In this episode, our guest is Robert Paylor, a public speaker, and motivational leader, with the story of defining the odds and overcoming challenges. Robert shares his passion and purpose with others, which has allowed him to battle paralysis and achieve goals, no matter how daunting they may seem.
Robert broke his neck in the 2017 Collegiate Rugby National Championship, and that accident instantly changed his life. He was told he would never walk or move his hands again. However, by shifting his mindset, he could walk again, do more, and be more.
Robert took a leap of faith by turning down an offer from Intel to go into public speaking. He has embarked on a career as an inspirational speaker and has begun writing a book with the working title, “Paralyzed and Powerful.”
On competing for Cal’s rugby team
“It was a tremendous opportunity to compete for the rugby program and go to school at a place like Cal. But it was also a significant challenge. I really had a hard time wrapping my head around not being a starter or being a mediocre or a subpar student amongst all these very bright people from all across the world. But I knew that the challenge was going to be significant. And really, in rugby, I’m not the fastest person out there on the field, by any means. And in the classroom, I’m not the brightest person. But I thought I had a good work ethic that would help me to be able to balance those scales and hopefully give me an edge.”
On making one of the biggest decisions in his life
“In my mind, I was thinking that the answer was made. I couldn’t believe that this had happened to me, but it did happen. And I’ve got one life. And I’m not going to spend the rest of my life with a victim’s mindset, always thinking about what was and not what is, and what could have been, but what can I do? I couldn’t stay in that mindset. I just needed to know that I was going to give absolutely everything I had to get absolutely everything I could get. I could live the rest of my life in a wheelchair or completely paralyzed, and I’ll be okay with that as long as I give it everything I have. So, I decided to go into the surgery, and I said my prayers. I said goodbye to my family. I got rolled into the operating room. I closed my eyes. And that concluded May 6th, 2017.”
Being optimistic despite the challenges
“Sometimes we can just have a mountain of a task in front of us, or we can just have this cataclysmic failure or drop in our lives that we just experience. And it can seem like we’re just helpless, that there’s nothing that we can do. We always have the ability to keep moving forward. We always have the ability to react in a positive way, with optimism.”
Robert’s word of wisdom
“My go-to for this is to be grateful for every day and moment. It’s the advice I would give myself if I could go back and talk to myself on May 6th, 2017. This injury has shown me that life is fragile and life is a gift, and we ought to treat our life like a gift, embrace it, be grateful for it, to have the joy of receiving that gift every day. There are going to be challenges that impact us in our lives. And we don’t have any control over that. But regardless, we ought to always focus on the positive things we have in our lives. There’s always somebody who has it worse, and that’s important for us to realize as well, to maintain that perspective, both looking through our experiences and the experiences of others, and to help us have that gratitude, just to realize the immense great things we have in our lives and just to never forget it. And when we start feeling down, to try to control our mindsets and remember that.”
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:00] Chris: Welcome to the OneHaas Podcast. I’m Chris Kim. Today, we have Robert Paylor, public speaker and Berkeley Haas alum. Robert is a Haas alum, public speaker, and motivational leader, with the story of defining the odds and overcoming challenges. Robert shares his passion and purpose with others that has allowed him to battle paralysis and achieve goals, no matter how daunting they may seem. Robert, welcome, and great to have you on the show.
[00:30] Robert: Thank you very much, Chris. Excited to be here.
[00:32] Chris: Yeah, Robert. Your story is very familiar to all the folks in the Berkeley Haas community. But would you mind just sharing, where did your story begin? Where did you grow up? And did you know you’d be who you are today when you were a kid growing up?
[00:44] Robert: Yeah, absolutely happy to share that. And to answer that last question first, no, I did not expect my life to turn out this way at all. It’s taken some twists and turns that I don’t think anybody could have anticipated or even would’ve hoped for. But the results have just been incredible. And it all started out in Sacramento, where I’m from. So, in Sacramento, it’s hot summers. And for me, it was sports. I had just been a lifelong athlete. And I started playing the traditional American sports—football, basketball, baseball—and really had a knack for contact, for that physicality in sports. I was always a bigger kid in my class. I was always the tallest. My playing weight in college was… I was six-foot-five, and my weight was around 235, 240. So, I had some size to me. And I knew how to use that size. And went over to high school at Jesuit High School in Sacramento, which is where I found the sport of rugby.
Now, rugby in America is this niche sport, right? We’re not very familiar with it. A lot of people explain it as it’s kind of this cross-breed between football and soccer without any pads. I was really intrigued by it, especially because our high school program at Jesuit is the most successful high school rugby program in America. I think now the program has 10, maybe 11, national championships.
[02:01] Chris: Oh, my gosh.
[02:02] Robert: Yeah. Quite a tradition to that program. And found myself in a spot where I was playing football and looking at other sports. I wanted to be a two-sport athlete. And my friends were saying, “Robert, we’ve got this amazing rugby program. You are a good athlete. You could do really well with this.” There was a bit of a pipeline at the time from Jesuit rugby athletes who were standouts in the program moving over to Cal. It was a lifelong dream of mine to be able to go to UC Berkeley, to hopefully gain admission into the Haas School of Business, earn my degree from the number-one public university in the world, then be a great rugby player as well, and reach my potential there.
So, I made that decision to start playing rugby. And I just fell in love with the game immediately. Had a pretty good knack for how it was to be played, but loved the camaraderie and the culture around it. And kind of a holistic approach to the athlete… to be a good rugby athlete, but to also be very sharp in the classroom, to be very sharp in your character, how you address people. I was intrigued with that and went into the sport all in. Eventually got the tap on the shoulder to go play rugby at Cal, which was a no-brainer for me.
The thing that intrigued me most was knowing that, going to Cal, I was going to reach my potential in all areas of life. And I just simply couldn’t accept anything less than that at a different university. So, the answer was simple. And found myself over on the Cal men’s rugby team and doing my prerequisite classes into the Haas School of Business. And that’s where it all begins.
[03:29] Chris: That’s crazy. Robert, there’s a reputation amongst Haas undergrads that Haas undergrads are incredibly hardworking, but can you share a little bit of what it was like? And maybe this is unfamiliar to folks who may be from overseas, but student athletes, particularly at Cal, face just a ton of things that they’re doing—classroom, practice, things like that. Can you explain what that was like, both before you decided to come to Cal for college and then when you stepped on campus and you’re taking classes, but also you have to go to practice and weightlifting and everything? What was that like making that transition? And were you concerned at all or worried at all as you were going through that process?
[04:03] Robert: Yeah. I didn’t really know what to expect, coming into college. I was very involved as a high school student. I was playing sports year-round, also captain of those teams. And I went to a Catholic high school. I was very involved with the retreats that we had there. I was also the student director of the band. I played the French horn in high school. So, I really just spread out and did everything while I was in high school and tried to take advantage of every opportunity that came my way.
So, I think that prepared me very well for the challenges that were to come in college, because while I wasn’t leading retreats or the student director of the Cal marching band, the significance of the challenges that would be faced in the classroom and on the field were much more intense than what was in high school. From a rugby standpoint, everybody who’s on that team was the best player on their high school team.
They were MVP in America. They’re most likely an all-American high school player. So, you want to talk about big fish going from a small pond to just everybody is big fish in the ocean. The analogy was very true. So, it was obvious that my natural gifts, like my size or my natural strength, weren’t going to be enough for me to be able to earn a lot of playing time or a starting position on that team. So, we would have our workouts with the rugby team. We’d be in the gym, or we’d be on the field with training. And I always made sure to be getting extra training in by myself, probably an hour to two hours at least of training on each day during the weekdays.
And then for the academic rigor, in high school, you’re going to class a lot more often than you are in the college environment. But the information that you’re taking in that college environment is far more in-depth. And you’re expected to be able to do some of this learning more on your own. You’re not going to a school as large as UC Berkeley. The teachers can’t hold everybody’s hand. If you have a question, you need to ask it. They’re not going to ask it or answer that question for you. You need to take that on for yourself.
So, finding resources—like, tutoring was something that I did—and really making sure that I was working with my classmates, that’s something that I think the business program does a really good job of promoting this collaboration in the classroom environment. So, these are all things that I was taking the stepping stones into in high school, but it wasn’t really fully anticipated what it would be like in college. But I loved every day of it, how in high school I’m trying to take advantage of every opportunity. I was doing the same thing over at Cal. At the end of the day, we all have one life. And we already used the most of that life. And I knew that I was doing that at Cal.
[06:34] Chris: That’s crazy. Robert, what was it like when you first arrived on campus? You’re getting set up and getting moved in and everything, and then also prepping for the season. What was that like? Can you bring us back to some of those early days when you got on campus? And how was that progressing, leading up to your season?
[06:50] Robert: Absolutely. In a lot of ways, it felt like I was starting over. On the rugby team, I’m having to build up some merit and a reputation. It didn’t really matter what I had done in high school. Everything mattered about what I did on that field—how I performed and practiced. And that’s how I built my reputation as a player. And it started on the first day when I was there, nothing before that.
So, there was some nerves to that. On one hand, it was a tremendous opportunity to be able to compete for the rugby program and go to school at a place like Cal. But it was also a significant challenge. I really had a hard time wrapping my head around not being a starter or being a mediocre or a subpar student, amongst all these very bright people from all across the world. But I knew that the challenge was going to be significant. And really, in rugby, I’m not the fastest person out there on the field, by any means. And in the classroom, I’m not the brightest person. But I thought I had a good work ethic that would help me to be able to balance those scales and hopefully give me an edge. And as time went on, I earned a starting spot as a sophomore on the rugby program, which isn’t an easy or common thing to do. Into the classroom was on my way to putting in that application for the Haas School of Business, and certainly had my fingers crossed there that sophomore year. And things were turning out for me, but in the beginning of it, I was nervous. But I think that’s good that I had that expectation that it was going to be difficult, because it does take work to get to that level. And I enjoyed every second of it.
[08:20] Chris: And the Cal team definitely had a lot of success, leading up to a pivotal point in your life. The team was just really crushing it and having some great results. Can you explain what it was like going into that key game for you? And where was your head at? Where was the team at, as you guys were just seeing continued success on success?
[08:36] Robert: Yeah. To give some additional context to the listeners, I’ve actually found myself, as I said, competing as a sophomore for the rugby team, and then competing for a national championship as a sophomore. The day was May 6th of 2017, for the Varsity Cup National Championship. And we were playing Arkansas State that day.
Now, we had a great team and a great group of players that I was able to compete alongside with. We were dominant in a lot of our matches physically. And we felt very prepared against this Arkansas State team, who I don’t believe has everyone at the national championship. And we were going in for our 31st national championship match.
So, for us, there was very much a been-there done-that approach in the locker room. And we weren’t doing lightening our hair on fire and yelling and all that kind of stuff. It was much more of a cool, collected approach. We had a solid game plan. And we knew their strengths and what to look out for. We knew their weaknesses and how we planned on exploiting them.
And for me, internally in my mind, I was seeing this as a day of legacy. When you’re a national champion, you’re not just a national champion for a day. You’re a national champion for life. I could forever come back to Witter Rugby Field and point at a banner that’s on a wall and bring my family back and just tell them about those experiences. I’d have that on my LinkedIn. And I could tell that to other people that I was a national champion, a national championship caliber rugby player.
So, coming into that game, I was certainly excited. And I had the pregame jitters and nerves, as I always did, because rugby is a very physical game. And when any of us step on that field, we realize the high likelihood of injury and we understand how this game is going to hurt. When you’re putting your shoulder into these players or you have the ball and you’re running in and colliding with other players who are trying to bring you down to the ground, you’re going to experience pain on that field, both from the contact standpoint and the fact that it’s 80 minutes of continuous full-contact play. You’re going to get tired. You’re going to be pushed physically and mentally. And certainly had the nerves going in, but the excitement of the opportunity, that was gone.
[10:42] Chris: Robert, that game and that experience is probably just a highlight in many ways. And in other ways, it really did change your life forever. Would you mind just sharing what happened in that game and what happened during that time that led to really a change in your entire life’s direction?
[10:58] Robert: Absolutely. So, eventually, we all took the field and we had a coin toss. Now, we won that coin toss, and we decided we wanted to kick the ball off. We wanted to hit them first. So, we all lined up. The referee raised his arm. He blows his whistle. And I was sprinting down that field, really just thinking, “It’s the national championship. Let’s go, Robert. Just spill your guts on this field. Give it all you’ve got.” It was a moment later in this game, about a minute and a half to two minutes in this game, that we were competing in a maul. And for those listeners who aren’t aware of many of the terms of rugby, a maul is when the bigger players would group up in a single unit. And then we push to advance the ball. The defense’s job just comes straight in and stops us from pushing forward.
And these mauls are just a boiler room. It’s where the big guys really thrive. And like I said, I was a bigger player on that field, a stronger player. This is where I was really expected to make my impact. And I was thinking, boy, when we watch film on this match, I’m going to get a nice pat on the shoulder because I did what I needed to do to pound this maul in, so we could go get the first score of the game. I was drooling on the field, just thinking, “Let’s go, Robert. Turn this thing in.”
And as I was doing this, the opposing players from Arkansas State, they started making these illegal moves. And the referee wasn’t calling anything. So, first, a player enters this maul from the side, which is infraction, not something you’re supposed to do. But the ref doesn’t call it. They continue to keep going forward. And this same player that came in from the side, he binds my head into a headlock. So, he’s got his arm wrapped around my neck and the base of my head. And he’s putting pressure downwards. Now, normally in rugby, this would be an automatic yellow or red card and immediate suspension from the game. But still, the referee wasn’t calling anything.
Now, in my mind, I’m thinking, all this stuff is going on, but I got a job to do. And I’m not just going to stand up and throw my arms out to the side and say, “Hey, Ref, what’s going on here? You got to call this.” No, I’m going to keep moving forward, keep my legs moving.
And, as I did this, another player chopped me down by my legs. I started falling. As I was doing that, the player with a bind around my neck improved his bind around my neck. So, my chin was pinned down to my chest. And I just remember I closed my eyes. I gritted my teeth. And then I just felt this God-awful crunch in my neck. And then it was just like, I could not feel anything. I couldn’t move anything. I was laying there on that turf, screaming as loud as I could, fully aware that I had broken my neck, expecting that I would never move anything again. And my thoughts just ran wild.
Then, I was thinking, am I ever going to be able to play rugby again, the thing that makes me feel most alive? Or, am I ever going to be able to go back to school and graduate, walk across that stage? Am I going to be able to see my friends ever again? I just lined up with my first internship with Intel, a great company. My career is looking like it’s getting a good start to it. I’m thinking, am I even going to be able to work at all? Am I going to be able to contribute and achieve these goals I have for my life? But I’m also thinking, more importantly, am I ever going to be able to feed myself again or walk? Because at that moment, my face was in the dirt, and I could barely even breathe. And my trainers and doctors came over trying to assess the situation. They’re saying, “Robert, can you feel this? Robert, can you move anything?” And my answer is, no, nothing.
Now, I get stretchered off the field and rushed over to the hospital in Santa Clara. We took a series of medical imaging. And my doctor came back and told me the worst thing that I could have heard. He said, “Robert, your injury is bad, really bad. And the reality is you will never walk again. You’ll never move your hands. We’re going to try our best so that you can do something like pick up a piece of pizza and bring it to your face. And if you can do that, you’ve made it and you beat all the odds.” And he also recommends spinal fusion surgery to me. I had a ruptured disc in between my C5 and C6 vertebrae ruptured into my spinal cord. Also, had fracturing in the C5 and the C6 vertebrae.
He explained that my highest chance of stability and progression or reduction of further damage to my spinal cord would be to fuse that region of my spinal cord, essentially permanently casting that area to promote growth and regeneration. And he says, “But.” I think there’s always some kind of but, right?
[15:19] Chris: Mm-hmm.
[15:20] Robert: He said it was a potentially life-threatening surgery. They would be moving my esophagus over to the side to operate on the spinal cord. I was already incredibly deconditioned. In a region as important as this, just the smallest mistakes can lead to very catastrophic outcomes. So, he said I had 30 minutes to make my decision.
In my mind, I was thinking that the answer was made. But I couldn’t believe that this had happened to me, but it did happen. And I’ve got one life. And I’m not going to spend the rest of my life with a victim’s mindset, simply thinking, what was me? I can’t believe this happened to me. Let me just try to stumble through my days, always thinking about what was, and not what is, and always thinking about what could have been, but what can I do? I couldn’t stay in that mindset. I just needed to know that I was going to give absolutely everything I had to get absolutely everything I could get. I could live the rest of my life in a wheelchair or completely paralyzed, and I’ll be okay with that as long as I give it everything I have. So, I decided to go into the surgery and I said my prayers. I said goodbye to my family. I got rolled into the operating room. I closed my eyes. And that concluded May 6th, 2017.
[16:36] Chris: What was going through your mind in order to give you that clarity? Not only do you understand what’s happened, but then you know that next thing right away. And what do you attribute that to? That’s definitely unique. Maybe, one of the things that really stands out in your story and the rehab process after.
[16:51] Robert: There were two things for me. And the first one that came to mind immediately was from my rugby training under Coach Clark. And we have a glossary of terms in the Cal rugby programs that when we say certain things, like say leadership, we all know what we’re thinking because we could ask 100 people, what is leadership? And we’ll probably get 100 different definitions. And we had a definition for mental toughness, which our operating definition was the ability to focus on the next most important thing. So, in a rugby context, that’d be, let’s say the ball hits your hands, it goes forward, it’s a turnover. And you’re just frustrated. You’re mad about what just happened. You’re throwing your fist into the ground. A mentally weak person would allow that to continue to weigh them down. So, when another opportunity comes their way, like they need to make a tackle, they’re not in the right headspace to take that on. They’re thinking about the past. So, they get run over. They miss their tackle. And then more mistakes continue to compound. In a business sense, something comes in our way that’s negative, and we allow that to affect us. We make further mistakes going forward because we’re acting out of spite or anger or fear.
The mentally tough person is the person who recognizes what happened and starts focusing on the next most important thing. They go on and make that tackle, or they clear their head to be able to make a better informed decision with their business. That’s what the mentally tough person does. So, for me, I recognize that I broke my neck. My life had certainly dramatically changed at that point. But the decisions that I made from here on out would have lasting impact on the rest of my life. So, one thing they told me is, “Robert, don’t move your neck. Do not move your neck at all,” because if I did that, it could have further damage to my spinal cord. So, that’s the next most important thing in a lot of those situations, was don’t move your neck. Keep still. Even though it felt like I was just a prisoner of my body, that’s what I had to do. I couldn’t allow my emotions to get the better of me. When this doctor gave me the decision on if I wanted to go into this surgery or not, I had to be mentally tough. I had to focus on the next most important thing. I couldn’t think about the past and what had happened to me and this horrible prognosis I had been given. I had to really clear my head, stay as calm as I possibly could, and think, what’s going to give me the best outcome for the future? From an objective standpoint, it was going into that surgery for me. So, that’s the first thing.
And then, the second thing was just realizing how much control we have over our mindset. And this was given to me by someone very close to me on that day. The doctor had given me the prognosis and the question of if I wanted to go into the surgery. And during that 30-minute period, the first phone call I made was to my religious advisor. I was asking for prayers and advice that he might have. And thank goodness I made that call, because the advice he gave me on that day, it’s just carried me ever since. And in that moment, it gave me a lot of power in what seemed like a powerless situation. And he said, “Robert, throughout this journey, there’s going to be a lot of things that you can’t control. But the one thing you have control over is your mindset. So, your positivity, your ambition, your willingness to wake up every day and accept this challenge, that’s up to you. This injury can’t take that away from you.” And that’s exactly what I needed. And I draw on it so much to this day, that sometimes we can just have a mountain of a task in front of us, or we can just have this cataclysmic failure or drop in our lives that we just experience. And it can seem like we’re just helpless, that there’s nothing that we can do.
We always have the ability to keep moving forward. We always have the ability to react in a positive way, with optimism. I don’t think we have control over our mood and whether we’re happy or we’re sad in a given moment, but I really do believe that, no matter what happens to us, no matter how we’re feeling, our mindset and the way that we choose to react to situations is within our control. And just hearing those words and realizing that, it really helped calm my emotions. It gave me a lot of trust that, as things went on, I had all the tools I needed to be able to react in the best possible way. That’s helped me throughout this injury. That helped me when I got back to school. That’s helped me in my career. Just incredible advice.
[21:03] Chris: That’s awesome. Robert, what happened next? When you woke up from the surgery and you were in the hospital, what happened? And how did that transition into your rehab process after the accident?
[21:14] Robert: So, first, when I woke up, I was just metaphorically wiping the sweat off my brow, thinking, “Thank goodness, I woke up.” That was the first box I needed to check. But that’s when the challenges really began. We realized very early on in the first day that I wasn’t able to swallow anything. I had a lot of swelling in my neck. I’m a business major, not a biology major. So, I don’t know what the name is of the flap that covers your windpipe when you swallow. But it was getting caught under all that swelling. So, when I would try to drink water, eat food, it would go straight into my lungs—obviously, extremely problematic. So, I couldn’t eat anything just through my mouth. I had to be fed through a tube that went up my nose and down to my stomach. It took three days to get in there because I broke my nose so many times playing rugby. But I lost 60 pounds in that first month.
And all that progression I had with my physical strength and my size. Something that was really rooted in my identity and what made me proud as a person and just proud to be me was withering away in front of my eyes. And there’s nothing I could do to stop it. I also contracted pneumonia on day two or three, which is dangerous for anybody, but was particularly dangerous for me because I couldn’t cough. My diaphragm was mostly paralyzed. So, no matter how hard I worked to muster up the strength to fill up my lungs and give a good strong exhale for cough, I couldn’t do it. It was like a breath, like [demonstrates breathing].
So, when the pneumonia produced phlegm and the phlegm got stuck in my windpipe, I couldn’t get it out. I would just sit there, trying as hard as I could to cough it out. And we would have my nurses, respiratory therapists. My mom stepped in to just start slamming down on my chest. We were doing everything we could do to move the stuff out of my lungs, just so I could take another breath. And I tell you what, it felt like death was with me sitting there in that room, just waiting for me to quit.
But I wouldn’t quit, because throughout all of that, I knew I had control over my mindset. I was always thinking about mental toughness, what’s the next most important thing. And I did those breathing treatments for the pneumonia every three hours. So, I did it, whether it was 3:00 p.m. or 3:00 a.m. When that respiratory therapist came in there, I needed to do it. I mean, I was sleeping just about two hours a day between my treatments every three hours for overcoming pneumonia. I had to get moved in my bed to do weight shifts every two hours, or else I could get a skin sore because I couldn’t feel pain. Like all of us can, when we get uncomfortable, we just move. I couldn’t do that for myself.
And then every one hour, a nurse would come in and check my vitals. I didn’t sleep. I was fighting for my life. I would not wish that situation upon anyone. We can just start name-dropping some of the worst people that have run this earth, I could never wish this upon them. It felt like torture to me.
But throughout all of that, I had my family there with me. I had my friends there with me. My teammates created a schedule, and people would come over to visit me every day. So, I never spent a day alone.
And after we started a GoFundMe campaign, my best friend, who’s another Haas alumni, Tyler Douglas, his mom wanted to help and asked if she could start a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for my rehabilitation expenses, because I’m sure you can imagine breaking your neck is not a smart financial decision. Rehabilitation costs a lot of money. And all the expenses down the road, like car conversions, house conversions, and ongoing therapy, it takes a lot. And I was just so blown away by the amount of support that I’ve received. It continues to shock me to this day.
There were people in our Haas community and the Cal community at large, the Cal athletics community, the rugby community, Bay Area, Sacramento, all over the globe, complete strangers contributing to my rehabilitation. But then giving me their love, giving me their support, just telling me that they believed in me when others didn’t, it gave me everything I needed to be able to make it past those moments. I’m forever grateful to everything that those people had done for me in the past and continue to do for me to this day.
And I think it goes to show just how special of a community that we’re in, because people break their necks every single day, and people are going to break their necks or have broken their necks today, and we won’t hear about it. It’s something about this community where, should one of us fall, we have thousands of people all across the world there to pick us up, to keep us going. It’s just such a selfless place. I’m just so proud and lucky to be a part of it, because I would not have made it through that first month if it weren’t for that support that I had received.
[25:48] Chris: That’s crazy. Robert, you ended up having to do a really prolonged rehab and therapy process. I think you also had to leave the Bay Area. If I understand correctly, you went to Colorado in order to do a lot of that.
[26:00] Robert: That’s right.
[26:00] Chris: Can you explain a little bit of what that process was like, once you were stable and you were able to be moved, why you ended up deciding to go there, and what was that process like?
[26:09] Robert: Yeah. So, like I said, I started off in Santa Clara where I had my injury. And they did an amazing job dealing with the acute issues of my injury, like that pneumonia, the inability to swallow, avoiding skin sores, stuff like that. But the rehabilitation wasn’t up to par with what I was hoping to receive. It was a public hospital. So, there’s some limitations around the amount of therapy that they could give to people. It was around three hours of therapy a day, which for many people is plenty, more than a lot of people can handle. As you can imagine, it’s very difficult—physically and mentally challenging—to will your body to start moving in to try and rebuild or awaken connections that had gone dormant.
But me, having that athlete’s mindset, that physical conditioning, or just competitive mindset and ambitious mindset and goals, I now wanted to do eight hours of therapy, nine hours of therapy. I just packed my schedule with as many things as we can put on there. My doctors explained to me that, while my injury was chronic, I did have some influence over the outcomes. So, the more effort that I put into this, the more likely it was that I was going to progress more. It was certainly not a guarantee, but the only guarantee is that I would not improve if I didn’t put in the effort. So, I thought, this is the thing that I can control. This is the next most important thing. And that’s what I’m going to be doing.
So, we did some research into other hospitals. And we decided upon Craig Hospital, which is just outside of Denver, Colorado. They specialize in spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries. And their approach was so beautiful. It was perfect for me. And they had great bedside manners. My first conversation with my doctors and care team, we all got together and they said, “Robert, yes, what happened to you, it’s terrible. But we don’t know where you’re going to progress from here. You might walk out of these doors one day, and you very well might not. But the one thing we’ll guarantee you is that we are going to give you everything that modern science and medicine has to optimize this recovery.”
So, they were realistic about it all. They weren’t trying to give me false hope and saying, “Oh, everything’s going to be fine,” because that wouldn’t have helped me. They weren’t giving me false hopelessness by saying everything’s not going to be fine and you’re not going to progress, when it very well could. They were taking that I don’t know approach, but we’re going to give it everything that we got.
And it gave me so much hope and belief in this process. I did that eight to nine hours of therapy every day—physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, classes that I was going to learn about this injury, and finding new adaptive ways for me to be able to return back to Cal, to get my degree and continue to do the things that I loved and that I hope to achieve. I spent almost a year at that hospital in Denver. And over the course of that year, I came in there not able to move anything below my chest. And I was slowly able to twitch a finger or twitch a toe. And about 365 days later, I got on my feet into my walker with assistance. And I was able to walk out of the hospital borders, and just had an optimism about my life greater than I ever had before my injury, with plans to go back to UC Berkeley. By that time, I had been accepted into Haas. I was really excited for that new chapter in my life, something that I did not have before my injury.
I knew that there would be challenges going back to Berkeley, and I’ll tell you there were. But I was at a point one time in my life where I would’ve given anything to have those challenges. When folks in schools are complaining about midterm season and final seasons and we’re up late and we’re up early and complaining about that, I had nothing to complain about, because I know at one point I was in a situation where I would give anything to be in that point. So, that hospital did wonders for me, and it set me on a great trajectory.
[29:55] Chris: That’s awesome. Robert, as you mentioned, when you completed the rehab, you ended up coming back to campus, which I don’t know if a lot of people would’ve even been that brave, but you decided to not only come back to campus, but also you came into Haas, which is really an incredibly rigorous, especially undergraduate program, is incredibly rigorous. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like when you stepped back into the classroom and you’re a Haas student now? And what was it like managing all the things outside of your rehab, and now you’re in the classroom? And then, can you talk about what was going through your mind in terms of, “Okay, I’m developing a career focusing on the future,” and how you were thinking about what you wanted to do, both while you were in school and then post-grad?
[30:34] Robert: Getting out of the hospital and going back to UC Berkeley to get my degree was just the return to my life. Everything seemed so much like it had been put on hold for a year. And I was living vicariously through a lot of my friends and FaceTime calls and just keeping up with them. So, when I returned back to Cal, it was like, I’m back on the path of where I was. Things were certainly quite different. But that does not mean that they were worse, in any regard. But there were significant challenges. One thing is just the hills of Berkeley. I use a manual wheelchair. I have a little thing. It’s called a SmartDrive. It’s like an electric motor that goes on the back of my wheelchair. I’m a bigger guy and they make movies about the hills of Berkeley. It’s a significant challenge for a person in a wheelchair.
So, what my teammates did and my coaches, they set up a spreadsheet of all my classes and all my workouts, where I needed to go when I needed to be there. And it was on a Google Sheet. So, it was live updating. And they would sign up for these slots to help me navigate around campus or up to the HPC where the student athletes train. I couldn’t have done it without them. I couldn’t have gone back to school. I wouldn’t have graduated. I couldn’t have done any of that if it weren’t for my teammates being there for me. And it was very clear that they were my teammates, whether I was putting my cleats on there with them or not. I knew I would always be a member of the Cal rugby team for life, no matter what happened to me. And I could always rely on them for support, just as they could rely on me as well. So, that’s something that was really great about my return.
My coach, assistant head coach of the Cal rugby team, Coach Billups, runs our strength and conditioning program over at Cal. And I was very nervous about returning to Cal, because I didn’t want to stop my rehabilitation. I had made great progress. I had a lot of momentum from Craig Hospital. And I wanted to keep my foot on the gas for that when I got back to Cal. And Coach Billups, I didn’t even have to ask, “Hey, can you help me with my rehab? I know it’s going to be a lot. I know you have no prior experience in this field, but I need help.” He came up and was very proactive about that. Just asking, what do I need to read? Who do I need to talk to? What do we need to do so that when you return to Cal you’re going to continue this physical progression?
And it’s amazing. Some of the most significant physical progress I’ve had is under the care and attention of Coach Billups, the rugby coach—not specialized and trained in neurological rehabilitation, but someone who cares deeply and took his knowledge of the body and of building strength and conditioning and his knowledge of the neurological system to be able to help me make immense gains throughout the two years that I had been completing my degree at Cal. And then we start balancing that with the rigors of studying at the number one public university in the world with the business program. It was a task. And gosh, by the end of my last two semesters, I was taking six classes, both semesters, just a full course load, and staying on top of my rehabilitation as well. But I’ll keep coming back to it. There was a point in my life when I would’ve given anything to be able to have that.
So, in those moments when it was tough and that negativity and those complaints were trying to creep their way in, it was always overshadowed by the fact that this was a real gift and there’s a lot of people in this world who would give anything to be in this situation. And I always tried to live with that. And just business in general, I always had a liking to the coursework. And it came a lot easier to me than other subjects. And I have lifelong friends that I’ve made, going to Haas, and continue to stay in contact with to this day, and meet strangers all the time. The only commonality that we have is we both went to Haas and we’re immediately friends. We have that shared connection. It was such a joy and such a gift to be able to return and to have a lot of people there helping me get through it.
[34:23] Chris: Robert, that’s amazing to hear. One of the things that, especially, folks who have been on campus and have gone through the Haas experience know is, it’s not just your time at Haas, but everyone’s thinking about the future and wanting to leave a positive legacy or impactful legacy. You’ve graduated now from the program. And now, you’ve really started to cement this place in public speaking or motivational speaking. How did you come up with that as your path? And what were some of the science or things that helped you to go down that path and lead you in that direction?
[34:52] Robert: It was really quite a journey. It really started out very early on in my injury. We’re talking about the first week or two, where these seeds would start being planted in my head of, Robert, you have this amazing, inspiring story. You tell it very well. You should think about doing this for a career. There’s a lot of organizations, businesses, sports teams, schools, the whole lot looking to have this message delivered to their team. Think about it.
So, it was always in the back of my head as this was going on. And very shortly after I made my return to Cal in 2018, a now very good friend of mine, mentor, and a former professor of mine, Solly Fulp, came out to me. He teaches a sports management class in Haas School of Business. And I was coming over, just having a coffee with him over in the business school. And he was saying, “Robert, I would really love for you to come in and speak to my classmates. Share your story. And share the tools that have helped you overcome this challenge, because your challenges are visible.” People look at me, and they see someone who goes through a lot every day. It’s the nature of my challenge. But everybody has a challenge. Most of them, we just can’t see. He was telling me stories of the adversities that some of his classmates are going through.
It really touched my heart. And I appreciated that opportunity, because it opened that door that I had been waiting for to start thinking about really sharing this story. So, when I did that, I immediately reached out to my rugby coach, Jack Clark, the head coach of the rugby team, an incredible speaker, very highly sought-after, understands language, communicating with people, building organizations and high-performing teams, and cared very deeply and still does assist me very much with my story and with my ambitions and success in life. So, I reached out to him right away. And I had gotten out a piece of paper. I wrote down all the things that have helped me throughout my injury. I started spider-webbing all the different stories that have been brought out from that, how it continues to help me to this day. And we sat down, and we crafted about a 20-minute speech, which was the longest speech I had ever given at the time.
And I remember getting up there. It was an 8:00 a.m. class, up at the top of Chou Hall. And, probably about 50 students, something like that, all laid out in an inverted U-shape in front of me. Coach Clark gave this very great introduction. And then it was my turn to speak. This being my first speech, I had it all, the whole script right in front of me and was speaking like a politician style, like look at my notes, look up, the classic style of speaking.
And it became very clear to me how moving this was for the audience. They were laughing. And when I get into the more serious moments, they’re crying. And in the end, it was a standing ovation. People came up to me afterwards, really pouring out their hearts of the things that they were going through and how much this was helping them. I think, wow, I just found my purpose in life. After that class, I went back to my room. I put my bag down, and I just thought, when is the next time I can do that? It was a real gift that had been revealed for my life.
Then, from there, I had completed a couple of internships with Intel over in their Folsom campus in the Sacramento area, doing operations internships. And I loved the company. I loved the work. And did pretty well with it. They offered me a full-time job upon my graduation. And I had the opportunity to speak to their America’s operations team, a pretty big speech, just a step-up from the class speech that I had given. And I’m talking to the Cs and professionals as the intern. I’m the low man in the totem pole giving advice to senior vice presidents and stuff like that. And it was an equally successful speech. They’re laughing, they’re crying, standing ovation. People are coming up to me after that, saying, “Robert, you’re doing a great job as an intern here. You should really think about pursuing this as a potential career. You clearly have a gift for it. The story should be used. It should be shared.”
So, when the time came to decide what I was going to do with my career, I took that leap of faith into public speaking. I very graciously turned down the offer to Intel. They were 100% supportive of it, and have continued to be supportive of my speaking endeavors to this day. And that’s when I really got serious with Coach Clark. We sat down for about a semester and a half, every week, just really wrapping our minds around this message, thinking about what these future clients of mine are going through and would be going through and how I can relate this message best to them, give them some tools that they can go take into their personal lives and into that workplace, back home to their families, to be able to overcome any challenge or accomplish any goal that they have in their lives. And it’s given me the opportunity to give a TEDx Talk and speak to multiple Fortune 500 companies, all the way down to back to my high school, little K to grade school, stuff like that in the area, and everything in between.
It has revealed to me the gift in this challenge of breaking my neck and something that I never could have anticipated. I think anybody, when I broke my neck, would’ve thought, “This is all just going to be negative for Robert. It’s all just going to be things taken away.” This injury has given me so much more than it took from me because of the ability to share this story, to inspire others, and to have a purpose in my life that I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t break my neck. That purpose is so powerful. It continues to propel me in my rehab. It’s what I’m most grateful for in my life. And I’m just so appreciative of all the people who have got me to this point and continue to help me find more opportunities and spread this message that I really think the world needs to hear.
[40:30] Chris: That’s awesome, Robert. Could you share a little bit about your public speaking and, typically, how you might engage with organizations or groups? I know there are a ton of Haasies that coordinate talks like this who would love to just hear more about it. And how could people, maybe, get connected and connect with you on potentially speaking engagements and things like that?
[40:50] Robert: Yeah, absolutely. So, the overarching message of the speech first is in overcoming adversities. Like I talked about with that discussion I had with Professor Fulp, that everybody has a challenge. You can just see mine, but the tools that have helped me overcome this challenge can be used by anyone to optimally perform.
And then I also think everybody’s paralyzed by something. I’m paralyzed physically, and I deal with that every day. But I also face mental paralysis, emotional paralysis. We all face those things in our lives. There’s things that stop us from being our best. So, I pose that question to everyone to think about what paralyzes them. And then I begin to share my story of paralysis, overcoming that paralysis, and then the tools I’ve learned over these last five years that have helped me to overcome that and really thrive throughout, both the situation of my injury and other areas of my life. So, that’s the overarching theme. And then, it’s mostly been to the corporate audience, especially, with everything that’s gone in the last couple years with the COVID pandemic. But as things continue to progress and grow for businesses out of that period, now it’s about accomplishing goals. It’s about reaching new heights. And this message is so applicable to that.
So, I’m definitely not a difficult guy to find. I’m on LinkedIn. I got a monopoly on the name, Robert Paylor. There’s not a lot of Paylors out there in the world. But my email is robertpaylor.com. And all of this stuff can be found on my website, robertpaylor.com. And I just so appreciate anybody reaching out, whether it’s for speaking engagement or just the opportunity to chat and connect. I get so much out of sharing my story on whatever scale this is. And I can be reached through any of these avenues. And also, I just wrapped up the first draft of my book. So, that’s something I’ve been working on for the last year here. Giving an hour-speech or a podcast, I can only really scrape the surface of the depth of these experiences that I’ve had. And this format of the book really allows me to do that. So, in the editing process right now. And it’s my hope that I can get that on a shelf in a year and a half, probably looking around that estimated time frame. So, just another great opportunity for me to be able to share this story and, hopefully, help some people.
[43:05] Chris: Robert, we have a tradition on the podcast. We usually call it a lightning round, but we’ve changed it to words of wisdom. You have graduated and definitely, although maybe earlier in a professional career, really have just already a lifetime of probably wisdom to share with folks. We’d love to end our podcast today with just some words of wisdom from you and some things you might advice that you might share with other folks. So, if you’d be up for it, we’d love to go through it with you.
[43:28] Robert: Absolutely. My go-to for this is to be grateful for every single day and every single moment. It’s the advice that I would give to myself if I could go back and talk to myself on May 6th, 2017. It would just be to be grateful for every day you have. And that was a really difficult thing for me to be able to do at first when I was in that hospital bed. I couldn’t move anything. I was fighting for my life, thinking about what my life was and what I had lost, and so much uncertainty about the future. But I still had a lot of positive things around me. I still had a lot to be grateful for. And this injury has shown me that life is fragile and life is a gift, and we ought to treat our life like a gift, to embrace it, to be grateful for it, to have the joy of receiving that gift every day. There’s going to be challenges that impact us in our lives. And we don’t have any control over that. But regardless, we ought to always focus on the positive things we have in our lives. There’s always somebody who has it worse, and that’s important for us to realize as well, to maintain that perspective, both looking through our experiences and the experiences of others and to help us have that gratitude, just to realize the immense great things we have in our lives and just to never forget it. And when we start feeling down, to try to control our mindsets and remember that. That’s my own words of wisdom.
[44:56] Chris: That’s awesome, Robert. Robert, it’s been great to have you on the podcast. Super excited for you and your public speaking and your—fingers crossed—upcoming book, for when that gets released. And I just want to say thanks again, and wish you all the best. Can’t say thank you enough, Robert. Super inspiring, and glad to have you on the podcast today.
[45:13] Robert: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Chris. Go, bears.
[45:15] Chris: Go, bears.