“We are designed for accomplishment, engineered for success, and endowed with the seeds of greatness” – Zig Ziglar
Zig Ziglar passed away this week. If you have no connection to self improvement, goal setting or sales, you may never have heard of him. And yet he touched millions of lives in an inspirational career spanning five decades.
And without knowing it, he save my life…
See You at the Top was his first and most famous book, first published in 1974*. It was initially called Biscuits, Fleas and Pump Handles – referring to three of his parable-like human interest stories he used in his talks on attitude and personal success.
I’m glad he changed the title. To me, See You at the Top was more than a title, it was some kind of invitation. Rather like John Lennon’s Imagine, with that line ‘I hope someday you’ll join us…’ Zig was suggesting to me personally that I join him, at the Top (whatever that was, but it sounded good). Just reading that title was motivational. It felt like an acknowledgment that I was somehow good enough to be there, with him, at the Top. To me, through that book, I came to think of the Top as being an abstract destination, a journey, not necessarily defined by financial wealth or fame and glory, but something more powerful…
There may well have been better written, better researched or cleverer books published since on self development and goal setting. But they’ll never be a better book for me than this, the original.
I first came upon Zig when a friend of mine lent me the book when we were at university. I swapped it for my copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.
I was immediately impressed with the look of it. The bold, graphical cover of that big arrow and that great title. It was set in a block font called Eurostile, my favorite typeface (also used throughout the 1960s, in Vic Reeves Big Night Out and of course in my own logo).
The book was different. It looked different. It had graphics and cartoons in it. And jokes. It began with a graphical metaphor of a lift that was labeled as the lift that would take you to ‘the Top’. But a sign on the door said ‘Out of Order’. The implication was that you’d have to take the stairs, with each step a milestone on the way to becoming the type of person who belonged at the Top. The steps were: Self-image, Your relationship with others, Goals, Attitude, Work and Desire. The bannister was labelled ‘Character and Loyalty’.
The jokes were tame, but fun:
“An optimist, as you probably know, is a person who, when he wears out his shoes just figures he’s back on his feet.”
“We need a check up from the neck up”
“People often say motivation doesn’t last. Neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”
“It’s your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.”
But there’s a phrase that permeates the book, and Zig’s work:
“You can get everything in life you want, if you just help enough other people what they want”
It put the book into a context. This was effectively a fifth Gospel. An allusion not lost on Zig, who, with his powerful faith, coming to Christ in 1972, pulled no punches in relating the concept of motivation to the message of Jesus. Zig’s catchphrase was just a contemporary way of saying the golden rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.
Then there was a further revelation for me. My friend Dommy also had a tape of Zig speaking. It was just thirty minutes, recorded at some business conference in the early 1980s. Having the messages (and jokes) of See You at the Top, spoken in that accent, and that voice, live, was like having a recording of the Sermon on the Mount. Impressive as the words were when written down, they were so much more powerful spoken in front of a live audience.
It inspired me to give my first professional motivational speech in 1994 at a training event for the Students’ Union at Oxford Brookes. I felt that Zig’s messages were all too good not to share so I paraphrased Zig’s messages. I didn’t do the accent though. OK, I did a bit in two places, on the drawl that he did at the end of “You can get everything in life you whaaant, if you just help enough other people get, what, they, whaaant” and “Positive thinking won’t let you do everything. But it WILL let you do everything, better, than, negative, thinking, wiiiiiiiillllll”.
I knew nothing about the self development industry or the speaking business. I had no idea that Zig was still active or that other motivational speakers were also working in businesses around the world. All I wanted to do was to motivate and inspire people as Zig had done for me so I just hunted down any opportunity to speak. Knowing nothing about business, the only places I actually found were comedy clubs.
So for a time I became a motivational stand up comedian. You can see clips on YouTube, notice the Zig quote at the start and end, inviting the audience to join the Smile and Compliment Club.
But none of that was the moment that Zig saved my life.
That came when, after discovering that my (then) wife had had a string of affairs throughout our time together. She revealed that news, and then walked out, never to return. I had a nervous breakdown.
I could have gone way down. I could, so easily, have reached for the wrong thing. But instead I found a tape called ‘How to Be a Winner’. It was a live talk by Zig. I played it constantly until it wore out. For day after day I lay there, unable to function, just able to listen. It was then that I found Zig’s website and that he was still performing and still writing. I got his CD set and listened to that over and over again. I knew the material so well I could have delivered it verbatim – including the Southern accent.
But instead I got up and started living again.
I never met Zig in person. But I did write him a version of the above story as an entry in his 80th birthday testimonial book, organised by his son Tom.
Today I deliver my own material, and not as a comedy motivational speaker, but hopefully as some kind of genuine one. I know that the chances that I have anywhere near as big an impact as Zig, who touched and improved millions of lives over five decades, is remote.
But on the day of his passing, I had another thought, inspired by his life. As one of the first ever motivational speakers who defined the concept and the author of numerous best-selling books that spanned decades, there was little or no coverage of his passing in mainstream media.
If the great Zig remained niche, known only to the few, we are but mayflies with our influence. It was a lesson in my own relative importance. A useful footnote in how I measure my own success.
And yet I feel he would somehow have wanted it that way. Zig was a great salesman, one of the original and best and yet he didn’t ‘play the game’ that so many of his weaker successors do in using emotional blackmail, hypnosis techniques and snake oil tricks to sell his books, speeches and programmes. He didn’t play on the desperate, needy and vulnerable with ‘get rich quick’ schemes; his material and methods were honest, honorable and transparent.
I’ve seen too many so-called ‘thought leaders’ and motivational experts who claim the ability to change the world and/or make us all rich. Zig gave us clear, tested and testable suggestions to improve our outlook, attitude and therefore our lives.
Can anyone change the world (for the better) anyway? A few perhaps, but it’s so unlikely. But more importantly we’re not here to change the world, if we think that, it’s our ego talking. But we all can inspire individuals, even if it is just one soul at a time.
Zig didn’t invent goal setting or positive thinking, but he made them relevant and practical. He presented them as tools we can all use to improve our lives. There was no magic and no mystical invoking of a universal power of attraction required. Just simple, honest human truths told in a way that you could remember and use.
I never met Zig, but he did ‘save my life’, even though he may never have known it. We can and should, always, and only, do our very best, with integrity, for everyone we meet, our clients, our relationships, the audience on the day. That’s what Zig personified for me.
And he did it with style. And he did it with humility. And he did it with humour.
A genuine hero.
Zig Ziglar in 1978. Click on the photo to read Zig’s obituary in the Washington Post
In 1997 I wrote a song called See You at the Top. I recorded an unfinished version of it, you can hear it here.
*He self-published the book by the way, having to keep hundred of boxes in his home initially. It has sold over two million copies to date.
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