Technically, Hal Elrod Has Died 3 Times…

UPDATED: October 8, 2015
PUBLISHED: April 23, 2015

When he was 8 years old, Hal Elrod woke up to screaming in his family’s Oakhurst, Calif., home. After running to his parents’ bedroom, he found his mother trying to resuscitate his baby sister Amery. She had been born with metatropic dysplasia, an invariably fatal disease, but knowing that this moment was coming did not make it any less painful. The Elrods mourned.

Within a few months, Hal observed changes in his parents’ routine. There were phone calls and meetings, people coming over, and his parents going out. His parents had founded a support group for couples who had lost a child.

Not long after, the Elrod family went into the newspaper business in a small way. Valley Children’s Hospital, where Amery had received care, held an annual fundraiser. As part of that effort, the local newspaper, The Fresno Bee, donated part of the proceeds from subscriptions sold on behalf of the hospital during the drive. The Elrods hit the streets. Mom, Dad, Hal and his sister Haley knocked on every door in Oakhurst, selling subscriptions.

And they did that every year.

So early on, Hal Elrod learned that adversity isn’t permanent and that even terrible events can produce something good.

Gift of Gab

Today Hal Elrod is a motivational speaker, best-selling author and life coach who works with about a dozen one-on-one clients at a time. Tall, lean and with a toothy, nearly constant smile, the 35-year-old Elrod is one of those high-energy people to whom others easily gravitate. “Hal is always up,” says longtime friend and colleague Jeremy Katen. “You always remember the way he makes you feel.”

Talking is something Elrod always found easy. While in his teens, he wangled a job as a disc jockey, and once a week, an old-school country music station would turn its microphone over to the hip-hop stylings of “Yo’ Pal” Hal. Devised by his mom, “the dorkiest name ever,” as Elrod calls it, has long outlived his yearlong DJ run; today “Yo Pal” Hal is attached to Elrod’s business ventures, an unembarrassed acknowledgement of the inner man.

Lacking any particular direction after high school—“I was very mediocre,” he says, “mediocre grades, not very athletic, not very popular”—he chanced upon a company that manufactured and sold knives. Elrod attended sales training and unexpectedly fell in love. “It was like a switch was flipped. Suddenly I just envisioned myself doing this. By the second day, I vowed that I would break company sales records.”

In great hopes, of course, lie the seeds of great disappointment. When it came time to make actual sales calls, Elrod, green and eager, charged ahead. He met the clients, made two-hour presentations, demonstrated the knives in all their slicing, dicing, paring, peeling magnificence, and was completely shut down. He sold nothing.

When Elrod told his boss that he was quitting, the boss was unimpressed. He wasn’t going to invest a lot of time persuading this newbie one way or another. “You’ve got two choices,” the man said. “Give in to fear and quit, or get back on the horse and be successful.”

Something in that blunt indifference hit home, and Elrod went back to work. In the next 10 days, he made 62 presentations, 42 of which resulted in sales. “I sold $15,000 worth of goods,” he says. “The all-time record had been $12,000.”

Elrod was a cutlery-selling prodigy who would enter the company’s hall of fame and address annual sales conferences. He was on cloud nine following one such speech on Dec. 3, 1999.

Horror on the Highway

Afterward, he and his girlfriend headed home to Fresno. Driving about 70 mph in his new Mustang, Elrod was hit head-on by a drunken driver in a truck traveling 80 mph the wrong way on the highway. Metal crumpled; the windshield shattered; and the Mustang was thrown into oncoming traffic, where a Saturn hit the vehicle again.

Elrod’s friend Katen had attended the event, too, and trailed by a few minutes on the highway. When he came upon the wreck, “the Mustang was so smashed-up I didn’t even recognize it at first,” Katen says. He quickly assessed the injuries of those involved. “The guy in the Saturn was fine, Hal’s girlfriend had a sprained wrist, and the guy in the truck who caused the whole thing was fine. But Hal was in terrible  shape.”

Elrod’s car was cut in half, and his body was pinned inside by the steering wheel. When rescue workers pulled the car’s twisted frame away from his broken body, they literally killed him. “The pressure from the wreckage was holding me together,” Elrod says, “As soon as they removed it, I bled out and died.” He was gone for six minutes before rescue workers brought him back to life.

Over the next six days, the comatose Elrod had seven surgeries to repair 11 broken bones, a ruptured spleen and severed nerves, during which time he flatlined twice more. When he finally regained consciousness, he couldn’t walk, one arm curled back against his chest, his short-term memory was shot, and he had lost the ability to filter his comments for social acceptability. “A pretty nurse would come in, and Hal would say whatever came to his 20-year-old mind,” Katen recalls. “He was more comical than offensive, but still kind of shocking.”

Perhaps the first thing to recover was Elrod’s positive outlook. “The doctors told me… I might completely recover or hit a limit,” Elrod says. “I might never walk again. I resolved to accept the worst. If I  was going to have to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair, then so be it. I made up my mind to completely accept and embrace my reality.” Elrod’s doctors were confused by this reaction. “They told my parents that they were concerned that I was in denial.

“On the contrary, I was being realistic. There is no point in experiencing the negative emotion brought on by the nonacceptance of things we can’t change and that are out of our control.”

How much Elrod’s positive outlook helped him is a matter of opinion, but the results were nothing less than miraculous: Day by day he improved. Seven weeks after his accident, Elrod left the hospital. Soon he was back at work, although he was slowed up a bit. In the company’s first sales competition after his return, Elrod, previously a consistent winner, finished fourth among 500 contestants.

From his experience, Elrod developed his five-minute rule: “When things don’t go your way, you can feel bad about it, but for five minutes. If you can’t change it, move on.”

Another Rebound

In 2005, after a record-setting year at the cutlery company, he began shifting toward his next career as a life coach and motivational speaker. With the encouragement of his friend Jon Berghoff, a sales/leadership coach, Elrod became certified as a life coach, accepted speaking engagements and began writing a book.

“I realized that Hal had a story which would inspire people at a very deep level,” Berghoff says. “His story was such a powerful metaphor for what it means to take what life gives us and make the best of it. I don’t think he realized this until we talked through the profound uniqueness of his experience. I think Hal took it for  granted.”

Although he wasn’t a natural writer, Elrod pushed himself to produce the book Taking Life Head On! (The Hal Elrod Story): How To Love The Life You Have While You Create The Life of Your Dreams. It was a huge success and launched his new career.

But Elrod did not live happily ever after.

In the wake of several years of achievement, the global financial crisis slammed Elrod. Tight money dried up his speaking engagements; coaching clients canceled their contracts. Right after buying a house and getting engaged, Elrod lost half his income and found himself $425,000 in debt. “I became deeply depressed. I was on a downward spiral that lasted for six months. I finally reached the point that I couldn’t get out of bed.” He began to contemplate  suicide.

Then Elrod reached out to Berghoff. “I talked to Hal about how his life was a product of the inputs. Input leads to output. Every thought, every idea exposed to, every aspect of his environment, was an input. I  shared that he could rewrite—reshape—his personal story just through spending a few minutes each day focused on proactively creating what he wanted out of the day with the use of new inputs, such as visualization, reading and journaling.”

Berghoff’s assistance not only helped Elrod out of his funk, but also inspired him to write The Miracle Morning, in which he presents steps for laying a positive foundation for your day. “The benefit of these activities has always been known,” Elrod says. “The difference is concentrating them into an efficient program and then making the time to actually do it.”

Exercise is part of the program. With Berghoff’s encouragement, Elrod—who had previously hated running—began covering long distances. In fact, in 2008, the man who had three times died, who had been cautioned that he might never walk again, completed a 52-hour ultramarathon.

Elrod also used to hate mornings. Now he rises early in order to have an hour to focus on the day, and he’s inspiring others to do the same. “I’m a work in progress, and people know it. I think that’s why people relate to me. We’re all fighting the same battles.”

What if you just can't shake the blues? Check out 10 clever tricks to trigger positive emotions.