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The Impossible Man
Jon Morrow built a multi-million-dollar business and defies all odds despite only being able to move his face. Now we're teaming up to write his story ... and sharing every step along the way.
UPDATE: The Impossible Man podcast is now live! Listen, subscribe, and comment here.
The way you hear about titans — that’s how I first heard about Jon Morrow.
Fifteen years ago, my life was a mess. Panic attacks had driven me from the genetics Ph.D I’d been pursuing, leading to a part-time coffee shop job and eventually a bankruptcy. I wanted a creative and stable way to pay the bills, but as my accountant-minded wife Robin is fond of observing, “creative” and “stable” rarely go together.
Google led me to blogging — the trendiest way to earn online in the early 2000s. There were two enormous players in the blogosphere I ended up orbiting: Problogger and Copyblogger. The most popular, most viral post on both websites — by far — had been written by someone I assumed to be a combination of Einstein and a ninja: that quiet celebrity of the blogging world, Jon Morrow.
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Jon’s reputation in those days, in the niche world of copywriting and content marketing, was that of a quiet assassin. Nobody knew much about him beyond his byline and his uncanny ability to sell people on his ideas.
What we did know was that Jon Friggin Morrow could sell anything. He could charge $1000 an hour for consulting and prospects would line up around the block. He could make posts go viral on command. He could make pacifists march to war, or the other way around. Everyone — included me — could only hope one day to wake up as powerful as Jon Morrow … but because that was obviously impossible, we’d settle for him replying to our Tweets, or commenting on our comments.
It wasn’t until I read “On Dying, Mothers, and Fighting For Your Ideas” that I realized Jon wasn’t the seven-foot Thor he seemed to be on the page. Turned out he was afflicted with a degenerative disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (cousin to ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), leaving him unable to move anything other than his face.
This was my response to that epic blog post: the first words I ever wrote in Jon’s direction, way back in 2012:
Not long after I wrote it, Jon replied to the email he’d gotten notifying him of my comment. I think it was just a smiley face, nothing more. We’ve been friends ever since.
Now. Here’s the important part: Jon’s ability to command the internet with his writing was impressive given his disability, but that’s not what truly blew me away. That’s not what made me holy shit all over the place. After all, writing well doesn’t make people think you’re Thor.
Attitude does that. Confidence does that. Unmitigated, unquestionable, without-reservations competence does that. I don’t know if I can effectively convey this to you eleven years later, but there’s something about the way Jon presents himself that makes you forget he has any disability whatsoever. I’ve watched Jon navigate his wheelchair using a mouth straw for over a decade now, and I’d still reach for my shoes if he told me he wanted to play me in racquetball.
Of course I know better … but it’s like Jon doesn’t.
I’m not trying to tell you he’s inspiring. I’m not trying to say he has a positive attitude like some sappy Hallmark movie. It’s nothing like that — not even close. It’s closer to the truth to say that Jon refuses to bow to reality. He’s not in denial; he just doesn’t like anyone telling him what to do. His defiant, stubborn refusal to obey “his proper lot in life” comes off him like heat.
Take away the visual, and you’d believe anything and everything about Jon just because of the way he speaks. Nobody speaks that way. People with a thousand times Jon’s physical ability sound weak and pathetic by comparison. No wonder I thought he was a titan.
For years, people have been harassing Jon to write a book about his struggles and triumphs. For years he’s been putting it off, unwilling to spend the hours upon hours plunging his painful past that writing such a book would require.
So Jon asked me if I’d write it with him. If I’d be his co-author. He even told me a title he’d considered, though neither of us are sure it’s right. That title is The Impossible Man.
I was confused. “Why impossible?” I asked him.
“Because more times than I can count, I’ve beaten odds far worse than 99-to-1,” Jon told me, “and most were things people think you can’t control at all.”
“So … What?” I asked. “Are you telling me you can bend probability to your will? That people can defy the laws of nature and existence to do things that are supposed to be impossible?”
One thing that works just fine on Jon is his smile: the sideways, cocksure, devil-may-care smile worn only by people who always seem to get what they want, as if the world itself stands no chance when pitted against them.
He gave me that smile and said, “Well … I can.”
What an egomaniacal asshole.
On Living, Guys in Wheelchairs, and Fighting for Avocados
The one part of Jon that never atrophied was his ego. He enters most engagements certain that he’s the smartest guy in the room, and won’t hesitate to tell you when you’re wrong. I’m not speaking out of turn here. Jon is well aware that his attitude is out of control. That’s a good thing, though. I’m pretty sure the only reason the reaper hasn’t taken him yet is because he doesn’t want the hassle.
Until yesterday, while Jon and I were considering angles for the book he’s repeatedly been offered six figures to write, I hadn’t heard the many ways he considers himself to be “impossible.” I knew he was a stone-cold badass, a Professor X-level genius (“all the smartest guys use wheelchairs”), and understatedly hilarious, but I’d yet to hear about this impossible thing.
Frankly, I wasn’t buying it. Jon likes to brag about himself. What else was new?
Yeah, he’d built a business. It’s incredibly successful and well-respected — far more successful than anything I’ve ever done. Yeah, he’s dating a woman who I’d swear was a model. Yeah, he’s landed some big, low-percentage deals in his life. But to me, those things weren’t impossible. They were difficult, but Jon’s intellect was up to the task.
But then he told me how he should be dead by now, simply because he has SMA. Doctors have been telling him from Go that he wouldn’t make it to age twenty, then thirty, then forty.
He told me about the sixteen times he’s had pneumonia, many of which were nearly fatal.
He told me about the time he got meningitis. Even able-bodied people only have a twenty percent chance of survival, and that’s if they get to a hospital quickly. Jon died on the proverbial table and had to be resuscitated. Twice.
He told me about the horrific car crash he was in, which crushed his legs and decimated his back. If his legs weren’t already out of commission, that crash would have done it for him.
The back surgery.
The crippling cost of providing his own healthcare, which requires the constant presence of a caregiver. He can’t eat by himself, remember. Everywhere he goes, he needs an entourage of nurses.
The list went on and on. And on. And on. By the end of our conversation, I believed Jon when he said he’s spent his life dodging bullets. Dodging bullets is hard for a guy who can’t move. So here he was, telling me the answer was to stop them with his mind, like Neo in The Matrix.
“Could you teach other people to do impossible things?” I asked.
Jon’s reply couldn’t possibly have been more in character. He said, “Of course. It’s not complicated. It’s just really damn hard, and almost nobody wants to do what it takes.”
“But they can,” I said, “if they really want to.”
Jon can’t nod, so he just gave me a look.
“Then that’s what your book should be about,” I said. “Teaching people how to defy steep odds, and do the impossible.”
Because here’s the thing: Jon really does move objects with his mind. He doesn’t do it with telekinesis, but instead by learning everything he can about what he wants moved, then exploiting a weakness in the situation to his advantage. He might bargain with someone else to move the object. He might concoct an absurd Rube-Goldberg solution nobody sees coming until exactly what he wants drops right into his lap.
Here’s an example: When changes in medical costs, income, and insurance left Jon temporarily unable to pay for his caregivers and doctor bills, he faced a choice: He could surrender his career, go on public assistance, and enter a state-sponsored facility where substandard care would be free … or he could work harder than seemed possible and somehow, somehow eke out enough money to survive even though all of his leads were dry at the time.
Jon’s choice was neither. Instead, his solution was to move to Mexico. He relocated to an oceanside resort community, sat on his sunny balcony all day, and hired a bunch of Registered Nurses that cost a fraction in Mexico of what even unlicensed caregivers cost in the US.
Jon was insufferable on the heels of his Mexican victory. At the time I was living through an Ohio winter, and yet this asshole wouldn’t stop telling me how great his weather was and how he was living the Good Life: capital G, capital L. He was always talking about avocados. Every time we talked, he’d say, “They’re so cheap down here, you wouldn’t believe it!”
It became an obsession. I considered the age-old playground rebuttal, suggesting that if he liked avocados so damn much, maybe he should marry one.
Attitude is everything
After digging into the “impossible” issue for a couple of hours on our call, I became convinced of two things:
First, Jon really can shift the probability of events in his favor, even if they’re things (like health) that aren’t supposed to be shiftable.
And second, it’s his attitude and beliefs that make those shifts possible.
Some of that attitude is simply an extreme form of thinking outside the box. It’s so extreme that sometimes what he’s really doing is waiting until the back of whoever’s in charge is turned, then switching the undesirable box out for a better one. Some people call that cheating. Jon calls is being smart.
When I marveled at his Mexico solution (which had turned a Hell situation into paradise), Jon cited the time Star Trek’s Captain Kirk passed the intentionally-impassable “Kobayashi Maru” test by cheating. He told me, “If you can’t win the game, change the rules.”
Sometimes, though, thinking outside the box isn’t enough. When I asked Jon how the hell he could outsmart the pneumonia that should have killed him, he actually had an answer. He cited the idea of “first principles thinking,” which demands you go deep until you reach the root of a problem. In this case, it meant totally and completely disbelieving his doctors, and instead learning everything he could about lung anatomy. When his next bout came, the treatment that saved Jon was one the doctors hadn’t even heard of … but that Jon, because he’d done his due diligence, had.
“Don’t start with doctors,” he said. “Start with anatomy instead.”
Considering the vibe for his book, Jon most liked that of Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins — minus Goggins’s “toughen your ass up” attitude and rapid-fire swearing. Since I’ll be the one actually penning the words, I immediately grabbed a copy of Can’t Hurt Me and started reading. Immediately I saw the parallels, along with what will be our differences.
Can’t Hurt Me is about becoming bulletproof — about finding what you think are your limits, then blowing right through them. Jon’s story requires a similar but different type of bulletproof: the kind you don’t need to go out and find so much as delve deep to pull from within you.
Because, see, it really is all about attitude. I thought Jon was telling me he could do magic when he said he could defy any set of odds (something I wouldn’t put past him, especially since he’s already compared himself to Harry Potter), but it’s not magic at all. It is, instead, the extreme maximization of potential that made me love the book Dune so much.
In Dune, the Bene Gesserit and Fremen aren’t supernatural … with just a few exceptions. They simply took ordinary human ability, then squeezed insane amounts of juice from it. How? Through training and mental discipline to maximize what’s already there — same as any wheelchair superhero.
Flipping the script
Jon doesn’t behave like a lot of disabled people. When Covid was just starting to end, he was one of my first friends ready to go out to restaurants, immunocompromisation be damned. He’s always out and about, hosting gatherings, and basically forgetting he might technically have some limitations.
But his behavior is nothing compared to the biggest source of his power: his beliefs and attitudes. Those came from his mother, who taught Jon to be bulletproof long before he could do it himself.
Here are some less-than-conventional things Jon’s said and done:
When Southwest Airlines refused to accommodate Jon’s needs as an “undue burden,” they started a fight without realizing who the hell they’d pissed off. It’s a long story, but Jon is now the only person in the country who’s been granted permission by the FAA to fly in his power wheelchair instead of an official airline seat … provided he gets his own plane.
He once told me it was “great” being disabled because he could cut in every line. Not just officially, by the way. It was totally and completely fair in Jon’s mind to manipulate people into letting him by even if they didn’t need to. “If you have a disability and accept all of the limitations but none of the benefits like cutting lines, you’re stupid,” he said. In cases like this, he thinks being proud is self-defeating. Being “that poor man” for a few minutes instead gets him to the nacho stand faster.
Another benefit? Low expectations. Jon sees this one sort of like hustling a game of pool. Hustlers play badly for a while so they can lower their marks’ defenses before moving in for the killing bet. Jon simply hustles life itself. “It’s great,” he said. “Nobody expects anything from me. If I can steer through a doorway without nicking the paint on the frame, people get so impressed that the next mediocre thing I do looks like a miracle.”
Those are just a few examples, but there are thousands more. Jon knows exactly what his life is and has accepted every inevitable bit of it … while simultaneously rejecting the parts he can scam into something different. He’s at once incredibly humble and self-aware … and also a total disobedient rascal.
You’d absolutely underestimate Jon if you met him.
Watch us do this thing
Words can’t convey how flattered I am that Jon’s chosen me to co-author his book. We don’t really need to wonder about demand. This book — a biography with a shitload of self-help lessons, just like Can’t Hurt Me — has been asked-for by agents, publishers, and Jon’s many fans for more than a decade now.
What’s stopped him so far is an unwillingness to delve into the past to write it, dredging up so many hard and painful memories. Working with someone he trusts solves that problem. Bonus points come from the fact that I’m a fiction author, because Jon as protagonist demands all the hallmarks of fiction — right down to the rise and fall of the story arc. (“I’m basically a superhero anyway,” he told me.)
Because we’re a pair of rule-breakers and outside-the-box thinkers, we’re enabling each other and doing everything the wrong way by normal publishing standards.
… and that’s where you come in.
See, I believe that real life is — or at least should be, if you pay attention — a story. That’s not how most people live, but it’s true. Most folks act like passengers to their lives when instead, they should be driving.
Real life should have a first act. A second act. A third act. Real life has supporting characters, a theme, and a genre. In life, a consciously-chosen storyline matters. Decisions in life must have purpose. Like in a novel, adversity and conflict sharpen the blade; they don’t make the hero surrender.
In order to tell Jon’s story, I’ll need to find his hero arc. I’ll need to identify the turning points in his life and what lesson they tell. Most of all, I’ll need to find his flaws and the ways he needed to heal those flaws — like any good fictional character — in order to grow and succeed.
(Jon and I have already explored some of this. Finding Jon’s flaw (and hence his arc) was hard as hell because he’s never not been confident. Heroes are supposed to learn confidence, not begin with it! The flaw and arc we uncovered — which was there all along, just like we knew it must be — were quite a pleasant surprise.)
Jon and I don’t know yet if his book will be called The Impossible Man, but we do know its purpose will be to teach the reader how to do impossible things. And that’s important. Because as much as I’ve poked fun at Jon’s attitude and ego in this post, he’s also an extremely kind and generous person. He knows he won’t live forever (what’s new? None of us will) and wants to make the world just a little bit better — and the lives of the people in it just a little bit happier — while he can.
Because we’re such outside-the-box guys, we’ve decided to let you in on the process of finding and writing Jon’s story. Jon’s hope is that you’ll see ways you can win your own impossible battles. For my part, I hope you’ll see how your life, too, can be the story you want it to be.
Curious about the process? Enter your email below to get a cheat sheet of the process we used to uncover Jon’s “character arc.”
What do you think? Let’s hear it in the comments below!