How Many of You Have Heard of Zig Ziglar Before—Or Is This Your First Time-uh?

Twenty-five years after See You at the Top, the nation’s most motivated motivational speaker is still a huge draw, filling arenas and pulling in $50,000 per speech. Norman Vincent Peale, eat your heart out.

July 1999By Comments

ZIG ZIGLAR, AMERICA’S MERCHANT OF HOPE, still wakes up every day before dawn, almost always before his “opportunity clock,” as he refers to his alarm clock, starts to ring. He leans over and kisses his wife, Jean, and makes sure to tell her the very same thing he has told her every morning of their 52-year marriage. “Hey, Sugar Baby,” he says in his molasses-sweet drawl. “I sure do love you.” He rises. He studies his Bible. He then opens a datebook that he calls his “personal performance planner,” where he jots down all the positive things he hopes to accomplish that day. “Associate with uplifting people,” he’ll write in a section titled “My Daily Priority List.” “Spend time with family.” “Let’s make this a day worth remembering!”

At 72, he simply refuses to think negative thoughts. He will not allow himself even to consider failure or uncertainty. When he picks up the Dallas Morning News at the breakfast table of his sprawling home in the North Dallas suburb of Plano, he does not dwell on any article that details human depravity, and he never looks at the celebrity gossip on page two. Instead he reads his favorite comic strips out loud to Sugar Baby and turns to the sports section. (Of course, he reads only about teams that win.) Then he searches for human interest stories about people who have done good things with their lives. He likes reading about the paralyzed high school football coach who could only move his mouth and blink his eyes but who coached his team to a state championship; the man born without arms who was named one of the Top Ten Outstanding Young Americans; the 37-year-old taxi driver with a fifth-grade education who decided to memorize the dictionary while waiting for customers and ended up owning the taxi company.

“Boy, oh, boy,” he says to Sugar Baby when he comes across such stories. “Isn’t it just amazing that we can go where we want to go, do what we want to do, and be who we want to be?”

When he sees a story that he likes, he clips it out with a pair of scissors. Then he takes it upstairs to his office, where he places it in one of his many files. He has an “Inspirational Story” file that holds articles about people who credit God for their success. He has a “Motivational Story” file for encouraging stories of a more secular nature. There is a file labeled “Humor,” one labeled “Quotes,” and another labeled “Success.” Sometimes he spends the entire morning in his office just leafing through magazines like Reader’s Digest or poring over biographies of people who did magnificent things with their lives. He reads that Thomas Edison’s teacher called him a dunce, that Albert Einstein flunked courses in math, that Walt Disney went broke seven times. Out come the scissors. He reads that 52 percent of all Fortune 500 CEOs grew up poor. Out come the scissors again. “Isn’t it amazing,” he likes to say to Sugar Baby when he comes back downstairs for lunch, “how we are designed for accomplishment, engineered for success, and endowed with the seeds of greatness?”

It is hard to believe that he really exists. When you meet him, you think he must be putting us all on. It has to be an act—the perfect unctuous movie role for someone like Bill Murray. Even his name seems to be straight out of a comedy writer’s imagination. Zig Ziglar! The stainless-steel-cookware salesman turned world-famous motivational speaker and best-selling author! A white-haired man with an ear-to-ear grin who walks through airports dispensing hugs and telling strangers, “Boy, oh, boy, this is a marvelous day!” A man who often answers the phone by singing, “Oh, good morning to you, good morning to you!” A devout Southern Baptist who doesn’t smoke or drink or utter a single profane word!

But for Zig Ziglar, being upbeat is serious business. After lunch he returns to his office and presses the record button on his tape recorder. It is time for him to dictate, to fashion the sentences that will help ordinary Americans overcome any obstacle put before them in their pursuit of health, wealth, and happiness. “With no hope, there is no action!” he says. His enunciation is so precise and Southern that he often adds an “uh” at the end of his sentences. “The story of life,” he says, “repeatedly assures you that if you will use what you have, you will be given more to use-uh.

He speaks for several minutes, then turns off the tape recorder. He smiles. It is time to play golf—and this is the day that he is going to break 70. Every day that he goes to the golf course, he tells himself that he is going to break 70. It doesn’t matter that he has never broken 70 in his life. As he likes to say, “Yesterday ended last night. Today is a brand-new day.”

TO HIS YOUNGER COMPETITORS IN the world of motivational speaking and writing—handsome gurus like Tony Robbins, the designer-clad “Peak Performance Coach” who consults with the rich and famous and prowls the stage at his seminars with a high-tech microphone headset attached to his large head—Zig Ziglar must be a laughable anachronism, a creaky throwback to the simpler world of Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale. These days media-savvy self-help stars seem to pop up with great fanfare every fifteen minutes. There are medical doctors who specialize in “inner peace” healing, charismatic CEOs who reveal the secret to making your first million, psychiatrists who help you to find renewed personal power in your dreams, therapists who put you in touch with your inner child, and personal trainers who teach you to lose weight and follow your bliss at the same time. According to one study, nearly two thousand self-help books arrive on shelves each year, and the publishing industry is always on the lookout for the next sensation: Call it “Chicken Soup for the Bookseller’s Soul.”

Ziglar, by comparison, is a dinosaur. His speeches consist of corny one-liners (“Happiness is not a when or a where, but a here and a now-uh!”), obvious advice (“When you associate with winners, your chance of winning goes up!”), banal sayings (“If you aren’t on fire, then your wood is wet”), and a seemingly endless series of real-life anecdotes about people who were once considered failures but turned themselves into successes. At least once during every speech he gets down on one knee like an old-time tent revivalist, points at the audience, and tells them the time has come to change their lives. (“You don’t have to be great to start,” he says, “but you have to start to be great-uh!”) Then, like a vaudevillian, he pulls out an ancient chrome water pump and begins to pump the handle up and down to illustrate that “in the game of life, before you get anything out, you must put something in!”

Even offstage and on the page, he’s filled to the gills with positivity. In his first book, See You at the Top, which was published 25 years ago this month, he exhorts readers to give themselves “a check up from the neck up,” to end “negative thinking, negative action, and negative reaction,” and to eliminate both their “stinkin’ thinkin’” and their “hardening of the attitudes.” “My friends,” he wrote, “whether you are in Decision Valley or on Hesitation Hill, let me urge you to fasten your seat belt, because you are on a trip to the top.” Although See You at the Top runs nearly four hundred pages, covering just about everything that could possibly be said about how to believe in yourself, Ziglar is so convinced people need more information about the subject that he has produced a three-hundred-page sequel called, appropriately enough, Over the Top, in which readers are told to—that’s right—believe in themselves!

His other books, which have such titles as Raising Positive Kids in a Negative World and Courtship After Marriage, exuberantly address almost every other aspect of life. In his most recent tome, Confessions of a Grieving Christian—written after the death of his eldest daughter, Suzan—he explained how to stay cheerful and optimistic even during the most tragic of circumstances. (“We hear tears loudly on this side of heaven,” he wrote. “What we don’t take time to contemplate are the even louder cheers on the other side of death’s valley.”) He also records numerous audiotapes on such Zig-like subjects as “How to Stay Motivated” and “Building a Healthy Self-Image.” And if that’s not enough, there are his personal appearances. Several times a year he puts on a three-day, $1,495-per-person Born to Win seminar, which he calls his “most powerful, positive, life-changing seminar ever.” He’s even started a company, Ziglar Training Systems, that offers other educational programs and workshops featuring him or his handpicked surrogates.

But is there really still an audience out there for Zig Ziglar? Hasn’t he made his point many times over about the power of positive living? “Oh, yes, everyone asks me when I’m going to retire,” he told me soon after we met at his corporate office—after he shook my hand and patted me on the back and said how “good-uh” it was to see me, after he introduced me to his receptionist (who enthusiastically answers the phone every time it rings with the phrase “It’s a great day at Ziglar Training Systems!”), his longtime secretary (“A woman who never graduated from high school but who, because of her self-taught knowledge, has scored higher on evaluation tests than people who have received master’s degrees,” he said with pride), and half a dozen of his staffers (all of whom said to me, “Good morning!”), and after he spent twenty minutes showing me his Wall of Gratitude, which displays black-and-white photos of the most influential people in his life, from the man who gave him his first job as a boy to other motivational speakers who encouraged him. He chuckled softly, then pumped his fist into the air like a prizefighter. “Retire? But I’m just getting re-fired. Believe me, I’m not going to ease up, slow up, or give up until I’m taken up.”

In fact, Ziglar is in such demand these days by corporations and conventions that he is able to charge an astonishing $50,000 per speech—and he speaks about fifty times a year. Although the New York Times doesn’t review his books, See You at the Top, which he publishes himself, is now in its fifty-sixth printing, and according to Ziglar, has sold more than 1.5 million copies. His fourteen other books have sold more than three million copies, and he has sold an estimated ten million audiotapes.

“In some ways he’s more popular than ever,” says Peter Lowe, who uses Ziglar as the morning keynote speaker at his wildly popular Peter Lowe Success Seminars, the daylong motivational programs that are held at sports arenas around the country and attended by sales reps who are overwhelmed by hearing the word “no,” self-employed entrepreneurs who need a spark to get going each morning, and wannabe business tycoons who are just plain fond of robust, feel-good messages. “Of all the great people who speak at our seminars, from Christopher Reeve to Norman Schwarzkopf to Colin Powell, Zig still gets the best response. It’s like he knows how to reach people in a way that no one else can.”

HILARY HINTON “ZIG” ZIGLAR GREW up in tiny Yazoo City, Mississippi, during the Great Depression. He was raised by his widowed mother—“A woman who finished only the fifth grade,” he told me reverently, “but who without a doubt graduated magna cum laude from the university of life.” If you talk to Ziglar for any amount of time, he will no doubt tell you a story about his mother, the kind of strict, religious Southerner who had a saying for almost every situation in life. “It’s not who’s right that’s important; it’s what’s right,” she would tell her twelve children. Ziglar apparently remembers every last word she uttered. To this day, some of the best lines in his speeches—“The person who won’t stand for something will fall for anything”; “If you set the example, you will not have to set the rules”—are hers.

He didn’t grow up thinking he wanted to be a motivational speaker: He wanted to own his own butcher shop in Yazoo City. While serving in the Navy, he met a pretty young Mississippian named Jean Abernathy, and two years later he married her. Upon his release from the service, he enrolled at the University of South Carolina. But he was not a good student—“I was in that part of the class that made the top half possible”—and he soon quit school after finding a job. He found one selling cookware door-to-door, though for two years he barely avoided bankruptcy. “About the only things I sold during that period were my car and my furniture,” he admits. Still, he always talked to Jean about how good things were and how much better off they were going to be. “He never once let on that there were days when he had only fifty cents to his name,” she says. “He’d put on his suit, give me a kiss, tell me how much he loved me, and then off he’d go.”

Sometimes Ziglar could only afford a couple gallons of gas. Undeterred, he decided that wherever his car rolled to a stop was where he would start working door-to-door. He made sure always to keep a smile on his face, and regardless of how poor his sales were, he refused to show disappointment of any kind when he got home. In fact, he was so committed to thinking good thoughts that he forbade Jean and their four kids from expressing negative feelings around the house. They couldn’t even say the word “yuck” if they ate something they disliked at the dinner table.

The concept of positive thinking dates back long before Ziglar, of course. In the twenties a Frenchman named Emile Coué caught the attention of anxious Americans by telling them to repeat the affirmation: “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” By the thirties a young New York minister, Norman Vincent Peale, was already preaching the importance of a positive mental outlook; those sermons became the basis for his motivational masterpiece, The Power of Positive Thinking. But who really followed these principles every day? Zig Ziglar of Yazoo City, Mississippi, did. He would give himself what he called “self-talks,” in which he’d stand in front of the mirror and say such things as “I am an optimistic, punctual, enthusiastic, goal-setting, smart-working self-starter!” He would tell himself that it takes 72 muscles to frown but only 14 to smile. He would say that he was a member of “the smile and compliment club” and that it was his duty to give everyone a smile and a compliment no matter how unfairly they had treated him. “I know there had to be times when he was frustrated and upset, but I never saw it,” says his youngest son, Tom, who is the president of Ziglar Training Systems. “If there was a business crisis, all he’d say was ‘Well, I’m just going to have to work harder.’”

Eventually his door-to-door sales began to increase, and in 1952, at the age of 25, he was named a divisional supervisor in the cookware company. Not long afterward he heard a motivational speaker give the standard rousing speech about the joys of success. “I never saw a man have so much fun in his life and do so much good,” Ziglar told me. “And I knew right then what it was that I wanted to do next.” It wasn’t what you’d call an obvious career choice for him. All he had done in his business life was sell cookware—not the sort of background that brings out a crowd for a speech. Yet one of the most intriguing aspects about the American self-help movement is that audiences care little about the résumé of a speaker or a writer. They simply want to be inspired, to be told in a persuasive way that their failures are temporary.

Zig Ziglar was convinced that he was just the person to deliver such a message. He kept his day job selling cookware—he later moved into sales training—but at nights he began traveling to churches, schools, and Lions and Rotary clubs, where he gave his first motivational speeches for free. He’d tell a few stories about himself as a salesman, repeat some of his mother’s lines and other quotations he had memorized, offer the basic techniques for self-improvement that other motivational speakers had been using for years (figure out what your goals in life are, write them down, commit yourself to achieving them, and then aggressively work on them every day), and end with a call for everyone listening to build a healthy self-image and believe in themselves too. He relied on folksy metaphors to make his points about staying motivated (“You don’t drown by falling into water. You only drown if you stay there”), told silly jokes about people who weren’t making changes in their lives (“I recently met a man who was wearing his wedding band on the wrong hand, and when I asked him why, he told me, ‘I married the wrong woman.’”), and repeated more than his share of stirring anecdotes about uneducated people who taught themselves to read and poor people who worked hard to become rich.

In 1968 he moved from South Carolina to Dallas to take a high-paying job as a trainer for a direct-sales company, but within two years, the company went bankrupt. No matter: He was getting so many requests to speak that he decided to try it full-time. Audiences were mesmerized by him, and they’ve stayed mesmerized—despite the fact that his shtick has pretty much remained the same.

WHEN I WATCHED MY FIRST ZIG ZIGLAR SPEECH last year at Reunion Arena in Dallas—one of more than 18,000 people packed in for one of the Peter Lowe Success Seminars—I, too, found myself unable to take my eyes off him. He came out on the stage and started grinning at us so eagerly that people started to chuckle. In his dark pinstriped suit he looked like a cross between a bible thumper and a luxury-car salesman. Then, in his comic Southern-fried drawl, he said, “Let me ask you, how many of you have either heard me before—or else this is your first time-uh? May I see your hands-uh?”

Suddenly, he was off and running, coming at us so fast with quips, anecdotes, and factoids that we barely had time to absorb it all. In rapid-fire sequence he told us the man-with-the-wedding-ring joke, segued into one-liners about his past attempts at losing weight (“I once dieted so religiously I quit eating in church”), then explained that he didn’t slim down until he devised an adequate plan to do so, then told us that research proves that if we set up an organized program of goals for our lives, we’ll earn more than twice as much money as people who don’t. He strode to the middle of the stage, held out his arms like a father wanting to hug his wayward children, and boomed, “Let me ask you a question-uh. How many of you sincerely believe that there is something you can specifically do in the next three weeks to make your personal life, family life, and business life better? How many of you believe your future is in your hands-uh?”

I squirmed in my seat. Was this as deep as it was going to get? Did he really think we didn’t know that the future was in our hands? But the man never let up. “You can have everything you want if you help other people get what they want,” he said. He got down on one knee to make his point about how we must start working on our dreams. He told us that God wanted us to be financial successes but that we must also be successful in our relationships and in our spiritual lives. He told us that if we wanted to break from our “stinkin’ thinkin’,” we had to change our “mental diet” by immersing ourselves in positive thinking. He suggested that we listen to motivational tapes whenever we got into our cars, that we engage in “positive self-talk” to encourage ourselves to overcome life’s obstacles. His inspirational ditties came as fast as machine-gun fire: “I want you to get more of the things money will buy and all the things money won’t buy.…Failure is an event, not a person.…” His smile got bigger. He looked around the room, then let fly one of his oldest chestnuts: “You can go where you want to go, do what you want do, and be like you want to be-uh!”

Now this is embarrassing, I thought. But when I looked around the hall, I saw that people were transfixed. How does this guy do it? “I’ve asked myself many times how Zig can say the same things people have been hearing all their lives, and instead of getting yawns he gets a tremendous response,” says his good friend Fred Smith, a former Fortune 500 executive who admits to being “more cynical” than Ziglar. “I think he’s a little like Billy Graham, who has never really departed from the same sermon he was giving back in his twenties yet who’s never lost any effectiveness. After all these years, Zig still devotes every day to living this life he talks about, to applying some eternal truths about character, commitment, hard work, and self-determination.” “When you look at Zig,” Peter Lowe says, “you know that you’re looking at the last of a breed. The world just doesn’t create people like him anymore.”

When Ziglar’s speech was over, hundreds of people lined up in the halls to buy copies of his audiotapes; many plunked down $1,595 to buy his entire package of tapes, books, and other materials, which he had called “a very special offer.” In a large room outside the arena a couple hundred more fans lined up to meet and hug him, get his autograph, and tell him all the things he had done for them. Many told him how often they had heard him speak. Larry Carpenter of St. Louis, who credited Ziglar with inspiring him to leave his job as a diesel-truck mechanic and open his own commercial real estate company and billboard businesses—which now boast more than $10 million in net assets—later told me that he had attended the Born to Win seminar for eighteen consecutive years. Leland Heller, a South Florida physician, told me he was using Ziglar’s tapes to help patients who had suicidal tendencies or borderline personalities. “Don’t laugh,” he said. “I believe Ziglar’s work is going to be one of the most important contributions ever made to mental health. We’ve learned counseling doesn’t make you happy. Studying your past doesn’t make you happy. Acting happy makes you happy—and who is a better example of that than Zig?”

Maybe that’s true. I do know that thirty minutes after I left Reunion Arena, I had already forgotten much of what Ziglar had said in his speech, as had, I suspect, much of the other people in the audience. But it was difficult, I had to admit, to forget Ziglar himself. For more than a quarter of a century he has endured endless ribbing about his irrepressible boosterism and his schlocky euphemisms, his opportunity clock and his Personal Performance Planner, and his sentences in his books that end in exclamation marks. Yet he soldiers on, unabashedly old-fashioned, still living his life with what Fred Smith calls “an almost genetic positiveness.”

INDEED, A FEW WEEKS AFTER HIS DALLAS SPEECH, Ziglar traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he had been invited to speak as part of the Harvard Law School Forum’s lecture series. Over the years, the student-run Forum had brought in some of the country’s most esteemed leaders, including Harry S Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. But Zig Ziglar? Was this someone’s idea of a joke? As it turned out the Forum’s vice president in charge of finding speakers, Jon Rose, a second-year student from western Kentucky, was a Ziglar fan. A few years earlier he had begun to listen to Zig tapes, which, he openly told others, helped him live a better life. Once he joined the Forum, he had written to Ziglar, who agreed to waive his $50,000 fee and speak at Harvard for free.

On a late afternoon this past fall nearly one hundred students—far fewer than the five hundred who showed up for the lecture by Charlton Heston on gun control—came to Harvard’s historic Langdell Hall. On the wall behind the podium hung oil paintings of some of history’s most brilliant legal minds, from John Marshall to Louis Brandeis. There in front of them stood Ziglar in his dark business suit, smiling eagerly at his young audience. “Let me ask you a question-uh,” he said. “How many of you have either heard me before—or else this is your first time-uh? May I see your hands-uh?”

There was an uncomfortable silence. No hands went up. For the next few minutes, a couple of students stroked their goatees, others arched their eyebrows, and still others exchanged looks of absolute disbelief as Ziglar laid down his standard rap, his arms waving back and forth, his chin thrust upward, and his head pulled back. “You are designed for accomplishment, engineered for success, and endowed with the seeds of greatness!” he told the nation’s best and brightest young thinkers, who stared at him as if he were an exotic tribal leader from a primitive country.

Ziglar, however, was unfazed, and as the speech went on, no one got up to leave. Some students leaned forward in their chairs, their eyes trained on him. His jokes began to get a few laughs. And when he finished, there was polite applause; a few people even hung around to ask him questions. Although Rose was disappointed by the turnout, he did what Ziglar would have wanted him to do: He put the best face on the situation. “Well,” he said, “I don’t think anyone here will ever forget who Zig Ziglar is.”

And Ziglar intends to make sure that no one else forgets him, either. He told me he hopes to maintain a full schedule for at least the next decade. He plans to speak to close to 400,000 people a year at various venues, including his regular Sunday school class at Prestonwood Baptist Church in North Dallas, where you can hear for free what corporations pay him $50,000 to say to their employees. He’s already writing new books—one about how to get our nation’s political leaders to develop better values and think more positively, another a humor book that he wants to title Conversations With My Dog.

“I’ve got a lot to do before being taken up,” he told me in his office, rubbing his hands together with excitement as I stood up and headed out. “Yes, a lot to do.”

Suddenly he looked at his watch and smiled. It was almost time for his round of golf. Today, he really did believe, he was going to break 70.

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