I can run faster and leap higher, says Lisa Nichols, because I’m not afraid of being knocked down Image Credit: Supplied

Lisa Nichols was down to her last few dollars. The single mother of one had been stinting on food and putting off buying anything non-essential so she could get basic necessities for her son, Jelani, who was barely eight months old at the time.

Wanting to purchase a packet of diapers for him, the Los Angeles, California-based mum went to a nearby ATM, inserted her bank card and requested for $20. ‘I still remember the day when that message popped up on the screen,’ says Lisa in an exclusive interview with Friday in Dubai. ‘It said “Insufficient funds”.’

Lisa discovered that all that she had was 11 dollars and 42 cents — not even enough to purchase a packet of diapers for her son. ‘I had to use a towel to wrap Jelani in,’ she recalls, her voice quivering even as she remembers the moment 25 years later.

Diapers weren’t the only thing she could not afford. ‘We struggled for food,’ says the now 52-year-old Lisa. For several years, all they ate was ‘beanies and weanies [sausages]’, she says. ‘I used to cut the weanies into such small pieces, you could not tell what was weanie and what was beanie.’

Life improved a little when she started earning a bit more. ‘I’d cut the weanie into slightly larger chunks and tell Jelani, “See son, look how well we are doing!”.’

Today, Lisa is doing more than just well. A multimillionaire, she is the CEO of Motivating the Masses, a company that offers coaching and professional development programmes for individuals and companies.

From initially an office not larger than a walk-in closet, Lisa Nichols has built a million-dollar business that empowers the masses Image Credit: Supplied

But her road to success has not been easy. Forced to drop out of college because her family could not afford it, Lisa went to a vocational school where her self-esteem took a beating. ‘My English teacher said I was the weakest writer she met in her entire career,’ says Lisa, ‘and my speech teacher told me to avoid speaking in public if I could.’

For years, the criticism weighed down on her, until one day she realised only she could claw out of the morass that the teachers’ comments had pushed her into. Determined not to allow their criticism to douse her passion for speaking and writing, Lisa began honing skills she was convinced she possessed by writing short speeches and speaking before her grandmother — her pillar of support and encouragement. ‘For a long while, only grandma and my bathroom mirror were my audience,’ says Lisa.

Her hard work was not in vain. Within a few years, she went on to become a bestselling author, a popular motivational speaker and has shared her story on CNN and Fox News and with television hosts Steve Harvey and Oprah Winfrey on their shows. That’s not all. Lisa is also a featured teacher in the epic self-help movie, The Secret, where she offered lessons on the laws of attraction, becoming an instantly recognisable face across the globe.

Looking back, what went through your mind when your teachers said you were weak in English and public speaking? I ask Lisa, who was in Dubai last month to speak at the Shaikh Rashid hall of the Dubai World Trade Centre — a two-day near-sell-out programme organised by Najahi Events.

Lisa taps her fingers on the desk softly, her long, perfectly manicured nails glinting in the overhead lights of a meeting room at The Address Downtown. ‘That statement by my teacher made me avoid writing for almost 18 years,’ says the now successful writer who with Jack Canfield co-authored the hugely popular Chicken Soup for the African-American Soul and Chicken Soup for the African-American Woman’s Soul. ‘My teacher was an authority and I trusted her. She was empowered to tell kids if they were smart or not. And when in front of the entire class, she said “You are the weakest writer I’ve ever met.” I thought I must be really bad for her to say that and I developed a fear of writing.’

A teacher once told Lisa she should avoid speaking in public. She refused to believe that and is today a sought-after motivational speaker Image Credit: Supplied

To rub salt into Lisa’s wounds, her school’s speech teacher suggested she get a desk job when she grows up and avoid speaking in public.

‘But deep inside, I knew I wanted to be a speaker and a writer,’ says Lisa. ‘So their reaction or advice was not in alignment with who I knew I really was.’

Aware that sometimes the path to ‘your most powerful you, your most positive you, is riddled with speed-breakers and points of uncertainty and what seems like failure and abandonment’, Lisa was keen not to give up on her dream.

To that end, she took up some five different jobs to fund her dream, but was ‘kicked out’ from them all. ‘I guess I figured out what I was bad at before I figured out what I was good at,’ she says, with a guffaw.

The single mother of one admits that while she knew she had a talent, a skill, a purpose and a passion, for a long time she had no idea what it was.

The tipping point occurred when at 31 she landed a job in a school and began earning a regular pay cheque. ‘I soon began feeling very insecure because a majority of the people there had a degree and I didn’t. I remember asking myself, “Can I buy my freedom? If it was, how much was it for?”’

Determined not to be a ‘slave of my mindset’ and to ‘break the shackles’ that she felt were holding her back, Lisa embarked on a novel venture — she began depositing a certain amount of money regularly to fund her dream. ‘The first cheque I wrote for myself was for $100 and in the memo line I wrote ‘funding my dream’.

Every two weeks, she repeated this, always increasing the amount by at least 5 per cent over the previous cheque.

To do this, she had to give up several things. ‘I stopped getting my nails done in a salon instead doing it at home, I stopped getting my hair done frequently, I stopped going out for dinners, I stopped buying my son burgers or fried chicken from fast-food joints instead making them at home… I cut out all extras so I could continue writing cheques to fund my dream,’ she says.

Hoping to reward herself with a pleasant surprise, she refrained from opening the bank statements that arrived by post. Then nearly four years later, she visited her bank along with her son to check her bank balance.

‘The teller wrote a figure on a piece of paper, turned it around and slipped it to me,’ Lisa remembers. ‘I read it and could not believe my eyes. I said “no this is not my account. My family has never had that much of money in a bank at a time”. The amount was $62,500.’

Even mountains will have to bow down, says Lisa, if you combine blind, non-negotiable faith with action Image Credit: Supplied

Lisa was so overjoyed that she could barely control herself. Hugging and kissing her son she told the then six-year-old the amount she had managed to save. Her son had only one query: ‘Mama,’ he said, ‘Can we have a Big Mac now?’

Lisa was not clear what exactly her dream was — she only knew it had to do with helping people realise their potential, improve their lives, make people happy. ‘I’d always wanted to be a motivational speaker, or a transformational coach and a writer.’

Recalling her younger days when she used to write little speeches and read them out to her grandmother, she says, ‘Grandma would listen to me, her eyes closed. Every once in a while, she would say “umm umm” and I knew from her tone that those were the lines she found really interesting.’ Lisa would quickly underscore those lines and in her future speeches try to include similar thoughts or lines.

Crediting her grandmother for encouraging her to become a speaker, she says, ‘After the sixth or seventh time I read out my speech to her, she tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You want to motivate a lot of people, right? Then don’t you think you need to share these speeches with someone other than ol’ grandma?”.’

The penny dropped and Lisa realised she had to have an audience that included more than just one person.

Now that she had the funds to realise her dream, Lisa quit her job, packed her old truck with some belongings and, strapping Jelani into the kid’s seat behind, set of on the 120-mile journey from LA to San Diego ‘to make my dream come true’.

There she rented an office space not larger than a walk-in closet and began working on what would become a million-dollar business — Motivating the Masses.

Was it easy slipping into the new Lisa, I ask.

‘I had to give her a chance,’ she replies, brushing aside a lock of hair that falls over her face. The first thing she had to do was ‘to not believe everything I was told about me. I had to discover me’.

Although the opinions of her grandma and her English and drama teachers were still playing on her mind, she wanted to discover who she really was. ‘And the bigger question: who do I want to choose to become.’ Lisa, who is functionally dyslexic, wanted to become ‘an artist of my own life’.

Lisa describes the process of metamorphosis: ‘Often your future can’t be born because you keep reliving the past. [You need to be clear] who you want to become and [shut out] all the chatter that keeps dragging you back to the past. You should strive to create a future that you’d be happy to share the story with someone you love.’

Once she had made up her mind to take the step towards a positive change, the rest began to fall into place.

Be willing to give yourself a thousand second chances, says Lisa Image Credit: Supplied

‘The first thing I did was to seek out what I didn’t know,’ she says. Seeing my puzzled expression she continues: ‘See, what you know has gotten you here. But to get to the next place, you need to find out what you don’t know.’

To that end she signed up for self-improvement seminars and conferences. ‘I’d attend random conferences,’ she says, admitting that at many places she felt completely at sea. ‘Out of 800 people, there were perhaps four women and maybe two people of colour,’ she says. ‘It couldn’t have been more uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable because I was afraid that the people would tell me I wasn’t smart enough to take this journey.’

But she didn’t give up, ‘because I had a dream’, she says.

I ask Lisa to suggest three tips for people who are struggling to change.

‘Sure,’ says the motivator. ‘Number one is actually not my tip but my grandmother’s. Remember, other people’s perception of you isn’t your business. You spend so much of time trying to manage other people’s perceptions of yourself that you are not really being you. Shun that. Two, remember that success leaves clues. You are not here on your own. Successful people love sharing stories of how they made it. Pick up the clues from them and try to emulate them. Rinse and repeat. Duplicate. I am where I am today because I watched successful people and picked up clues and then made them mine.

Three, be willing to give yourself a thousand second chances. My motto is: If you can look up, you can get up. And if you can get up, you can stand up and if you can stand up you can stay up. So don’t spend a lifetime trying to avoid being knocked down. Trust that if you should get knocked down, you have the strength to stand up. I can run faster and leap higher because I’m not afraid of being knocked down. Don’t live in a mindset of worrying what if…’

Lisa insists that there’s nothing that’s impossible. ‘The human spirit is unbreakable, unshakeable, unstoppable. It may stop for a minute to catch it’s breath but then it goes on.’

But isn’t taking risks fraught with fear? I ask. How can one overcome those fears and apprehensions?

Lisa suggests not biting off more than you can chew. Instead of setting your sights on one large, macro, hard-to-achieve goal, break it up into smaller micro goals. ‘Every time you make a micro goal and you achieve it, you begin to trust yourself a little more. This will make it a bit easier to help you achieve your next micro goal, and so on.’

Lisa gives an example of a person whose goal is to save Dh10,000 a year. ‘That may look like a big task for a person who is not earning a lot of money. But if he were to break it down to smaller goals — saving just around Dh800 a month — it will be much more easily achievable. Plus, every time he achieves his micro target, he will feel a lot better thereby boosting his self-esteem.’

In a nutshell, choose smaller, digestable goals — that’s how you build trust in yourself.

Lisa, whose company, Motivating the Masses, has served more than 30 million people, says that it was the movie, The Secret, that brought about a tsunami of success in its wake for her. ‘To be honest I didn’t even know what the book was all about,’ she says, with a laugh.

I ask her to tell me the secret that she shared in The Secret, a film on which Rhonda Byrne’s bestselling 2006 book was based, and which suggests that a person’s thoughts can have a direct bearing on one’s life, or put simply: if you ask for something that you truly believe in, you will receive it.

Lisa takes a deep breath before answering. ‘For me, The Secret wasn’t a secret,’ she says. ‘It was what my grandmother raised me by — she called it faith. Blind, non-negotiable faith in something. Combined that with action, and even mountains will have to bow down.’

The motivational speaker has a term for it: ‘Unwavering faith with non-negotiable consistent action. That’s what my grandma used to say.’

As we approach the end of the interview I ask Lisa what is the best gift one can give a loved one. ‘The gift to be present,’ she says, without a moment’s hesitation. ‘That’s the greatest gift. It’s also the best thing you can give yourself.

‘You know, people miss a bunch of nows trying to prepare for the future. You are either living in the past or in the future; rarely do you live in the now. But that’s what you should do.’

And how can you do that, I ask.

‘Turn off your phone,’ she says. ‘Remember, there was a life before cellphones. Have eye contact. Sit with people. Ask questions like how do you feel, where do you want to be in five years… and wait for them to reply. Listen to them before thinking of your next question, listen without framing your response. Ask more questions, that’s the way to be present. And be genuinely interested in what they have to say. It’s a skill anyone can develop. But once you do that it can become a superpower — to be present with people.’

I notice the PR person looking at her watch desperately trying to send me a message.

One last question, I tell Lisa. What have you learnt over the years?

Lisa gently holds my hand. ‘Don’t put a period where God put a comma. Remember, it’s never over when you thought it is.

‘Also, I’ve had the time to do it all and play Monopoly with my family, dance with my mother, spend time with my grandmother, watch a movie with my son. And yes, as I told Oprah [Winfrey] it’s our job to be the best example possible on how to love ourselves.’