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In the wake of the meltdown, Lowe resigned and with wife Tamara started the current incarnation of the business. Asked about the failed venture, Brian Forte, senior vice president, claims that after Lowe sold his organization, he became an employee of the company and didn't make any of the decisions that led to the collapse, though his former partners countered in media reports at the time that he was in fact head of the seminar subsidiary. In any case, the Lowes have managed to put the mess behind them to orchestrate some 35 seminars across the country every year, each drawing 12,000-14,000 people. The company wouldn't say how much they pay the speakers, but in 2006 Rudy Giuliani was reportedly paid $100,000 for appearing at one of the seminars.
Since most motivational speakers sell books to go along with their workshops, they're tied to publishing's vast and varied self-help genre, which includes everything from motivational/success titles such as Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Successful People to mind-body-spirit volumes like Louise Hay's You Can Heal Your Life and Doreen Virtue's guides about how to communicate with the archangels. While most publishing genres are flat or sinking, self-help volumes are flying off the shelves. Mitch Albom's Have a Little Faith: A True Story took the top spot for adult nonfiction in mid-October, according to Nielsen BookScan, whose ratings system shows the self-help category up a whopping 22 percent over the past three years. Total nonfiction sales inched up just .24 percent over the same period, with computer-related book sales plunging 26 percent and history/law/political science sinking 15 percent.
"Self-help is bucking the trend," says Jim King, BookScan senior vice president and general manager. "The idea of self-improvement is really part of Americans' DNA. I mean, who was the first self-help author—Ben Franklin?" It's true that Franklin was a tenacious self-improver, an embodiment of the American rags-to-riches story. With little formal education, he apparently taught himself to write by copying famous essays and adhered to a list of 13 virtues that included being frugal, honest and industrious. If Franklin was the grandfather of American self-improvement, the fathers of modern self-help were Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie, who penned Think and Grow Rich and How to Win Friends and Influence People in the midst of the Great Depression. On their heels came Zig Ziglar, who had a hardscrabble Depression-era childhood in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and then fashioned an empire of motivational books and tapes that drew on biblical themes. Since this breed of self-help was born in the Great Depression, perhaps it's no surprise the industry is staying afloat while others sink in the recession.
"When you have this financial situation, people are looking for different ways to look at things and trying to find some comfort," King says. "Self-help provides that."
At a time of widespread home foreclosures, double-digit unemployment and news of Hoover-esque tent cities springing up across the country, many of those seeking a jolt of inspiration at the Fort Worth Convention Center this Monday in October are out-of-work employees or small business owners whose incomes have plunged.
Terri Antley, a blond, tired-looking woman from Granbury, lost her job as an oil company dispatcher last fall. "I'm on my second extension of unemployment, I'm 48 and there's nothin' out there," she says during a break. "This gives you hope to not give up—to not be so down."
Randy Safford, who lives in Dallas and has a company that sells GPS tracking devices, hopes to glean some wisdom that might help him take his business public. "It's scary right now—volatile," he says. "I'm looking for some new insight, maybe a new direction."
Marsha Whaley, who lives in Mansfield and has 12 children—a number of them adopted—brought three of her teenage sons to the seminar. She wants them to get some general inspiration and maybe some tips for a landscaping business they want to start to put themselves through college. "With the way the economy is, I worry about my children's future," she says. "I want them to have tools I never had. And what better speakers for them to hear than Colin Powell and George Bush?"
Mid-morning finds Colin Powell pacing the stage in a dark suit and talking about leadership. The general and former secretary of state, who clashed with administration insiders over the invasion of Iraq and endorsed President Barack Obama, seems to command just as much respect as he did during the Gulf War. People lean forward in their seats and some take notes. Powell, drawing on the principles he learned in the military and while serving under successive administrations, seems to gear his remarks toward CEOs and business owners, people who find themselves in the challenging position of having their effectiveness rise or fall with the productivity of subordinates.
"The people who get it done aren't the leaders, it's the followers," he tells the crowd. "And you as a leader must focus all your passion and all your intensity into inspiring your followers. Everyone has to have a purpose in life, and every organization has to have a larger purpose." The key to success in any organization, he says, is ensuring that its goals are guided by a broader intention that ripples out into the world. The people who clean the State Department offices, for instance, were not merely janitors. They were difference-makers, crucial to making America's portal to the world a clean and welcoming place and thereby advancing diplomacy and peace.
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