Legendary Motivator Les Brown Says Conquering Yourself is the First Step to Winning in Life
In the unlikely event that you have not heard of Les Brown, you owe it to yourself to go to YouTube and watch one of his many videos. If you don’t come away inspired to take on the world, you might not have a pulse.
Sometimes motivational speakers can have a sameness about them, but that cannot be said of Les. In his unique voice, he does not shy away from challenging his audiences. Invariably, listeners are inspired to examine what they are doing with their lives and to ask themselves if they are giving and getting all they can from life.
Les has been many things in his career in addition to being a motivational speaker. He was a member of the Ohio House of Representatives, a radio DJ, a talk show host and author, best known for Live Your Dreams and It’s Not Over Until You Win. But it is as a speaker that he is most noted. He was named one of America’s Top Five Speakers for 1992 by Toastmasters International, which presented him with its Golden Gavel Award.
Les had so many insights to share that InsuranceNewsNet has expanded his interview into two installments. In the August issue, Les will give advice to our readers on the need to tell their story to clients and prospects, and the challenge of telling your clients what they need to hear instead of what they want to hear.
In this month’s installment, Les shared some great news with us. Many of his fans have been concerned because Les has been battling cancer for more than a dozen years. But at the start of his interview with InsuranceNewsNet Publisher Paul Feldman, Les was excited to talk about the latest development in what he called his “cancer experience.”
FELDMAN: I understand you had exciting news recently.
BROWN: I beat cancer just this past Friday, and that’s been very exciting. I’ve been dealing with it for 17 years and the cancer metastasized. It metastasized to seven areas of my body, but now my PSA is zero, and I have no cancer in my system, and that’s after dealing with it for 17 years. So, I’m happy. I’m fired up.
FELDMAN: That’s wonderful news! So, are you back at it full speed?
BROWN: Well, actually, I didn’t slow down that much and I’ve been reflecting on this whole experience because I feel like I have a new lease on life. During the time that I was dealing with my cancer, I did a video program called You’re More Powerful Than Cancer for cancer conquerors. I saw how it affected the mindset of people, and many people just could not understand when I said to them, “Doctors determine the diagnosis. God determines the prognosis.” Just because someone has a stethoscope and a white coat, they don’t know how long you’re going to be here. What if they graduated at the bottom of their class?
So you have to fight. I strongly believe that life is a fight for territory. And once you stop fighting for what you want, what you don’t want automatically will take over.
FELDMAN: Can you tell us about when you discovered that you had cancer and how it changed your life?
BROWN: After achieving my financial goals and earning millions of dollars doing what I love to do, I had another challenge that I did not expect. Someone said to me three words that no one ever wants to hear, and it happened twice in my life: “You have cancer.”
Up to that point, I had talked to and inspired people who were going through cancer and other illnesses but that was something that happened to other people, not to me. And so, just imagine when someone looks at you and says, “You have cancer. It’s eating 40 percent of your T1 vertebra, and it’s metastasized to seven areas of your body.” Well, it doesn’t matter how much money you have in the bank. Look at Steve Jobs. He had more money than the U.S. Treasury, and he’s gone.
So, cancer is a different battle. You have to have a hunger in every dimension of yourself to improve your health, to develop yourself, to be physically fit, to be disciplined, to have a ritual that says, “I plan to be here.”
FELDMAN: It seems that anytime we achieve something, a bigger challenge shows up. How do you deal with that?
BROWN: Life is very interesting. I remember Bette Davis said, “Old age is not for wimps.” The older you get, the more things you encounter – new levels, new devils. And so you have to have the confidence and the level of mastery to deal with those things. All of us are called upon to be hungry and determined and passionate and to have a mindset that says, “I can deal with this. I can handle this.” And you need to use your imagination and resourcefulness to figure it out.
You have to continue to raise the bar on yourself. Even though I’ve been recognized among the top speakers in the world, I don’t believe that I’ve done my best work. I would rate myself a six plus (on a scale of 1 to 10) as a speaker. And so you have to have your own personal criteria. I remember some people were talking to Dr. J (Julius Erving), who was very accomplished as a basketball player, but he’s also very accomplished as a business man.
And they asked him the question, “How is it that you were great in basketball? Now you’re a great business man.” And he said, “I demand more of myself than anyone could ever imagine.” That’s what all of us have to do. We have to challenge ourselves.
I’m 69. Most of my friends are retired. But I’m re-fired. I’m looking at what I can do next. What else do I have in me? In one of the speeches that I give, I have the audience repeat the affirmation, “Live full. Die empty.” They say that, and then I tell the story of Dr. Howard Thurman, who was a mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. I first told this story just after having 238 radiation seed implants when I was first diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Dr. Thurman said, “The ideal situation for a man or woman to die is to have family members praying with them as they cross over. But imagine if you will, being on your death bed, and standing around your bed is the ghost of the dreams, the ideas, the abilities, the talents given to you by life, and you – for whatever reason – you never pursued those dreams. You never used those gifts. You never acted on those ideas, and there they are standing around your bed, looking at you with large, angry eyes, and saying, ‘We came to you, and only you could have given us life, and now we must die with you forever.’ ”
The question is: If you die today, what dreams, ideas, talents will die with you? And when I posed that question to the audience, you could see them thinking. The silence, the quiet in the room was very thick. You could cut it with a knife. If you ask most people, “If you had your life to live over again, could you have done more than what you’ve done thus far?” even people who lived a very accomplished life would have to say, “Yes, I could have done more.”
And so, that’s what I’m shooting for. When they asked George Bernard Shaw, “If you had it in your power to be anybody throughout history, who would you like to be? Any leader that you admire?” And he said, “I’d like to become the man I never was.” And I believe that even if you’ve had accomplishments in many areas of your life, we all know in our heart of hearts, in some part of ourselves, that we have not developed some part of ourselves that the world has not had a chance to be exposed to. And when we go to our graves with that unexpressed greatness, we’re all deprived.
FELDMAN: How important is it to have rituals in your life for success, or for goal-setting?
BROWN: Rituals are very important. Holding a vision of what it is you want to achieve, writing down the goals that are important to you and prioritizing them, and doing certain things every day. When my mother was working in Miami Beach for wealthy families, I started listening to motivational programs – Earl Nightingale, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, and Jim Rohn.
These families that she worked for had libraries. I remember somebody I worked for told me, “Leslie, I told you to shine my shoes better than this, and I want you to work on my office, and keep it clean.” I said, “I will, sir.” His guest thought he was very arrogant and very rude to me, but he wasn’t, because I didn’t clean his office as well as I could have. That’s because I wanted to be in the office with him. I wanted to spend more time in there because every morning he had a ritual of listening to audio programs.
He told his son that you don’t get in life what you want, you get in life what you are. That’s an Earl Nightingale quote. And so, during the time that I was in his office, shining his shoes, dusting, I would listen to the programs that he listened to. Unbeknownst to me – I was 10 years old – it was programming my mind. And so, I then started doing it myself when I got out of high school. I started listening to audio programs, and reading 10 to 30 pages every day, and I still do that. I even read more.
I started reading a minimum of two books a week. I heard a program that said the average American reads one book a year, but if you decide to read one book a month, in five years, when the average American would have read five books, you would have read 60 books. That will make you an expert. You don’t get paid by the hour. You get paid for the value you bring to the hour. So, I disciplined myself to read two books a week, and it changed my life.
And so, I had the reading, listening to audio programs, holding the vision of what it is that I wanted to accomplish, along with the whole ritual of talking to myself. When I was struggling with cancer, I said, “I give thanks that I am healed.” For 17 years, I was going for walks and saying to myself, “My immune system is powerful. It’s producing powerful white blood cells that kill quickly and permanently every renegade cancer cell in my body.”
My doctors are amazed. “How could you? What are you doing? What’s your ritual?” Well, that’s part of my ritual, talking to my body. I read a book that said, “Your body hears everything that you say and the thoughts that you are thinking.” And so by saturating my mind with words that I read in healing books of Bernie Siegel, Louise Hay and others, by talking to myself, by visualizing my cancer cells, those radical cancer cells being consumed by powerful white blood cells, all of those things helped to cause me to be in the kind of health that I’m in right now.
It was the same way that I accomplished my goals as a speaker. When people told me, “There’s no way with no college training. There’s no way that you’re going to be able to be on the big stage, and cause a corporation to see you as an intellectual resource, and reach over people with PhDs and MBAs, and years of experience, and hire you to come in to motivate and inspire them to do something that you have never done. You don’t know how to do that.” And I said, “I know, but we’re all born the same way; dumb, naked and speechless. I can learn.”
I decided that I was going to learn how to deliver a message. I was going to learn how to do research. I was going to learn how to speak extemporaneously.
I would custom design a message for an audience. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that once someone’s mind has been expanded with an idea, concept or experience, it can never be satisfied to going back to where it was. I wanted to create an experience that would give the audience a larger vision of themselves.
With rituals of reading, visualizing, journaling, talking to yourself and reviewing your goals on a regular basis, we ignite a force within us to achieve things that most people will never do.
FELDMAN: You discussed a positive inner dialogue but you also have said you have to battle negative self-talk. How do you catch yourself doing it, and what are some exercises to overcome negative self-talk?
BROWN: You have to be aware of your thoughts. We cannot control the thoughts that come in our minds, but we do control the thoughts that we dwell on. It’s been said that, “Master your mind or your mind will master you.” What’s very important is when you find yourself thinking something negative that you have to catch yourself, and say, “Cancel that.” I do that all the time. Studies indicate we have a propensity for thinking negative thoughts. That’s why my favorite book says, “Be ye not conformed to this world. Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
Those are the 16 most revolutionary words. We have a tendency to be negative. We live in a world where we’re told more about our limitations rather than our potential. You have to make a conscious, deliberate effort not to think negatively, and when you find yourself doing that, you have to change that thought. Don’t say and speak negative words, and if you do, catch yourself and say, “Wait a minute. Excuse me. I don’t mean that,” and replace that with something positive.
I remember when I was speaking to an audience, and somebody asked,
“Do you still have cancer?” And I said, “Yes.” Then I said, “No, no, no, no, no. I don’t have cancer. I’m going through a cancer experience. I don’t have cancer. I’m not going to claim anything negative for myself.” And so, we have to be mindful, and conscious of our thoughts, and change them on a regular basis.
FELDMAN: You talk about mind sight vs. eye sight. Does that have something to do with that as well?
BROWN: Yes, because we don’t see life as it is. We see life as we are. And that’s why it’s very important that we work on our mindset. Everything starts there. Dr. Carter G. Woodson said, “If you could determine what a man shall think, you’ll never have to concern yourself with what he will do.” We have to trade our thinking, restructure our belief system and continue to find ways in which we can override the inner conversations that are a part of our consciousness that we don’t even know.
If I said right now, “Winston tastes good like …,” what would you say?
FELDMAN: A cigarette should.
BROWN: And that commercial hasn’t been on the air for 40 years. So, what else is in that subconscious mind?
Those are things in us. There was an article in Newsweek called “The Unseen Mind” that pointed out eight to nine choices that we make every day that come out of the unconscious mind. That’s why we have to work on ourselves continuously because most of the stuff that’s in us governing our daily lives has been formed in our belief systems since we were children. That belief system drives our decisions even though we don’t notice it happening. We’re not mature enough or wise enough to make those decisions, and so we take on that stuff unconsciously, and as we grow up, we begin to take them off or we continue to buy into them and live the story that we’ve been born into.
FELDMAN: How do you beat what you call the “Demons of Distraction?”
BROWN: It requires discipline. Most people go through life and get caught up in their distractions rather than on their destiny. You have to be very, very disciplined in how you move your life forward. Don’t look to the right and don’t look to the left.
There’s an Alaskan proverb that says, “If there’s no enemy within, the enemy outside can do you no harm.” When I was growing up in Liberty City, Fla., I had the distractions of drugs. I had the distractions of very good friends who were engaged in all types of criminal activity. During that time, I could have chosen those distractions. I could have said, “You know what? I want to do what my friends are doing.”
But instead, I had to discipline myself to hold the vision of how I saw myself. My mother had a third-grade education and she adopted seven children. She cleaned homes in Miami Beach. She cooked for these families. We ate the food left over from the families that she had cooked and set the table for. They were very kind and generous people, and they would say, “Mamie, whatever food is left over, you can pack it up and take it home to those seven children.”
My vision for myself was that one day I would live in a big, beautiful mansion. One day I would buy my mother a big, beautiful home. I bought her a home; actually, four different homes before she passed at 89.
The vision that was etched in my mind was of those big, beautiful mansions in Miami Beach. The first big home I bought for my mother was 10,000 square feet, with a basketball court and a tennis court in North Miami Beach. I created that vision as I would drive through wealthy areas before going home each day. That kept my mind focused on what I wanted, and not on the distractions around me.
Inside me, I had this conviction that I’m better than this. Inside me, there was a feeling that I deserved more. What we do, what we have, what we accomplish in life is directly related to our sense of deservedness. I believe that I deserve to live someplace that’s clean, decent, has flowers, water, and is spacious, crime-free and full of happy families. That was my daily vision of myself living in that kind of environment, and I was determined to create a life that would enable me to have that for myself.
So that became my magnificent obsession. You’ve got to decide there’s something that you want and that it becomes your magnificent obsession.
As a result of that kind of single-mindedness and focus, life will give its secrets up to you. It will say, “You know what? We’ve got to give in because he’s not going to be denied. He’s not going to go away. He refuses to give up. We’ve got to give him what he wants because he’s laser-focused on achieving this.”
Next month: Les Brown challenges InsuranceNewsNet’s readers to “never let what you want to say get in the way of what the client needs to hear.”