QTalks 2019 - The steps to success with Katy Sullivan

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On May 22nd, Qubit welcomed actress, producer and athlete, Katy Sullivan, to give our New York office’s inaugural Qtalk.

I recently became aware of Katy when I saw her mesmeric performance, alongside Adrian Lester, in Martyna Majok's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “The Cost of Living” at the Hampstead Theatre in London. The play explores personal and social attitudes to love, responsibility, disability, race, class and wealth. I was so engaged with Katy’s portrayed character that I contacted her to pass on my appreciation and invite her to share her own story with Qubit.

A lifetime of achievements

Katy has appeared in many television shows and films. These include the award-winning film Walk On and the upcoming film T-11 Incomplete (2019). TV credits include: NBC’s My Name is Earl, ABC’s Last Man Standing, FX’s Comedy Legit, CBS’ hit NCIS: New Orleans and more. She has also regularly acted in the theatre, performing in The Long Red Road with Tom Hardy.

Impressive as that CV is in itself, Katy is also a four-time U.S. Champion athlete. She was among the first bilateral above-knee amputees to compete in the Paralympics in ambulatory track when she ran the 100m at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, setting a new American record, and finished 6th in the World Championships. Combining the world of sports and performance, Katy also worked with NBC as a Sports Analyst for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil.

Taking it in her stride

Katy’s humour shone through from the get-go. “I am sure you’ve all noticed... I have red hair” she said, breaking into an animated laugh that featured throughout her talk. Candidly and without self-pity, she celebrated with us what she had achieved despite, and because of, what she would describe as her ‘physical situation’. We were privileged to listen to her perspective on a remarkable life-story.

She shared personal photographs, tales of a loving family which never treated her like “she was made of glass”, and stories of narrow-minded teachers who said “the world doesn’t need another athlete, but you’ll find other things to be good at”.

The payoff of perseverance

It seemed for a long time that Katy’s teacher may have been right. At first Katy found sports really challenging. But she persevered and succeeded spectacularly. Fizzing with anecdotes on her sporting years, she told us of her first international event: the Pan-American Games in Rio (2007). Her personal goal was to run the 100 metre race in less than 18 seconds, something she hadn’t done in practice runs. She ended up coming last but, when she saw that her time was 17.68 seconds, she celebrated loudly. She recalled a bemused stadium “cheering, [thinking] ‘I thought she lost..silly American!’”

At the London 2012 Paralympic Games, she set a personal best and a new American record. Feeling truly present throughout, she could smile and savour the moment. Katy shared her major takeaway from sports - we should all give ourselves permission to celebrate victories.

“I don’t think we do it enough as people in general. Once you start setting goals, you work so hard to reach it that, by the time you get there, you’re already thinking about four goals past that. It’s so important to celebrate them...if you aren't, then nobody else is going to!”

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Learnings from sport and stage

Katy discovered theatre when she recognised a classmate onstage as Violet Beauregarde in a local production of Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. She said to herself: “I want to be that blueberry!”.

When asked what acting had brought to her life, she reflected that sport brought out self-acceptance and appreciation but acting taught her the ability to broaden her outlook and to empathise. In theatre communities, she found people that “don’t see her physical situation as a hindrance”. Her world shifted from “I can’t” to “I’m different, but it’s possible.''

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We can all learn from Katy. We should apply our collective imagination to uncover and nurture talent in unfamiliar places. Innovation foundation Nesta blogged that ‘Innovation is still far too exclusive - both in terms of how far and fast the benefits of new technologies spread, and in terms of who gets to become an innovator. Only 8% of patent applicants in the UK are women. Those from working class households form just 15% of scientists. And nearly half of UK Nobel Prize winners in the last 25 years were privately educated.’

At Qubit we recognise that we need to know who we are, where we are going, and what progress we’ve made. And ‘who we are’ is always an open category.

Final thoughts

Katy’s concluding remark should motivate all of us: “The obstacles placed in front of you in life are there to demonstrate how badly you want what's on the other side. ...I don’t see how you can fail at life...failure is how you learn all the good stuff”.

Click here to find out more about Qubit's QTalk initiative.

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