Personal Development in America

UPDATED: April 25, 2011
PUBLISHED: April 25, 2011

For Denis Waitley, world-renowned author, speaker and poet, the definition of personal development comes easily: It is the conviction that there is value in your dreams.

“Personal development is the belief that you are worth the effort, time and energy needed to develop yourself,” Waitley says. “It gives you permission to invest in yourself so you can develop your own potential.”

Developing potential and helping millions of men and women achieve success is what the personal development movement has offered for more than a century. Its rich history is full of timeless works that have allowed us to honestly assess our personal and professional lives, and gain better understanding of who we are and who we would like to be.

On its simplest level, it is a story written by the philosophers, educators and teachers who have streamed new ways of thinking into our consciousness.

Progressive Thinking

In the 1870s, the Industrial Revolution that had been sweeping across Europe washed upon American shores, in large part brought along by the unprecedented numbers of immigrants who brought new ideas that would make the United States the world leader in manufacturing by the end of the century.

As productivity and technical efficiency grew dramatically through increased mechanization, so did the purses of such men as Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. The Gilded Age arrived with all its opulence and self-indulgence, and the American Dream of wealth and success, illustrated in the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories of the day, abounded in this new melting pot of opportunity.

It was during this time that a young orphan from New Hampshire stumbled across a book that forever changed his world and became the impetus for the success movement in the United States.

Orison Swett Marden had toiled under abusive employers for a decade, resigned to his fate in the farmlands of New England. His serendipitous discovery of Self-Help by the Scottish reformer Samuel Smiles awakened the ambition to change his life and led to a new career devoted to inspiring and encouraging others to reach their potential.

Marden ran away and worked his way through school, earning degrees from Boston University and Harvard. Inspired by the writings of Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes and others, he compiled the quintessential portrait of American success, outlining his belief that the potential within was man’s greatest untapped resource.

When the Panic of 1893 ended the Gilded Age, a period of reform began in America. The Progressive Era was marked by the belief that man had the ability to improve the conditions of his life. Marden became a leading figure in the New Thought Movement of the time, espousing the ideals of “right thinking” and “personal power” that would lay the foundation of the personal development movement.

 When a fire destroyed his work, the undaunted Marden began writing it anew. The result, in 1894, was his influential and best-selling book, Pushing to the Front, a compilation of stories describing the extraordinary achievements that had been made under the most extreme difficulties by every day people. The book formed the basic philosophy of Marden’s next venture, SUCCESS magazine.

Marden’s goal with the magazine was “to inspire, to uplift, to teach and to uphold models of success.” SUCCESS magazine was a source of inspiration, encouragement and self-help to millions, showcasing the achievements of men such as Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison.

“The launch of SUCCESS magazine was one of the defining moments in personal development,” says Jeffrey Gitomer, one of today’s leading personal development gurus and a Marden historian. “Marden realized that enough people wanted to succeed.”

Through the magazine and his later writings, Marden offered words of inspiration for achieving success to millions of readers.

“If you look at his entire body of work you’ll find it most impressive,” Gitomer says. “And that’s the key to personal development— the depth of profound information that you find.”

While Marden is widely considered the founder of the success movement, the first 30 years of the 20th century also featured other influential personal development writers, including Elbert Hubbard, James Allen, Wallace Wattles, George Clason and Oswald Chambers.

New Ways of Thinking

The Great Depression struck a blow to an American society that had roared confidently through the 1920s. Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath left indelible images on the national consciousness, offering vivid testaments to the frailty of an industrialized nation.

Yet out of the dust of that economic despair arose new hope for changing one’s life—two literary works that ushered in a new way of thinking about ourselves and the world around us: Think and Grow Rich and How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Napoleon Hill, an ardent admirer of Marden, had begun his career as a reporter in Virginia and then gone on to publish two periodicals— Hill’s Golden Rule Magazine and the eponymous Napoleon Hill’s Magazine. In March 1919, he penned an article on a topic that encouraged readers to “think” success—the law of attraction, a principle of affirmative thought that was at the center of 2007’s media phenomenon, The Secret.

In 1928, Hill won wide acclaim for Law of Success, a compilation of the success secrets from the greatest achievers of the time. The book was the result of a 20- year assignment given to him in 1908 by Andrew Carnegie, then the world’s richest man, who introduced him to such prominent men as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, King Gillette and Theodore Roosevelt. From this book would come, nine years later, what is arguably the greatest success book of all time: Think and Grow Rich.

This motivational classic, which has sold more than 30 million copies since its first publication, provided readers with 13 steps for forming a philosophy of personal achievement. In it, Hill stressed the notion of optimistic autosuggestion, the process of training the subconscious mind, which had been introduced by French psychologist Emile Coué in 1920 in his Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion. This notion influenced future personal development leaders such as Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Shuler and W. Clement Stone.

Think and Grow Rich’s core message—“What the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve”—resonates with readers as much today as it did 70 years ago. Like Marden before him, Hill recognized the connection between the mind (desire) and the body (result), a principle that reaches across all generations.

“Napoleon realized that everything began in the thought process,” says Don Green, executive director of the Napoleon Hill Foundation. “He knew that to succeed, you had to visualize where you wanted to be. If you look around, you’ll notice that some of the most successful people in the world today are not necessarily the most educated. Part of succeeding is visualizing. That goes right down to the clothes you wear. If you want to be president of a bank, dress like it; don’t come to work in tattered jeans.”

A year after Think and Grow Rich was published, a self-improvement writer and lecturer offered his timeless tips and strategies for success through the mastery of human relations.

Dale Carnegie, the son of a poor Missouri farmer and no relation to the Pittsburgh steel magnate, had been developing educational courses on public speaking and interpersonal skills in New York for nearly a quarter of a century when he wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book, which became an overnight sensation, offered a work force climbing out of the dregs of the Depression empowerment for achieving success in both the personal and professional spheres.

The foundation that Carnegie built his work upon was his belief in the power of self-improvement. His philosophy of changing one’s own thinking to better communicate with others and provide effective leadership has helped shape millions of business professionals. Today, Dale Carnegie Training offers businesses performance-based training in 75 countries.

The book, which has been translated into 25 languages, remains one of the most beloved works of all time, credited with influencing today’s top personal development leaders.

Positive Thinking

If the 1930s and 1940s were marked by the Depression and war, the 1950s were a time of optimism. There was a bit of swagger in America’s step as military victories in the European and Pacific theaters secured the nation its place as a superpower, and the overall joy and exuberance of the “greatest generation” took hold.

It was a decade that offered Viktor Frankl’s classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, theorized that man’s primary motivational force was to find meaning in life; and David Schwartz’s 1959 bestseller, The Magic of Thinking Big, which presented a specific program for getting the most out of work, relationships and community.

But two other major works stood out as defining moments in the history of personal development.

In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale, a Protestant preacher and author, produced a work about positive thinking, but was so disappointed in the final draft that he threw it away and forbade his wife from taking it out of the trash can. Adhering to the wishes of her husband, his wife did not remove the work; instead, she took the trash can to a publisher.

Ironically, what Mrs. Peale saved was The Power of Positive Thinking, a guide for reinforcing positive thoughts to live a successful life.

The book offers practical techniques for energizing one’s life and realizing ambitions and hopes. Peale said he wrote it with “deep concern for the pain, difficulty and struggle of human existence.” While the work came under attack from many of his contemporaries, it became a phenomenal bestseller and propelled Peale into fame beyond what he had achieved with his weekly radio program, The Art of Living.

While Peale continued to promote positive thinking, Earl Nightingale, a radio announcer at WGN in Chicago, took the personal development world by storm with his audio recording of The Strangest Secret.

As a young boy, Nightingale spent countless hours at libraries studying religion, philosophy and psychology to determine why some people were poor and others rich. At 29, he was reading Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich when the answer came to him.

As he read Hill’s words, “We become what we think about,” it suddenly occurred to him that the works he had studied over the years had held the same message. He finally understood the “secret”—that thoughts and habits determine one’s life.

“Earl had always been fascinated by the fact that so few people understood the rules for successful living,” says Vic Conant, president of Nightingale Conant and son of Nightingale’s business partner, Lloyd Conant. “He knew that the common denominator for achieving a successful life was learnable traits. It was the same thing that Andrew Carnegie knew when he challenged Napoleon Hill to chronicle the successes of America’s great achievers.”

Nightingale made his classic recording as a sales-motivation tool for the Franklin Life Insurance Agency, a small company he had bought. But the message became so popular and demand for it so great that he enlisted the help of Lloyd Conant, the owner of a mail order company, to help fulfill orders. The Strangest Secret went on to become the first spoken-word recording to achieve gold record status and propelled Nightingale into the upper echelon of personal development history.

“Not a day went by that Earl didn’t say he was thankful for having read Napoleon Hill,” Conant says.

The Torchbearers

Marden, Hill, Carnegie, Peale and Nightingale laid out a philosophy for success and created the beginnings of a personal development industry that would continue to grow and flourish over the next 40 years. In the 1960s, a decade marked by civil rights and political assassinations, the success movement continued to define itself.

Paul J. Meyer founded the Success Motivation Institute in Waco, Texas. W. Clement Stone, who had relaunched SUCCESS magazine with Napoleon Hill a decade earlier and continued to serve as its publisher into the 1970s, released The Success System That Never Fails. And in 1969, as America watched the Apollo program land men on the moon, Og Mandino, the editor for SUCCESS, hit the stratosphere with his book on the philosophy of salesmanship, The Greatest Salesman in the World.

For Denis Waitley, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former assistant to Dr. Jonas Salk, the developer of the polio vaccine, the 1970s were a time to walk in the land of the giants.

In 1976, Waitley was contacted by none other than Earl Nightingale, who helped promote The Psychology of Winning, Waitley’s program for building self-esteem, motivation and self-discipline. The program, which has sold more albums than any other self-help work, was a success for Waitley and led to an introduction to W. Clement Stone.

When Stone began his Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) rallies for SUCCESS magazine, Waitley shared the stage with the likes of Zig Ziglar, Paul Harvey, Art Linkletter, Norman Vincent Peale and Jim Rohn, one of the rising stars of the personal development industry, as well as Nightingale and Mandino.

“We were educators selling optimism,” Waitley says. “But I always remembered what Dr. Salk told me—not to tell people they could walk on water. So I offered messages of hope within the limits of science, not exaggerating or ‘selling magic.’ ”

Today, Denis Waitley is considered one of the giants of the personal development movement, a man known not only for his indelible and legendary messages, but also for his gentle soul.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, other students of the early pioneers came along who shared their messages, expanding the principles of success that had been laid down. Stephen Covey, Tony Robbins, John Maxwell, Brian Tracy, Harvey Mackay and others continue to offer messages of hope to the millions of men and women who want to be inspired and uplifted.

Today’s Pros and Cons

So how does the personal development movement fare in today’s digitally driven, instant-access world?

You would think that an industry that stresses the importance of time to achieve success would fall victim to the I-want-it-now attitude of Gen-Yers. But the truth is that it is doing better than ever. In the past decade, the industry has become a multibillion-dollar powerhouse with no signs of slowing down.

Its continued success can be attributed to three things: new technology, new business practices and new hope.

New technology is putting the teachings of personal development leaders into the hands of people at unprecedented rates, sparking the burgeoning interest in both old and new writers.

“First, you had books,” says Tony Jeary, a top personal development coach to CEOs who focuses on communication mastery. “Then LPs and cassettes came along. Then it was CDs and DVDs. Now, iPods, MP3s, PDAs and the Internet are allowing people to instantly access any work by any author.”

New business practices are helping the industry grow, as well. Just as the Industrial Revolution ushered in change in how businesses were organized and structured, the success movement is having an effect on today’s businesses. More than 140 years after employers sought to standardize the inner workings of organizations as a whole, today’s employers are paying closer attention to the inner workings of its individuals.

Employers are learning that the best employees are those who continue to develop not only their skills but also themselves. Personal development helps people develop personal ideas of success within their professional roles, which in turn develops a sense of job stability and trust in the employer.

The messages found in personal development never grow old, and that brings new hope to millions, young and old, who need the inspiration to find the potential within.

But for all its success, the industry is not without its detractors. What once was a dedicated few educating others has expanded in this century, with thousands of so-called experts claiming to have the right answers and quickest paths to success.

Those “so-called” experts and quick fixes are what most of the aging guard see as the biggest problems. Critics say too many are simply hawking materials from the backs of rooms instead of providing education to those in need. They offer magic lamps—instant genies—to meet today’s immediate-gratification needs. To the old guard, this oversimplifies the effort it may take for long-term formulas. It places too much emphasis on feeling good about oneself instead of on what is truly needed for success—discipline.

So what should you do? Chris Widener, author of the New York Times bestseller The Angel Inside, thinks the best strategy is to have an open mind.

“We’re all born exactly the same, with a blank slate,” says Widener, who has interviewed many of today’s leading personal development authors and educators, including Zig Ziglar, Brian Tracy, Jim Rohn and John Maxwell. “We have the choice of where we want to go, how we want to grow. Personal development is the choice to continue to allow ourselves to grow, to change, to learn.”

It’s the choice to open up to a stream of consciousness that will empower you to find the potential within. As Jim Rohn, America’s foremost business philosopher and author of The Art of Exceptional Living notes, “Everything you need for your better future and success has already been written. And guess what? It’s all available.”

That’s the true success behind personal development.

Read The Power of Personal Development by Jeffrey Gitomer

Visit the Success Store for a wide range of books, CDs and downloads on personal development by many of the experts quoted in this article:  Brian Tracy, Jim Rohn, Chris Widener and more.