March 2, 2015

Learning about Life from Jaap Bressers

Whether it was a strange coincidence or fate, we will never know, but a few hours after interviewing Jaap Bressers, I fell off the horse I’d been learning to ride, and broke one of the ribs in my back.

My interview with Jaap before the fall!
It was the first time I had ever broken a bone in my body, and now, a few days later, I sit at the computer, able to concentrate for a few minutes before the haze of the pain medication sinks in and numbs me. I hate being so frail, so fragile and suddenly so dependent on the mercy of others. Despite just having heard from Jaap about being hopeful, taking small steps and moving forward, I find myself all too easily thrown into a nasty mood, which I take out on my nearest and dearest, all who are doing their best to take care of me.

Which brings me back to Jaap. He is an extraordinary man, and not just because I think he is, but because at age 31, he is wiser than his years, and able to live not only a “good enough” life, but one that helps many others find inspiration. He has just written a book, “Where there’s a Wheel there’s a Way,” ( Jaap's new book!), he gives inspirational talks at companies, he has a girlfriend with whom he enjoys life and even gets to travel abroad once a year or so.  And all this while sitting in a wheelchair, and paralyzed from just below his shoulders.

I try to imagine what it’s like, which is a lot easier for me this week than it would have been last week, after I wake up stiff from lying too many hours in only one position, unable to get out of bed on my own. Does Jaap also have to wait painfully and patiently in bed until someone will help him get up, get showered, get dressed? When I talked to him, he appeared so confident and capable, it felt it would be prying to ask about these mundane things.

Lam means 'lame' in Dutch!
I am so incredibly lucky. I only broke one lousy rib. It hurts, that’s true. But I will recover fully, and I can even walk slowly up and down the stairs, which is very lucky, as I live in a typical Dutch house with three stories. The amazing thing about Jaap is that he has made his own luck. He isn’t sitting at home and moaning about his fate, or posting miserable pictures of himself on Facebook. Instead, you can see him there dressed up for Carnival in a Lambs costume, with a sign that says “Lam” (dutch for both Lamb and lame).

He never misses an opportunity to laugh at himself – like when he wheels himself onto the stage and says – “Actually I’m doubly handicapped, because I’m from Brabant.”

It all happened, Jaap tells me, about 10 years ago, when he was an up and coming young businessman, studying International Business and working far too many hours, traveling abroad for work, and living the good life - went for a vacation to Portugal. He admits to having been a daredevil, having dove off the pier the day before; however this time, he was just standing in waist deep water, and seeing the “perfect wave,” he just dove into it. But something went wrong, and he found himself floating facedown in the water, unable to move and slowly, as he waited and hoped to be rescued, and the seconds ticked by, he felt like there was actually a chance he might die. “What a stupid way to die,” he thought, and then, as he was sure he wouldn’t make it, another thought passed through his head, “I think there must be so much more I could have done with my life...”

A religious person might say that these words were heard by the right people upstairs, but Jaap just goes on to tell me that he woke up in hospital scared out of his wits and unable to move an inch. “It’s quite common in Portugal for people to have diving accidents, so the medical staff is mainly not so fazed by it.” During the day, he didn’t have many visitors - only his parents.  His situation was too fragile in the intensive care.  Things were really difficult for his parents, who were told by the doctors,  “No good, die, die.”  But Jaap didn’t die, and he credits that partially to the help of one male nurse, Carlos, who was kind enough, despite the fact that Jaap was not the first or last to be paralyzed by a diving accident, to put his hand on Jaap’s shoulder, right where he could feel it, when he awoke, panicked in the middle of the night. “This just shows,” Jaap explains, “that you don’t have to be a neurosurgeon to help someone.” Just that small act of kindness and connection was enough to encourage Jaap in the dark hours to not give up.

Another thing that helped him on his path to recovery, he tells me, was the fact that there was another patient in the hospital, who, like him, was paralyzed, but had been injured 3 months before him. This man was his role model. When he saw him sitting in the chair next to the bed, and not just lying in bed, that was what he aimed for. When the man eventually got an electric wheelchair, that too became Jaap’s goal. The competitive drive he had as a young businessman helped him set mini-goals and these small steps helped him through the four long years it took for him to get to the point of managing to live without constant medical supervision and to start to lead his ‘normal life.’

Where there's a wheel - there's a way!
We fast-forwarded to the here and now as I ask Jaap why he wrote this book and how it all started. He admits that some writers approached him about three years ago, interested in his story, and wanting to write something like a novel about his life. But the first draft they showed him was so fictional and dramatized that he refused to continue along those lines. “It wasn’t me,” he explains. “I am learning that to be vulnerable is the way I can best connect with others. The book was turning me into a character, and it just wasn’t me.” At the same time, his career was changing too.

Remarkably, Jaap had become a cabaret performer, doing shows in many different theatres throughout the Netherlands. He used his humor as a tool to deal with life, and he found that it was something people enjoyed listening to. “It was an entertaining show that also had an added value.”

However, he found that more and more he was connecting to the ‘added value’ the motivation he felt he could offer people, and that he wanted to focus on that – using humor. This shift in focus meant that he preferred to work with companies, getting to know the dynamics of an organization, what they were dealing with, and to customize his shows for them accordingly. This, he says, has become extremely rewarding.

The book then changed shape, and became a tool for managers and employees to learn how to embrace change and to make the most out of difficult times. “It must be fate,” says Jaap, “but the minute I decided to change the focus of my book, was when I suddenly had two publishers fighting to publish the book!”

Each short chapter tells a different story, he tells me, and he doesn’t use models or diagrams to explain management theory. Instead, the stories are metaphors that can be interpreted as the reader wishes. One example from his book, Jaap tells me, is that when it come to what we value or about financial reward, we often focus on efficiency - on getting there as fast as you can. “When I was studying I got on a train and the train started moving in a really fast way, I was on the train and I didn’t reflect; I didn’t realise that I could go in a different direction.  I was on a fast train then, focused on my objective, my goal - but nowadays I realize that it is really interesting to look out the window and notice things that pass you by.  We should notice things a little bit more.”

I want to get up now, to stretch my legs, my shoulders, my neck. As I push myself from the table – I feel my ribs begging me not to move, while my neck and arms beg me to stop typing. ‘Stop it,’ I tell myself. ‘Look at Jaap, he goes on and on!’ But then I remember other wise words he left me with, “I perform only twice a week, as my body has a rhythm of its own, and can’t be forced. I think more people should live more balanced lives and not forget that besides work, there are people in our lives, and hobbies, other things we like to do. It’s important to do that too.”

Thank you, Jaap, for being such an inspiration. I can’t wait to read the book, Where there’s a Wheel, there’s a Way,” available in Dutch (for now,) which even before it hit the shelves, had been included in the top 100 books sold.  The books is available already, and I just ordered my copy!! And for more inspiration, see his website or his facebook site.

The full interview will be coming out in the next Synquity newsletter, by the way!


  1. What an inspirational story. Not only did he have the will to live, but he made something out of himself and inspired others. Thank you for sharing. I hope your rib is better soon!

    1. Thanks Lauren! Indeed Jaap is GREAT! I hope he will translate his book to English so it can be inspiring world round! :)

  2. Get well soon and thank you for a great interview :-)