From Bullied to Business

Author James Michael Lafferty with wife Carol and family at the recent Philippine Bench Press National Championships.

It would be difficult to find a more referenced topic in the press today than bullying in some shape or form. From Donald Trump’s alleged bullying of his critics; to controversial internet-sensation videos such as the one this past week of 11-year-old Keaton Jones crying about bullies; to the “#MeToo” movement and the unmasking of past histories of sexual harassment; barely a day goes by when the topic is not in the press.

These stories touch a huge chord inside me. They take me back to the period of 1969 through 1977.

I can sympathize deeply, on a visceral level, with people who are bullied. I was bullied, incessantly, starting from when I started first grade at six years old, all the way to the start of high school at 14.

I was the perfect target of bullies. I was a sensitive kid with a huge heart. I was skinny — no, let’s say scrawny — nothing but skin and bones. I had no muscle whatsoever and was at best an average athlete. Boys are taught by society at an early age to appraise other boys based on size, muscularity, strength, athletic prowess, and perceived toughness. I had none of these. And the bullies in the neighborhood and at school zeroed in on me.

Only now can I recognize how much I hated my life. How I lived in fear.  I was beat up every day at the bus stop. Sometimes my mom would go with me to protect me, only to have the punching start the minute I got on the bus. Making Jim Lafferty cry, or give up his school lunch money, was a daily activity.

My happiest moments in my recollection were “snow days,” when school would be cancelled due to heavy snows in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. Or when I would look out the window at the bus stop in front of my house, and not see the main bully “Tommy” at the bus stop. Maybe he was ill, I don’t know. But when I did not see him, at least I knew I would have one day — one bus ride — free from abuse. I can recall now, more than 40 years later, the feeling of exuberance at having a “free day” where I knew I would not be bullied.

This was my life from age six to 14. I never talked about it. My parents thought it was a sporadic issue, mainly when I came home with a split lip or bloody nose — I never let on to them about the daily taunts and punches. Sometimes a truly wise and observant teacher would shrewdly help me, but for the most part my teachers were clueless. Bullies are smart. They know when and where they can change from “nice kid” to “bully.”  Most school administrators simply aren’t observant enough to figure it out.

But I wasn’t a victim and I refuse to use the word. Sometime around the age of 13 or 14, I read a statement in a book: “Nobody walks on you unless you let them.” It rang a chord with me. I was letting people walk on me. I just somehow needed the confidence to no longer let them!

The dynamic of bullying is all about self-confidence, on both sides of the coin. The bully is fundamentally lacking in self-confidence, so they attempt to prove self-esteem and worth through bullying someone weaker. To show they are strong and powerful. And the bullied also suffers from lack of self-confidence. They fear fighting back. They mistakenly think the solution is to “be nice” and “avoid confrontation” and they lack the confidence to confront the issues head-on.

But here is the good news: while both the bully and the bullied lack confidence, the bully is the far weaker individual. To build self-confidence, the bully must abuse a fellow human being. Their self-confidence is so weak they must traumatize another person to feel strong. They are that weak. The bullied, on the other hand, has a backbone made of steel, forged by the incessant taunts and punches to the gut. They are strong. They just don’t know it yet. That steel backbone needs awakening. And it takes the right confluence of events to wake them up. Karma, or fate, must come into play.

My karma came in August of 1977. And I have my skateboard to thank. Around the time I read the quote that impacted me so much (“Nobody walks on you unless you let them”) I was with a few friends and our new skateboards. We decided to try a steep hill in the neighborhood. Halfway down the hill, I was going too fast and I jumped off my skateboard. Well, I was going too fast so I took a tumble. I caught myself with my hand on the pavement and rolled over onto my shoulder. When I landed upright I knew something was wrong. I could not move my wrist or my arm. I had fractured my wrist on the fall, and the subsequent roll fractured my collarbone.

Six weeks in a cast. And starting high school at St. Xavier. My entire arm immobilized. And when those six weeks passed, and the casts came off, well, I had reached a new level of skinny on the left arm! The atrophy of what little muscle I had left me looking half-starving.

With basketball tryouts looming, and realizing I needed to rebuild some strength, I was forced to do something I never liked: lift weights. So, every day, I was in the Xavier weight room with the football team, lifting and learning how to train.

For about two months this went on. I never noticed anything looking in the mirror. I still looked the same. But just about the time when I was about to stop, and had decided my initial strength was back, I ran into Tommy, the old bully, by chance — he went to a different school. Expecting to get taunted and beat up, I got an entirely different reaction.

Tommy said to me, “Hey, have you been lifting weights? You look bigger.” He was sizing me up. And then he stuck out his hand to shake mine, and said, “Nice to see you, Jim.” He treated me with total respect.

That was all I needed. Nobody had ever said anything like that to me before. I was hooked on weights!

I never missed a workout. On family vacations, I would train in the hotel room and do pushups between the beds, and arm curls with the luggage. On Christmas Day, I would open presents with my family, then run to school and sneak in through the Jesuit entrance and slip into the gym for a two-hour session.

I learned that we are all stuck with the body God gave us, but God also gave us a brain and willpower. Yes, I was not a very gifted athlete. But I could train. I could work harder than everyone else. I could get stronger!

By the second year of high school, I set the school record in pull-ups. By senior year, I was among the top five or so strongest guys in school.

Bullies suddenly left me alone. They treated me with respect. Bullies have low self-esteem. They only go after what they consider easy targets.

I learned that men fundamentally never leave the locker room. We size everyone up when we are all 13 or 14 and ask ourselves, “Can I compete with this guy?” And this never changes. In our 20s we do the same thing. In our 30s, 40s, 50s. I am pushing 55, and still get comments about, “You must lift weights,” or similar statements. Men never leave the locker room. Just the definition of the “locker room” changes.

I have told many groups I have spoken to that I owe the weight room everything. It changed my life. Becoming stronger physically gave me confidence. I stopped the bullying. I grew extremely self-confident. And self-confidence is a virtuous cycle — once it starts it feeds itself, and breeds more self-confidence.  This got me to where I am today. Had I never touched a weight in my life, I would never be a CEO today. It’s that simple.

I owe the weight room so very much for the successes in my life. More than I can ever repay. So I still go at it. Forty years later, I am still a gym rat. Still hitting the weights two or three times per week. Even competing in the occasional weightlifting competition. It’s still in my blood. And it all goes back to 1977.

We talk so much about dealing with bullies and subjects like that. I believe the approach is backwards and all wrong. The solution is not to single-mindedly focus on teaching bullies to stop — there have always been bullies and there will always be bullies. The solution lies in helping the bullied. How to awaken the strength within them? This is where success lies. Stopping bullies is rooted in helping the bullied stand up for themselves. To overcome the fear and to grow their own intrinsic self-confidence.

I have met so many over the years in weight rooms who have a similar story to mine. People who saw the old Charles Atlas advertising in the 1960s or ’70s of the man being bullied on the beach, and using weights to build muscle and self-confidence. I know people who have had self-confidence transformed by running a marathon, or by joining the military. Learning boxing.  Or in the case of the “#metoo” movement, having a few strong individuals give strength to more and more women to speak up. This is the solution: fighting back. Bullies draw their strength from a belief they can get away with it. You take that away, and the bully loses all strength.

I believe all the bullied have their own “weight room” — the switch that turns on their courage to stand up and fight back. I just hope everyone who is bullied finds their own personal switch.

Want to join in a few sets of bench presses?