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Positive thinking helps Ivey grad overcome adversity

  • Communications
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  • Jun 16, 2021
Positive thinking helps Ivey grad overcome adversity

Keith Chow has long believed that focusing on the bright parts of each day is key to surviving the tough times. Back in 2017, while in his second year at Western University, he started a daily appreciation Instagram blog to showcase one photo per day of something that made him happy. It was a way to stay in touch with family and friends, spread positivity, and build a community.

“The idea was that there are going to be things that bring you down each day, but if you put more attention on and appreciate the little great moments that happen in your life, you learn the tough moments aren't so bad after all. This was really important because, at times, managing coursework, varsity training, and a social life naturally presented challenges,” he said. “A lot of positive things came from [the Instagram blog]. I built a small community around it and even inspired others to begin their own daily appreciation journey.”

That strategy later helped him through one of the most challenging experiences of his life. On March 2, 2018, while Chow was in his first year of Ivey’s HBA Program, he suffered a severe, multi-year concussion that made him question if he would ever be able to fully function again.

At first, Chow tried to push through it. He finished his coursework for the year and began a summer internship role. But soon his health deteriorated. He had difficulty with basic brain functions such as remembering things, vocalizing thoughts properly, and thinking without pain. Chow cut his internship short and decided not to return to school in the fall.

“I took a year off school because I didn't know how to manage my concussion. I didn't realize how serious the situation was until I couldn't even get up to make myself food. I realized I couldn't do it all by myself,” he said.

Building resilience

Chow returned to his home in Vancouver, B.C., saw a specialist, and began working with an occupational therapist to regain functioning. It was a difficult period. Once a high-performing athlete, having competed with Team Canada Ultimate and captaining the Western Mustangs Ultimate Frisbee Team, Chow found it tough to slow down. Part of his recovery plan included limiting himself to only 30 minutes of daily activity, whether it was socializing, exercise, or tasks requiring mental focus. He spent the remaining hours of the day meditating and trying to keep his mind blank. He tried to do an extra five minutes of activity each week. He knew that if he pushed himself too much, he’d be out of commission for days.

“Restraining yourself is the toughest part. You just want to be better and prove to yourself that you can do more. I was a high-motor person before. I played sports at a really high level. At Ivey, my social life and work were always at a really high level,” he said. “The true test of resilience for me was being able to say I understand what my limits are and I’m going to take a step back and rest.”

As a people person, he struggled to limit his social interactions. Starting at age 10, Chow used to bus into downtown Vancouver and strike up conversations with random passersby for fun – from homeless people to working professionals. As captain of the varsity Ultimate Frisbee team, he used his people skills to foster a team culture of success. He was always curious about how different people operate and interact.

“I definitely had a bit of an identity crisis because in social situations I was used to being the bubbly person – the person who connects people. I was good at meeting people and building relationships,” he said. “Then with my limitations in thought, speech, and energy from my concussion, I had this weird adjustment period socially.”

Focusing on the positive – each baby step of progress – helped him to persevere through adversity.

Milestone moments

Chow returned to Ivey in September 2019 and eventually finished his HBA by arranging for a limited workload. Essentially one year of programming was stretched out over two years. There were certainly some challenging times. One was when it took him eight hours to complete an exam because he had to take a break every 30 minutes to clear his mind before going back for another round of work. Completing the exam was a memorable moment for him. Chow took a photo of the bench and shared it as his appreciation post for the day. He was again capturing the bright spot of the experience – he had survived a grueling eight-hour day of work, something he had been working towards over the past two years.

“Getting extra time was great, but it gets increasingly difficult to work each hour more. Each time I sat down to write, I fully depleted all of my focusing energy so I tried to muster as much energy as I could on that bench,” he said. “At the end, I couldn’t care less how the exam actually went. I cared that it was a huge milestone in my recovery and proof that I was heading in the right direction. I finally had validation that the recovery work was paying off.”

By understanding his limits and restraining himself, Chow has progressed to 10 hours of activity a day. He even just completed a marathon. After finishing his HBA in December 2020, he began working. That feat seemed unlikely a couple of years ago. Chow first worked as head of business development at WandrPass, a startup that offers marketing solutions and business analytics to restaurants to help them cope with the pandemic. He recently joined TouchBistro, a software company that offers restaurant management systems, as a Market Development Representative.

Chow said the new role makes him feel like he has come full-circle. Working in sales requires him to build relationships with people, just as he did as a child on the streets of Vancouver.

But he’s not one to chalk it up to fate. The hard-earned victory came from changing his mindset.

“Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think everything happens for a reason. I think life just happens and it’s your ability to let go of your past reality and make the most of your new reality that determines your happiness going forward,” he said.  “I had to be OK with not getting better at some point. I learned through that process of recovery to not think about the future, but instead on how I can make the most of what I have right now.”