Legends: Denis Waitley is Planting Seeds of Greatness

UPDATED: May 13, 2024
PUBLISHED: December 6, 2012

Grandma said he “mowed a fine lawn.”

Those are the clearest words of affirmation Denis Waitley recalls hearing as a young child. It’s no wonder then, that every Saturday, Waitley would hop on his bike and ride 20 miles each way to her house.

Life at home was volatile, at best. The country was mired in the stresses of World War II, finances were nonexistent, dad was an alcoholic and mom was angry. Peace was a stranger to the Waitley household. A particularly damaging eruption happened one night when Waitley was 9. He went to bed in the room he shared with his 2-year-old brother. “My father walked in, and instead of telling us goodnight, he said goodbye. It was six years before we saw him again,” Waitley tells SUCCESS.

Today, far from a youth spent in turmoil beyond his control, Waitley has created a life based on the belief that the power of the mind can overcome almost any obstacle. He is an internationally known speaker and consultant whose clients have included astronauts, Olympic athletes, Fortune 500 executives and Super Bowl champions. He has spoken to youth groups, soldiers, entrepreneurs and world leaders. His words of wisdom have been recorded in best-selling books and audio programs, such as The Psychology of Winning, Seeds of Greatness and Empires of the Mind, which have been translated and distributed around the world.

Learning the Power of a Tiny Seed

But in 1942, Waitley felt anything but influential. Still a boy, he was suddenly the man of the house. He turned to his Superman books for guidance, feeling like he must deal with his feelings like Superman would. He had to be strong. His mother was struggling with her own outlook, and what she saw translated negatively to her three children. There was no child support, and the Waitley children often felt like their existence was an inconvenience to their mother.

To replenish his strength, Waitley visited his grandmother. She taught him to look beyond his circumstances and become the person he was meant to be. Waitley tells of one particularly poignant memory: “We planted a garden together. I was amazed that the tiny seeds we were burying in the ground would become something we would later harvest and eat.” In response to his wonder, grandma told Waitley that they were planting seeds of greatness. Years later, her answer became the title of his New York Times Best-Seller, Seeds of Greatness.

Grandma also introduced Waitley to the world of books. She was a proofreader, and she and her husband owned a bookstore. Waitley acquired his first library card because of her influence.Then his eighth-grade teacher gave him an influential gift: As a Man Thinketh, by James Allen. The impact on Waitley was twofold. He felt affirmed by the positive words of another person, and the author of the book portrayed individuals as gardeners, planting seeds that would affect the future. Just like grandma.

By this time, Waitley knew he wanted to be a writer and public speaker. “I wanted to be just like Rod Serling, writer of The Twilight Zone,” Waitley says. He had discovered he had a gift for storytelling, and also loved the written word. But, like most young men in the early 1950s, the Korean War was what determined his future. After high school, Waitley entered the Naval Academy. He excelled and became a nuclear weapons pilot and electrical engineer. “I loved the thrill of being a pilot,” he says, “but did not enjoy being required to understand all of the intricate workings of the plane.”

Despite the details, Waitley says he learned some valuable lessons during those times. “I came to understand target seeking and reaching goals that I could not see in advance due to the darkness in front of me,” he says. Such lessons became an integral part of the guidance Waitley would one day share with millions of individuals as an expert in personal development.

After leaving the Navy, Waitley took a position as a financial public relations representative for an electronics company. Although far from his dream of becoming a writer and public speaker, it provided a paycheck.

As a few fragile seeds of success were starting to sprout in Waitley’s life, an opportunity presented itself in a way that could not be planned. It happened as Waitley was taking a break one day, gazing at the ocean from the property of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in Waitley’s hometown of La Jolla, Calif. There were chalkboards built into the walls of the buildings so the scientists could work amid the natural beauty. “I approached a white-jacketed scientist busy working on formulas and asked him what he was doing,” Waitley says. “He engaged in conversation with me and asked me what I did for a living.” Before the discourse ended, the scientist, Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, offered Waitley the job of being the fundraiser for the Salk Institute. “Dr. Salk was an introvert and despised the task of talking to groups of people to raise funds for the Institute,” Waitley says. “He saw that I loved to speak and felt I was a great fit.” The only concern Salk had was Waitley’s lack of scientific understanding. He encouraged Waitley to acquire a postgraduate degree in psychology. So he did.

Salk was not able to offer Waitley an increase in salary, but he compensated him in a way that would pay huge dividends: introducing Waitley to his peers. “Because he was such a wellknown scientist, he was able to introduce me to people I never would have met,” Waitley says.


“One might work at something simply to receive a paycheck, but any free time should be used in pursuit of one’s goal.”


Exercising His Passion

“During this time, I learned that if you are not doing what your passion is, you are putting it on layaway,” Waitley says. “One might work at something simply to receive a paycheck, but any free time should be used in pursuit of one’s ultimate goal.” So, in addition to representing Salk, Waitley gave at least 500 speeches for which he was not compensated. “I recorded every speech in order to analyze what worked and what did not,” he says.

It was after a pro bono speech for World Book-Childcraft in 1975 that one of the seeds of greatness that Waitley had nurtured throughout his life bore fruit. The vice president of World Book- Childcraft sent the recording of that particular speech to his friend, Earl Nightingale. Nightingale was the first person to sell a recorded speech and is called the father of modern-day motivational speaking. His 45 LP record was titled The Strangest Secret. “I listened to it over and over again,” Waitley says.

“I was in my mid-30s, and starting to think that I had missed the boat that my dreams sailed on,” Waitley says. “Sure, I was partway there and had seen some success, but doubt tried to tell me that maybe it was time to accept that I wouldn’t make it all the way.” Those doubts were trampled when Waitley received a call from Nightingale, saying, “You have a nice voice, you have good stuff, and if you are ever in Chicago, you should make a point to see my partner, Lloyd Conant.” Waitley made it to Chicago.

Lloyd Conant and Earl Nightingale founded Nightingale-Conant Inc., which would be the most prominent audio firm in the United States for the next 25 years. In the mid-1970s, there were only two people who developed and marketed recorded speeches promoting personal development— Earl Nightingale was the first and Paul J. Meyer was second. Denis Waitley became the third.

Night ingale-Conant recorded and marketed Waitley’s speech The Psychology of Winning. It became the No. 1 best-selling program in personal growth of all time. “When asked what I’m known for, my answer is, ‘I’m known as the author and narrator of The Psychology of Winning,’ ” Waitley says. He explains that his message happened to hit America at a time (1978) when the country needed a winner. “It had just been announced that we would not participate in the Olympic Games being held in the Soviet Union. The East Germans had won most of the gold medals at the Montreal games, and things were generally not going well for our country.”

As often happens, one opportunity opened the door to another. He was appointed by the then-president of the Olympics Committee, William Simon, as the first-ever chairman of psychology on the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Sports Medicine Council. Working with a team of experts in each sport, Waitley developed a mental training program for elite athletes.

One of the keys to this program was using affirming phrases and trigger words, such as power, explode and speed.

These words replaced negative phrases like “Don’t fall.” Waitley worked with such athletes as Mary Lou Retton and Carl Lewis.

The New York Times soon published Waitley’s recorded speech as a book, which became a bestseller, and he has published something every two years since then, for a total of 17 books and 10 audio recordings. He has shared the stage with such greats as Zig Ziglar, Norman Vincent Peale, Paul Harvey, Robert Schuller and Art Linkletter, to name a few. Waitley was also friends with W. Clement Stone, the early publisher of SUCCESS magazine, and was featured on the cover in 1979.

Sharing What He’s Learned

When asked what he would say to someone trying break free from generations of failure, Waitley recommends studying the biographies of successful people. “Remember, most successful people don’t enjoy that success until later in life,” he says. “It’s also important to determine your gifts, focus on them and be you. Chase your passion and not your pension, and, of course, make certain that you hang around optimists.”

The seeds planted in Waitley’s life when he was young had the potential to either rot in the ground or grow into plants bearing much fruit. Fortunately, Denis Waitley was determined to grow the seeds of his potential.