John C. Maxwell Knows the Meaning of Life
He doesn’t seem tired. And that’s saying something…
Because, logic prevailing as it usually does, John C. Maxwell should be utterly exhausted.
Consider his schedule in the days and hours before he sat for this interview with SUCCESS. Maxwell, the renowned leadership guru, had just returned from Paraguay and Peru, where he delivered lectures to and worked with and educated thousands of leaders. He was putting the finishing touches on his latest book, Intentional Living: Choosing a Life That Matters, available now. And in an incredibly long day leading up to our evening meeting, he made two more speeches to thousands more leaders and shot a television special before heading to the new SUCCESS offices north of Dallas to smile through a photo shoot and explain in great detail the reasoning behind his new message.
The man is 68, and he’s been working like this for 40 years, churning out multiple best-sellers including The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Developing the Leader Within You and The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, among more than 70 books he has authored. Most of that time, he’s also been trotting the globe to inspire entrepreneurs, C-suite executives and government officials to improve themselves and transform the people who depend on them. And, again, amazingly, he doesn’t look tired. He doesn’t act tired. Hot chamomile tea helps that.
As our photographer snaps away for this month’s cover, Maxwell keeps a small audience giggling with self-deprecating and silly lines about his age and his sex appeal. “It takes a confident man to wear pink,” he says with a huge grin and a quick wink. “Then again, when you get this old, you don’t really care.”
One might expect a person with such lofty accomplishments and ideals to be serious and stodgy—and he will come to explain later why gravitas matters—but instead, Maxwell is legitimately fun, even when talking about serious subjects that are deeply important to him.
As the longtime SUCCESS columnist has previously explained in his usual space near the front of this magazine, Maxwell thinks of his work as play. Mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually, he is supercharged by spreading his message and helping people add value to the lives of everyone they touch.
And that’s the crux of this deep conversation: adding value. Unlike his previous smash hits, which have revolved around leading others, the new book is about leading yourself to achieve significance. It’s about using intentionality to design a life that will allow you to help others and motivate them to do the same. More than any of his other works, Intentional Living opens the door to Maxwell’s personal life and the events in his development that have set him on this course to better the world’s people
Q: We know how busy you’ve been lately, and you still have to fly home to Florida tonight, by the way. How do you have so much energy at your age?
A: High energy and low IQ make a perfect combination. [Another huge grin, another quick wink.]
My father is 93 and still works. So part of it is probably genes, but a lot of it is passion. If you love what you do and you’re helping people, what else would you want to do?
I’ll tell you another thing, and I’ve never heard this idea expressed anywhere, but I think a lot of energy comes from anticipation. I think it gives you energy when you anticipate that you’re going to be able to help people, or you’re going to make a difference, or that what you’re going to say will be meaningful to someone.
I mean, this sounds terrible, but I look forward to hearing myself speak. Do you know how I mean that? It’s that I anticipate that I’m going to be able to help people in the audience. I anticipate that they’re going to like it. If you didn’t anticipate that things were going to work out well, I think you would lose a lot of energy.
Q: And when that anticipation is gone? Will you be tired tomorrow?
A: Yeah. And really, I’m tired now. I’ll still sign autographs on the flight home. It’s mindless work. But yes, I do get tired.
Q: This is intentional living, though. You’ve designed a plan to maximize every minute of your day, saving the mindless work for when you’re the most spent.
A: Intentional living, basically, is about choosing your spots. You can’t be on 24/7, but you can identify the spots when you are going to be on. So I think a lot of high energy is a result of intentionality, looking at your schedule and saying, OK, I’d better be good here, here, here and here. But hey, this is just lunch, and I can be 50 percent and be OK there.
Q: Is Intentional Living meant to be your legacy piece?
A: I have a feeling it could be, yes. This is by far the closest thing to a legacy piece, because it’s about adding value to people, which is really my brand. I’ve always lived that. So I didn’t write it for that reason, but I think it could be my legacy piece.
And it has more personal details about myself and my life in it than I normally include.
Q: Why did you share so much about your personal life this time?
A: Because it’s my life. This book is about my journey to significance, and I tell it to encourage others to write their own stories. But the only journey I know to tell is mine. Hopefully it’s not bragging. It’s my journey to significance, what I did well and what I didn’t. I just want people to read it and say, “Yeah, I could do that.”
Q: You could have simply written another leadership book, though, and sold a lot of copies. That’s what people would expect from you, but you didn’t do that. Why?
A: Firstly, I think it actually is a leadership book. It’s a self-leadership book. The first person you lead should be yourself. And what are leaders? If anything, they’re intentional. So I’m saying that you need to get intentional about leading your life. It’s not the antithesis of a leadership book. It fits.
When I started writing books in my late 20s, I said that there are a few things people need to do well to be successful—relationships and getting along with people; attitude development; tenacity and being able to overcome things; equip and lead; train people; develop people; train teams; coach teams and lead. These themes are there.
Q: Can you explain a bit deeper these overarching concepts in the book? What is your definition of living with intention and of the idea of significance?
A: Intentionality is a deliberate manner of thinking—thinking about what’s ahead. It’s consistent. It’s a discipline and a behavior that allows me, day in and day out, to live at a high level.
And it’s willful. I like that word. It’s like: This is my soul; I willed this for my life. So that’s what intentionality is.
Significance is adding value to people, and if you do that, I think you’re a significant person. I think success is basically about me, and what I achieve, and what I’ve made and what I’ve got. But real significance is all about someone else—other people.
Q: What’s the biggest barrier to intentionality? Why aren’t we all so willful in our lives?
A: Not having a purpose. I watch people who don’t have one, and they wonder a lot. That’s legitimate. They’re searching. They’re still looking.
And then secondly, it’s that we have been totally sold a bill of goods that good intentions are a good thing. We judge ourselves by our intentions rather than our actions. Others judge us by our actions. It’s very possible for a person with good intentions to rest on that. And it’s a huge barrier. No one has ever been successful with good intentions alone. There has to be action.
Q: What’s the light switch, then, for people to behave with intentionality and to take action?
A: Stories. A teenager reads this book and finds out about a peer who, for her 16th birthday, asked for money to pay an English teacher for an impoverished Indian village. The teen says, “Oh my gosh. I didn’t know I could do that.” Stories create a permission factor. What I really love about Intentional Living is that it causes you to start. It doesn’t allow good intentions to stay as merely intentions. It says you’ve got to turn those into good actions.
Q: What’s one step a person can do today to get started on an intentional life?
A: Know that you don’t have to change everything. You just have to change something. Don’t make intentionality a 24/7 deal from the start. But can you give it an hour a day? And what area of your life would you like to get control of?
That’s the life-changing message. You don’t have to be intentional in everything, but you’ve got to be intentional every day. You grow that intentional-living muscle.
Q: And as you map it out in the book, that muscle ultimately leads you to a life of significance. Is there a moment in your life that you discovered your idea of significance—of helping people—that you particulwarly cherish? And how did it impact you as you wrote Intentional Living?
A: In the book I tell the story of when I was in the fourth grade, walking across the campground of a church retreat with my father, who was an overseer of 200 pastors in a very small denomination.
And we had to walk only 100 yards or so, but it took all of 30 minutes because people kept coming up and thanking him for what he had done in their lives, or he would stop people to ask how they were doing and took personal interest. Being a fourth-grader, I just wanted to get across the campground because we were going to go swimming! So I was impatient at first, but as I watched him care for people, and I saw on people’s faces what it meant for him to stop and recognize them and value them, well, by the time we had finished that 100-yard walk, I said, “I want to be like my dad.”
And if someone had asked what my dad did, I would’ve said he just adds value to people. He loves people and they love him, and it’s because he adds value to them. So in the fourth grade, I didn’t know what all that meant, but that’s where the seed of significance was planted.
Q: In terms of significance and purpose, you also write in the book about three questions that were asked of you in a Psychology 101 class and how they helped find your “why.”
A: The questions were: What do you sing about, what do you cry about, and what do you dream about? And I was a college freshman, so I was singing about wanting to have pizza that night. It didn’t go great. I had pretty frivolous answers to the first two.
But the third one, I said I dream about making a difference. I already knew that at age 18 or 19. As I grew up and matured, those three questions stayed with me. And they constantly brought me back to purpose. Because I think your purpose will be answered in those questions. What you sing about is your passion. What you cry about is your burden. I’ve always believed that joy without a burden is frivolous. There has to be gravitas to a person—not a deep melancholy, but something that a person thinks, I want to change that. I want to do better than that. That’s not right.
So the longer I’ve lived, I’ve started to sing about people who catch their significance story and become people of significance. And I cry about people who still are selfish, and they can’t find fulfillment because they aren’t able to look past themselves.
Q: Why does significance mean different things to different people?
A: It’s misunderstood. A lot of people think you find it only when you get older or when you have money, or influence, a position, opportunity. So some people want significance but think it’s kind of beyond their reach. And I don’t believe that at all. I believe a 16-year-old kid can become significant because she becomes intentional.
But I don’t think you can have the first thing without the second. You have to be intentional. It begins with front-end thinking and [the desire] to help people.
Q: For a leader or a coach or anyone hoping to help other people, how do you make stories powerful? That’s been so important in your speaking and writing career.
A: I think you can only be transformational to people if you’ve been transformed yourself. Most people are informational—all they have is knowledge. But you become transformational when you’ve had a change in your own life, an experience that has changed you.
What happens is, when my life has been changed, shifted toward intentionality and significance, I become viral. I’m a carrier of that change.
Q: Your book includes a story about a jar of marbles. How does that one go?
A: I heard the story of a ham radio operator who got on the radio every Saturday. He was looking at his life, and he was counting all of his Saturdays. Every Saturday this guy would pull a marble out of a huge jar full of them to remind himself of the brevity of life, to get with it and make it count.
I loved that story. I said I want to do that. And this was a few years ago now: I had decided I was going to work until I’m 70. So I got a jar of marbles. I put in 180 marbles, or however many weeks I had until reaching 70, and every week I would take a marble out.
I told people about this at a leadership event, and a close friend came up to me afterward and told me that I had lost my marbles. He said, “You’ve got more to offer. Quit counting down, and start counting upward at just all the things you can do.”
I agreed with him. I thought, Yeah, I don’t want to quit when I’m 70. I’ve got a lot of life left in me. So one year later, I went back to that same group of executives with that jar of marbles, and I taught about it. I told them that I’m not counting my marbles anymore—I’m making my days count. And I took the jar and turned it over, and those marbles went everywhere.
So now I don’t look at what I have left. I look at what I have. No one knows, anyway, how many marbles I have—I may have two, I may have 200. I don’t know. But I can make today count.
Q: Is that abundance thinking, which you also discuss in the book?
A: I think so. I was in scarcity thinking when I was pulling the marbles out of the jar. And I was teaching my company scarcity thinking. I was teaching them to put a fort around themselves and protect the assets we had. I led them wrong. Instead of protecting, we should’ve been charging and moving forward.
Under the scarcity mindset, I’ll never feel that I have enough to give. I would think, Gosh, I don’t know how much longer I’ve got. Better make sure I keep enough for myself.
A friend of mine put it like this: It’s the difference between a guy who has one pie and thinks about how carefully he needs to slice it, and a guy who has a baker back in the kitchen, so here, have a pie; we’ve got all we need. When I was counting down, I was that guy with one pie. And that’s not me; that’s not who I am at all.
Q: Now that you’re out of that mindset, what do your 70s hold for you?
A: I have to take care of myself physically. And I have to have good people around me and seize the opportunities I have. I have to stay creative, and I can’t allow myself to give in to age. The moment I give in to age, it becomes OK for me to slow down.
At the same time, I have to recognize my age and realize that I have a smaller window than I once did. But I don’t have to give in. There’s a difference between recognizing your age and giving in to it.
Q: You’ve got this intentionality to push forward with the same passion and tenacity, but we know that when you’re older, it becomes more difficult to get around, to travel, to spread your message to huge audiences. A lot of these things become harder with age. Does that worry you?
A: Not at all. I do have to take care of myself physically, but I shouldn’t worry about the future, but instead about making the impact I can today. Let the other stuff take care of itself. Let me exist right now.
I’m at a sweet spot in my life, the height of my career. Crazy, crazy, crazy. So I’m diving into it now.
Q: Do you ever just forget intentionality and goof off?
A: Oh, yeah. I can have fun. I enjoy life very, very much. But I have my most fun after I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I love to play golf, but I wouldn’t want to play every day. When I play now, it’s a treat. If it wasn’t such a treat, it would lose its appeal. Maybe I haven’t been out on the course in three or four weeks because I’ve been working, getting things done. That kind of goofing off is a reward. But I know I wouldn’t want to do that every day. It would get real empty real quick.
Q: You write that there is no significance without sacrifice. Apart from golf, what are some sacrifices that you have made?
A: Time. My gosh. The biggest battle I’ve had all my life, and even with my wife, Margaret, is time—finding the time for her and the family.
Here’s what I teach: Every time you come to an important juncture in your journey, you’ve got to make tradeoffs. And the higher you go, the more successful you are, the more difficult those tradeoffs are because you’ve got more to trade. At the bottom, it’s easy because you don’t have a lot to trade away. But when you begin to have money, and options, and influence and reputation, you have to make difficult decisions.
The biggest sacrifice is being able to give up what you already know works in exchange for something that you’re not sure will work.
Q: What are you most proud of?
A: I think it’s that, for 40-plus years, I’ve been consistent and reliable. From that, I’ve built a bank of trust, people saying that they can count on me.
I think talent is God-given anyway. It is a gift. But consistency isn’t a gift. It’s a choice. Consistency is highly underrated. A lot of times inconsistency comes from talent because we rely on it and it alone.
But 40-plus years of doing what I do, and people saying, “Yeah, he did it back then, and he’s still doing it,” I’m very proud of that.
This article appears in the December 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.