L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 294, October 24, 2004
"Scare the crap out of the statists!"
LFBs Exclusive Interview with Robert J. Ringer
Special to TLE
Robert Ringer is the author of Action! Nothing Happens Until Something Moves, the latest in a string of popular self-help books that began in the early 1970s with the self-published Winning Through Intimidation. That and Looking Out for #1, another signature self-help guide of the 70s, inaugurated the libertarian studies of a certain editor of Laissez Faire Books. We've decided not to tell Ringer that his Number One Fan was about 11 years old when Winning Through Intimidation was first published.
Why do people buy your books?
All I can do is go by what readers say in their letters to me, and what comes through most often is that they simply like what I have to say and how I say it. It's not all that complicated.
Interestingly, publishers don't understand this. Most of them have absolutely no interest in the quality of the writing. To their credit, however, most will tell you pointblank that what they're looking for are "writers" who have "platforms." Television personalities, politicians, murderersanyone who has a high public profile is welcome in the world of mainstream publishing. What's humorous is that some of the television personalities who knock out a book a year, with no writing talent whatsoever, actually believe that they are great writers because their books are bestsellers. If you're on television an hour a night, five nights a week, of course anything you write is going to be a bestseller. Not exactly rocket science.
Years ago I remember presenting an outline to a publisher, and his response was that "there are already a lot of books published on that subject." He just couldn't comprehend that what separates books on the same subject is the writing. To parody the Clinton Democrats of yesteryear, "It's the writing, stupid."
What do readers tell you? Is there a story told by someone you've inspired that you particularly like?
I don't know if you could call them stories, but in the more than 15,000 letters I have received from readers over the years, there are a hundred or so that have touched me in a special way. One reader, from Grass Valley, California, paid me perhaps the highest compliment a writer could ever receive from a reader when he said:
"I have a 20-year-old-son and an 18-year-old daughter by my first marriage. I gave each of them a hardbound copy of Number One and wrote in it: 'Circumstances have been such that I haven't been able to give you much counseling or fatherly advice. Happily, though, Robert Ringer wrote this book. Please read it as though I had written it specially for you.'"
That was pretty heavy.
A second letter that comes to mind was from a reader in West Hartford, Connecticut, who said:
"I just finished Number One yesterday, and it will surely go down as a contemporary masterpiece. When the successors to our civilization are sifting through the ruins 1000 years from now, they will surely come across a copy of Number One. I can imagine their bewilderment about how our civilization got so screwed up when so many of the answers were stated so simply in your fine book."
Both of these letters made me realize what a tremendous responsibility a writer has when it comes to influencing lives. I've received similar letters from readers of Winning Through Intimidation, Restoring the American Dream, and Million Dollar Habits, and letters such as these are what cause me to take my writing seriously. By that I mean that a writer has the power to impact people's lives, so he has a moral obligation to think very seriously about what he says.
One gets the feeling from Action! that you don't think people can succeed by staring at the wall plotting their next move. Why not?
You can be overflowing with knowledge and wisdom, you can have the greatest ideas in the world, and you can spend inordinate amounts of time planning and projecting, but it's all meaningless if you don't apply action. That's because action is the starting point of all progress. The dictionary says it best: Action is the causation of change. Staring and plotting do not constitute action. Not applying action to their ideas is probably the single biggest reason why most people's achievements fail to measure up to their talents.
Why do you say in Action! that adversity and setbacks are often an illusion?
Because when an adversity occurs, we have no way of knowing at the time of its occurrence what the long-term outcome is going to be. Everyone who isn't sleepwalking through life realizes that some of the greatest opportunities come disguised as obstacles. That's why you have to be an action-oriented person. The more action you take, the more your "mental paradigm" expands, which in turn gives you the capacity to see beyond the immediate problems in your life and identify the opportunities.
What is the difference between focusing on acting and focusing on not being intimidated, which was the focus of your first book, published in the early 70s, Winning Through Intimidation? Are you giving the same advice from a different angle, or has your perspective on how to tackle the challenges of life changed?
I've never really thought about it, but, now that you mention it, defending yourself against intimidating people is just another form of action. To Be or Not to Be Intimidated? (formerly Winning Through Intimidation) is filled with detailed descriptions and stories of how I learned what actions I needed to take to protect myself from the intimidators of the world, then actually implemented what I learned. Had I never done anything but come up with ideas about how to defend myself, and spent all my time just planning, nothing would have changed. My life changed only after I put my anti-intimidation plans into action.
Winning Through Intimidation seemed to be more tongue-in-cheek at times, or more willing to shock (including with the title) than your later books. You've even issued a new edition of it with a softer and gentler title (To Be or Not to Be Intimidated? That Is the Question). Are you more concerned about the possibility of being misunderstood now than you were when you published your first book? Or do you now disagree with some of the views in that first book?
I've been concerned about the general public's misperception of that book for more than two decades. The mainstream media, overflowing with chest-pounding, self-righteous commentators and interviewers, had a field day with the title and purposely misled the general public. Of course, the millions of people who actually read the book were (and are) well aware that it was not a book about how to get ahead by intimidating others, but about how to defend yourself against intimidating people.
I've received hundreds of letters from people over the years telling me that the book was mistitled, and some have even urged me to change the title. Even today, you can look at the reader reviews for Winning Through Intimidation on Amazon.com and find about a dozen readers who still take the trouble to point out that the book is mistitled. This is why, when I rewrote the book, I seized the opportunity to give it a more appropriate title. It goes without saying that rewriting the book and re-titling, in addition to finding a new publisher to republish it, are perfect examples of making things happen through action.
As to the second part of your question, there's nothing in the basic philosophy of To Be or Not to Be Intimidated? that I disagree with today. The book is all about the realities of human natureespecially in the business worldand human nature never changes. That's why the book is as relevant today as it was when it was written. As to the style of the writing, I would say that I was much more brash in the original edition than I am today, but that was just a result of youth combined with inexperience. Thankfully, life has a way of humbling you and making you more tactful.
In summation, my style of writing has, I believe, dramatically improved and matured, but my philosophy has remained pretty much unchanged. I'm sure that readers who have read any of my earlier books will see the same philosophical and psychological threads running through my new book, Action! Nothing Happens Until Something Moves.
How did you become a writer? Was it something you always wanted to do, or was it a business idea that occurred to you one day that happened to work out?
Actually, I got straight A's in English in both high school and college. I was especially good at English composition. In business, I became so notorious for writing long letters that people used to chide me about it, saying that I should consider writing a book. Finally, a friend convinced me that my experiences as a real estate broker could be tremendously helpful to people in all walks of life, and that I should write a book about them.
It was a sort of autobiography about that particular period of my life. I posited myself as a Colombo-type antihero who was always getting shafted out of his commissions, but ultimately figured out how to outfox the master intimidators who were battering me. I guess it struck a note with millions of people who know what it feels like to come out on the short end of the stick and not receive what you know you've earned. Again, many of the stories and anecdotes in Action! possess a similar self-deprecating flavor.
In Action! and a previous book you talk a little about your business experience in New Zealand, and how tough it is under the laws there to fire an employee who isn't working out. How did you end up running a business in New Zealand?
It was just one of those opportunities that sometimes pops up out of nowhere. It began when a fan of mine who lived in New Zealand interviewed me for a magazine article. As fate would have it, he was trying to secure the rights to a line of health products, and asked me to become involved. I had fantasized about living Down Under since I was in high school, and it seemed like a great excuse to fulfill that fantasy. I ended up living in New Zealand for about two years and Australia for about a year. Words cannot describe my love for Sydney. Had it not been for family in the U.S., I could have spent the rest of my life there.
I got the impression from your account that you were somewhat blindsided by the status of employees in New Zealand. Did you investigate the legal setup there before buying the business? Would you have done it again if you had known what you were in for?
I definitely was blindsided, and, no, I had no idea that the situation regarding employees was so extreme. It is impossible to describe the socialist mentality of a majority of the population there. It's not because they are bad people; on the contrary, Kiwis on the whole are wonderful human beings. Rather, it's a result of cradle-to-grave brainwashing. Anyone who opposes this mindset is thought to be an extremist weirdo.
Would I do it again? That's a tough question, because the experience of living Down Under is something I will always cherish. Let's just say that knowing what I know now, I would have spent a lot of time coming up with ingenious defensive measures to be able to better protect myself from the draconian interference of government in the marketplace with regard to employees. I certainly demonstrated taking action to an extreme by making the move, but I guess you could say that I didn't take enough action when it came to due diligence.
Are you more religious now than when you published your first self-help books?
I don't think in terms of religious or nonreligious. Religion, in fact, is a subject I go out of my way to avoid, because even the most intelligent people tend to become irrational and angry when religion is discussed. As we are all painfully aware, religious intolerance has once again surfaced as the number-one problem in the world.
The only thing of which I am certain is that there is a Conscious Universal Power Source, and what people choose to call this Source (e.g., God, Allah, Yahweh, Supreme Being, Cosmic Designer, etc.) and under the banner of what religion they choose to pay homage to It is a highly personal matter. I respect everyone's opinions and privacy in this regard. Obviously, fundamentalists of every stripe don't see it this way, and feel perfectly comfortable killing others in the name of "their" god.
However, spirituality is a totally different matter, and I can certainly say that I feel much more spiritual today than earlier in my life. I should make it clear, however, that I have always considered myself to be a spiritual person. It's just that this aspect of my life has evolved at an accelerating pace as the years have passed. I think there's something hollow about static spirituality. I believe that spiritual evolution is the most important aspect of a person's life. In Action! I talk about a search for truth being the main purpose of life, and the single most important truth a person should continually search for is the meaning of the Conscious Universal Power Source, which in turn, I would assume, would reveal the true meaning of life.
In Action! you say that George H. Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God may be impeccably logical, but that all this logic is for naught if there really is a God who is simply beyond human fathoming and logic. Yet earlier in the book you seem to give an argument from design for the existence of God, the kind of argument dealt with at length in Smith's book. Do you think that the existence of a God can be demonstrated, or is it a matter only of faith?
I think our senses make it clear that there is a power source, what I refer to as the Conscious Universal Power Source, that encompasses the universe. As a now forgotten author once said, the fact a person is thirsty proves the existence of water, whether or not anyone ever sees water. Why has man been obsessed with the idea of a Higher Power from the beginning of time? Some might argue that this obsession, of and by itself, proves the existence of God.
As far as the demonstration of God's existence, I think science is perhaps the clearest evidence that a Higher Being exists. For some time now, science has been rapidly approaching a dead end when it comes to explaining why things work the way they do. For example, scientists know how wind works, but they don't have a clue as to why it works the way it does. They know how gravity works, but have no idea why it works the way it does. They know how molecular formation works, but, again, have no idea why it works the way it does. Clearly, there is a Force at work here that we are incapable of understanding.
What I've said here is a pretty scanty way to cover this gigantic subject. In truth, it would take a thousand pages just to do a creditable summary of the whole issue of a Conscious Universal Power Source, which is why I just touch on it briefly in my book, Action! I felt it was necessary to discuss it in conjunction with the adage, God helps those who help themselves.
When we knew nothing about lightning and thunder we posited a god, say, Thor, who caused the thunder by throwing his hammer around. Once we understood something about electricity and air clapping together, we no longer needed Thor or Zeus to explain the thunder. If we do not possess godlike omniscience enabling us to know everything, does that really mean there must be a God? Why can't we just say that there are still many things we don't know about the world, which we may or may not eventually learn as we continue to investigate?
Again, I think people get hung up on the word God. It's all a matter of personal belief, and I respect anyone's beliefs so long as they are based on logic. I do have a problem with those who try to make a case for or against a Supreme Being based on illogical premises. My own logic tells me that since there is no beginning or end to time (not to mention space and numbering), there is some kind of Conscious Universal Power Source that we do not, and can never, fully understand. To me, this is self-evident, but I make it a rule not to debate the subject with anyone. Each person must satisfy himself on this most important of all issues.
In the early 80s you published a book entitled How You Can Find Happiness During the Collapse of Western Civilization. Do you still think civilization is collapsing?
No, I don't think Western civilization is collapsing. I think Western civilization, as we once knew it, has already collapsed. Britney Spears wet-kissing Madonna on national television; Janet Jackson baring her breast at the halftime show for Super Bowl XXXVIII; political correctness run amok; rap being passed off by high-profile people as a legitimate form of music; drugs now an accepted part of our culture; child molesters roaming the streets after being set free by judges who seem unmoved by the pain of their victims. The list is endless. People who believe that the enemy is at the gates miss the point. The reality is that the enemy is inside the gates.
One of the greatest lies fed to Americans, a lie that is repeated again and again, without challenge, on national television, is that diversity is America's strength. But sheer common sense tells one that diversity is not a strength; it's a weakness. Diversity has nothing whatsoever to do with skin color, but everything to do with culture. The enemies from within hate Western culture as much or more than the Islamic barbarians outside the gates.
If Western culture was alive and well, if Americans were totally united in their belief in Western culture, foreign terrorist could be much more easily thwarted. As it now stands, they are counting on America's lack of cultural unity to make it vulnerable to attack.
Whether a person is for or against George Bush, few could deny that he has been the epitome of action since 9/11. Nothing happens until something moves, and the U.S. moved swiftly against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. If action is the causation of change, then Afghanistan is the poster child for the definition of action. Likewise, people may disagree on whether the U.S. should have invaded Iraq, but, with Saddam out of power, can anyone deny that Bush's action brought about monumental change in that country?
What are the prospects now for "Restoring the American Dream" (to borrow the title of your book on libertarianism)?
The so-called American Dream, as I define it, can never be restored, because we've gone way too far down the socialist road. People are spoiled to the point of always expecting more, not less. That's why Republicans, no matter how well meaning they may be, spend so much time trying to convince voters that they're better at redistributing wealth than their Democratic rivals. Again, this is a subject about which I wrote a whole book, so it can't be addressed in a few sentences in an interview.
It seems you are optimistic about the ability to make changes in one's personal life, but pessimistic about improving the prospects for liberty in one's society. If ideas really do have consequences and the ideas of liberty are powerful and true, isn't there basis for hope? Isn't it possible with the right cultural-political pushes to achieve dramatic advances, culturally and politically, even if we can't expect to achieve perfect freedom?
Yes, it is possible to achieve advances, because the nature of life is for the pendulum to swing back and forth between freedom and equality. After seventy years of "equality" in the old Soviet Union, the pendulum finally swung in the other direction. But the kind of freedom we once knew in America is now beyond our grasp. What happened in the first 150 years or so of this country was an anomalytough, hard-working, self-sufficient people coming across an ocean to develop an unknown land.
That required an individualistic mindset that no longer exists. From cradle to grave, people are now led to believe that their desires are rights, and that it's up to the government to fulfill those rights at the expense of others. Metaphorically speaking, the moral toothpaste is out of the tube, and there's no way to get it back in. That's why, on the financial issues that matter most to people, Democrats and Republicans sound pretty much alike. I think H.L. Mencken summed it up perfectly when he described an election as "an advance auction of stolen goods."
You've told a lot of war stories in your booksof mistakes, obstacles, triumphs. I tend to remember the one in Winning Through Intimidation about your Briefcase Addresshow you were willing to walk out on a big real estate deal rather accept a "commissiondectomy." Both buyer and seller yelled "Wait!" as you were almost out the door. And you got your full commission. Do you have a favorite war story of your own?
Well, now that you've mentioned the historic Tortoise Briefcase Address, I might be inclined to label it my favorite, as well. That one is especially dear to my heart because it ended in a spectacularly successful fashion.
When it comes to negative endings, I love telling the story I wrote about in Action! about how I spent two years writing a 650-page Microsoft Word reference guide. It was based on Word 95, and it took me so long to write it that by the time I was finished, Microsoft had already moved on to Word 97, so the reference guide was stillborn.
But what I like best about this story is that I turned a seeming defeat into a great asset, because, as a result of my two years of researching the Microsoft Word program, I became a world-class Microsoft Word user. And since I spend many hours a day in front of a computer, mostly using Microsoft Word, my in-depth knowledge of the program tempts me to say that I would do it all over again even if I knew I wasn't going to sell a single copy of the reference guide. I can perform most functions using keyboard strokes before a good Microsoft Word operator can even get his/her hand on the mouse.
What will your next book be about?
I don't know yet. I have long wanted to write a book about the best-kept secret of the American school systemthat bullying of innocent children is almost 100 percent teacher inspired. It would be an explosive book, and would surely cause a great deal of anger among one of the nastiest, most militant, most vocal lobbying groups in the countryteachers. But right now I would guess that this book is probably down the road a bit. If so, I will almost feel guilty putting it off, knowing that so many millions of children are being brutalized in schools all around the country. A good start to solving this insidious problem would be to quadruple the salaries of teachers, then fire 90+ percent of the existing teachers and hire much higher quality people who might otherwise become doctors, lawyers, or engineers. When you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.
Would you ever write a formal autobiography?
No, because I could never do it unless I was committed to tell all, and that would hurt too many people and make many others angry. My ego doesn't require me to make certain that every detail of my life is made public before I die. I am perfectly satisfied just helping people through my writing and speaking.
Burt Dubin, creator of the Speaking Success System, says about Action!: "Once I started reading, I could hardly put it down. I feel it to be a modern day masterpiece." He says it is "packed with wisdom" and "a magnificent guide for living during these turbulent times." Is he correct?
I hope so. Comments like his are why I write books. There are a ton of pop-psyche books that have been bestsellers because of masterful marketing, but they've had no long-term impact on readers. And to me, having a lasting impact on the reader is what writing nonfiction is all about.
If a person is to have any hope of finding happiness in life, what is the one thing he must do?
I guess I would have to give the nod to having a meaningful purpose. A powerful, meaningful purpose to one's life leads to continual, bold action, and the happiest people I've known are those who are action-oriented.
Thank you, Robert Ringer.