Earl Nightingale's Greatest Discovery

By Cook, Marie-Louise | Success, May 2009 | Go to article overview
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Earl Nightingale's Greatest Discovery

Cook, Marie-Louise, Success

Earl Nightingale's 17-year quest for the secret of success ended one night in 1950, when he came across a sentence in a book. To Nightingale, it was more than a string of words on a page--it was the answer to the question that had haunted him since childhood. "What makes the difference?" Why are some people well-off financially and others poor?

At 12, Nightingale's father had left the family. Nightingale was living in a government-issued tent in Long Beach, Calif., with his mother and two brothers. It was during the Great Depression, and like many thousands of families, the Nightingales would have been homeless if not for the help of the government's Works Progress Administration (WPA), which created 8 million jobs and redistributed food, clothing and housing to the poor.

The disparity between the lives of the haves and have-nots was vast, and it troubled Nightingale. "As a youngster, I didn't know anything about a sense of achievement, but I was all too aware of being poor," he says in his book Earl Nightingale's Greatest Discovery. "It didn't seem to bother the other kids, but it bothered me. What made it all the more exasperating to me, as a boy of 12, was to be poor in Southern California, where there seemed to be so many who were rich. ... I decided to find out why some people were rich while so very many of us were poor."

He asked, but no one seemed to know. "I made, what was to me, an astonishing discovery: The adults in our neighborhood didn't know anything at all. They were pitifully uneducated--driven by instinct, other-directed."

'Knowledge Is Everything'

Fortunately, his mother, Gladys "Honey" Nightingale, loved books, and she actively encouraged the same trait in her sons. When she wasn't working in a sewing factory or looking after them, she read. She told her sons, "Knowledge is everything; everything you want to know has been written down by someone." Encouraged, Nightingale went to the public library to find the book he was sure would explain the secret of success. After being told there was no single book that contained the information he wanted, Nightingale began to read, certain it had to be written somewhere.


Through reading books on religion, philosophy, history and psychology, he learned about "the importance of honesty, personal integrity and courage, and of believing in what is right and being willing to fight for it." But he still didn't have the answer to his seemingly simple question: What is the secret of success?

He spent 17 long years seeking the answer. During that time, he joined the Marines, was posted to Hawaii aboard the U.S.S. Arizona, and was one of the few hundred men who survived the battleship's bombing in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Nightingale described the chaos and tragedy of the attack: scrambling to battle stations as bombs crippled the ship, seeing friends killed amid shrapnel and flames, getting blown into the water by the concussion of a blast and finally making it safely to shore with help from a Marine officer.

Great Expectations

His experience left him with a conviction that he was spared for a reason, says his widow, Diana Nightingale. "He was a great believer in paying the price for what you wanted--whether that was personal freedom or the freedom of your country," she says. "He came home from the war with great expectations and went about the business of life.

"He was a man who really did live in the present. He felt the past served as an education and we should take what was valuable from it. He said the future wasn't promised to anyone and that you should live each day fully and to the best of your ability."

Toward the end of the war, Nightingale was posted back to the United States, working as an instructor at Camp Lejeune, N.C. While traveling near the base, he noticed a radio station under construction and volunteered to work weekends and evenings as an announcer, thinking it would be a useful skill to learn.

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