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Tony Little’s 2010 book, There’s Always a Way opens with a peculiar list. There are two columns, one with the words “Adversities of My Life” atop, and the other, “Victories of My Life.” Little, 56, has overcome more obstacles in one lifetime than 10 men combined.
Almost drowned twice.
Shot at twice.
Four car accidents.
My dad kills himself.
Drugged and kidnapped by predator.
And that’s just the beginning of the list. But like any good comeback story, each adversity has shaped Little for the better. “I don’t look at anything as an obstacle,” Little tells SUCCESS from the porch of his Florida home. “I look at it as a chance to figure it out. I do much better when my back is against the wall.”
The late-night television pitchman—the one with the blond ponytail gathered in a baseball cap, riding his signature Gazelle; would sell anything that’s not nailed down. It’s just his nature. He’s sold everything from exercise equipment to cheesecake, pillows and exotic animal meat. But he’s not a used car salesman; he’s warm and genuine, if not a little eccentric.
During our recent phone interview, Tony’s first words were an apology. His twin boys Cody and Chase, who were born premature, weighing less than two pounds, had just spent the night in the hospital. The 56-year-old dad was going on no sleep and was sick from worry, but he wanted to apologize. “Here I am talking to SUCCESS magazine and I seemingly don’t have the same energy and positivity that I normally would,” Tony says. Of course, Tony Little at a “3” is still anyone else’s “6” on an energy scale.
SUCCESS talks to Tony about selling, overcoming obstacles, his wife’s postpartum depression and that unbelievable list.
SUCCESS: Tell me about the list in There’s Always a Way. Is this list something you actually wrote down one day?
TL: Yes, one night sitting on the back porch, I wrote that list down. When the book publishers read it, they smiled and asked, ‘Where do you want to put that?’ I told them the front of the book, and they asked why. I said, ‘Because if I opened that book and saw that list, I wouldn’t have to read what the book was about. I’d just want to read it because it’s real life experiences.’
People don’t always believe it. They ask how that could happen to one person. But I look at it differently.
I figured we all have adversities in our life, but if we change our mindsets on the adversities they can end up becoming victories. I went through years of tragedy and adversity, but that always seemed to parallel with a later victory. It made me think how power of the mind is amazing in business, entrepreneurship and success—and maybe it’s not so complicated.
SUCCESS: What’s the hardest part of changing your mindset? When faced with a difficult situation, it’s honestly easier to stay stuck in negativity than stopping and changing your mind to something more positive. How do you do it?
TL: I look at it logically, like a CPA or a bean counter would: What will happen if I stay negative in this situation and what will happen if I make it positive? If I go strictly by the numbers, it makes a lot more sense to think positively to achieve something better from the situation.
It’s the hardest thing to talk to yourself and to move yourself forward, unless you have decided that there’s always a way. Maybe we read too much into the psychology of it. Break it down simply and realize that negative gets you nowhere and positive at least gets you somewhere.
SUCCESS: Changing your mindset—that’s a very cerebral thing of making up your mind, whereas being negative comes out of emotion. Doesn’t the push and pull between mind and emotion make that difficult to overcome?
TL: Well, emotions are only temporary. Then you wake up and realize being emotional left you with the same problem and no solution.
SUCCESS: You say everything that applies to selling applies to life as well. And you’ll find a way to success when you learn to sell yourself. How so?
TL: I sell myself as a successful person with a successful business, and a person who wants to do better because that’s the image I want and that’s what I want to do.
SUCCESS: From the book, tell me the story about your Mr. Florida competition where you tape-recorded the subliminal message into the music “Pick Tony Little, number 15…. Pick Tony Little, number 15.”
TL: Well, my guy told me he put in the subliminal [ghostly voice] ‘Tony Little.’ I’m not so sure it really worked that way. I couldn’t hear it myself, but it made me believe it was in there and I had an advantage.
SUCCESS: Let’s talk about your life now. Wife Melissa delivered your twins prematurely and subsequently struggled with postpartum depression as a result of the kids’ health problems.
TL: In the old days, there would have been no way to save those children. But they were our miracle babies.
In the Neonatal ICU, babies have a strict, 20-minute feeding schedule to help fatten them up. I was getting pretty good at feeding them, but Melissa had a hard time because she didn’t want to push the child. That pressure seemed to build up and she kind of gave up after a little while. She started to get really quiet and disinterested. That’s when she started to experience all that stuff, and totally faded away to be somebody else. She just hit a tipping point. It was very hard for her, me, and the family to see her go through that.
Finally after about 30 to 60 days, she started to feel better and kinda came back. It was like a switch flipped. I couldn’t explain it, and she couldn’t explain it. I thought I lost the person I was with.
SUCCESS: It’s hard enough dealing with your own happiness, let alone somebody else’s happiness. How did you handle that?
TL: I was just always there for her. I’m not saying I did a great job at it. I’m very understanding, logical and tried to fill in where she was having difficulties. I tried to just love—but it’s hard to love somebody who doesn’t seem to be there. That was very hard on my end of it.
I’m trying to do my best, and I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. Then you have to understand that it’s not something you can understand, and let it go.
At the same time though, while we spent those three months in the hospital with the kids, I was feeling weird that my bookkeeper might be stealing from me, and he was to the tune $800,000. He just went to prison. It was a tremendously difficult time.
SUCCESS: Yet, somehow you always find a way. Your catchphrase is “You can do it.” Tell me, what does it mean?
TL: “You can do it” is a simple thought pattern, designed to let you know that you should be positive about what you’re able to achieve.
It’s funny, people come up to me and ask, “You can do it”… did you say that first or did the guy in the Adam Sandler movie say it first? I say, “I don’t know, were you around in the ’80s when I was doing my videos?”
So yeah, I own seven different trademarks on “You can do it.”
Unconventional Business Advice from Gazelle Pitchman Tony Little
I’m on the phone with fitness guru Tony Little, who’s talking about the concepts of Napoleon Hill and how they still apply today, when I heard some shuffling and static on the other end of the line. “Just as I was talking to you, I sat back on the wood bench swing that swings back and forth… and now I’m sitting upside down in it,” Little says laughing. “Yeah, that really just happened.”
Little continues, “But let me reassure you that if I twisted my neck somehow, someday you would see me selling a neck product.” That’s how he does it. He sells from experience.
Surprisingly, Little calls himself a quiet businessman. “Everyone thinks of me as being really hyper all the time and I’m not. I know what I need to do when I need to encourage people and enthuse them, and I believe in myself. Those are two things you have to project.”
Take a few more kernels of wisdom from Tony Little in this SUCCESS exclusive:
1. Don’t dress the part. If everyone else wears muted colors, wear bold colors. You have to step out to stand out.
2. It’s OK to drop names. It’s called networking and that’s how you get your foot in the door.
3. Brand your best, even if it’s stretching the truth. George Washington is branded as an elderly, stern-looking aristocrat in a classic white wig. In real life, Washington had wooden teeth and red hair.
4. Treat every no as an opportunity to negotiate.
5. Never ever project a negative in yourself to somebody that you want to be in business with. Anytime you doubt—about your job, ability, anything—it’s going to cause people to doubt you.
6. If you want a totally new answer, look first to the obvious. It’s often the last thing people notice.