CHICAGO—“Be passionate. Be courageous. Be your best.”
Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle “Gabby” Giffords, D-Ariz., offered those simple words of inspiration to HR professionals gathered June 19 for the final day of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Annual Conference & Exposition.
The audience gave her a standing ovation as she walked slowly across the stage with her husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, retired astronaut and Navy pilot. Kelly introduced his wife as “the woman who reminds me each and every day to deny the acceptance of failure.”
Giffords was shot in the head on Jan. 8, 2011, during a rampage that killed six people and wounded 13 others in Tucson, Ariz., where she was meeting with constituents. She still has difficulty speaking and has lost about 50 percent of her vision.
“It’s been a long, hard haul, but I’m getting better,” said Giffords, whose brief comments were met with repeated applause. She said she spends her days “working hard” on speech therapy, physical therapy and yoga. She walks on her treadmill, answers e-mail and listens to music. (Her current favorite is Neil Diamond.)
Her recovery has been slow and difficult, she and her husband acknowledge. But she has kept a positive outlook because “I want to make the world a better place.” She said her experience has taught her “to be grateful” for family and friends.
The couple has written a memoir, Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope (Scribner, 2012), describing how their lives have changed.
Kelly said: “Something like this really demonstrates that life is very fragile and things can change for any of us in an instant. … So it’s important to appreciate every day.”
Kelly also spoke of lessons he’s learned in his career as a combat pilot in Iraq, an astronaut on four space shuttle missions and commander of the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour.
He recalled how he struggled in flight school in Pensacola, Fla., saying “I was not a particularly good pilot.” After landing his plane for the first time on the deck of an aircraft carrier, which from the air looks the size of a postage stamp, his flight instructor suggested he rethink his career choice.
“But you know what? I didn’t give up,” Kelly said. “The guys who did really well that day—and I still know many of them today—they did not go on to become test pilots or astronauts. How good you are at the beginning of anything you try is not a good indicator of how good you can become.
“As human resource professionals, keep that in mind when you’re doing your hiring—that people can become really good at stuff,” Kelly said. “I’m a prime example of somebody who was able to overcome a lack of aptitude with practice, persistence and the drive to never, ever, ever give up.”
He added: “I think for all of us, life is a series of challenges, things you have to overcome.”
Dori Meinert is senior writer for HR Magazine.