Creating a Life of Significance

A Conversation with Nido Qubein

By John David Mann

What would you think of a man who came to the United States as a teenager with no working English, no contacts and about 50 bucks in his pocket...who ended up an international business leader, multimillionaire, accomplished public speaker and leading philanthropist? Let's make the question a little more specific: would you listen to what he has to say about success?

Meet Nido Qubein, chairman of an international consulting firm and recipient of the highest awards as a professional speaker, including the Cavett (the "Oscar of professional speaking"), the Speakers Hall of Fame, and Sales and Marketing International's Ambassador of Free Enterprise. Toastmasters International named him "Top Business and Commerce Speaker" and awarded him the Golden Gavel Medal; he has served as president of the National Speakers Association (which boasts a membership of over 4000 professionals). Nido's many honors include the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, a Doctorate of Laws degree, and induction into Beta Gamma Sigma, the honor society for business leadership.

Not enough? Here's more.

In 1986, Nido helped start a bank; today he serves on the Executive Committee, Board of Directors of a Fortune 500 financial corporation with $90 billion in assets. He is also chairman of a national public relations company; chairman of Great Harvest Bread Company, with 210 stores in 39 states; chairman of Business Life, Inc., which publishes a regional business magazine, bizlife; and chairman of the Miss North Carolina Miss USA program. (Diversity, anyone?) He serves on the boards of 17 universities, companies, and community organizations (including all three of his alma maters and his children's alma maters to boot). He founded and runs the Qubein Foundation, which grants dozens of scholarships each year to college students. He was the first recipient of the National Speakers Association's award for philanthropy. Not surprisingly, it is called the "Nido Qubein Award for Philanthropy."

Busy? A little. Busy...and in love with what he does.

The man who hit our shores with no native English has since authored dozens of books and recorded scores of audio and video learning programs, including a best-seller on effective communication published by Nightingale-Conant and Berkley. And, he has never taken a penny from any of them: he donates all the proceeds from his books and tapes (and many of his talks as well) to his multiplicity of good causes.

Listening to Nido speak is a pleasure of operatic proportion: the man has come to savor the language and sculpt with it as perhaps only a non-native English-speaker can. Like many professional speakers, he glides effortlessly from anecdote to anecdote, humor and entertainment blended in equal parts with inspiration and business savvy. But it's more than a show. There is real poetry in his speech; and there is a glowing intensity to his passion for learning, teaching, and especially, for giving. -- JDM


You came to this country with no money, no language and no connections. Why and how did that happen?

America is the land that every aspiring human being vies to come to. It's the land of opportunity; it's where the streets are paved with gold; it's the land where if you're willing to work hard enough and smart enough, you can make something valuable come of your life.


You arrived as a teenager speaking Arabic; how did you learn English?

I took a three-by-five card and wrote ten English words on it, then memorized the spelling and meaning of those words. The next day, I did the same with ten new English words and reviewed the ten from the day before. I continued every day, and by the end of the year I had 3120 words in my vocabulary. (Ten times six days a week--I gave myself Sundays off--times 52 weeks.)

The typical American has about a 5000-word vocabulary, so I was still disadvantaged, you might say. But I went on to write a few dozen books, over 100 audio cassette programs and a few hundred videos; they have been translated into 19 languages and sold in over 70 countries around the world.


You've certainly turned your "handicap" into a resource!

When you learn a new language as an outsider, looking in, you see its beauty and its faults. You pick your words carefully, and this develops a level of critical thinking, perhaps more so than for the person who grew up with that language.

Immigrants are four times more likely than native-born Americans to become millionaires in this country. This is not because they're smarter or have better connections, it's because they start with the right premise: if I work hard and smart, I can make something come to be. They have the right beliefs. Your beliefs drive your behaviors; your behaviors drive your results.

So many people here are focused on what's wrong, instead of seeing all the possibilities. People say this is a "bad economic year"--but my business is up 28 percent.


What creates those different beliefs that lead to your success?

Principally, gratitude. People who have a heart full of gratitude tend to be more positive, creative and innovative. They also tend to be easier to get along with--and therefore, more successful.

This is why giving is important; this is why service is important. You give not because you have to, not because someone asks you to, not because you owe it, but rather out of the heart of gratitude. And it goes beyond success: grateful people tend to focus on relevance and significance, not merely on success.


Can you say more about that? Relevance and significance, how so?

We talk about "success" as if it were the end result of life's best journey, but that's not so. I meet people all the time who make a million dollars a year and ask, "If I'm so darned successful, why am I so miserable?" If your life is merely successful, but devoid of significance, you simply cannot experience the fullness of life.

Success is secular by any measure; significance is spiritual by every measure.

Success talks about creativity; creativity asks the question, how can we do this differently?

Significance talks about innovation; innovation asks the question, how can we do this better?

Success talks about the three Fs of achievement: If you have your fans, your fame and your fortune, you've really done something. What a sad way to measure one's life accomplishments!

Significance talks about the three Fs of appreciation: faith, family and friends. If you have a sufficient supply of faith, family and friends, you'll live life deeper, wider and at a higher level than most people ever discover.


How do success and significance relate differently to giving?

Significance makes a clear distinction about giving versus giving back. You often hear successful people say, "This community has been good to me, my alma mater's been good to me, I must give back."

God is not pleased with people who simply give back. People who view their stewardship as a role of giving back miss the point. Significance focuses on giving, period. Not giving back. Not giving as payment.

It's the same as with loving: As a parent, you don't love your child because the child loves you first. You don't "love back" to your child. You love your child--period. Even when that child is sometimes perhaps a little unlovable!


Like unconditional love, you're talking about unconditional giving.

Exactly. Giving isn't about the fact that you're my friend and you've asked me to give, giving is about sharing from your heart. It's not that giving back is in itself a bad thing, but it's when you graduate from giving back to giving that you arrive at the zenith of true pleasure.

William Barclay, the Scottish theologian, said something wonderful about giving: "Always give without remembering. Always receive without forgetting." That has been a mantra for me.

There are many ways one can give without any financial resources: you can give talent, skill, time, love, caring, ingenuity; you can mentor someone, coach someone, advise, guide or serve as a role model. These are all avenues of giving.

There are four kinds of capital. Financial capital, everyone understands. There is also educational capital, which is what Networking Times shares with its readers. Then there's reputational capital; when you have a good reputation, people are willing to listen to you and do business with you.

Finally, you have relational capital--perhaps the most important of all. What truly makes you rich is the depth of your relationships. My friend Robin Sharma wrote a book called, Who Will Cry When You Die? That kind of puts things in perspective.


Does this speak to how you measure your legacy?

This again is what significance is all about.

I have a regular will that details what happens to my material goods when I die. That's simply a mechanical instrument, designed for maximum ingenuity in avoiding as much tax as possible. I let a lawyer handle that. The one I spent my own time on was my ethical will.

I wrote a private document to my four children that said, "Material things come and go, but let me tell you what I've left for you that will stay with you all your years, and even more importantly, which you can pass on to many generations thereafter." This ethical will talks about values, about purpose, about character.


And there's no tax on those!

Exactly. That's one example of legacy. "Legacy" means you work through the lives of other people. You have an impact on every human being you come in touch with.

This is why I speak: I know that in an audience of a thousand, at least one person is going to be powerfully impacted by something I said.


You are involved in so many activities; how do you keep it all in balance?

I have a simple formula for how I spend my time.

I invest one-third of my life in earning; you have to earn resources if you want to be able to give resources. I invest one-third of my life in learning; I read 30 or 40 periodicals and at least a few books every week. And I invest one-third of my life in giving and serving.

Sometimes I give money to a project because a friend is invested in it and wants my help--but in such cases, I'm not giving out of a lot of conviction, I'm doing it just to be a good guy.

But the things you really get passionate about, these come directly from your sense of service. You tend to concentrate your energy in these things, to stay the course with them, because they have a depth of meaning in your life.

Some people live their lives at the task level, some people live their lives at the goal level, but the happiest people are those who live their lives at the purpose level.

How did your philanthropic projects begin? What was the initial impetus?

When I went to college, I worked ten hours a day to pay for my schooling. At the end of my last year, the president said to me, "I know you've worked ten hours a day to pay your way--but in fact, there was a chasm between what you paid us and what you owed. You might want to know, a doctor in a neighboring city paid the difference."

I said I was eager to meet this doctor and thank him or her for this generosity. He told me, "This doctor wishes to remain anonymous."

I went back to my dorm, knelt by the side of my bed and cried my eyes out. That day, I made a commitment to God.

You make decisions with your brain--but you make commitments with your heart. That's why commitments are longer-lasting and so much harder to break! My commitment was that when I began to earn money, any money at all, I too would do something to have an impact on the lives of others.

In 1973, when I began my first business, fresh out of graduate school, I also founded the Qubein Foundation; we took $500 from our business and gave our very first scholarship. Today, 30 years later, we have given about three and a half million dollars in scholarships to college students across America.

I have funded the Foundation principally with the earnings from all my books, tapes and videos--I've never kept a penny of any of it.

In 1983, as president of the National Speakers Association, I founded the National Speakers Association Foundation; we have given away millions of dollars. This year, the NSA established an international award for philanthropy; they named it the Nido Qubein Award for Philanthropy and made me the inaugural recipient.

Here in High Point, North Carolina, we have High Point Community Foundation, with about $25 million in assets; I'm chairman of that. I give away at least 20 percent of my income each year, sometimes more. And I tithe my speaking engagements as well; I give ten or 15 presentations a year to non-profits without taking a fee.


I notice how involved you are in High Point; who says a man cannot be a prophet--and not just make a profit--in his hometown, right?

I believe that charity truly does begin at home; High Point (which is the furniture capital of the world, by the way) is where I'm most involved. I've chaired campaigns for the United Way, the YMCA, my church; I've been named Philanthropist of the Year, Citizen of the Year, Business Leader of the Year; I'm Chairman-elect of the High Point University Board of Trustees, fund-raising chairman for the Bryan School of Business and Economics....

My point here is not to brag but to illustrate that giving has to be a pattern, not just an event. You can't just say, "You know what? I'm especially blessed this year, so I'm gonna give." It has to be a way of life.


You spoke about the immigrant experience and gratitude, and it occurred to me many network marketers don't come from a business background; it's almost as if these are foreign shores, as if we've entered the world of business as immigrants--and like your appreciation of English, we tend to have a different take on business, around the values of gratitude, service and giving.

I think that's a wonderful way to look at it! You're using the word in a beautiful way, to suggest that you come at something from the outside and see it differently.

In that context, I think that we immigrate to new heights of discovery regularly, whether it is geographic, as I described, or it is educational, behavioral or spiritual, as you just suggested. To the extent that we dare to try something new, we are all immigrants.

This requires a leap of faith. We would not immigrate to something new, network marketing or anything else, unless we had faith--faith in ourselves and in the new venture or opportunity.

People don't want to change. The only person I know who welcomes change is a baby in wet diapers. The rest of us don't want to change until the pain of remaining the same becomes greater than the pain of changing.


Why is that?

I think it's because we have a great fear of the unknown. Like children, we are afraid of the dark. For us, the "dark" is these new fields of discovery. Again, taking that leap requires faith.

That's what defines a winner: you are a winner if you have belief--belief in yourself, belief in the new opportunity, belief in the future.

Failures ask the question, "Can I do it?" Winners ask the question, "How can I do it?" The difference between these two is just a single word--and that word is a choice we all have, at any moment.


That's how you broached learning the language.

Exactly. The language was not my goal in life; it was simply a discipline I needed to master.

In life, you will experience pain; it is unavoidable. However, you can choose your pain. There are two pains to choose from: the pain of discipline, or the pain of regret.

I understood all along that life does not give us what we need, life gives us what we deserve. If I want to get more, I must deserve more; if I want to deserve more, I must render some value; to render value, you have to have an inventory of resources, and for me, language was a primary resource.

I didn't come to America just to check it out. I came to America because I wanted a better life, which meant, for me, wealth and well-being.

The circumstances in which we find ourselves do not define the person we become; in fact, it's the choices we make.

I never go to sleep at night without asking this question: What did I learn today that I didn't know yesterday? Some days I find that I have learned something profound; some days I have learned something trivial. By habitually doing that, over the course of a year I find myself learning some very valuable stuff.


The world's been through a bit of a shakeup the last few years, including loss of faith in some of our corporate leaders. At this time in our history, what is it the world needs most that network marketing has to offer?

Trust. Trust based on personal relationships.

The most precious of gifts you can render to someone is trust. When I say to you, "John, I trust you," I've just given you the warmest and deepest of gifts. When I give you my trust, that means I have a partnership with you, that I believe in you.

The microcosmic essence of network marketing is trust, built one person at a time; once you have established trust, then the geometric progression takes over.

A network marketer first talks to one, two, three, four, five people, who in turn each talk to one, two, three, four, five people, and it goes from there. But those first few people would not have listened unless we had first established a sense of trust.

Our world, to some extent, has lost this trust.

At a time when people have serious reservations about business, when they are shaken by the misuse of people's trust and poor ethics in business and government, we tend to go back to the basics. And the basics are always person to person to person.

That's what network marketing's all about. Person to person builds the basis of new organizations, which then become very, very powerful through geometric progression.


Communication and teaching are at the core of networking--and they seem to be, for you, an integral part of all business.

Teaching people to think is one of the greatest adventures we can have. Not just sharing information, but sharing wisdom--that, too, is part of giving.

These Enron guys, they didn't have wisdom. They didn't see the wisdom of the ages, otherwise they would not have engaged themselves in such trivial, pedestrian and parochial ways to make money or run businesses, ways that led to such lack of ethics, such enormous dishonesty and greed.

Network marketers are in a wonderful position to hone their level of wisdom. If all you have is information, people will use you and then discard you. If all you have is knowledge, people will need you until such time as their own level of knowledge is equal to yours, or is in their view sufficient. But if what you have is wisdom, people will respect you.


And they'll keep you forever.

They'll keep you forever.

Look at life as a ladder: at the top, you put "significance," and on the rung just below that, "success." What leads to those top rungs?

The very base of the ladder would be trust. If I trust you, I am more likely to do business with you. And trust is not a mechanical or corporate or organizational function, it is an individual function. We trust people, not machines. It's built one person at a time.

Trust leads to reason. That's the other thing network marketers are very good at. Sure, you need to be emotionally invested, because you're a human being. But network marketers understand why what you're offering people really makes sense.

The idea of residual income versus linear income is so logically sound: invest your effort now, it pays off for a long time to come. That's the magic of network marketing, and it's a logic that can stand the scrutiny of time.

The third rung on the ladder is focus. Network marketers know how to become and stay focused; they are on product, on process, and most importantly, on the person.

This focus leads to value, and you know how to show people the enormity of value network marketing can provide in so many ways.

That broad spectrum of value leads directly to success--and success leads to significance.


Any final words?

Yes, two: "blessing" and "gratitude." I use the word "blessing" to describe what's happened to me in my life. I use the word "gratitude" to describe my experience of those blessings. Those are the two words that guide my life.

The Great Harvest Bread Company
Mission Statement:

Be loose and have fun,
Bake phenomenal bread,
Run fast to help customers,
Create strong, exciting bakeries,
And give generously to others.

The Great Harvest Bread Co. has won numerous national awards and been listed among the nation's top franchise opportunities by Entrepreneur, Success, Income Opportunities and Franchise Times. Here's what the media has to say:

"Call us crazy, but it looks as if the people at Great Harvest have managed to pull off what the rest of us only fantasize about. They've built an organization that practically runs itself." Inc., Nov. 2000

"Great Harvest...franchisees run their stores as they see fit, tinkering with recipes, setting their own prices, varying as much as they choose from the basic model. ... The company finds that freedom in franchising inspires ways of doing business that ultimately benefit every member of the system...." Wall Street Journal, Nov. 21 '97

"Great Harvest Bread Co. has a recipe for innovation-driven growth. ... [Says founder] Tom McMakin, 'Each store has a mom-and-pop feel. But in our stores, mom and pop know what they're doing--because they stand on the shoulders of more than 100 other people doing the same thing.'" Fast Company, Dec '98