Most of us know Jeff Olson as the best-selling author of The Slight Edge, which has transformed countless businesses and lives. What you may not know is that 30 years ago Jeff got started as a network marketing distributor just like you. He has since built several multimillion-dollar sales and marketing organizations, hosted seminars in major markets domestically and around the globe, and produced more than 900 television programs centered on personal growth. Jeff has worked with legendary experts like Les Brown, Jim Rohn, and Brian Tracy. A perpetual student of personal development, Jeff’s passion is to help individuals and teams achieve higher levels of financial freedom, personal excellence, and overall happiness. Today Jeff is founder and CEO of an innovative skincare company setting records in the network marketing and direct selling space. He also heads up Live Happy Media, a leader in the happiness movement and the publisher of Live Happy magazine. Ten years after the first edition of The Slight Edge, Jeff remains committed to his life’s mission of “making people better,” one small habit, one lucrative opportunity, and one empowering thought at a time.—J.G.
Tell us a little about your background.
I’m a classically trained businessperson with an undergraduate degree in business administration. While in graduate school, I was hired by a Fortune 100 company and ended up becoming a manager of its intelligence systems division. From there, I built several significant companies, including an award-winning solar energy company.
I discovered network marketing the same way most people do: someone shared a video with me and kept asking if I had watched it. About four months later, I was trying to check some things off my to-do list and finally watched the video. I was intrigued. I owned two companies and was doing some consulting work, so I didn’t have much time, but I joined anyway. I went from not knowing anything about the business to becoming one of the company’s top earners in a year and a half, even though the company had been around for 24 years. The unusual part is that I did this without any network marketing experience and without any experienced networkers on my team.
I became known in direct sales for bringing tools and systems to the marketplace. From my traditional business perspective, network marketers seemed divided. Within each company and even within organizations there were multiple tribes. I didn’t see how anyone could create any kind of true growth that way, so I studied the business, trying to figure out what made it “work” and how to develop a pragmatic approach to succeed in it.
What are some of the things you learned?
Most people in direct sales don’t have a solid business background. They have a job, a family, and other endeavors. They’re coming in with a high level of anxiety, a low level of knowledge, and a lot of resistance from people around them. Trainers were talking network marketing language to new people, which they didn’t understand.
I started focusing on building third-party tools—mostly videos—for prospecting, communication, and training. My systems approach was based on traditional business processes and eventually led me to develop the Slight Edge concept.
Although my organization was hugely successful and growing internationally, I was frustrated by the lack of success the average person had. Most people had the ability to do all the things they needed to do, but they didn’t have a sound business philosophy. What was missing was not how you did the business, but how you did the how. It’s no different from what happens in other areas of life: for instance, most people know how to lose weight; they just don’t know how to do the how’s.
The actions required to succeed in network marketing are pretty simple. That’s the genesis of my expression “master the mundane.” There’s nothing magical to what we do. Many traditional business people try to bring their concepts and experience into direct sales—which doesn’t work. Our business is about doing a series of little things, over and over consistently and persistently for a substantial period of time, until it starts to build. I began training my group with this concept and it resonated. Then people started telling me, “This is not only helping my business, it’s helping my health and my relationships!”
You knew you were on to something...
I took the Slight Edge manual I’d put together for my distributors and brainstormed over it with Eric Worre, who was one of my business partners at the time. I rewrote it and turned it into a book—and it exploded. It’s easy in direct sales to get distracted by people promising you success in a hurry. The Slight Edge asks people to quit searching for magic solutions and to do the little things over time. I taught these concepts to my good friend Darren Hardy over at Success magazine, and he did a brilliant job turning them into The Compound Effect.
I started realizing I could empower people by creating philosophies and tools to deliver that message, but those people also needed to become effective messengers. That’s what led me to build a TV network around personal development.
In the process I realized that people are looking for purpose and meaning as much as they are looking for a product and a compensation plan. We all want to belong to something, feel like we matter, and make a difference. I began focusing on the whole person, and that evolved into Live Happy Media and also into what our direct selling company does with Big Brothers Big Sisters and Success for Teens.
With members of his company´s Young Entrepreneur Program.
How did you become a personal development trainer? Who were your mentors?
Building my TV network allowed me to meet and study all the great lecturers, New York Times best-selling authors, and seminar leaders—especially Jim Rohn. But I developed most of the material myself. My goal was to take this business, which is subjective and nebulous, and quantify it, make it objective, and give it rules.
I read all the classics—How to Win Friends and Influence People, Think and Grow Rich, the books everyone reads—trying to come up with the right philosophy for success in this business. Philosophy is everything you know, how you hold it, and how it affects what you do.
Abraham Lincoln purportedly said, “If I had four hours to chop down a tree I’d spend three hours sharpening my ax.” When building my business, I’d spend more time working on me than I did working on it. Most people in direct sales don’t really spend time on themselves because they are so busy with everything else. I built my whole business around the messenger and the message—the messenger being personal development, and the message being third-party tools.
Another saying that has served me well is “slow down to go fast,” which, in our business, comes down to not just recruiting people, but sponsoring them. We really need to spend quality time with people in their first 90 days to help them understand the business, because there’s a growth curve that takes place. I was never a big recruiter, but I always had the biggest organization because I focused on educating people. If you just make it about money and products, you’re feeding only one part of a person’s soul. I was focused on the other side: providing significance and making people feel good about themselves.
It takes most new distributors 90 days to figure out what they got themselves into. It takes them a year to learn how to do the business, and about two years to become good at it. If you make it strictly about product and compensation, most people won’t stay around that long. But, if you make it about personal development, they’ll stay with you while they go through their personal journey. This is no different from what you do in a traditional business—you have to invest the time.
There’s a natural harmony in life: we plant seeds, cultivate them, then harvest. The sad thing is in direct sales, a lot of people will tell you to just go from planting to harvesting. People need to know they’re going to have to work on themselves, and they are more willing to do that if they are reading the right books, listening to the right programs, and associating with the right people.
We are more patient for financial results if we are also growing ourselves.
And if we feel part of an organization that’s making a difference in the world. People love being part of something that’s bigger than them. Here’s where servant leadership comes in. It’s why you do what’s good for mankind, not just good for your own wallet.
A lot of people practice charitable giving because it looks or sounds good. But it really has to be who you are, it has to come from your soul. It can’t be something you’re doing so you can put it on the company’s brochure or mention it from the front of the room. It has to be something you’re emotionally connected to, because people pick up on that. That’s when you start attracting likeminded people. When you focus on becoming a better person yourself and helping others become a better version of themselves, that’s what creates culture in a company.
Culture is more important than product or compensation plan, because it tells people who you are—and it also tells them what you’re not. The people who don’t fit into your culture have no place in your organization. I want to build a company around people who are givers, not takers. Network marketing will attract the takers—people who have a scarcity mindset. They think there’s not enough for everybody. If you win, then I lose.
If you look at great organizations, they’re always built on abundance, the belief that there’s enough for everybody and that we can all win. Those are the kind of people you can build a great company on. Culture is like a magnet: it attracts who you are and repels what you’re not.
What spurred your interest in the happiness movement?
Coming from personal development, I started seeing on the horizon this thing called “wellbeing,” or positive psychology. The difference was that this whole space was coming out of academia, while personal development really comes out of people’s life experiences.
Positive psychology started in 1998 at the University of Pennsylvania when Dr. Martin Seligman, President of the American Psychology Association, coined the phrase and used it in a speech that became a turning point for psychology in the U.S. It mandated that psychologists study what goes right in the human condition (happiness, optimism, gratitude, and so on), rather than what goes wrong. Back then there were only maybe 50 or 100 write ups on happiness or positive psychology and wellbeing. For every peer-reviewed article that came out on psychology, 17 were about the negative (pathology, disorders, trauma, and so on) while only one was positive.
Positive psychology generated an avalanche of new research on happiness and wellbeing. I saw the movement growing: governments began measuring GNH—“gross national happiness”; Fortune 100 corporations and the U.S. military were all creating happiness programs;, and elite universities started to teach classes in it. In 2012, the United Nations declared March 20 to be observed as the International Day of Happiness.
How does happiness research differ from personal development?
The most obvious difference is the rate of acceptance by the general public. In personal development—I don’t care how hard you try or what you do—there are only about 15 percent of people who will accept it, and I’m being generous. It’s kind of like network marketing. I don’t care how hard you try—over 80 percent of people are going to reject it, while maybe 20 percent are open to it.
Most people don’t want to hear about personal development. The education system doesn’t teach it. I’ve been trying for years to get people to read the books, listen to the audios, go to the seminars, and associate with the right people. No matter what I did, I couldn’t move that needle.
When the happiness movement appeared on the horizon, all of a sudden the New York Times bestseller list was flooded with new books about the science of happiness. One of these was The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, which led to one of the most popular TED talks ever.
Everyone wants to learn how to be happier.
Yes, and most of us were misinformed as to how to achieve this. We were taught that if and when we get our finances, health, and relationships in order, we’ll be happy—and it’s not true. It’s been proven in academia that happiness is a precursor to success.
We’ve always known that personal development is also a precursor to success. The people who “spend three hours sharpening their axe and one hour chopping the tree” are the ones who succeed. This is why we teach people to work on themselves before they work on their business. But the difference is that, in my experience, only about 15 percent of the people are willing to even listen to me talk about personal development—let alone do the work it requires. If you go talk to the world about happiness, flourishing, positive psychology, wellbeing, and it’s backed up by academia, now everyone is interested. It goes from 80 percent of people rejecting you to everybody being ready to listen. I saw this as a new age of personal development.
What are some other things you learned from the science of happiness, and what are some of the results we can expect?
What they’ve proven over and over is that you can take an old man who’s been grumpy his whole life and, in less than 30 days, you can make him happier by having him do a few little mental exercises for five or ten minutes a day. You can actually rewire the way neurons fire in the brain. Far from being elusive, happiness is very attainable to anyone. Personal development, on the other hand, feels daunting to most people, and it’s a lot of hard work.
When you look at what makes us happy, it’s not the big things. It’s more about what you share with others than about what you receive. This goes right back to The Slight Edge, which says, “Quit focusing on the big quantum leap things, and start focusing on the little things you do.” Happiness is really the new-and-improved version of personal development. It’s more applicable and more attainable, because it’s much easier to do.
...which is why you started Live Happy Media?
I saw an opportunity to finish what I had started with my TV network. I saw the evolution of the personal development movement as a chance to leave my footprint. Next I set a goal to develop the biggest happiness brand, which Live Happy has become today. We made a statement by becoming the largest aggregator of happiness content in the world and created a system to disseminate that content to people everywhere for free. I then started aligning myself with big universities and thought leaders, and funded the initial development of the International Positive Education Network (IPEN), which unites the top educators and positive psychologists from around the world. IPEN is in the process of launching a new manifesto, with the purpose of bringing positive psychology, strength of character, and wellbeing into the educational system.
I saw this as my chance to position myself as W. Clement Stones and Napoleon Hill did at the beginning of personal development. They were the pioneers and founders of a movement. Today here’s no bigger player in the space of happiness than Live Happy Media, not even close. We give the information on Livehappy.com to everybody for free. The magazine is a consumer, newsstand, and digital publication available to anyone. I want it to be a product of the world, so it is free of any mention of direct selling, my company, or anything else that would get in the way of delivering the happiness message and information to anyone who wants to receive it.
While the Live Happy movement isn’t about personal development, I’ve really embedded it within my company because it gives people a sense of purpose and wellbeing. We talk about becoming happier, building an organization that’s happy, and giving and doing the little things. Live Happy was simply a natural extension and evolution of my growth through personal development, through building the TV network. It came from my innate drive to always look for a new and better way.
It’s the legacy you want to leave to the world.
Yes, I’m doing it because it’s something I truly believe in. Last year I spoke on global happiness at the General Assembly of the United Nations. I was recently voted into the Happiness Hall of Fame. It’s neat to be at the forefront, because this space didn’t really exist until the late nineties. While it showed up in academia earlier on, it’s only now coming out into the public eye.
So much has been written about happiness throughout academia, but it just sits in all these white papers no one will ever read. I’m trying to be the marketing guy who creates awareness and access to it. It’s a fun project and my contribution to the world.
This isn’t a money maker, but I feel really good about it because I see the letters pouring in at Live Happy magazine and at our corporate headquarters. People’s lives have been changed by the magazine, by our website, by the content, by our conference calls. We provide a lot of stuff for free; the print publication is the only thing we charge for. You can sign up for our website which we load with content every single day about happiness and how to improve your health, finances, and relationships.
Back to servant leadership in our business, how do we get started?
It begins in your own backyard. Take inventory of yourself and ask, “Am I a giver or a taker?” Givers have an abundance mentality; they give without asking. Takers think that if “you” receive, “I” lose. You fit one of those categories. In direct sales it may be natural to want to help your downline because it makes you money. However, when you just want those in your downline to be better people and to have a better life; when you quit making it only about product and compensation plan and more about purpose and meaning—that’s when you begin embodying servant leadership, because you care about the whole person, not just about what’s in it for you.
The truth is, in direct sales, no matter how big your organization gets, 90 percent of your volume is always going to come from brand new people who’ve been with you for less than a year. These people are out of their comfort zone. They’re comparing themselves to others who are more successful. Therefore, if you’re not there with them—emotionally holding their hand as a servant leader—you’ll lose them.
In the first 90 days, or even within the first year, direct sellers get tested by their friends, family, and neighbors. They need to know that you’re there because you care—not just because of the money.
Servant leadership is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do—because it’s what will make people stay with you longer. If you don’t do it, they will get discouraged and disappear. I tell the people who are driven by money to do it because it’s one of the biggest things they can do to be successful in this business. But I don’t think you should do it for just that reason—you should do it because it’s the right thing to do if you truly care about people.
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