in the hall talk to me about getting caught in Turkey, getting put in an interrogation room, being stopped at the border – that was rough. Talk to me about, I mean, I could tell you all kinds of stories about being different, but we have fun.

So here’s my challenge to you. You may be going, Eric, I don’t know the challenge you’re dealing with. You’re right, I don’t. But you do. Everybody, everybody in here has a challenge. How you deal with it is the model by which other people are going to deal with it. You’ll be watched all the time, by your team, by your kids, by people around you. How you deal with it is how they’re going to deal with it. No excuses. Stop with the excuses. Figure it out. Again, there are a few things, but lots of times, we stop long before we’ve tried everything. And finally, have fun.

I hope the rest of this event is great for you. I hope you have a good time. If you have AWS tech questions, I’ll talk about that. But I work for AWS again. I’m back. So I’m glad to talk about any of that. But I hope you have a great time. Thanks for letting me talk with you. We’ll see you later.