Standing 4 feet tall, Michele Sullivan says 'looking up' can change the world

Born with a rare form of dwarfism, she went on to have a successful 30-year career.
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Michele Sullivan has shared her story of resilience and hope with audiences around the country.Ben Gabbe / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Michele Sullivan knows within the first few seconds of meeting someone she’s going to be underestimated or dismissed.

Born with metatropic dysplasia, a rare form of dwarfism, the 4-foot-tall Sullivan learned early on to make the first move and just start talking to people — one of her many powerful habits that helped lead to a successful career at a Fortune 500 company.

Most of the time, the friendly approach works; sometimes, it doesn’t.

“You can tell by whether they’re looking over your head,” Sullivan, 55, who lives in Washington, Illinois, told TODAY.

“I don’t worry too much about the people who are not open enough to look past my size and I’m very grateful for the people who are open and we can just carry on a conversation.”

Sullivan writes about her life philosophy in her book, “Looking Up: How a Different Perspective Turns Obstacles into Advantages,” covering everything from her childhood surgeries for knee and hip issues — she jokes that she was born with her “check engine light on” — to her 30-year career at Caterpillar, a major construction equipment manufacturer, where she ultimately became the first female president of the company’s philanthropic arm.

Sullivan traveled all over the world as part of her philanthropic work. Here, she's in Uganda. Courtesy Michele Sullivan

She shared some of her favorite advice with TODAY.

Choose “looking up” as your world view:

Sullivan: Being 4 feet tall, I literally look up to everyone through the day. But it’s much more than that. It actually taught me to figuratively look up to everyone because we all have value. When you let go of preconceived notions, it just opens up your world so much more.

With all that’s happening in the world, especially in the last few weeks, there’s a lot of talk about looking past only what you see and we definitely need to do that in many ways. We need to look up to everyone.

I’ve never seen the world like this before, but there are a lot of good things happening and we will get through this.

Open up and make the first move:

Sullivan: People can be uncomfortable around me because of my size so I learned very young that I had to talk first or people wouldn’t talk to me.

I learned that if I walked up and started talking, they had to talk back and then they forgot about my size. My gift of gab definitely comes in handy. I know some people are more shy, but remember, you don’t have to talk someone’s ear off. Just start the conversation and then watch it flow. You don’t have to carry it the whole time — other people will start to step in.

Sullivan recovers after orthopedic surgery that left her in a body cast in 1979.Courtesy Michele Sullivan

Be willing to let your guard down:

Sullivan: It takes courage. That’s tough sometimes, even for me today: Do I want to walk up and start talking? Most of the time it works; for the few times it doesn’t, you just say “That’s OK” and you move on. Nine times out of 10, people are very respectful.

I let my vulnerability show if I want to learn about a certain subject or area of interest of mine. When you start asking questions, people like that. You’re showing you don’t know everything. When you start to show an interest, other people will also show an interest.

Asking for help is a strength:

Sullivan: We all need help — don’t be afraid to ask for it. You can see my physical challenges, but we all have challenges that you can’t see like anxiety or depression. We have to help each other.

I’m incredibly fortunate to be born in the country I was born in and to be born into the family I was born into. They taught me to rely on my resilience — my good days far outnumber my bad days. When I do have a bad day, I lean on my “kitchen table” — whenever something is really getting to you, don’t you have a few people that you talk to first? I call that my kitchen table. Everybody should have a kitchen table. I know there are better days ahead.

Intimacy works better than influence:

Sullivan: In the business world, the higher you move up, the more you try to use your influence and your title to get people to do what you want. What I found was intimacy works much better than the influence of your position. When I really got to know the folks around me and found out what makes them tick, they really thrived.

Sullivan talks with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates at the Global Citizen Festival on September 26, 2015, in New York City.Craig Barritt / Getty Images

Seeing others takes sacrifice:

Sullivan: When you walk in a room and you scan it for who you’re going to talk to, you generally go to the people who look like you or you might be safe with. I tend to talk to people who aren’t like me. It doesn’t always work. They may not be interested in talking with me. That’s a sacrifice that you have to make, but most of the time, it works and you’d be amazed at the people you meet when you engage someone you normally wouldn’t walk up to.

Keep going:

Sullivan: People overlook or underestimate me quite often. Do I let it stop me? No. I just continue to work. Just keep doing your work and it will get noticed. At the end of the day, we all want to just make an impact.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.