A broke guy wrote a book on how to handle money. That is a dumb idea. I didn’t have any knowledge of how to write a book, and I’m sure the grammar made people wonder if I actually knew the English language. That is a dumb idea. I typeset the book on Works for Windows and used a new feature called Clip Art to decorate my masterpiece. That is a dumb idea. A sweet lady from our church did the book cover art—she had never designed a book cover. That is a dumb idea.
I knew a guy who knew a guy who once got his book published. I asked if he’d get lunch with me and explain how I could get my book published. We went to this cool little place in the hip part of town because I wanted him to think I was cool or hip or something. He explained that no one gets their books published. But I talked him into talking to his friend who could talk to a publisher. I know this is shocking to you, but the publisher said they did not want to publish my book. They actually laughed at my pitiful attempt to self-publish. I was devastated. It hurt my feelings. And I wondered if they were right. Actually, they were right. This was a money book written by a broke guy, typeset by that same broke guy, and poorly designed by a sweet church lady.
Because I am not smart enough to take no for an answer, I wrote a proposal to the publisher offering to sell them my book for a $12,000 advance. They laughed again—this time harder.
Apparently, they were not going to publish or sell my book. So I went to a bookstore in my town to see if they would buy a few copies for their shelves. They were not nice. A lady who needed to shave her upper lip explained that they only worked with publishers and distributors. I didn’t have either. This successful author thing was starting to look really hard—because it was . . . and is. Okay, I admit it, when I walked out of that bookstore, my lip was stuck out like a kid in a cereal aisle whose mom just said no.
On my way home, with 100% of the books I left home with, I stopped by the local VHS rental store in my neighborhood. You remember those? We used to drive to a store to rent a movie, forget to take it back on time, and pay late charges that made us wish we had just bought the movie. My friend Jimmy was so successful he had two of these stores and one was in my neighborhood. Well, I had bought these ugly plexiglass boxes at Sam’s and glued color copies of the book cover to them. This was my display and merchandising plan. That was a dumb idea. When I walked in with my not-so-professional display box and my no-publisher books, Jimmy started shaking his head before I even said a word. “I am in the video business, Dave. I don’t buy books.” Jimmy also needed to shave his upper lip—think Magnum, P.I. After I threatened to not rent movies from him or bring them back on time, Jimmy agreed to put my books on the counter. IF they sold, we would split the profits. My first distributor was secured. My no-publisher, sweet-church-lady-designed cover, self-typeset, bad-grammar book now had its first outlet: a video rental store. That is a dumb idea.
Since the book was about having no debt and cutting up your credit cards, I decided our local bank should buy them and give every single new account member a free copy. “Be the bank that really cares,” you know? That is a dumb idea. In Nashville at the time, one of the biggest banks was First American National Bank. They were a big deal. A really big deal. They were about the only bank that didn’t lose money on me when I filed for bankruptcy before I wrote this how-to-handle-money book. Get it?
I decided to do a full-court press on my great idea. Color copies were new in those days and computers that let you set the fonts were as well. I spent two long days creating a fake front-page article from our local newspaper The Tennessean. The headline read “First American Bank Adopts New Marketing Strategy.” The fake front-page article went on to say that the bank president Dennis Bartoff was breaking new ground in the banking world by giving copies of Financial Peace by local author Dave Ramsey to every new customer.
I had this headline and fake front-page article framed at a local frame shop. I carefully boxed it with several copies of my no-publisher book. We prayed over it and had the box delivered by courier to Mr. Bartoff’s office. In our city, Mr. Bartoff was a big deal. A really big deal. The strangest thing happened—he never called. So I called him. His secretary said he wasn’t available. So I called again. That is a dumb idea. Do you know what a restraining order is? He did not issue one, but I was on the bank security team’s watch list. That is a dumb idea. I know when he opened my box with my crazy idea, he must have laughed. I would have. I didn’t meet Mr. Bartoff until decades later. He did not need to shave his upper lip. It was fine.
I have had hundreds, if not thousands, of really dumb ideas. I kept waiting to be discovered by some big radio company, big publisher, or big deal of some kind—and it never happened. I kept waiting on the cavalry to come save the day. They never did. I kept thinking that getting noticed would be easy. It wasn’t. That was a dumb idea.
First American Bank got sold to some out-of-town bank that was a much bigger deal, and now nobody except old people like me even remember them. The building that Mr. Bartoff’s offices were in was foreclosed on and because it had asbestos—which is a biblical plague God left out of the Bible—it sold for pennies on the dollar.
And today? Banks all over the nation have paid millions of dollars to sponsor our high school curriculum Foundations in Personal Finance, which tells students to avoid debt and cut up their credit cards.
A New York publisher bought my Financial Peace book years later with an advance with so many zeros that this kid from Antioch, Tennessee, could not comprehend it. Taking $12,000 as an advance years earlier would have been a REALLY dumb idea. My no-publisher, sweet-church-lady-designed cover, self-typeset, bad-grammar book got a publisher, a new cover (we are now on our fourth cover), professional typesetting, and cleaned-up grammar. That money book by a broke guy with a lot of dumb ideas has sold over 2.5 million copies, and its big brother The Total Money Makeover has sold over 6 million copies.
When you are even slightly successful, folks tend to only look at the current you. They don’t know about all the rejection, embarrassingly dumb ideas, betrayals, and other bruises you’ve had as you’ve walked your journey.
Having met a few successful people and a few folks who haven’t gotten there yet, I am convinced that the gleaming mountain of success is not shiny at all. The folks I know who win are tough-minded folks. They are standing on top of all their mistakes, their dumb ideas, and the bruises from other folks. The shiny mountain is really a pile of garbage. The only difference is they are standing on it rather than buried under it. They kept going. They kept course-correcting. They do dumb things that make people laugh at them, and the next time they try to not be so funny.
It is possible that the greatest character trait of people who win is simply perseverance. They are usually not smarter. They usually don’t have higher IQs. They usually didn’t go to a fancy-schmancy school. They usually don’t have rich parents. They simply course-correct and never quit. I think that is you. You are going to be more than you ever dreamed. I think you have what it takes.
Some folks think it should be easy to win. That is a dumb idea.
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