- Jack Canfield ’72G
Jack Canfield is the founder and co-creator (with Mark Victor Hansen) of the New York Times number-one best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul book series—collections of inspirational true stories for everyone from preteens to dog lovers. The series currently has 105 titles, with more than 100 million copies in print in more than 40 languages. Canfield founded Self-Esteem Seminars and the Foundation for Self-Esteem, and is CEO of Chicken Soup for the Soul Enterprises. Canfield’s background includes a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a master’s from UMass Amherst, and three honorary doctorates. He has been a high school and university teacher, a workshop facilitator, a psychotherapist, and for the past 30 years a leading authority in the area of self-esteem and personal development. His latest best-seller is The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.
UMass Amherst’s School of Education had all these visionary, breakthrough, new-paradigm-type thinkers when I came there in the early seventies, and they were all gathered at this one school because of Dwight Allen, who was this revolutionary dean who brought all these people together. And it was the best of the best. Everyone in the world who was in the field of “affective,” or psychological, education would either come to UMass Amherst to study, to teach, or to be a guest lecturer. My work is totally informed by that education to this day.
From the very beginning of my career, going back to my internship teaching at an all-black Chicago high school in 1968, I found that when I would give my students lectures about the subject matter, they’d just go to sleep on me. But when I would tell a story about someone like them who had made it, they said “Wow!” And all of a sudden, they were motivated, and they were excited, and they were gung-ho, and I realized that stories are powerful!
The Chicken Soup books came into being during a time in the early nineties when it was as if God/The Universe—I never know which, I just know it’s something bigger—was knocking on my head and saying, “Hey! Put these stories in a book!” And how it happened was, for months on end, every time I’d do a lecture or a workshop, someone would come up afterward and ask me if any of the stories I’d told were in a book anywhere. And finally I just threw up my hands and said, “God, I think I’m supposed to put these stories in a book.”
I had about 68 stories. And I was about halfway through the writing process when I had breakfast with my friend Mark Victor Hansen one morning, and he said “What are you doing?” And I said, “Writing this book,” and I told him about it. And he said, “I want to do that with you.” And I said, “Mark, that’s like telling James Michener you want to finish Hawaii with him. Why would I do that?” And he said, “Well, you’ve only got 68 stories, and I’ve got at least 33, and that would give us 101, which is a spiritual number in India, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer.” And so we collaborated. Which brings up one of the key things I’ve learned in life. You know, it’s always much easier to do things with somebody else’s help.
The title came from a meditation at a time when we had finished the book, and it was time to sell it, but we didn’t have a title. So I was sitting with my thoughts more or less blank, and all of a sudden in my mind this hand reached out and wrote “Chicken Soup” on a blackboard. And I said to the hand, “What does chicken soup have to do with this book?” And a voice said, “Well, when you were sick, your grandmother always gave you chicken soup.” And I said, “But this is not a book about sick people.” And the voice said, “People’s spirits are sick.” And so, in about a five- to seven-minute period, the title morphed from “Chicken Soup for the Spirit” to “Chicken Soup for the Soul.”
We were rejected by at least 220 publishers before Health Communications accepted Chicken Soup for the Soul. Most people don’t know that this book, which is now a kind of icon in publishing, was rejected by every major publisher in New York. The obvious lesson is perseverance. Don’t give up if you really feel your dream and have a passion for it. That book was a calling. I was driven. It was truly a divine obsession.
It was the right message at the right time. I think that’s why Chicken Soup for the Soul became such a phenomenon. It was uplifting. The themes, if you look in the book, are love, family, self-esteem, setting goals, overcoming obstacles, and not giving up when you’re going for your dream. Those were all messages that needed to be heard in the culture at that time. These were short, good-news stories that uplifted you and made you feel good about yourself.
Successful people are folks who have worked on themselves as well as their vocation, whatever it might be. That’s what I’ve found to be true in the majority of cases. They had a spiritual path. They have sought therapy. They meditated. They prayed. Their lives have been lives where personal development was an important part of it. They tapped into their own souls, spirits, essences, whatever. The more truly spiritual people are, the more successful they seem to be.