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.

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

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