Legends: Jack Canfield

UPDATED: October 13, 2011
PUBLISHED: October 13, 2011

Rejected by more than 130 publishers, Chicken Soup for the Soul became a worldwide sensation only because of persistence. When others might have given up, Chicken Soup creator Jack Canfield pushed on—just as he advises others to do. “People told Elvis he couldn’t sing. People said the Beatles were no good,” he says.

Chicken Soup for the Soul, a collection of 101 inspiring fables, parables and real-life short stories, was finally published in 1993. Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, his collaborator, fed a grassroots marketing effort that made the book an international best-seller and spawned about 200 spinoffs. Chicken Soup titles have sold more than 112 million copies and been translated into 40-plus languages, according to ChickenSoup.com.

Canfield says persistence is probably the single most common quality of high achievers. “The longer you hang in there, the greater the chance that something will happen in your favor. No matter how hard it seems, the longer you persist the more likely your success,” he writes in The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be , his 2003 best-seller that sold some 700,000 copies.

As founder and chairman of The Canfield Training Group in Santa Barbara, Calif., he has helped more than 1 million people through his personal and professional development seminars. He draws blueprints and shares techniques for achievement with the unemployed, wealthy executives, struggling and comfortable entrepreneurs, prison inmates, and Mr. and Ms. Average Reader—all who wish to follow their passions to successful, goal-directed lives.

The author, editor, teacher, trainer, mentor, coach and spiritual guide tells SUCCESS the Chicken Soup and Success Principles books and his participation in the documentary film The Secret rank among his favorite accomplishments. The film, which focuses on attracting more of what you want to your life, is a bit of a guilty pleasure for Canfield. “People recognize me in airports, which is kind of fun,” he says with a chuckle. “I wouldn’t want to be Michael Jordan, that level of fame. But this small way is fun.”

Student to Teacher to Celebrity

It was Chicken Soup for the Soul that thrust Canfield into the spotlight and, through touching, funny and relatable stories, introduced millions of readers to self-improvement content. Without teaching or being preachy, the books’ message inspired people to be the best versions of themselves.

Author, television personality and relationship consultant Barbara De Angelis says the power behind Chicken Soup for the Soul is that it “helps us remember the important things in life: love, connection and gratitude.” Robin Leach, host of the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous TV series from 1984-95, observed, “Money and fame don’t automatically make people happy. It has to come from within. Chicken Soup for the Soul will put a million smiles in your heart.”

Canfield rose to celebrity (he has appeared on Oprah, Larry King Live, Today and numerous other TV shows) from a modest upbringing in Wheeling, W.Va. Education played a large role in his ascension, beginning with an aunt who paid his tuition to a high-quality military school.

“My high school Latin teacher there believed in me and told me to apply to Harvard. I said I wasn’t smart enough, and even if I was, I didn’t have enough money. She said, ‘I think you can get scholarships.’ ”

In true carpe diem spirit, he applied and was accepted to three top universities. “I picked Harvard because it was in a big city and a lot of girls’ schools were nearby. And I liked President Kennedy, who went to Harvard.”

Canfield followed his bachelor’s degree in history with graduate school at the University of Chicago and the University of Massachusetts, where he earned a master’s degree in psychological education.

While in Chicago, he attended seminars and workshops led by Herbert Otto, director of the National Center for the Exploration of Human Potential, and W. Clement Stone, who built an insurance empire by following Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich and co-founded SUCCESS magazine. Canfield, then teaching at an inner-city high school in Chicago, went to the seminars to learn how to motivate his students. But the training inspired him as well.

He cites four other experiences that led him from teaching school to teaching personal and professional development. A Sloan Foundation workshop spent exploring intuition and imagination “was the beginning of discovering my spiritual and emotional side,” he says.

Then Gestalt psychology “radicalized my belief that everyone could become totally aware of themselves, their emotion and intuition, and live in the present moment…. Each day is a new opportunity to start over. You learn from your mistakes and apply that knowledge in the future.”

A third revelation came from Dr. Raymond Moody’s Life After Life . “As an educator, I realized nobody’s teaching us how to love, and that’s the final exam!”

The fourth pivotal event came through psychosynthesis, a process and philosophy aimed at helping people reach their full potential. Canfield examined his purpose in life. “I wanted to be a Teacher with a big T, teach the whole planet. It led me into writing and speaking to large groups.”

An Ongoing Pursuit of Knowledge

Canfield since adopted his overarching rule: “You must come from love—of yourself, others, justice and the planet. I teach people to come up with a purpose statement, to live life in love and joy and not be abusing people or destroying the planet.”

To help people attain their dreams, he counsels them to write down goals, visualize and share them, find a mentor, persevere, maintain personal balance and continue to learn.

To maintain momentum, he suggests two tactics: monthly mastermind sessions with supportive people who share practical ways to progress and solve problems, and his Rule of Five. “Whatever your No. 1 dream is, every day, do five specific action steps toward your dream. Keep track each day. Have accountability to another person. Get on the phone and share the five actions that you did or didn’t do. It works for me. I can’t stand telling people I didn’t do it.”

While working toward a goal, Canfield says it’s important to nurture relationships and health, as well as career. “Visualize your ideal week. Define how much time to spend with your spouse, to spend working out,” he says. “If you take time away from something, put it back somewhere. Schedule free days (keep them open midnight to midnight); focus days (55 to 80 percent product development and other active work); and buffer days, which are spent doing the things you have to do—things like delegating, scheduling travel, doctor’s appointments…. Make balance a priority. Schedule your free time first; plan for it. Then schedule work around that. Try to expand the number of free and focus days and minimize the buffer days. Be intentional about it.”

Always the teacher, Canfield serves on advisory boards for more than 30 organizations focusing on education, holistic health, personal growth and social change. He also established the Transformational Leadership Council for personal and professional development leaders to meet semiannually to support each other and their goals for improving mankind.

As the poster boy for his own teachings, Canfield, 67, was striding toward two goals when we spoke in late summer. “I still want to help transform education in America. A charter school in New York is using my book The Success Principles (See all Success Books) and applying it in classes.”

His second goal is to build a community of people who will commit to maximizing their potential for three years. “They’d take six live workshops or something like that. They would also chat and mastermind online. It could happen as soon as this fall.”

Canfield’s continuing pursuit of knowledge helps those quests and others. “I meditate nearly every day except when I have to catch a 4 a.m. flight. I take workshops and training every year. I read voraciously. I buy CD programs. I do exercises. I like things that have me do stuff. I’m just curious about life and the growth of people.”

Grounded at Home

Through his books and seminars, Jack Canfield has taught millions of people worldwide. But he credits Inga, his wife of more than 10 years, with teaching him a few things.

“She’s a model for spontaneity and transparency. She’s real. She enjoys life. She taught me to let go, relax, have fun and share my feelings.”

Canfield met Inga after he moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., and wanted to hire a physical trainer. “Several people recommended her, and she became my yoga and physical trainer. I didn’t like her at first,” he says. “She was always pushing me. She hurt me.” Later he made her director of wellness for his company.

Most important, Canfield says, is that she helps keep him grounded. “The person you’re married to—well, you can be the king, but you still can’t leave dishes in the sink,” he says with a laugh.