We rise: Our lives are often marked by mistakes, wrong choices and tragedies. If we let them define us, then our lives, including our work lives, suffer. Here’s the story of how one man turned a setback into not only a new career, but a chance to help thousands of other people.

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All month, we’ve been taking a look outside the box in terms of career inspiration. This week, we look to something that may hurt a little, something we may just want to leave behind. I’m talking about setbacks and failures.

The title of today’s column is an homage to a University of Phoenix commercial. In it, a man dressed in a lab coat is working in a hospital. Several flashbacks are inserted: that same man as his younger self pushing a cart through produce fields, riding a bike to work, studying in a small one room apartment while the rest of his family sleeps. At the end of the commercial we learn that this gentleman is not only a nurse, he is director of nursing at his hospital. The commercial then ends with two words.

We rise.

Those two simple words carry so much weight. We rise to face oppression. We rise up against our enemies. We rise to the next level. But those two words don’t need to be surrounded by such gravitas as fighting sworn enemies or conquering the many faces of oppression. Some of the world’s biggest heroes are those that rise and go to work every day to do something positive in the world, to make a difference in another person’s life, or to simply put food on the table for their families. We all have the opportunity to rise, especially after we fall.

John Sage, President of Accessible Travel Solutions, was definitely on the rise in life. He was in his last year at college and had a job locked up as a petroleum engineer at Exxon in Houston. A travel buff, Sage was on a snow skiing trip when fate threw him a curveball. He took a pretty bad fall going down a ski run and sustained a T-4 incomplete spinal cord injury. Now, instead of his biggest concern being what kind of car to get himself as a graduation gift or where else he could travel before starting his job, Sage had to learn how to maneuver around in the world without the use of his legs.

Setbacks as springboards

Sage worked at Exxon for 12 years and his injury never affected his work. “In my role as a petroleum engineer, we were in front of computers for most of the day, so we didn’t move around much. We analyzed computer simulations of underground oil and gas reservoirs,” Sage said. While Exxon is one of the largest and most successful companies in the world where many of its employees have climbed the corporate ladder and found success, Sage felt he needed something different. “My strengths are thinking outside the box and thinking outside the processes. At a large company like Exxon, it’s all about the process, which is a great fit for a lot of people. But I was always thinking of ways to improve the process.”

Sage found ways to think outside the process when it came to his passion for travel. While he wanted to keep traveling the world, he knew that it would be harder for him to reach them in a wheelchair. But what he soon learned was that while the Internet had endless streams of information on almost any topic imaginable, there wasn’t much good information out there about accessible travel for people with disabilities. So, to improve the process, Sage created his own website. “The information out there for wheelchair accessibility was vague, sporadic and often completely incorrect,” said Sage. “I initially started the website because I knew there was a need for reliable accessibility information.” At first, the website didn’t really work that well. While it provided pertinent information for those with accessibility issues, it didn’t really have a “hook” that made people want to interact with it. Also, it didn’t make any money - Sage made $100 the first year, not even enough to cover his expenses.

Instead of giving up, Sage relied upon his strengths; he analyzed the process. During that time, he was invited by a hotel group in Paris, France to inspect their accessibility and that’s when he found inspiration. He could change up the website’s process to instead of just providing information, he could provide entire trip packages for those with accessibility issues. The first year, he concentrated on trips in France, providing 16 trips total. They did so well that he expanded the next year into Italy and took on an employee to plan the trips. The business was doing well, but Sage knew that if he really wanted to give it a chance to be a success, he would have to devote himself to it 100 percent. Newly married, Sage and his wife came up with a plan: he would quit working at Exxon and give it two years. If at the end of the two years the business wasn’t working out, then he could always go back to being an engineer.

Are failures really successes?

Spoiler alert: Sage does turn out to build a successful business with a small staff of employees that has expanded to not only provide trips all over the world, but also across travel industries – he’s working with cruise lines to improve their accessibility and to provide accessible cruise packages. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. As with any new business, there were failures along the way. However, in Sage’s case, he didn’t think of a failure as a huge STOP sign telling him that he should go back to being an engineer. He saw it as just another way to improve the process. “Failures have prioritized opportunities. If we can get an answer rapidly by failing quickly, then I consider that a success. Each time we did something that failed, I would just check it off the list and think, ok, we weren’t going to chase that angle any longer. We tried to expand to several destinations that just didn’t work. We’ve attend trade shows and didn’t get any business from them. Because we’re internet based, failures haven’t broken the bank. Attending a trade show that cost $5,000 isn’t risking the whole company,” Sage said.

Failures hurt. We often look at failures as the world telling us that what we’re doing isn’t what we’re put on this Earth to do. But, all it takes is a slight change of perception to view failures as learning opportunities, to tweak the process, and continue to rise. “Problems and challenges can present opportunities to develop solutions,” said Sage. “Try something out, learn what works and what doesn’t work, and make adjustments. Get help from mentors and training classes along the way.”

For more information on Sage’s website, visit