A Life of Passion and Focus

MDA's National Personal Achievement Award recipient spreads inspiration, motivation wherever he goes

by Tara Wood on November 1, 2003 - 1:02pm

Have even a brief conversation with Nicholas A. Johnson and you're likely to come away feeling motivated, upbeat and even inspired.

Nick A. Johnson
Nick Johnson, on the job, at BR+A Consulting

And that's just the way he wants it.

Johnson, 39, of Waltham, Mass., is known for having a positive outlook that's unshakable and, fortunately for the rest of us, contagious.

After all, Nick Johnson is a guy who not only follows his own advice, but really means it when he says things like, "Do the best you can to manage yourself, and live each day with as much passion as you can."

It's an attitude that contributed to his selection as MDA's 2004 National Personal Achievement Award recipient. Johnson, who also received his state's award in 1995, was selected for this years honor announced on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon from state awardees nationwide.

Yet his enthusiasm for living is just part of the big picture when it comes to Johnson and the success he enjoys in many facets of his life: He also has an intense drive for success and achievement in both his professional and personal lives.

It's that same never-look-back determination that has helped him deal with the dramatic changes he's experienced since receiving a diagnosis of Friedreich's ataxia at age 19.

Priorities in order

Johnson is an authority in his engineering field and an active member of many professional organizations. He also devotes his spare time to MDA, other charitable causes and mentoring young people with disabilities.

But ask him what he's proudest of in his life and he doesn't hesitate.

"My marriage," he said of his three-year union with his wife, Susan, a dental hygienist.

"My wife is a big, big inspiration to me," Johnson said. "We really do have a great life together. I was extremely fortunate to meet her, and to be part of her life."

Johnson said his wife provides crucial motivation in all aspects of his life, including his career. He's worked for 18 years in the field of heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

As an associate and senior engineer for BR+A Consulting in Boston, one of the top engineering firms in the nation, Johnson describes his work as "performing a variety of engineering tasks with a focus on energy analysis."

"I'm the engineer who helps implement energy-efficient design features while staying within budgetary constraints," he explains.

His firm specializes in the design of hospitals, medical centers, laboratories and universities worldwide. Johnson's credentials and experience separate him from the crowd. He is a registered professional engineer, a certified energy manager and a certified LEED engineer (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). The combination of these credentials makes Johnson a "green" engineer, working to ensure that facilities BR+A designs are as energy-efficient and environmentally friendly as financially feasible.

Johnson is also a leader in professional organizations, having served as president of the Boston Chapter of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers with a membership of 1,000. He was also chairman of the Massachusetts State Energy Advisory Committee from 1996 to 2000.

Beyond his busy workweek, Johnson finds time to help MDA in many ways.

"The MDA has become a large part of my life," Johnson said, and that makes receiving the National Personal Achievement Award even more meaningful. "It's very humbling and truly an honor to get recognized for something like this, and recognized for something that's very important to me."

He's appeared on several local broadcasts of the MDA Telethon, and can be counted on to get involved with or represent the Association at special events.

Johnson said that when he speaks about MDA, he emphasizes the importance of hope MDA provides because of the potential for treatments and cures.

"You can't really put a number on that. That's kind of like that commercial says, it's priceless," he said.

Johnson currently serves on MDA's National Task Force on Public Awareness, where he has the opportunity to weigh in on a variety of issues that affect people with neuromuscular diseases.

As a mentor to young people with Friedreich's ataxia, his goal is to lead by example and show that much can be accomplished despite the many challenges of living with a disability.

"They don't just have to sit at home with the remote control at the TV. They can do things. They can get out there each and every day," Johnson said. "But they have to do the hard part: they're the ones that have to put themselves on the line."

Spreading a message

Johnson is embarking on an additional venture, one that he hopes could become a side career: motivational speaking.

"I've been very fortunate in that I've been exposed to a lot of different things in life in my career, in my friendships, the people at MDA and if I can share some of those experiences with people, it might be beneficial to them," he said.

In addition to the speaking opportunities for MDA, Johnson hopes to speak to corporate groups, people with disabilities who are trying to lead independent lives, and groups interested in helping charities.

At the heart of his message is the idea that life is a gift that shouldn't be taken for granted, and that success is attainable if you're willing to live with a consistent intensity and focus.

"One thing I tell younger people is to try and live a proactive life, not a reactive life. If you have a series of goals and you're going after them each and every day, you won't find yourself behind the eight ball someday with your back against the wall," he said.

Having goals to reach your potential is another idea that he emphasizes. Johnson credits motivational speaker and author Anthony Robbins with influencing many of his own ideas, particularly Robbins' concept of living a life of "CANI," or "Constant And Never-ending Improvement."

Johnson can also draw from his own experiences.

"I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be in this situation [disabled by FA].

"In my young teens I was a good athlete, and I went from running fast, to running slow, to walking, to a cane, to a walker, to a manual chair, and now I'm using a power chair," Johnson said. "You know, every day it takes a little physical bit from you, and you have to kind of cope with that mentally."

Nick Johnson chooses to keep his focus on what he still can do, and likes to take stock of the good things in his life.

"Everyone's facing their own challenges, and everyone's challenges are different. It's important to face those challenges or adversity the best way you can, every day," he said.

"There are always things to be thankful for. If you can find those things, then you're way ahead."

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