Who Says I Can t?: The Story of A Two-Time Cancer-Surviving Amputee and Entrepreneur Who Fought Back, Survived and Thrived. Two words have the power to change a person’s outlook: good . . . considering. I heard these words my whole life, starting at age sixteen when bone cancer led to the amputation of my right leg. Three years later, when cancer forced the removal of a lung and acted like a death sentence, this epithet continued. I grew tired of only being “good considering” my disability. In the decades since, I have used athletics to overcome this social stigma. I turned my disability into a ‘superability’, often performing in challenging open water swims, class V white-water adventures, cancer-fundraising bike rides, and double-black diamond extreme skiing better than what I call “two-leggers.” And in the business world, when working in a reliable position failed to quench my need for risk taking, I plunged into entrepreneurship, launching seven high-tech startup companies.
In Who Says I Can’t, I teach by example how everyone can overcome life’s obstacles. I show that when the world says you can’t, courage and determination prove you can be more than “good considering.” You can be good . . . period. Not only that, you can use that positive attitude to inspire and stomp out stereotypes one leg at a time.
Tell us something about yourself.
Jothy Rosenberg, born in California but raised in Michigan, is an above knee amputee caused by osteosarcoma in 1973. Three years later the cancer metastasized and 2/5 of his lungs had to be removed. A course of chemotherapy — only just out in clinical use in 1976 — is probably why he is still here today. He went on to get a Duke PhD in computer science, be on the faculty of Duke University for five years, to author three technical books, to ride in the Pan-Masscahusetts Challenge bike-a-thon supporting the Dana-Farber cancer institute seven years, and to swim sixteen times from Alcatraz to San Francisco to support Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program. In his entrepreneurial persona, Jothy has founded seven high tech companies where he has been Chief Executive Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Technology Officer, or Vice President. In starting those companies, he raised more than $85 million in venture capital, with two of those companies providing a return of more than $100 million each. He could not have done all these startup companies if he had not developed the will power, determination, and focus that came from what happened to him, and if people had not kept saying, “I bet you can’t,” every place he turned. All told his athletic fundraising efforts to date have netted the charities over $100,000. Jothy has a wonderful wife, three kids, a grandson as well as a multitude of golden retrievers. He now lives (and swims, and bikes) in Newton, Massachusetts.
What inspired you to write this book?
I wrote this book Who Says I Can’t as a true labor of love to try to share what I learned in over 35 years living as a cancer survivor, an amputee, as someone who has recovered from very intense life trauma, in the hope it accelerates that learning for those in a similar situation and perhaps motivates and inspires those just needing a little lift. Like the technical books I have written, I was motivated by the fact that this was the book I really needed but did not exist. As the book developed it became clear that what I learned did not just apply to those recovering from cancer or those with a disability; the truth is that everyone has to deal with knock-downs of life or are close to people who do and this book is for all of them too.
How did you publish this book?
When I had a first draft of the manuscript, I started researching how to get it published. I knew nothing about being published because the technical books I had previously published taught me nothing about this part of the business. The first thing I learned was that unlike the technical space, an author does not succeed by going directly to the publishers. So I needed an agent and I researched that. I found listing of all the agents, what kind of books they liked and if they were taking on new authors. I found the 53 that fit the bill and then started to follow to a T what they wanted in terms of a submission of my manuscript for them to consider. Some wanted only an email introduction while others said don’t you dare send me an email. Some wanted a sample chapter while others wanted just a synopsis. Every one of the 53 was different and unique but I followed their instructions exactly. Then over the next three weeks I proceeded to get 53 rejections. Some just say “sorry not for me” while others gave some more constructive feedback. But the bottom line was I had no agent. Clearly I had to take a different approach. What always worked for me in business was connections and networking, so I dug deep to think of anyone I might know who would have or know a good agent. That worked and an author friend did introduce me to his agent. That gentleman agreed to represent me and we were off on my second year of trying to get published. We made a lot of changes in the book that were great and we wrote a 62-page book proposal that was exquisite and compelling. He started to pitch to the biggest of the big and I was excited. But each one came back and said the same thing: we like the story, we like the author, the story is well-written but we are sorry to say no because he doesn’t have enough of a platform. I asked my agent what a platform was. It turns out there is a catch-22 in the business like there is in many businesses: if you are not already famous we can’t take you on because it will be too hard to make you famous so your book will sell. So after a year of this approach I decided to try self-publishing. I had been told 2 years previously not to try self-publishing because it was a dead end but people were saying something different now. They were saying that it can actually be a road to much bigger things and there was no stigma associated with it anymore. So I started year 3 of trying to publish the book going the self-publish route. But along the way, after researching who was the best to work with, I found a self-publisher called Mill City Press who was associated with a very small but real publisher named Bascom Hill Books. This was going to be sort of a hybrid approach and that worked for me. At the end of the third year, a total of five years after starting to write the book it finally came out this past February.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
Back when I was working on my dissertation for my PhD, my advisor told me that while my research was good and my coursework was finished, he would not allow me to complete the degree until I proved I was a very effective communicator. So he made me write journal papers, give talks and explain my arcane work to non-technical people. I really enjoyed that and went on to be a professor at the same university for five years after my PhD where I taught graduate and undergraduate students about computer science. Initially all my writing was very technical and even when I left the university life and became an entrepreneur I found myself drawn to write what little companies like to call ‘white papers’. These were longish essays aimed at non- or not-very-techical people explaining the technology or product of the company. I liked doing that too. Then I was faced with a project I was responsible for where there was literally zero good reference material. I should record what I learn and share it with the next poor fool who has to do something like this, I thought. But those recordings grew and the idea of a book began to enter my conscientiousness. With a little help from my company I found a willing publisher and got my first book called How Debuggers Work published. A few years later following a similar path I got Securing Web Services published as well. But Who Says I Can’t began quite differently. It began with me telling little funny stories to people. Those stories were about living with a disability or they contained little anecdotes about how to deal with adversity. A few people said I had to write these stories down and share them. That seemed like a good idea especially before my memory of events faded too much. So I began to blog (still do athttp://www.whosaysicant.org). And that grew and grew and pretty soon I had what looked like a series of vignettes that all followed a theme. Sort of sounds like the beginning of chapters in a book huh? That’s what I thought too. Finally, when I took a job in Portland, OR while living in Boston, MA I had lots of alone time to really focus on turning this into the book it now is.
What do you believe is the hardest part of writing?
I can speak to memoir writing only. I think two things are very difficult about the writing process itself. One is not having the book become a personal catharsis that should not even be read by anyone else. Maybe the first draft can be that but don’t share it. I did and it was not good. Even my wife freaked out at what I was putting into print. Luckily I was able to get rid of all that quickly and keep the writing focused on the main points I wanted to make. The second hardest thing about memoir writing is that it is done in the first person. It needs to sound like you and that is hard to maintain throughout a long book. It takes many many passes and very objective almost ruthless self-editing. I found reading it out loud or putting the book down and just saying from the heart what I wanted to say and then capturing that in prose worked well.
How do you do research for your books?
For the technical books the answer is pretty easy: use the Web, find experts who blog, read read read and then try to express to your carefully defined audience what they need to know. But for the memoir it was remembering, checking places, dates and public events against published facts and then running specific pages by those people who were in the story with me. For that, I sometimes had to track down people I had not been in contact with for 30 years. That was challenging but ultimately very rewarding. And I think it allowed the book to be much richer as a result. But the memoir writer has a nice safety valve: it does not have to be 100% ground truth, it has to be the story as the author remembers it.
Did you learn anything from writing this book? What?
Self-reflection is necessary when writing this type of book. It did force me to think about what I had really learned and why this might be of value to anyone else. It led me directly to what I titled the last chapter in the book: Accidental Inspiration. You see, for most of my life after these bad things happened to me, I was very focused on my survival. I had to be. I not only had the visible disability (one leg), but an invisible disability (missing lung) and a psychological disability (told I would not survive). To deal with all of this, I used sports to fight back. Sports are great this way because if you are willing to focus harder and work harder than your “able-bodied” compatriots, you can out perform them. I was driven to try to do just that and in some cases succeeded. That was all very much me focusing on me but something strange happened along the way: I was riding my bike and started going up a very steep hill. I was nervous as hell that this hill my defeat me and failure on a hill is not an option for a one-legged rider. I had to make it to the top. And with that determined focus I bore down hardly noticing that next to me two-leggers were getting off their bikes and they were walking up this hill pushing their bikes. They were, that is, until I passed them. Suddenly I heard people saying, “if he can do it dammit, I can too” and they proceeded to get back on their bikes and dug deeper and rode up that hill. I had no idea this might happen. But this not only spurred me on to do more of these rides but it led me to understand some of the deeper lessons I could convey in the book.
What are you reading now?
I just finished Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth and The World Without End which are fantastic. Now just newly downloaded on my brand new iPad I haveChelsea Chelsea Bang Bang and Jodi Picoulet’s House Rules to try reading as eBooks.
What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?
I love novels, historical fiction and some straight history. Cormac McCarthy is my favorite author. Larry McMurtry is up there. So is Carl Hiassen.
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
I have another technical book coming out soon. Manning is the publisher and the book is about Cloud Computing called The Cloud at Your Service(http://www.manning.com/rosenberg). I also have a business book I am outlining. Working title is Anecdotes of an Incorrigible Entrepreneur. And long term, I hope there is a novel in me somewhere but that is still a ways off.
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
Other than building furniture which I do occasionally as a hobby, this is by far the most creative and satisfying thing I have ever done. So if you think you have a book in you, just do it. Even if you don’t get a big name publisher for it you still have something you can look at, hold and admire. And almost everyone I meet wants to write something down and all those people will be impressed with your accomplishment.
What are you doing to promote your latest book?
I continue to blog about the book’s topics at http://www.whosaysicant.org. I also use Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/whosaysicant) and Twitter (jothmeister) to leverage social media to create some word of mouth. I maintain and keep the content fresh as the official book web site at http://www.whosaysicant.net. Here I talk about speaking engagements too. Giving talks about the book is wonderfully satisfying as I get reactions everywhere from crying to jumping up and cheering during my talks. I love doing it and I hope to do a lot more of this over time. I have a small PR team working to get the book to be noticed at a national level. The ultimate goal is to get me an appearance on Oprah or Ellen. That would be the kick in the pants the book needs and deserves to get it in the hands of people who will really benefit from it. I got the book onto Kindle and now am working to make sure it is available for all the other eBook devices including iPad. I am also getting the audiobook produced. I also have an idea to create a TV series based on what I learned from life and writing the book where I will profile non-famous people knocked down hard by life but who used sports to come back better than ever. We all need more uplifting stories like this given our current social propensity for negativity.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?