Motivational speaker Les Brown in St. Maarten

POSTED: 01/5/14 10:17 PM

“People need a sense of optimism”

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – The American motivational speaker Les Brown holds court tonight under the tent at Port de Plaisance from 7 p.m. Utilities Company Gebe invited Brown to the island. Yesterday he gave an inspiring motivational speech to Gebe-employees – one that left many in the audience with a smile on their face. “Very inspirational,” was the reaction of one employee.

Brown has been in the positive thinking business for 44 years. He is 69 now, but he does not look it. Born with his twin brother Wesley on February 17, 1945, in an abandoned building in Miami, he was adopted by Mamie Brown, a 38-year old single woman who worked as a waitress and a cleaner. “They found me mentally retarded in grade school,” Brown says. “I was moved from fifth grade back to fourth, and so on.” That did not stop him from getting where he is now. With the support of his mother and a high school teacher, he learned how to reach his full potential – and it still serves him today.

Brown was briefly married in the nineties to the R&B legend Gladys Knight and he lives now in Liberty City in Miami. Dressed in a conservative suit, white dress shirt and a (rather optimistic) bright red tie, Brown looks the part of the motivational speaker he is.

The controversial book The Power of Positive Thinking by the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, first published in 1952, appealed to Brown, though the book drew a lot of criticism in the fifties of last century. Nevertheless, it stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 186 weeks straight.

In 1955 psychiatrist R. C. Murphy published a venomous review of Peale’s work in The Nation, under the headline Think Right: Reverend Peale’s Panacea. That went like this: “With saccharine terrorism, Mr. Peale refuses to allow his followers to hear, speak or see any evil. For him real human suffering does not exist; there is no such thing as murderous rage, suicidal despair, cruelty, lust, greed, mass poverty or illiteracy. All these things he would dismiss as trivial mental processes which will evaporate if thoughts are simply turned into more cheerful channels.”

Murphy did not have a lot of good to say about Pele’s approach, but in de decades that followed positive thinking – and motivational speaking with it – would take flight. Brown never looked back.

“People need a sense of optimism,” he said yesterday. “We are going through a process of creative destruction right now. Technology has made jobs disappear. Today that process continues even more rapidly and while these rapid changes are happening, people have to stay ahead of the technology. Knowledge is the new currency and these times require a new mindset. People used to go to college, graduate and then hold a job for forty years. Those days are gone. You have to be versatile and flexible.”

Brown says that he receives more than 3,000 requests a year to speak – and he covers all continents. How Gebe found him? He smiles: “Somebody saw me on Youtube,” he says, underlining the power of social media.

Brown refers to Average is Over, a book by the American economist Tyler Cowen that establishes how the widening gap between rich and poor comes down to dealing with this uncomfortable truth: if you’re not at the tip, you’re at the bottom. That realization ought to make people think outside of the box, Brown reasons. “Bill Gates has said that retraining people is the biggest budget for the next decade. You are no longer able to survive with just one set of skills. You need at least three or four competencies.”

The road to success, Brown says, is based on five elements. “Master something you love,” is his advice. ”Create an accountability partner, someone who holds you accountable for what you want to achieve. It will give you a 41 percent higher chance to succeed.” Discipline and drive, raising the bar for one self and a spirit of optimism are the other elements cherished by successful people.

At yesterday’s meeting at the Belair Community center for Gebe-employees, Brown presented his nine principles of life enrichment. The first and the last one are both interesting: “Each of us can achieve far beyond our horizons and in areas of life we have never explored” and “We must operate with integrity in making and keeping our commitments.”

Certainly that last statement will ring a few bells in St. Maarten where integrity is such a hot topic right now. Brown’s principles also speak of the “basic goodness” that is in all of us, the need to take responsibility for one’s actions, and building relationships as a critical component for social development. “This is about being resourceful. Your network determines your net worth.”

Will Brown’s approach inspire people and will it work? “I enjoy changing people’s lives,” he says. “In order to be successful you have to be willing to do things others won’t do.” Then he brings out what could easily be his most valuable piece of advice: OQP – an abbreviation that stands for Only Quality People. “Ask yourself what the people in your life are doing to you,” he says. “If they are pulling you down, get rid of them.”


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