Is it possible that there is one single, super-powerful secret of
success of far greater importance than all others?
DAN S. KENNEDY
Copyright © 2005 by Dan S. Kennedy
Revised Edition © 2006 by Dan S. Kennedy
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A Favorite Story….the much revered, very wise, aged rabbi is on his deathbed, his rabbinical students
gathered for the deathwatch, arranged with the smartest of the students at the rabbi’s head, the next
smartest second, and so on, down to the pitied dunce of the class, at the foot of the bed. As it becomes
increasingly apparent that the old rabbi was soon to depart, his best student leaned over and whispered,
“Before you leave us, could you please, finally, give us THE secret of life itself, great master teacher,
After a few moments of thought, with considerable effort, the rabbi managed to croak out, “Life is like a
The honored student turned to the one next to him and said,” The master said ‘life is like a river.’ Pass it
down.” And so each student in turn passed the wisdom down to the next. But the dunce said, “Hey, wait a
minute, life is like a river? What does that mean? Ask him what he means by that.”
Ashamed and tentative, each student passed the question back up the line. The best student again leaned
over and said, “I’m sorry, master teacher, but the dunce, down at the end, he does not understand. He
wants to know: what do you mean? – life is like a river.”
With every ounce of strength remaining in his dying, frail body, the rabbi managed these last words:
“Okay, so it’s not like a river.”
“A Lobster When Left High And Dry Among
The Rocks, Has Not Instinct And Energy Enough
To Work His Way Back To The Sea,
But Waits For The Sea To Come To Him.
If It Does Not Come,
He Remains Where He Is And Dies,
Although The Slightest Effort
Would Enable Him To Reach The Waves,
Which Are Perhaps Within A Yard Of Him.
The World Is Full Of Human
Men Stranded On The Rocks
Of Indecision And Procrastination,
Who, Instead Of Putting Forth Their Own Energies,
Are Waiting For Some Grand Billow Of
Good Fortune To Set Them Afloat.”
- Dr. Orrison Swett Marden
What You Will Discover In This Book
Why have I written a book with such an audacious title?
It sometimes seems like only yesterday that I was a punk kid with big ideas, adding gray to my hair to try
and look a little older. I certainly do not have that problem now. I could stand to take some of the gray
out. After a speaking engagement not long ago, my friend Lee Milteer observed that my groupies seem to
be getting a lot older. Anyway, I feel like I’ve stacked up enough expensive experience to justify
committing some opinions about “the ultimate success secret” to paper. I have gone from broke to well
off; from severe struggle peaks of success in not one but three professional fields; and, along the way, I
have had the good fortune of working with, hanging out with quite a number of exceptionally successful
people from business, sports, entertainment. Famous people, like Joan Rivers, who started over after her
husband’s suicide and her loss of her career, working for $500.00 a week on “Hollywood Squares”,
pronounced a washed up has-been by her own agent; who re-invented her career and her life with courage
and determination. And non-famous people, like Gladdie Gill, a 50+ year old school teacher living
uncomplainingly with Hodgkin’s disease; on her summer vacations, climbing mountains, traversing
Alaska in a jeep; at home, taking care of every imaginable orphaned animal; at school, defying dullard
administrators to give her students the richest imaginable learning experiences, thus earning the support of
an entire community of parents and kids, and having a truly lasting impact on many lives. I have had the
privilege of working closely with a great many “from scratch” entrepreneurs who’ve built empires,
extraordinarily successful salespeople, top executives, top speakers. I have quite literally been surrounded
by and immersed in success for years. And I’m a good observer. I have not let this go to waste.
It is impossible to count the number of authors, researchers, psychologists, “motivational gurus”, etc. who
have been fascinated by the question of what causes some people to be successful and others to fail. We
know it is not “environment”, as some liberals insist; it cannot be, because out of the very worst
environments come fabulously successful individuals, repetitively enough not to be passed off as
aberration. Blaming external factors, and excusing a person’s results because of external factors, is not
going to lead anybody to the answer to this question.
In the United States, probably the most famous of authors to have attacked this question thoroughly was
Napoleon Hill. His findings are summarized in his best-known book, THINK AND GROW RICH, a
bestseller in its time, and, solely thanks to word-of-mouth, a steady seller, surviving and remaining on the
fickle bookstore shelves for decades. (If, by some chance you have not read this book, you must.) In 1917,
America’s first billionaire, Andrew Carnegie, set Napoleon Hill on a mission to discover the
commonalities, the “principles” shared by hundreds of the most exceptional achievers of their time.
Eventually, Hill arrived at thirteen such principles. Recently, management guru Stephen Covey had a
blockbuster best-selling book with his “Seven Habits” of highly successful people. My speaking
colleague Zig Ziglar talks about the “Ten Qualities” of successful achievers. Thirteen. Ten. Seven. Pick a
number. Well, I have the audacity to step forward and tell you that I’ve boiled it down to ONE.
I changed the question to:
Is there one, single secret to success
of such overriding importance that,
if concentrated upon exclusively,
will literally change a person’s entire
life experience and results?
If so, what is it?
That’s right – one. I believe that I have identified the one, single, sole “secret of success” universally
shared and relied on, above all other success secrets, by all extraordinarily successful individuals. And it
is my contention that any person who discovers, accepts, comes to understand, and gives priority,
paramount importance to this one secret can and will quickly crate unbelievable breakthroughs in his or
Incidentally, my focus has been quite different than Napoleon Hill’s. I have paid a lot less attention to the
thinking of the successful, and paid a lot more attention to their behavior.
In this book, I have NOT come out and simply stated the ultimate secret. Frankly, I could write it
down on a 3x5” card. There are several reasons why I haven’t done that. First of all, it’s darned hard to
get $19.95 for a 3x5” card. My accountant, Snarly Stubbyfingers insists that we create things we can sell
for profit. (If I refuse, he swears he’ll up and leave and he’s the only one here with the combination to the
safe where we keep the Oreos and the good Scotch.) Second, if I just tell it to you outright, in its shortest
form, it lacks useful impact. I’ve found it is of little use to those I simply tell it to. On the other hand,
those who ferret it out for themselves seem to place great value on it and get great value from it. So, I
hope you can discover this secret for yourself. It is waiting for you in a number of places in this book.
I don’t have any special reason to be overly mysterious, though – so, a clue. The “spark” that drove me to
write this book may, in itself, be revealing. A very mundane event got me going. I had been thinking
about writing a book on this particular subject for quite some time. I’d been assembling notes on it for a
couple years. But there was one little incident that got me to work. On a restless night, late at night, I was
thumbing through TV GUIDE trying to find something to watch for an hour or so when I noticed this
Move: ACTION JACKSON!
That name instantly appealed to me. Who was ‘Action Jackson’? How did he earn such a dramatic
Well, the movie turned out to be a bad B-picture; a run-of-the-mill cops-and-bad-guys, black exploitation
film starring Carl Weathers. I would not recommend the movie. But the hero’s name stuck in my mind
long after the details of the movie faded. Action Jackson. That, I thought at the time, perfectly describes
the kind of person who gets the most out of life.
Think about some of the biggest blockbuster movies of recent years. Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Die Hard.
Lethal Weapon. Batman. The Fugitive. Think about the enduring success of the James Bond series. Why
have these films been such enormous
box office moneymakers? I think one of the answers is the dramatic juxtaposition between the movies’
always-in-action adventurers and most peoples’ comparative slow motion lives.
The constant, the universal characteristic of such big screen
heroes is their bias for action. And for an hour or two, everybody becomes an Action Jackson, living
vicariously through these heroes.
What the Mediocre Majority never learns is that they do not have to settle for living vicariously through
others. Anybody can be an Action Jackson --- dive headlong into the greatest adventure of all; setting and
rapidly accomplishing meaningful, worthwhile goals, meeting fascinating people, visiting exciting places,
living an exciting life. Even people who are above-average achievers are often guilty of seeing themselves
and their own lives “smaller” than need be.
Well, I am here to tell you that those who live life “large”
do share a single, ultimate secret. Through the stories,
experiences and examples I’ve assembled for you, in this
book, you can now discover that very secret and get it working
PS: If you are – or become – interested in more of what I have to say about the puzzle of difference between extraordinary
achievers and ordinary plodders, you might want to visit a web site of mine: www.renegademillionaire.com.
PPS: You may have purchased this book on your own, and if so, my thanks and congratulations. But it’s
also quite likely you received this book as a gift from one of the different business and marketing
consultants, advisors, experts or coaches that I’ve worked with. If that’s the case, you should know that
the person who gave you this book as a gift is someone who embodies the Ultimate Success Secret
through his or her own behavior and business. That person prizes the secret, works at living the secret,
and now has invested in passing along the secret to you. If you uncover it and find it valuable, by all
means, let them know.
Additional Publisher’s Note: this book was first written and published in the early 1990’s. Not all
references to the author’s life or to others in the book have been up-dated. This, in no way, invalidates
the timeless message of the book, as you will see.
TAKE ACTION TO ESCAPE
Have you ever been inside a real prison? A friend of mine, some years ago, served one year in the Ohio
State Penitentiary, and I went to visit him frequently. I can tell you: nothing you see on TV or in the
movies can even half prepare you for the shock of the real thing. I don’t remember how many times I
went inside and back out from behind those prison walls, but the awe, fear, disability and depression I felt
never lessened, from the first time to the last. No description I could write could convey the
powerlessness that came over me in that environment.
There are millions of people enduring that environment every day.
But that’s a small number compared to the many millions of people who might as well be in such a prison
for the little joy and satisfaction they’re deriving from life. People build their own prisons, incarcerate
themselves in them, and make the environments every bit as bleak, stark, depressing and debilitating as
the actual penitentiary I visited in Ohio. These peoples’ private prisons’ block walls are constructed of
complaints and resentments, the mortar from excuses, the bars forged from pessimism and
We might say that they are locked up in “Pity Prison”. Their sentence is indefinite and of their own
making. They could walk out as a free man or woman at any time – if they would just apply The Ultimate
Secret Of Success.
A Word About Heroes
As I finished the first edition of this book, the “O.J. Simpson trial” had sparked a national discussion of
the relative wisdom or lack thereof of turning sports champions , entertainers, and other public celebrities
into heroic role models. NBA star Charles Barkley publicly insisted “Athletes are not role models.”
Unfortunately, we cannot discourage countless young people from giving them hero status. The argument
against viewing people as heroes based on their proclivity for making baskets, catching passes, packing
concert halls, or delivering lines in movies is a good one, as too many seem to have an equal proclivity for
squandering their status, money and time on drugs, alcohol, epic sexual misbehavior and violence.
Actually, there are plenty of REAL heroes all around us. Yesterday, while killing time at the airport, I got
my shoes shined. The lady doing the job, I’d guess about 35 or 36 years old, was finishing her second
shift of the day with me, at 6:00 PM. Just as she was finishing, the pay phone rang; as it turns out, her
teenage daughter and son are required to call her every hour to check in. She is a divorced mother of two,
a high school grad, with very limited marketable job skills, doing a relatively tough job, compensated by
tips so the quality of her work, her attitude, her smile are critical; she is raising two teenagers; and she is
saving up money to go back to school. I had to inquire and prod to find all this out. She was not
complaining, not whining, not looking for pity. A real hero.
After a speaking engagement in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I was eating dinner in the Holiday Inn
restaurant. Seated several tables away, alone, was a man about my age, in a wheelchair. His hands were
apparently of little use to him. He dined on a bowl of soup and a soft drink, both consumed through a
straw. When the check was brought to him, he somehow produced his wallet – I didn’t see how – and
extracted dollar bills from it with his teeth. Here was a man saddled with obvious shoulder-to-toes
physical disabilities that made a simple journey to a restaurant difficult, tiring, possibly embarrassing. No
one would criticize him for dropping out and copping out. But he refused to let his handicaps imprison
him. A real hero.
During a weekend in Las Vegas. I was leaving Caesars Palace, the man getting his car from the valet
ahead of me was also in a wheelchair. He and the valet knew each other and joked together as the man
hoisted himself from his wheelchair into the car. The valet then left to retrieve my car. I walked over and
asked the man if he would like help getting his wheelchair into his car. “Thanks,” he said, “but it’s not
necessary. I’ve been doing this for myself for 30 years and I’m thankful that I can.” One-handed, he
folded up the wheelchair, pulled it into the car behind him, slid across the seat, and drove off. He, too,
refused to be imprisoned by his handicap. A real hero.
I had reason to recall these two instances and individuals recently, as my Dad had a re-occurrence of an
unusual neurological condition that put him flat on his back in the hospital, unable to sit up by himself,
feed himself, stand, walk or do much of anything else. His doctors did their best to convince him that he,
at best, might not go beyond being helped into a wheelchair. He set goals for regaining leg strength and
balance. Then for control of the upper body. Then for feeding himself. Then for dressing himself. Then he
moved from hospital to long-term care facility, today’s euphemism for nursing home. Then he set goals
for walking. For dressing himself. And finally he got into his own car and drove himself to his apartment.
Then he came back to work at the office.
I once had a blind man in a sales organization I managed. He had not been blind at birth but had lost his
sight in his late teens. He worked with his wife in our business, and was an enthusiastic, effective
salesperson. He told me a favorite pastime was washing and waxing his car at ten or eleven o’clock at
night, in the dark; it didn’t matter to him but it sure bugged his neighbors! I asked him how it was that he
had avoided bitterness or self-pity. He told me: “very early on, I got to meet and talk with many other
blind people and I realized that many had let their lack of sight ruin their lives. They built little prisons for
themselves and locked themselves in. I was determined not to do that.” A real hero.
Each of these individuals’ lives demonstrate that positive attitudes and actions, even in the most negative
of circumstances, can make a big difference.
WHO ELSE IS AFRAID OF
Phobias are real. I’ve had the privileges or working with Florence Henderson on a couple of TV projects,
and gotten to know her – did you know that, following the cancellation of ‘The Brady Bunch’, her career
dried up, and her fear of flying rose up and dominated her, crippling her pursuit of career opportunities,
because she could not get on an airplane? Barbara Streisand stopped doing concerts thanks to
uncontrollable stage freight. Johnny Carson reportedly suffered from incredible anxiety before every
show. A comedian I know well, who I won’t name, has such severe stage fright he vomits before most
But there’s not a phobia on earth that can’t be treated, conquered, controlled.
Who’s afraid of speaking in public? Just about everybody! Several surveys have shown that more people
fear public speaking than fear heights, snakes, serious illness, accidental death or financial failure. One
survey of Fortune 1000 executives revealed speaking to groups as their #1 fear. I’ve been fortunate to earn
a large income from speaking; as my career progressed, from a few thousand dollars to $50,000.00 and up
from each speech. But if you went back to the time in my childhood when I stuttered almost
uncontrollably – when I could turn one short sentence into one long s-s-s-s-s-seminar – who would have
predicted this career for me?
Although the problem lessened as I matured, to this day I am still “at risk” of getting “hung up” on a
word, starting to stutter, embarrassing myself, on stage, on the phone or in conversation. Was it smart to
choose careers in selling and speaking? Who would have blamed me for letting this influence my career
choices? I refused to do that.
My friends John and Greg Rice were imprisoned by their midget size, until a man by the name of Glenn
Turner (“Dare To Be Great”) got a hold of them. John and Greg can’t reach all the elevator buttons
without something to stand on, and Glenn Turner was the first person to tell them that even “little men”
could do big things. John and Greg have become very popular motivational speakers, on the subject of
‘Thinking Big!’ – even though they have to climb up onto a table so the audience can see them. They
achieved considerable success as real estate salesmen, even though they had to ask their customers to
describe the things above sink level that they couldn’t see. They’ve been featured on countless TV
programs and in movies, built a sizable real estate investment business, and live a top quality lifestyle in
FOR EVERY HANDICAP, OBSTACLE
THERE ARE TWO STORIES.
Go ahead, name a handicap. Born and raised in a ghetto, as a latch-key kid, then surrounded by gangs,
crime, drugs. A physical handicap. A crippling accident. A terrible disease. Illiteracy. Lack of education.
A speech impediment. Severe phobia. Name the handicap. There are two stories to be found for every one
you can think of. Story #1, unfortunately the most common, will be of people who’ve let that handicap
imprison them. Story #2 will be of the person who has accomplished the most extraordinary things in
spite of, in some cases because of, that very same handicap.
Each individual, by his or her actions, chooses which story will be theirs.
IMPRISONING THE ACTION MODEL
I Can’t I Will
Desire For Sympathy Desire For
Dwelling On “It’s Not Fair” Search For Opportunities
“Maybe Tomorrow…” Do It Now!
Depression Celebration Of Even
“It’s An Impossible Situation, But It Has Possibilities”
- Sam Goldwyn
TAKE ACTION TO
TAKE CHARGE OF EVERY ASPECT
OF YOUR LIFE
Once driving from Cincinnati, Ohio, to St. Louis, Missouri, to fight boredom, I was listening to a radio
call-in show, hosted by a lady psychologist. I no longer remember her name or the name of the caller, but
I certainly remember the conversation.
The caller, a woman, 40 years old, in her second marriage, spilled out a load of unhappiness and misery.
Her husband didn’t pay enough attention to her. Her kids were grown and no longer needed her. She was
bored. Finally the host stopped her and said: “you will continue to be unhappy as long as you depend so
much on others to make you happy.”
I pulled the car off to the side of the road and jotted that down as a fill in the blank formula:
You Will Continue To Be Un-________
As Long As You Depend On Others
To Make You ____________
Then I wrote down a few examples:
** You will continue to be unimportant
as long as you depend on others to
make you feel important.
** You will continue to be
un-prosperous as long as you
depend on others to make
** You will continue to be
uninspired as long as you
depend on others to make you
THE MIRACLE FORMULA FOR
TAKING CHARGE OF EVERY ASPECT
OF YOUR LIFE
Let me tell you how this Miracle Formula came to me. The very first seminar I ever attended, now more
than 25 years ago, where “success concepts” were presented was a real eye-opener for me. The speaker
talked about what he called the most unpleasant success principle in the world. Well, who wants to hear
about the most unpleasant anything? But I was there, so I listened. He said, repeatedly, “You are exactly
where you really want to be.”
Now let me tell you where I was. I had driven to the seminar in a 1960 Chevy Impala and it was not 1960.
When it rained, this sad old car leaked from the top and from the bottom. The seats never dried out; they
stayed musky damp in the summer, they froze and cracked in the winter. The car’s frame was broken
clear through, so its rear end was held up with a contraption of bailing wire, wood blocks and a
turnbuckle. But there was no shame for this car. I’d paid just $25.00 for it, on payments, and it was all I
could afford at the time. And the condition of the car was symbolic of a few other aspects of my life. So
when that speaker said: you are exactly where you want to be – hey, I
didn’t like that very much.
It took me a while to stop arguing and start thinking.
Then I finally wrote down a “formula” from what I thought about, as a result of his statement. I could give
it to you on the back of a matchbook – it doesn’t require a whole BOOK to give you this – but don’t let
that diminish its importance. It is my non-humble opinion that this painfully arrived at formula has truly
Here it is:
CONTROL = RESPONSIBILITY,
RESPONSIBILITY = CONTROL
Everybody wants more control. If you take all your personal, career, financial and other goals, everything
you think you want out of life, and boil all that down to a single overriding objective it is the desire for
greater control. Greater control over finances, present and future. Greater control over your time and
lifestyle. Greater control over your kids. Etc., Etc.
Ironically, as much as we desire greater control, we are the ones who give it all away. Every time we
- It’s the location of our business
- It’s the season
- It’s the economy
- It’s the supervisor who has it in for me
- It’s the ay I was brought up
- It’s my partner/co-worker/spouse/etc.
- It’s ___________
Each and every time we say an “it’s the….” We really DO two things simultaneously: one, we push away
a small “weight” of responsibility, and that temporarily makes us feel better, but, two, we give up an
equal-sized amount of control. Whenever we deny responsibility, we give up control. Get rid of a “pound”
of responsibility, lose a pound’s worth of control.
The Miracle Formula In Action:
Why DOES One Person Prosper
And Another Suffer?
I happen to know two people very well who are very much alike. They own two almost identical
businesses. Their businesses are in neighboring, very similar towns. My observation is that they are
equally skilled in the technical and administrative aspects of their business.
One, Peter E., has struggled for about seven years just to say in business. He has gained very little if any,
financial ground during those years. His life is a day-to-day struggle for survival.
The other fellow, Robert L., started six years ago. His business has grown by 10% to as much as 30%
each year, every year. He is now getting ready to turn it into a fortune through franchising.
When I talk with Peter E., I hear a lengthy discourse on all the outside influences that negatively affect his
business. The economy, taxes, banks that won’t give small business a fair shake, competition from huge
corporations, and his list goes on and on and on. Every time I talk with Peter, I hear the same list. A
broken record playing over and over again.
I acknowledge, by the way, that these factors do exist. I am frustrated by some of them myself. But the
issue is not the existence of these factors. The issue is how much control Peter lets them have over his
business. Every time Peter recites his list, he shuffles off responsibility for his situation, and that
temporarily helps him feel better. But with the responsibility goes the control.
When I talk with Robert, these matters only occasionally come up. Instead, he talks excitedly about the
innovative strategies he has discovered and developed to keep his business growing regardless of external
influences. He exhibits healthy curiosity and quizzes me about strategies I’ve seen o discovered recently
that might work for him. “How does that client of yours in x-business deal with this y-problem?” – he
wants to know. Often, he’ll say something like “I really screwed up on this situation. Let me tell you
about the base I missed and what I’m doing about it.”
Robert accepts all the responsibility for his success or failure, his errors and his achievements, and
because he does, he retains control
ONLY 5% EXHIBIT SELF-RELIANT BEHAVIOR
A couple years ago, I did a speaking tour of all the CEO Clubs (Chief Executive Officers) in the country,
for Joe Mancuso’s Center For Entrepreneurial Management, and I talked with groups of corporate
presidents in nearly a dozen different cities. If I heard it from one CEO, I heard it from a dozen: “It’s
getting harder and harder to find worthy people to promote from within.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Only about 5% of all the people we employ consistently exhibit self-reliant behavior.”
“What do you mean by ‘self-reliant behavior’?”
One President answered this way: “Well, take the typists here in the office. They know that a proofreader
checks their work for errors, so they rely on her rather than bothering to check their own work and
consistently present her with typing done right the first time. Then we’ve got fifty sales reps in the field,
Accounting has to constantly chase and nag every one of them to get their paperwork. My Sales Manager
told me the other day that we’ve got one guy who we give wake-up calls to.”
Another President said, “We have about 20 people in the Chicago plant. Only three or four consistently
get here on time, ready to work. I figure about 5% of all the people we’ve ever employed, in all the
different jobs, accept full responsibility for successful completion of every aspect of their jobs.”
When you think through what these CEO’s said, you have a simple answer to a long list of questions…..
*How can I move ahead in my career?
*How can I get a better job?
*How can I start my own business?
*How can I have a better relationship?
*How can I maintain a positive outlook?
*How can I make more money?
Most people have unsaid extensions to these kinds of questions:
*How can I move ahead in my career – when others have more education
than I do?…..when the boss likes Steve better than me?
*How can I get a better job – when the economy’s so bad?
*How can I start my own business – when I haven’t got any money?
…..and so on.
The answer to these questions and many more like them is: self-reliant behavior.
How Long Will You Wait
Before Taking Charge?
The many times that that I followed General Schwartzkopf on a program, I listened as he posed this
rhetorical question: if you are put in charge, when you are put in charge, what should you do? TAKE
He was talking about the very essence of leadership – not waiting, not procrastinating, not looking around
to copy how others did it or are doing it, not waiting for a committee to cover your butt with its
recommendations; instead, stepping forward to do what needs to be done and to do what is right.
All too often, even when an individual finally gets the chance to be “in charge” that he has coveted, he
accomplishes little. For years, other players on the NBA Chicago Bulls grumbled and groused about being
stuck in the shadow of Michael Jordan. They coveted the chance to command that spotlight and lead the
team. But when Michael Jordan retired, that spotlight searched vainly for that team’s next leader. In 1994,
it couldn’t find one. The most logical heir-apparent embarrassed himself and his entire team in the
playoffs by throwing a ‘hissy fit’ over not being named by the coach as the man to get the ball and try the
final shot in the final seconds of a closely contested play-ff game. This would-be leader let his ego control
his actions. Incredibly, he refused to go back in from the time out and give his best efforts to the play that
had been called. You can look around and see such individuals’ squandering their opportunities constantly
in just this way.
But I would go even farther: why wait until you are put in charge? Take charge anyway. The fact is:
there’s a leadership vacuum just about everywhere. Maybe in your home. Probably in your business or
place of employment. In your industry, in your community, in your church, in your country. And I
suggest this leadership vacuum offers you the opportunity you seek to change your life for the better. Let
me give you a very down-to-earth example:
Mary S. was at a seminar I presented for doctors some years ago. She was there with her husband, a
dentist. She pulled me aside on a break. “Could I talk to you alone for a minute?” So she and I ducked out
of the meeting room, went down the hall, and found an empty meeting room to step into.
“I’m so frustrated,” she told me. “There are so many things you’ve been talking about that we could do to
build up the practice. We keep going to seminars, hearing good ideas, but my husband never gets
anything new implemented. Nothing happens. The staff now knows that when he comes back from a
seminar talking about new ideas, all they have to do is wait a few days and it’ll all blow over. And the
practice hasn’t grown a bit in three years.”
“What kind of things would you have him do?” I asked.
“Join the Chamber of Commerce, attend meetings and make contacts with other business people in the
community,” she said. “And start a mailing campaign to area business owners and executives. And put
out a monthly newsletter for our past and present patients. And put together a little how-to book,
something like ‘How To Keep Healthy Teeth For Life.’ And, in the office, our reception area desperately
needs re-decorated. The staff needs some help with handling telephone calls, especially from new patients
calling in because of our yellow pages ad. And –”
“Wait a minute,” I raised my hand like a traffic cop and brought her to a halt. “Mary, these all sound like
inarguably good ideas to me.”
“But he won’t do any of them,” she said sadly.
“Well, Mary,” I asked, “What are you waiting for?”
For the first time that night, Mary was speechless. She returned to the meeting room with a particularly
thoughtful look on her face.
You see, it’s one thing to complain about another person’s failure to pick up the ball and run with it. In
this case, Mary was certainly justified in being frustrated with her husband’s lack of ambition and
initiative. But she’d been complaining to him and about him for three years. She’d been frustrated for
three years. Obviously, that wasn’t going to change anything. Her only apparent options: accept him and
things exactly as-is and stop being aggravated, continue being frustrated every day of her life for the rest
of her life, divorce him and leave, or pick up the ball and do some running of her own.
Most would choose one of the first two options. Thoreau observed “Most men (and women) lead lives of
About a year later, Mary S. appeared at another of my many seminars for doctors. Again she cornered me
on a break, apart from her husband. “I want to tell you,” she began, “that I was very angry with you and
the way you answered me that night. I wanted some sympathy. And I wanted you to go have a tough talk
with my husband. But I sure didn’t want you to challenge me.”
“Should I apologize?” I asked.
“Hardly,” she answered. “Let me tell you about my new life.” Mary no longer worked in the office as a
dental assistant. Instead she had hired her replacement, then appointed herself ‘Director Of Marketing.’
She joined the Chamber of Commerce, a businesswomen’s club, a Toastmasters group, and enrolled in a
Dale Carnegie class. She assembled a book – “Secrets Of A Healthy Smile For Life” – and she began
speaking to groups of school children, PTA meetings, civic groups, everywhere she could on behalf of the
practice. She put together a practice newsletter, assigned writing tasks to other staff members and
occasionally even to patients, got it done, published and
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