Editor’s Note: The following are excerpts from an interview with Chicken Soup for the Soul series editor Jack Canfield.
Though he now lives in Santa Barbara, Jack Canfield grew up in Ohio and West Virginia, later attending Harvard University on a scholarship. He continued his education, earning a master’s degree at the University of Chicago and a doctorate in education at the University of Massachusetts. He is president of the Canfield Training Group, regularly speaking on personal growth, management, holistic education and peak performance. He has been author and/or editor of 33 best-selling books, including the growing Chicken Soup for the Soul series.
Nexus: How did the Chicken Soup for the Soul series get started?
Canfield: Myself and my writing partner, Mark Victor Hansen, [and other friends], would meet for breakfast on Tuesday mornings at the Beverly Hills Hotel. One morning Mark said to me, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Well, I’ve got this idea. I want to take all these stories that I use in my talks. I just want to put them together in a book without all the ‘you ought tos’ in between.’ You know, and therefore, based on the story you ought to call your mother, exercise more – all this stuff that people tell you you ought to do. I just wanted to put the stories out and let them stand alone to see what kind of impact they would have on people’s lives.
And Mark said, ‘ Gee, I want to do that with you.’ At first I was a little reluctant because I was already about halfway through with the book, but I said, ‘Send me 30 stories up and if I like them, we’ll do this together.’ They were great stories. This has been a marriage made in heaven.
At the end of the first book, there was a blank page. … The publisher said, ‘there’s a blank page left in the book. Do you want to use it for anything?’ We said, ‘well, let’s just put “if you have a story send it in.” ‘ Little did we know what we were unleashing, but we started getting sometimes 300 stories a day in the mail and over the Internet, e-mail and fax machines. … Now we have 35 books in the series. … I think we have 65 million books in print in 33 languages all over the world. [Currently, we receive] 100 to 300 [stories] in the U.S. mail, and then it could be anywhere from 500 to 2000 over e-mail. I’d say the majority of those come from teenagers – they have more free time.
I doubt many people plan on being a motivational speaker and writer. When you were in college what did you expect your future to hold?
I majored in Chinese history. I went to college thinking I was going to be a lawyer and get involved in government. … I’ve always been intrigued with global things; world peace has been something that’s a high priority for me. …
I realized in law school, after I was there for a year, that I didn’t really want to do that route. … My senior year I took an elective class in psychology. … It was all about human interactions. It just intrigued me at a level that I had never been intrigued by anything in my life. It was my life path as it were. So I started studying psychology and education in graduate school and ended up as a high school teacher for a number of years. … I eventually became a therapist.
What advice would you offer students who haven’t figured out their “life path”?
Keep exploring. In other words, the only way you find out if you like a food is if you taste it. Lean into lots of things. If you take a sociology class and it excites you, take another one. If it doesn’t, try something else.
A lot of famous people didn’t find their right livelihood until well into their 20s, 30s, 40s sometimes.
I think the main thing is, everything you engage in, do the best you can because everything you do will lead you somewhere else, and by doing it well you’ll learn skills that you can always use no matter where you go – whether its research or networking or just being the president of your fraternity or sorority or the captain of the team or working on a political campaign or some project in the university where you’re trying to get something done. All those things build competency, but you never know what you’re going to need later.
I would always say that everything I’ve studied in my life has been preparation to be where I am. … I think that the main thing is just explore. Take the summer off and go to Mexico. Travel. See things. Meet people. Go to lectures. Take up an instrument and see if you like it. And there’ll be a lot of dead ends, but so what?
I always think it’s like being in Rome, where you’re going around one of those circles where there’s about 18 different roads that go off it and you might have to try all 18. And if you’re lucky, the first road is your path and you never want to leave it because you’re so fulfilled. For other people it’s the 18th road. So what? You gotta try the roads.
Certainly don’t compare yourself to those people that are fortunate. You know, people who knew when they were 10 that they wanted to be a concert pianist or an engineer or an actor or a musician or whatever, and God bless those people, but if you compare yourself to them and feel inadequate because you’re not clear, that’s a mistake.
Your books are written to encourage others, but what discourages you?
What discourages me is prejudice and ignorance, but I know as a psychologist that all of that is based on conditioning from childhood. All the Republicans I know, their parents were Republicans. All the Democrats I know, their parents were Democrats. We grow up just kind of conditioned by our environment.
I think the real job of growth is to slowly let go of the belief systems that we took on from parenting, school and religion and say ‘OK, that’s what I was taught. I was conditioned in that. Now let me explore and examine that. Is that what I want to choose? And then if you choose those same beliefs, fabulous. But if you don’t, give yourself permission to go and explore other beliefs so you find what matches you.
I grew up … [knowing] my job in life was to be of service to others. There’s been a great deal of satisfaction that’s come from that. But at the same time, there’s been a great deal of self-denial that’s come from that that over the years in my own therapy. . I find that more and more some of my generosity is a ‘should,’ not a ‘want to,’ so I’ve spent the last couple of years sorting out where I want to put my time, where I want to put my money, where I want to put my energy, and responding to this internal desire to make a difference that matters to me instead of just to do it for the sake of doing good.
Why did you choose to live in Santa Barbara?
I was so drawn to California. There was something about the culture out here. It was freer. The people were more exploratory. There was more going on in the human potential movement. There were more leaders and centers, institutes exploring human potential, what we can do, what are the limits of our capabilities, spiritual growth, emotional growth, intellectual growth, and so I came out literally to run a workshop in Marin County, and I just fell in love with the place. …
We looked at La Jolla, and we looked at Santa Barbara and we came up, and we spent long weekends … just exploring the town. Santa Barbara won hands down.
It’s just so amazing to have the mountains, the ocean, the university; there’s a lot of money here so there’s a lot of culture. … It met a lot of our needs, and I just feel vibrationally when I’m here, I feel relaxed, I feel at home, I feel at peace.
If you could accomplish one more thing in your life, what would it be?
There’s two things really. We have a goal for our book series to sell a billion books by the year 2020. Not because that means anything, but because we believe that if you set a huge goal that’s almost unattainable, it forces you to grow in order to be able to achieve it.
For us, it’s forcing us to think bigger, to get out of the box of only selling books through bookstores and so forth and to trust that if we reach that many people, and we give away 50 cents a book that will be half a billion dollars for charity … and we’ve reached a large portion of the planet in terms of having made a difference in their lives.
Secondly, what I’d like to accomplish is to make a difference in the education system in America. Too many kids that aren’t just the typical A-student type of person get lost between the cracks. I think it’s a loss to our culture of a lot of talent and a lot of aliveness, a lot of skills and a lot of people that we need to make the whole thing work.
I’ve always been of the position that everybody in the world is like a cell in a body. Some people are kidney cells, some people are brain cells, some people are muscle cells, some people may just be a toenail, but the point is, you need that toenail.
I like to think that the schools could identify that and help everyone find their [place]. … I’d like to see the schools acknowledge a greater range of talent.