Zig Ziglar will see you at the top

In late 1991 I drove to Philadelphia to see a tag-team match of motivational speakers, Zig Ziglar and Brian Tracy. From a scrappy optimist selling cookware to a household name in sales, Zig was the dean of motivators, in the same league as Dr. Norman Vincent Peale when it came to applying spiritual principles to business. And for people interested in building a positive attitude as well as a career, Tracy wasn’t far behind.

I was excited because I’d landed an interview with both Ziglar and Tracy just before their appearances. At the time I was writing a nationally syndicated column for newspapers owned by the publisher of The Wall Street Journal. I’d listened to recordings Ziglar had made about the sales process and marveled at his mix of confidence,  self-deprecation and home-spun truisms. He never lectured; he illustrated. And those stories, drawn from a poor childhood in the South, brought comfort as well as knowledge to the listener.

For those who aren’t immediately familiar with the human potential movement, Ziglar inspires people in and out of sales because he’s living proof that hard work and a tough attitude deliver results. The tenth of twelve children, he was born in Alabama and raised in Mississippi by his mother after his father died. In 1944 Ziglar met his wife, Jeane, a woman he affectionately calls The Redhead. In 1970 he went into the business of motivational speaking full-time. Some time after that he founded the training company Ziglar, Inc., near Plano, Texas.

He has written twenty-nine books on personal growth, leadership, sales, faith, family and success, including See You at the Top, Raising Positive Kids in a Negative World and Secrets of Closing the Sale. Nine of those titles have hit the best-seller lists.

Despite my appreciation of his work, I had one small problem with the interview. As a journalist, I felt slightly uncomfortable when Zig would close his programs with “I’ll see you at the top.” It sounded more like a tagline designed by marketers than a sincere wish from a very sincere man. But I felt certain we’d find dozens of positive things to discuss.

As luck would have it, I left the newspaper group before writing the columns on Ziglar and Tracy. Nineteen years later, in reviewing the transcription of the tapes, I found the questions I’d asked weren’t very inspiring but the responses were. Over a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs in his hotel room, Zig talked about everything from U.S. history to the influence of television to Biblical values with a passion that belied his good-old-boy image.

When it was time for him to take the stage, he walked me to the door, shook my hand with a firm grip and delivered a line that sent chills down my spine. Looking me straight in the eyes he said, “And I’ll see you at the top.”

I believe him.

JW: You were born in Alabama in 1926 and raised in Yazoo City. Your mother came out one day after you had sown seeds in the garden and made you do the whole thing over again.

ZZ: Yeah. Hoeing the beans. We had milk cows and a big garden right there in town.

JW: You got a lot of fundamental values from your mom.

ZZ: Very much so.

JW: I imagine it was a pretty Spartan existence.

ZZ: We never thought of ourselves as poor because nobody else had anything either. If you had a roof over your head and something to eat and something to wear, you were rich.

JW: I’m reminded of a continuing theme in your work, that if you help enough people get what they want, you too will get what you want.

ZZ: That comes as a result of the old principles that my mother raised us on, which were Biblical principles—you do what’s right, you tell the truth, you work hard, you treat other people like you want to be treated, your word is your bond. That whole scenario was played many, many times to us when we were children.

JW: You used to sell cookware door to door. That strikes me as being a very difficult way to earn a living, but I sense you learned some valuable lessons, such as how to deal with rejection and adversity.

ZZ: There were two or three things, had I known this from the very beginning, that would have made it a lot easier, so I’m teaching people this now, which makes it easier for them. You have to understand that when people say “no” that’s not a personal rejection, it’s a business refusal. I try to remove the personal feeling from it. I have a close friend who is really my mentor, a brilliant man; his name is Fred Smith, and he’s a retired business executive, served on the board of Mobil Oil. He taught salespeople that when that happens, you treat it as an experiment and not an experience.

JW: You don’t extrapolate and say, “Everybody’s that way.”

ZZ: Oh gracious no. In other words, I don’t feel that person was rude to me but was part of an experiment.

JW: And this is a way of detaching yourself.

ZZ: That’s correct. That’s correct. And your image is intact and you go and make the next call.

JW: Did you ever have a worst day in your life?

ZZ: I’ve gotten into some awfully close scrapes financially and I relate to being extremely broke, wondering how I’m going to pay my rent, how I’m going to make my car payment, how we’re going to eat. When my oldest daughter was born [in 1948], the hospital bill was $64, and we didn’t have $64.

JW: What were you doing at the time?

ZZ: Selling cookware. I had to go out and make two sales to get enough money to get my wife and daughter out of the hospital. That’s pressure selling.

JW: And how about your best day?

ZZ: I still vividly remember the most exciting day as a salesman. I was in the cookware business. We were living in Columbia, South Carolina. We were extremely broke, very much in debt. On this particular night I had eight couples at a demonstration and I sold all eight of them. The total was $1,995 and all of the sales were for cash with the exception of one $200 sale. So when I got home that evening we set it down on the bed and counted that money about seventeen times and stacked it every different way you can stack money and just laughed and cut up and had a good time. We were going to be able to pay some bills that badly need paying.

JW: You talk about being dirt poor, going meal to meal. What were you saying to yourself during those times?

ZZ: I wasn’t really saying a whole lot to myself. You’ve got to understand that I’d been raised that when you make a commitment and accept a responsibility, you never consider escaping that responsibility. I had a wife, I had a family; they were my responsibility. So everything was geared first to survival and then to providing the family the other things that all families need.

JW: You’ve met the material definition of success. But what’s your personal definition of success?

ZZ: Our company’s mission statement is to be the difference-maker in enough lives to make a difference in America and the world. Now that sounds pretty grandiose but we’ve been very fortunate in that we have been able to reach an awful lot of people and we’re developing a couple of significant new programs that we believe will enable us to expedite that.

JW: Can you talk a little about those programs?

ZZ: You can trace every problem in our society, whether it’s crime or drugs or the dissolution of the family or our national debt . . .  you can trace all of them directly to a lack of leadership in this country.

JW: Government or business leadership?

ZZ: Everybody in leadership. Leadership in the family, that’s the beginning point. Leadership in the schools, leadership in our government, leadership in the media. I think we have to go back to the ‘70s to move ahead in the ‘90s.

JW: The 1970s?

ZZ: I’m talking about the 1770s. If you get your history book out, you’ll read that three million Americans in 1776 produced George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, etc., etc., etc. According to the Thomas Jefferson Research Institute, over ninety percent of all the educational thrust then was of a religious or a moral nature. Now those people were not religious. But what they did was they taught Biblical principles. By 1951 the percentage was so small you couldn’t measure it. We’ve taken God completely out of every facet of what we do, and we’re paying for it.

The average 18-year-old American watches 17,000 hours of television. He’s listened to 11,000 hours of music, watched 2,000 hours of MTV and the movies. That’s 30,000 hours. Now in 30,000 hours you can finish kindergarten, grade school, middle school, high school, college, medical school and serve an internship. I’m not opposed to us having some relaxation and entertainment—I’m going to play golf tomorrow. But in 30,000 hours we’ve taught our kids to play not to work. We have to go back to teaching our kids that there is a direct relationship between effort and reward. Society is our major problem but it really goes right back to the home.

JW: I’d like to talk a little about why it is so important that we have goals.

ZZ: Every human being I’ve ever talked to that has set and followed goals tells me that they absolutely work.

JW: When you were selling cookware and things didn’t look as nice as they do now, did you have goals?

ZZ: You betcha. My goal primarily was to make four demonstrations a day. That was one. Another would be to be the number-one salesman in our group that week.

JW: What does goal-setting give a person?

ZZ: It gives them a sense of direction.

JW: I’m looking at the time and know you’re going to have to scoot soon. . . . If you could have dinner with anybody in the world, who would it be?

ZZ: Obviously I’d pick that redheaded wife of mine.