Les Brown believes there are three reasons why people fail: “One, they don’t know what they have going for them; two, they don’t know how to make money with their natural gifts and talents; and, three, they don’t know how to reach people to pay for those talents.”
“Greatness is a choice,” he says. “It’s not your destiny.”
Rather than take control of their own lives, Brown said, too many people are “40/40 volunteer victims”– working 40 years, 40 hours [a week], by the say-so of someone else. “Accept responsibility for your life,” he says. “Know that it is you who will get you where you want to go, no one else.”
Brown points to his own life as an example of what he preaches and he is not shy about telling it.
He was born, he says, on the floor of an abandoned building in Liberty City. When he and his twin brother were 6 weeks old, a poor, uneducated woman named Mamie Brown adopted them. She did not allow her modest means to deter her from caring for the brothers and five other children.
“My mother had a third-grade education but a Ph.D in mothering,” Brown says.
Mamie Brown worked as a domestic worker and her children wore hand-me-down clothes from the children of the families for whom she worked. Les Brown says he recognized the contrast of life between wealthy Miami Beach, where his mother worked, and economically depressed Overtown, where the family lived.
Brown says he also faced academic challenges. In the fifth grade, he says, he was labeled “educable mentally retarded” and sent back to the fourth grade. A few years later, he had to repeat the eighth grade. He carried the burden of being deemed intellectually inferior for most of his childhood, he says His life began to turn around in high school, when he came into contact with a teacher, Leroy Washington, who, he says, helped him shed that burden. “Someone’s opinion does not have to be your reality,” he says. So he changed his reality.
Brown set goals for himself and today a significant part of his self-awareness coaching revolves around setting goals—three in particular: personal, financial and social contribution—and then exceeding them.
His personal goal, those early years, was to become a disc jockey, which he did at a radio station in Columbus, Ohio. His next climb upward was hosting a nationally syndicated radio program, the Les Brown Show.
Brown’s financial goal then was to make enough money to take care of his mother and buy her a house. “I made enough money to buy my mother four houses,” he says, “and she never paid another bill for the rest of her life.”
As for social contribution, Brown says he satisfies that goal by helping people succeed, winning awards for doing so. But, in sharing his story, Brown leaves no illusion that his success happened overnight. “It took 14 years to bring about the courage to change,” he says. “The most difficult thing I’ve ever done is make the decision to become the person I am today.”
Much of that success has come as a motivational speaker. The idea came while he was still a disc jockey. A mentor, Mike Williams, helped him see his potential, suggesting that he could talk to corporations and organizations about leadership, potential and living their dreams.
Brown says he initially resisted the idea because of his lack of a formal education. He recalls asking Williams, “How could I talk about things that I have never done?” To which, he says, Williams replied, “When you argue for limitations, you get to keep them.”
“I don’t have any degrees but I have a PHD—passion, hunger and drive,” he says. He became self-educated, studying business and communication, how to recognize resources and to surround himself with opportunities.
“If you put yourself in a position where you have to stretch outside your comfort zone, then you are forced to expand your consciousness,” he says.
Once he summoned up the courage to begin a career in public speaking, it was clear to Brown, he says, that he had hit upon his calling and he has been doing it for more than 40 years.
He also wrote the acclaimed motivational books: Live Your Dreams and It’s Not Over Until You Win: How to Become the Person You Always Wanted to Be No Matter What the Obstacle.
Along the way, Brown has battled prostate cancer successfully and says he is “cancer free, debt free and drama free.”
And, he says, his work is not done yet. Now living in Los Angeles, he continues to travel and share his message. He returned to South Florida last year as a guest speaker at A Place of Restoration in Margate. Senior Pastor Dr. Dennis D. Grant invited him talk about his gospel of prosperity.
“God wants us to be prosperous now,” Grant says. “You can’t tell people about streets of gold when they don’t know how to walk on streets of concrete.”
At the church, Brown orchestrated a smooth flow of exchange between his personal experiences and motivational nuggets. Careful not to divulge too much information — his full-seminar books and DVDs were available for purchase — he did offer a taste of the many concepts of his works.
Brown’s delivery was entertaining, with liberal use of comic relief, and call-and-response tactics that engaged the audience. “Retrain your mind,” he said, and the congregation echoed him, “Retrain your mind.” Brown lightened philosophy with witty and catchy phrases: “You can’t soar like an eagle if you’re surrounded by pigeons.”
He also had a message for youth: “Dress like a prospect, not a suspect,” he said. “Garbage in, garbage stays.”
Is Brown’s message still relevant 40 years after he started? He says it is and he is in a state of continuous evolution: “My message evolves the same way I’m still evolving. I’m still growing, I’m still reaching higher,” he says.
“I had no idea this Les Brown existed. I am literally amazed and humbled by the life I am living.”
Tranika Fagan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org