Room to Grow

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: September 18, 2012

John Maxwell woke with a start. It was 3:30 a.m. and he had an idea. He tossed and turned, but couldn’t let it go. “I put my robe on, went down in my office and said, ‘I have got to write this book now,’ ” he says. “From 5:30 to noon, I sat at my desk and basically set out those laws.”

Two years later, the book Maxwell began that morning, The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, is about to hit bookstores nationwide.

Maxwell is visibly excited about the book when we meet for lunch at a marina restaurant in Palm Beach County, Fla., just minutes from his home overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, he tells me that he had his publisher push back another of his books so this one could be published first. “It was a passion of mine more than I think any other book I’ve ever written,” he says in his booming baritone voice.

And that’s saying a lot, because Maxwell has already sold more than 19 million copies of his other books, including three that have sold more than 1 million apiece: The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Developing the Leader Within You and The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader. But the common denominator of those titles—leadership—is not the primary focus of his new work.

“This book is for everybody. Because everybody needs to grow,” he says. “And once that happens, their whole world begins to change.”

And he should know. After a light-bulb moment 40 years ago, Maxwell has been following a personal-growth plan. “I feel that a great percentage of my success today is based on that one simple decision to continue to develop and personally grow myself,” he says.

With success as an author, speaker, entrepreneur and leadership consultant whose organizations have trained more than 5 million people around the world, Maxwell, now 65, could take it easy. Tanned and well-groomed, wearing sports jacket, slacks and open-collared shirt, he appears comfortable and relaxed. He is an active golfer and grandfather. “When he’s not writing, speaking or leading in some capacity,” according to his website, “John can most likely be found at the golf course concession stand buying his grandchildren hot dogs, pop and candy (just don’t tell their parents).”

But Maxwell also follows a disciplined routine that involves daily activities that bring him closer to his goals.

“I wish, when I started out, somebody would have said, ‘Here are the laws of growth for you. Take these laws and apply them to your life, and off you go,’ ” he says, with a flick of the hand as if to send a younger version of himself on his way. “Obviously, that didn’t happen to me, so this is really exciting to me to have this book launch. If a person wants to grow, then this is going to be the key that unlocks the door. I know what it’s done for me, and I know what it’ll do for the reader.”

The Epiphany

When he started his career, Maxwell says he had a strong work ethic and a desire to be successful. “I had a strategy: hard work. I hoped that would get me where I wanted to go. But working hard doesn’t guarantee success. And hope isn’t a strategy.”

In the early ’70s, as a 24-year-old pastor, Maxwell faced a challenge. He had been offered the chance to lead one of the biggest churches in his denomination, but he didn’t feel experienced enough for the task. “I was in way over my head, and I knew that if I didn’t rise to the occasion, I would fail spectacularly,” he writes.

So he sought help from an executive coach who asked him about his plan for personal growth. “I had no plan,” Maxwell recalls, his palms opening to the umbrella shading our dockside table. “I didn’t know I was supposed to have a plan. But that stimulated me. He went on and said, ‘Growth isn’t an automatic process. You’re going to grow because you intentionally grow, not by accident.’ So that was life-changing for me.”

That’s why his “Law of Intentionality” is No. 1 on his list. “If you want your life to improve, you must improve yourself,” he says. Setting your intentions to begin growing deliberately and regularly is the first step to realizing your potential.

Having read several of his books as well as interviewing him on the phone for SUCCESS, I’m familiar with Maxwell’s works and message. But I tell him when we meet that this book really spoke to me in ways the others didn’t.

Maxwell says he thinks this kind of learning will resonate with lots of people, particularly because of the global recession and poor job market. “Because we look at our outward circumstances and say, ‘What can we do with them?’ And, honestly, a lot of times, we can’t do much about them. But we can do everything about ourselves.”

He points to a lesson learned from the book As a Man Thinketh by James Allen, one of many his father paid him to read as a child (“That’s how I got my allowance,” he says). “Allen wrote, ‘Men are anxious to improve their circumstances, but are unwilling to improve themselves.’ I read that in the seventh grade and remember thinking, ‘Wow.’ ”

While he doesn’t have answers for curing society’s ills overnight, Maxwell is confident about the power of personal growth: “What I’ve discovered is, if the right things happen in me, I can begin to control some of the things that happen outside of me.”

Growing Pains

In writing Laws of Growth, Maxwell drew from his own experiences. “I found each and every law to be true in my life,” he says. “And once I taught others to practice these laws, I found that they worked for other people, too.”

For example, he says one of the earliest principles he learned related to his “Law of Reflection.” As a child, his father would take him on various excursions, always wrapping up the experience with two questions: “What did you love and what did you learn?”

“The second question really caused me to reflect,” he says. “When somebody tells you experience is the best teacher, that’s not true. The best teacher is evaluated experience, which is reflection.” Now he spends dedicated time every day, if only for 10 minutes, to reflect, ask questions and put things in perspective.

Over and over in his life, Maxwell has experienced his “Law of Pain,” which he explains as “good management of bad experiences [that] leads to great growth.” Examples he cites include the “Pain of Conflict”: “One church I led experienced a split in the congregation, and some people left the church. That experience made me dig deeper as a leader.” Another is his “Pain of Bad Health”: “My heart attack at age 51 was excruciating. It was also an eye-opener. I immediately changed my eating habits and bought into the practice of daily exercise.”

Looking back, Maxwell says most of his personal development has occurred during times of pain or conflict, and that the outcome ultimately depended on his reactions. “Successful people take every difficult experience and learn from it; unsuccessful people take difficult experience and leave it. They run, and they don’t learn. So they repeat it again and again.”

During our lunch, it’s evident that Maxwell has been to this restaurant before. He calls waiters and waitresses by first name; if he doesn’t know a name, he asks what it is and repeats it to himself. In fact, by the end of our conversation, he’s used my name about two dozen times.

It quickly becomes clear that Maxwell practices what he preaches: He wants to connect with people. He wants to help people wherever they are.

One group he hopes will benefit from Laws of Growth is small-business owners, especially those struggling in this economy. In the face of slashed budgets, skeleton staffs and uncertain futures, Maxwell says it’s natural to become paralyzed with fear.

He points to his time with a stewardship company that helped nonprofits raise money. As the largest organization of its kind in the United States, the company typically signed a contract every day, he says. In 2001, they were on par, until 9/11. “From 9/11 to the end of the year, we didn’t sign one contract,” he says. “What happened? Everyone froze.”

His “Law of Consistency” addresses that tendency, he says. “Motivation gets you going—discipline keeps you growing.”

Applying the law involves asking key questions—such as “Do you know what you need to improve?” and “Do you know how you are supposed to improve?”—to develop daily growth practices. “Small disciplines repeated with consistency every day lead to great achievements gained slowly over time.”

He recommends starting with small changes so as not to become overwhelmed and to be patient, as progress occurs over time. “Value the process,” he says. “It is going to take a long time, so you might as well enjoy the journey.” Also, contrary to what most of us have been taught, Maxwell suggests switching our thinking from goal-consciousness to growth-consciousness. Focusing solely on goals is seasonal, he says, while concentrating on growth is lifelong.

Maxwell also refers to his “Law of Curiosity” as being essential for small-business owners. Beyond simply solving problems, “Asking why fires the imagination. It leads to discovery. It opens up options,” he writes. “People say not to cross a bridge until we come to it, but as someone once said, ‘This world is owned by people who have crossed bridges in their imagination before anyone else has.’ ”

Tools for Tough Times

Maxwell also hopes others struggling in today’s economy will pick up the book. Recent college graduates, for example, could benefit from practicing his “Law of Awareness,” which states, “You must know yourself to grow yourself,” Maxwell says.

“Because they’re young, they don’t know themselves,” he says. “And it’s OK. But they really need to allow that to happen in their life.” Some key questions in the application section of the chapter can help readers focus on their talents, goals and motivations, “and get on course to do what you were made to do in life.”

“People say there are two great days in a person’s life: the day you were born and the day you discover why,” Maxwell writes. “I want to encourage you to seek what you were put on this earth to do. Then pursue it with all your effort.”

Flipping through his iPad to get the wording just right, Maxwell says another principle that’s crucial for recent grads is his “Law of Environment,” which suggests that “growth thrives in conducive surroundings.” Right out of college, a young adult may have to settle for a job that isn’t a great fit. “The odds of them getting in a non-conducive environment are very high, and they have to have the confidence in themselves to recognize that,” he says.

Maxwell describes a growth environment as one in which “others are ahead of me, I am continually challenged, my focus is forward, the atmosphere is affirming, I am often out of my comfort zone, I wake up excited, failure is not my enemy, others are growing, people desire change, and growth is modeled and expected.”

While changing jobs is never easy, he suggests it’s essential for anyone seeking to learn and grow to be looking for those opportunities. Even for people who seem to do well in an environment, it’s important to keep in mind that the “best place to learn is always where others are ahead of you.”

Spending time with more successful people is also a component of his “Law of Modeling,” which says, “It’s hard to improve when you have no one but yourself to follow.”

“Find somebody who does well and find out why they do well,” he says. “A lot of people have never had somebody to show them how to succeed, so all they dwell on is failure. They need to get around somebody who can help them.”

The unemployed and underemployed should also follow his “Law of the Mirror,” which states, “You must see value in yourself to add value to yourself.” Maxwell illustrates his point this way: Say, for example, you’ve just been fired. So you used to think of yourself as an 8, but your confidence drops, you value yourself less and you now consider yourself a 3. Consequently, people will treat you like a 3, you’ll respond to people like a 3, you’ll perform tasks like a 3—and you’re in trouble.

“If you lower your self-image, you won’t go beyond it,” Maxwell says. “The lower the lid, the less you will accomplish and do. I think it’s very true in this economy. It causes people to self-doubt.”

Building Momentum

“One of the great things about a personal-growth plan is that it’s like a diet,” Maxwell says. You lose the first five pounds and all of a sudden you’re motivated. With a personal growth plan, one of the first things you’ll say is, ‘Wow, this is starting to work for me,’ which will also keep you going.” Essentially, by making deliberate, daily efforts to improve ourselves and our lives, we slowly build momentum, which typically results in more accumulated achievements. These incremental successes help build esteem, which enables us to pursue larger goals—overall, a powerful snowball effect.

Today, Maxwell is intent on creating his own snowball effect by focusing on his legacy. “My growth plan now is, How do I expand and extend my influence?” he says, his tone sober, his speech deliberate. “I’m purposely training and equipping other people with my principles and my values so that they can carry them on.”

A major part of that is EQUIP, his international leadership training organization. Leaders in various sectors of society—from government and education to business and religion—receive Maxwell’s training and then develop strategies to target specific problems. “We’re hoping in two years to be in every country in the world, and we think we will be,” he says. “We’re training a million leaders a year, and now we’re on a 10-year strategy of transformation.”

Plus, in March 2011, he founded the John Maxwell Team, which trains and certifies coaches, teachers and speakers. These team members go on to spread Maxwell’s teachings through workshops, seminars, speaking and coaching. Also part of the John Maxwell Team is YouthMAX, a program that sends coaches into schools to discuss with students issues such as bullying, self-image, character development and attitude; the program had reached 150,000 kids by early 2012.

And what about the book that got pushed back to make way for The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth? That’s in the pipeline, too. Called Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn—“Isn’t that a great title?” he asks giddily—Maxwell describes it as the sequel to Failing Forward in 2000.

“What’s funny is, in this book, I did more dumb things since then than I did in the first one,” he says with a chuckle, leaning back in his chair. “If you thought I was really stupid back then, I’m taking you to failure graduate school. I tell all these stories in the book and what I learn from them, because, in the end, the whole point is to learn something, right?”

Purchase John Maxwell's new book at the SUCCESS Store. 

Chelsea Greenwood has been contributing to print and online publications as an editor and writer for more than 10 years. A University of Florida graduate, she is the editor of a lifestyle magazine in South Florida.