Rory Vaden is an accomplished professional speaker, author, standup comedian and cofounder of a $2 million company called Success Starts Now! that delivers sales training events across the country. He graduated from the University of Denver magna cum laude and has an MBA. He has worked as door-to-door salesman, a star athlete, a model, has appeared in commercials and stars in a new documentary, Speaker. And one more thing: he just turned twenty-five.

According to Rory, there is nothing remarkable about him; or, to put it more accurately, the only remarkable thing about him is that he early on acquired a penchant for approaching life with a large dollop of self-discipline. Helping others appreciate and embrace that trait in their own lives has become Rory’s mission—and it is a mission he pursues with fervor, passion and, not surprisingly, great discipline. — J.D.M.

Rory, what in a nutshell is your message about procrastination?

My expertise is simple: I teach people how to do things they don’t feel like doing. It’s a very simple topic—but not very easy.

Procrastination is just a manifestation of the lack of discipline.

Today everything is so much faster and easier for us: we can get fast food, fast e-mails, we get fast plastic surgery. Because everything is so easy, we’ve lost the ability to do things we don’t feel like doing. Whatever it is we don’t want to do, we can put it off. We tend to do only those things that are easy.

We’ve got sort of a technological cushion on reality.

Exactly. I give a talk to high school kids and college kids that I call, “MTV’s Real World Is Not the Real World.” Everything that we see in the media is about shortcuts, and what gets recognized and rewarded is outrageous behavior.

My message to kids is, none of that is really true. In real life, it’s the person who makes the sacrifices who gets the gifts. You’ve got to choose the hard right over the easy wrong.

Reality check.

Right—I have to kind of adjust their sights without crushing their vision. To say, “Look, you’re not going to be the next American Idol. You’re not going to win the lotto or become famous overnight.”

And you can succeed and accomplish great things—but in the real world, it’s about discipline and sacrifice. It’s about treating people right and old-fashioned principles like that.

And your message to adults?

It’s pretty much the exact same message, just packaged a little differently. For example, I don’t talk about drugs and sex. For adults, and especially for salespeople, I talk about procrastination and how the United States has become a nation of procrastinators. We talk about temptation, indulgence and creative avoidance, which is one of the major diseases that affects salespeople.

What was your own earliest experience with the idea of self-discipline?

I was raised in trailer parks and apartments by a single mom. As a kid, I got involved in martial arts, which is probably where I learned about discipline. I got a black belt when I was ten years old.

There was an adult in my class that I got to know; we started there the same day, and became friends over the years. Not long after we both became black belts, he married my mom and shortly after that he adopted me—so now he’s my dad.

Now that’s not a story you hear every day.

He’s awesome, the most patient person I’ve ever met, and he can be pretty disciplined when he wants to be. My mom was very hardworking; I get my sense of entrepreneurship and communication skills from her, and my sense of faith, too.

But my sense of discipline—honestly, even before the martial arts, that probably comes from my brother Randy.

Randy is five years older than I am, and he had a lot to do with raising me, since my mom was always working two jobs. Randy kept me in line, but he was also fiercely protective. He was my father figure, until my new dad came along.

How did you get started in business?

When I was eighteen, I started selling books door-to-door in the summer. I did this for five years, going to a different state every summer. I’d wake up at 6 a.m., we’d take ice-cold showers, and go knock on doors from 7:45 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. We’d do that six days a week, working on straight commission and paying all our own expenses.

What led you into that career?

I joined the business to make money; I stayed because of the people, and because of the person I was becoming in the process.

Just to be clear about this, I hated going door-to-door, absolutely hated it. For those five summers I sold books, I cried every single day. It’s kind of a running joke now, because I speak about sales and fear. But every day I had to go out and sell, I would sit on the curb and cry.

That first summer, I made $17,000.

Not bad for a summer job!

I really started learning about business in the following years, because that’s when I added in the element of recruiting. The way their program works, you sell door-to-door the first summer, and then during the year you recruit other kids into the program, too. The next summer, you go out and sell with them, and you’re paid a straight commission on their production as well as your own.

I did pretty well with sales, but with recruiting, it hit a whole new dimension. While I was in college, I was working something like fifty hours a week recruiting and training kids. For those nine months, I wouldn’t get paid a dime.

Because you were paid commission on their sales, but those sales wouldn’t happen until the summer.

Exactly. And that’s where I really got to see what it’s like to run a home-based business. How to deal with all the distractions; you’ve got errands to run, you’ve got to cook, clean and run the house, your friends come over, the TV’s going—and you’re trying to run a business!

And it’s all so easy to put off.

That’s it: it’s so easy to procrastinate. As home-based business owners and entrepreneurs, we tend to put off the things we don’t feel like doing. And I can tell you what it is home-based businesspeople don’t feel like doing: making sales calls, keeping track of their financial records, and dealing with negative customer service issues. They don’t feel like dealing with the rejection and negativity that comes with running any business.

This is why I focus on discipline; I believe everything else stems from that. If you wanted to find the single thing that would most transform your business, it would be this: learn how to do things you don’t feel like doing.

At what point did you hit on discipline as your theme?

I’ve had two major mentors in my speaking career: David Avrin, who works with branding and publicity, and Eric Chester, who is the leading expert on Generation Y—in fact, Eric coined the term “Generation Why.”

I started speaking in high schools when I was eighteen. After watching me speak for a few years, David analyzed what I was doing differently than other people, and figured out that the theme running through everything I’d done was discipline.

Eric helped figure this out, too. He’s made a lifetime of studying our generation, and I think he saw me as kind of an anomaly, in my generation.

So they noticed and articulated what was already a central theme in your life?

Exactly. That sense of discipline, which I had in martial arts and the selling job, that carried over into every aspect of my life. I was valedictorian, student body president and an All-American athlete. Those things opened the door to college, and I got a full-ride scholarship to get my MBA.

While I was in school working on my MBA, I started studying comedy and wrote my first book, which came out about a year ago: No Laugh to Know Laugh: How to Be Funny to Make More Money. It’s a very pragmatic approach to humor: this is why we laugh, and here’s how to overcome the fear of humor—especially for anyone who does public speaking.

Tell us about the Toastmaster competition.

A few years ago, I heard about a contest put on by Toastmasters International, the “World Championship of Public Speaking.” They have 25,000 people compete from ninety different countries.

And you decided to go after it.

I did. In fact, everything in the last two years of my life has been focused this one task.

To prepare for it, I spoke 304 times over a period of eighteen months. I spoke at colleges, high schools, comedy clubs, Toastmasters clubs and businesses, and I recorded every single talk.

A buddy of mine in Hollywood decided to make a documentary about the journey to the World Championship, so he took pieces of footage from all these different talks, along with some behind-the-scenes footage from different points along the way, and he put it all together. The film is called “Speaker.”

How did you do?

Last year I made it all the way to the international finals, and was one of the top ten finalists. We all spoke in front of a few thousand people—and I lost.

This year I entered the contest again and made it back to the international trials, which were held in August—and this time I placed second in the world.

Silver medal—very cool!

I’m really glad I didn’t just pack it in last year, but made the effort to do it a second time. One byproduct of that has been a six-disc audio program I created on the art of professional presentation.

The first two discs are about humor; the third disc is about adding charisma to your presentation. There’s one called “Keeping the Presentation Alive,” one called “The 57 Points of a Championship Speech,” and then a resource CD, which has workbooks and other materials on it.

Sometimes people say, “If you’re nervous, just pretend the audience is in their underwear.” That’s one of the clichés about speaking. So I called this program, “The Audience Is Not in Their Underwear.”

What was the driving idea behind your forthcoming book, ProcrastiNation?

This is the book I’ve been waiting to write. It’s about helping people get what they want from life and explores what it really takes to accomplish your wildest dreams. It’s not money, it’s not education, and it’s not motivation.

People get hooked on the idea of motivation, but motivation seems to taper off over time. It’s unsustainable, and often external. You can go hear Tony Robbins, and you might be motivated for a couple of weeks, but what happens after that?

The reality is, if you’re running a home-based business, you’re going to be sitting at home, alone, looking at your phone, and you’ve got to make a decision to pick it up and talk to someone about your business. It’s really no different from the decision you make when you’re sitting on the couch, having an internal dialogue about whether to get up and go to the gym today. Or whether to cook yourself something decent, or go for the Klondike bar.

These are the little decisions everyone faces all the time—but especially business owners. And it’s in those little decisions you’ll find the real distinction between the person who’s successful and the person who is average.

So you claim that all your achievements came about simply becuase you didn’t shy away from doing things you don’t want to do?

Without a doubt. One hundred percent. I know that’s what it is—because that’s the only thing that’s made me any different from anyone else. I don’t come from money. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college. I’m not famous. I’m not a celebrity.

I can’t define what success is for other people, I can only say what it is for me. So here’s how I define success: it is whatever you want. If you want to sit around on the couch all day, and that defines success for you, that’s fine. I pass no judgment on whatever people consider success. All I do is help them get to wherever that is.

However, whatever success means to you, there are two categories of activity that are going to get you there: those activities you like doing, and those you don’t. I have to assume that everybody will keep doing the things they like doing. It’s the other part I look at.

Let’s say your goal is to sit on the couch. The part you like doing—the actual sitting on the couch part—won’t be hard. You don’t need any help with that part. But the part about earning enough money so you can have the freedom to allow you to sit on the couch every day—that’s the part you don’t like doing. That’s where I try to have impact.

What do you observe about this generation, Rory? And how do you see the stereotypes others hold for Generation Y?

There are certainly the common misconceptions people have about my generation: that we’re arrogant, disrespectful, selfish, have no work ethic…

No attention span, no discipline…

Right. Well, maybe there’s truth to some of that, maybe not. But here is what is amazing about our generation: we are more accepting of diversity than any other generation before us. We’ve been forced to live with other cultures our whole lives, and we embrace that. There is much less racism in our generation, compared with other generations.

Some people say we’re apathetic—but give a Generation Y’er something they’re passionate about, and they’ll go nuts with it. We’re quick-thinking and incredibly determined. We’re very independent, in part because we’ve grown up in single-family homes, divorced homes, and homes where both parents work. We didn’t grow up with dinner on the table every night at 6:00 p.m. and the family saying grace.

You’re also a consumer demographic that advertisers are targeting like crazy.

We’ve got buying power. I’ve heard Eric say that one in every nine twelve-year-olds has a credit card. But the truth is, we tend not to care that much about money. We care more about having an impact on people’s lives than we do about making millions. We love community service projects and we love to give money.

We grew up with sophisticated video game systems and home computers, so obviously we’re very tech-savvy. At the same time, we’re also especially good at dealing with tragedy. We didn’t grow up with Mary Poppins or the Cleaver family; we grew up with Columbine, 9/11 and the war in Iraq.

So, yes, there are weaknesses, but also incredible strengths, just as there are unique strengths to every generation.

And discipline?

We can’t conceive of life without cell phones, computers and the Internet, and in this world, we have easy access to the things we want. If you want to sell me something expensive, I can find a million other people who will give it to me at half the price.

Unfortunately, this has led to a sort of death of discipline. We don’t need to do things we don’t feel like doing for our daily survival. For the most part, we’ve always had a roof over our heads and clothes on our backs.

What do we stand to learn from and benefit from this generation?

Our acceptance, our resourcefulness, our ability to multi-task. We are very fast learners. We see something once, get the experience and learn it.

For people in the older generations, whether they’re parents or business owners, I think the key is learning how to corral our energy in the right direction. If you put us in the right spot, we can be incredibly powerful, like all of the kids who are making millions designing web sites for major companies.

Another strength of ours is that we’re very flexible—but the other side of that is that we tend not to like structure, and we have little tolerance for doing mundane tasks.

What kind of impact do you see this generation having on the world at large?

I think it can have a tremendously positive impact. I think we’re going to bring a lot of peace to the world, because we are so accepting of diversity. I think we’re going to bring incredible technological advancement, and a world with more wealth through less work.

How so?

One of the primary ways we make money is by selling information over the Internet. Our businesses now have no costs. That’s why you have so many home-based business owners.

I can create an entire audio program and put it online, so people can download it to their iPods, and give it to them at a very low price—and my cost is zero. We’re creating all kinds of products with residual income streams. I think we’ll be making more money in less time.

I also think we’re going to bring incredible health to the world, mostly through technological changes. I think people can be excited that the future’s in the hands of Generation Y.

And the flip side?

Where I see the weakness is that it’s a real struggle to bring back the old-fashioned principles of hard work and discipline. But that’s going to have to happen. Even though so many things come to us easily, the truth about genuine achievement is the same as it’s always been: it takes discipline to achieve anything great. To reach the top, you need to be willing to do the things you don’t want to do.

This generation has a hard time accepting that. Actually, every generation has a hard time accepting that! But for this generation, I think it’s a more critical message than ever before. That’s why I’ve made that my mission.

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