Earl Nightingale’s 17-year quest for the secret of success ended one night in 1950, when he came across a sentence in a book. To Nightingale, it was more than a string of words on a page—it was the answer to the question that had haunted him since childhood. “What makes the difference?” Why are some people well-off financially and others poor?
At 12, Nightingale’s father had left the family. Nightingale was living in a government-issued tent in Long Beach, Calif., with his mother and two brothers. It was during the Great Depression, and like many thousands of families, the Nightingales would have been homeless if not for the help of the government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), which created 8 million jobs and redistributed food, clothing and housing to the poor.
The disparity between the lives of the haves and have-nots was vast, and it troubled Nightingale. “As a youngster, I didn’t know anything about a sense of achievement, but I was all too aware of being poor,” he says in his book Earl Nightingale’s Greatest Discovery. “It didn’t seem to bother the other kids, but it bothered me. What made it all the more exasperating to me, as a boy of 12, was to be poor in Southern California, where there seemed to be so many who were rich…. I decided to find out why some people were rich while so very many of us were poor.”
He asked, but no one seemed to know. “I made, what was to me, an astonishing discovery: The adults in our neighborhood didn’t know anything at all. They were pitifully uneducated—driven by instinct, other-directed.”
‘Knowledge Is Everything’
Fortunately, his mother, Gladys “Honey” Nightingale, loved books, and she actively encouraged the same trait in her sons. When she wasn’t working in a sewing factory or looking after them, she read. She told her sons, “Knowledge is everything; everything you want to know has been written down by someone.” Encouraged, Nightingale went to the public library to find the book he was sure would explain the secret of success. After being told there was no single book that contained the information he wanted, Nightingale began to read, certain it had to be written somewhere.
Through reading books on religion, philosophy, history and psychology, he learned about “the importance of honesty, personal integrity and courage, and of believing in what is right and being willing to fight for it.” But he still didn’t have the answer to his seemingly simple question: What is the secret of success?
He spent 17 long years seeking the answer. During that time, he joined the Marines, was posted to Hawaii aboard the U.S.S. Arizona, and was one of the few hundred men who survived the battleship’s bombing in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Nightingale described the chaos and tragedy of the attack: scrambling to battle stations as bombs crippled the ship, seeing friends killed amid shrapnel and flames, getting blown into the water by the concussion of a blast and finally making it safely to shore with help from a Marine officer.
His experience left him with a conviction that he was spared for a reason, says his widow, Diana Nightingale. “He was a great believer in paying the price for what you wanted—whether that was personal freedom or the freedom of your country,” she says. “He came home from the war with great expectations and went about the business of life.
“He was a man who really did live in the present. He felt the past served as an education and we should take what was valuable from it. He said the future wasn’t promised to anyone and that you should live each day fully and to the best of your ability.”
Toward the end of the war, Nightingale was posted back to the United States, working as an instructor at Camp Lejeune, N.C. While traveling near the base, he noticed a radio station under construction and volunteered to work weekends and evenings as an announcer, thinking it would be a useful skill to learn.
“I took to broadcasting like nothing before in my life,” he said. After the war, he moved to bigger radio stations in Phoenix and then Chicago where he worked for CBS, becoming the voice of the popular radio hero, Sky King. Around the same time, he made two decisions that were to guide the rest of his life: “The first was to discover the secret of success. The second was to become a writer. I loved books and wanted to write them myself.”
In 1950, at the age of 29, he found the secret of success in Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich: “We become what we think about.”
“While reading, it suddenly dawned upon me that I had been reading the same truth over and over again for many years. And all of a sudden, there they were, the words, in the proper order that I had been looking for 17 years: the astonishing truth that we become what we think about. Those six simple words, in that order, revolutionized my life.”
‘The Strangest Secret’
Seizing new opportunities, Nightingale bought a small Franklin Life Insurance agency and gave pep talks to his salesmen every week. The talks proved so popular that his manager asked him to record something to be played while Nightingale was away for two weeks.
“In the spring of 1956, I was asked to put the essence of what I had learned during those many years of assiduous reading and research into a rather short essay. Because my working career involved both writing and broadcasting, I was to then record the essay for the possible benefit of others.
“I thought about it, turning the ideas over and over in my mind. Finally, I asked myself, ‘What would you tell your children if you found you had only a short time to live? What advice could you pass on to them that would assist them in living highly productive, very successful lives?’ I awakened at 4 the next morning with the answer to that question clearly in mind.” He got up and wrote down his ideas, and by noon the following day, had recorded the essay. “I called what I had written and recorded The Strangest Secret.” He chose the name because it seemed strange to him that such a simple truth could be secret to so many.
Word spread from insurance agents to their relatives and friends, and demand grew. “The Strangest Secret was the child that grew into the audio recording industry. With no effort on my part whatsoever, with no advertising of any kind, The Strangest Secret became a national best-seller. I was ill-prepared to handle the avalanche of orders for that recording. My good friend Lloyd Conant, then owner of Specialty Mail Services, stepped into the breach. He was happy and abundantly prepared to handle the business end of my sudden good fortune. The orders continued to pour in from every section of the country. It was astonishing how the word about that recorded message got around. And that was the beginning of what was to become—officially in 1960—the Nightingale-Conant Corporation.”
The recording sold more than 1 million copies, eventually becoming the first spoken-word recording to reach Gold Record status.
In 1959, Nightingale began a radio program called Our Changing World. The show, a five-minute uplifting message, became the largest syndicated radio show of its kind anywhere and was distributed to a worldwide audience via Nightingale- Conant. At its peak, about 1,000 radio stations carried the show.
The Nightingale-Conant partnership was dubbed a “mastermind alliance” by W. Clement Stone because the skills of both men were so complementary. Between them, they built Nightingale-Conant into the premier audio self-improvement company in the country.
In 1960, Nightingale recorded Lead the Field, 12 records focused on an enduring success principle. It has been updated over the years and has sold more than 1 million copies. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me that listening to Lead the Field was the trigger that changed their lives,” says Vic Conant, chairman of the board for Nightingale-Conant. “It’s one of the classics of the personal-development industry like Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.”
Although Nightingale died 20 years ago in March 1989, his books and audio programs continue to inspire people around the world. Best-selling author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar says, “Earl Nightingale has inspired more people toward success and fortune than any other motivational speaker on the planet.”
Nightingale’s widow, Diana, attributes his enduring appeal to the fact that his work, based on universal laws, is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it: “You become what you think about, you will reap what you sow and you must provide service to others.”