Dan Clark is a motivational speaker, leadership trainer and author of more than 20 books, including The Art of Significance: Achieving the Level Beyond Success, which focuses on his 12 Highest Universal Laws. He believes it is superficial to build careers and personal lives around amassing money, bigger houses and fancier job titles. He believes that many outwardly successful people feel empty without having a higher purpose and a path with more significance.
Clark is also a primary contributing author to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books. He has been the closing keynote speaker at the Million Dollar Round Table annual meeting, he has spoken at most of the major life insurance carriers’ events, and he was the keynote speaker for the third time at the National Association of Health Underwriters national convention in Austin, Texas, this year.
He accepted a scholarship in football and baseball to the University of Utah, where he majored in psychology. During a tackling drill, Clark cracked a vertebra in his neck and severed the axillary nerve in his right shoulder. He eventually recovered and was invited to speak to local high school kids about his recovery. Clark then was invited to speak for former first lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, beginning his long career as a motivational speaker.
Clark has earned the highest Certified Speaking Professional designation in the National Speakers Association, was inducted into the Professional Speakers Hall of Fame, and has been named one of the Top 10 Motivational Speakers in the World. Dan discusses his links to the insurance industry and why he thinks it is a noble profession, his flight to the edge of space in a U2 reconnaissance aircraft, what lessons he’s learned from the adversity he has faced, and why he believes in service and living in the moment.
Paul Feldman: You have had an interesting experience with the insurance industry. Can you share that?
Dan Clark: My dad started and owned his own insurance company, and my older brother owns his own insurance company as well. When my dad died, I was there the day the death benefit check was delivered to my sweet mother. I love this industry. I honor it. There’s no more noble profession than insurance. I say that everywhere because I’ve seen both sides. I understand the magnitude of the products and the impact your industry makes in the lives of families that no products outside of insurance can do.
Feldman: Tell us how The Art of Significance impacts those in the insurance industry.
Clark: I’m a storyteller. I don’t believe we remember the facts and figures. We remember the interpretation of the facts and figures. So let me tell you a quick story. I played American football for 13 years. And my buddy was drafted into the National Football League in the second round by the Philadelphia Eagles. And after two years with the Eagles, he’s traded to my Oakland Raiders. And after four years in the league playing in a Pro Bowl, one day he walks out of practice — quits — never to play again. Why? He loved being a football player, but he hated playing football.
He loved the celebrity perks and the fame and fortune. But because his inner voice and true purpose in life were misaligned with what he was doing, he would never enjoy a life of significance and he would die with his music still in him.
We need to do something with our life that makes a difference. You need to focus on doing what you need to do so that you live a life of significance.
Feldman: What is the difference between success and significance?
Clark: Success is about focusing in on the moment, which is not to be discounted. We have to be successful.
Let me give you an NFL example about focusing in the moment. Last year, the last four divisional championship games played in the National Football League all came down to the final play.
There’s not an actuary on the planet who could have predicted that. In one specific game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills, there were two amazing quarterbacks who have the ability to create that moment, which have that quiet mind that allows them to just focus in on what they can do right now: Patrick Mahomes for the Chiefs and Josh Allen for the Bills. Because of their ability to find that present moment and stay in that process, they collectively scored 25 points in the last two minutes of the game. Mind-boggling.
Bills go ahead. Chiefs go ahead. Bills go ahead. Chiefs go ahead. Bills go ahead. If you are living in the past, you’re never going to be able to rise to the occasion under the pressure.
You fall to the level of your training. If the quarterback is trying to focus on “I’ve got to score a touchdown! I’ve got to score a touchdown!”, he’s never going to be able to execute.
If he’s living in the past, thinking “Oh no, I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this. Why did I pick the most stressful job on the planet?”, then he will fail.
But he lives in the moment.
Had Patrick Mahomes and his 10 teammates not been able to focus in on the present moment and been successful right now to get what they want, they would have never been able to enjoy the significance of the winning to advance in the playoffs.
So, what we must understand is that you first must be successful before you can be significant. We can enjoy and create significance in our life so that we don’t die with our music still in us.
Feldman: How did you come up with the 12 Laws of Significance?
Clark: The backstory is that on Oct. 23, 2010, I was invited to soar to the edge of space in a U2 reconnaissance aircraft. I’ve given more than 350 speeches to the United States military. I’ve been downrange eight times in Iraq and Afghanistan firing up our troops. I honor and love our military, and I support their families. I volunteer and donate my time, my speeches, my talents, whatever I have.
I’m a Pentagon appointee serving with the National Civic Leaders Board of the United States Air Force. I’m in the halls of the Pentagon, and I’m walking down the hall and I run into Gen. Paul McGillicuddy, who had been the commander at Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama Air University.
He stops me. “Dan, I just got a new assignment. I’m the commander at Beale Air Force Base. Will you come and speak to our troops?” I said, “Absolutely. If you’ll give me a ride in a U2 reconnaissance aircraft.”
He says, “I can’t do that; you’re a civilian.” I said, “What?” He says, “Yeah. It will require a presidential signature.” I said, “OK, go get it.”
A couple of weeks later, he calls me and says, “I can’t believe we got [President] Obama to sign off on this.” So, for the next two months, I trained. I lost 37 pounds. I show up at Beale Air Force Base. I go through another full day of training.
So, I’m 70,000 feet above the Earth’s surface. You see two-thirds of the state of California; at 80,000 feet you see mapped outlines of America. And at 90,000 feet, you feel like you can reach out and touch the face of God. It was a spiritual experience I wish everyone could have.
And for five hours, I sat in the sounds of silence looking at the curvature of the Earth, gazing in the endless blackness of the universe pondering eternity and my place in it. I’m looking around thinking, “If we’re the only ones here, this sure is a lot of wasted space.”
In that environment, I became a curious student of astronomy. I became a curious student of how organized the Earth and the universe really are.
And when we landed, I started studying astrophysics. I interviewed astronomers. I read everything that I could get my hands on, including by Wernher von Braun, the father of NASA, and Leonhard Euler, whose 18th-century theorem allowed us to successfully bring the astronauts and their space capsules back through the atmosphere.
Over the next year, I quantified that there are only 12 highest universal laws (Obedience, Perseverance, Stretching, Trust, Truth, Winning, Doing Right, Harmony, Acceptance, Being Needed, Covenants, Forgiveness).
Feldman: One of my favorite parts of your book — and I’ve never heard it said just like this — is your first law: “Practice obedience beyond free will agency.” Can you talk about that?
Clark: Law No. 1 is Focus on Obedience. It’s learning the laws of the universe and then putting them into play to make our sojourn here and mortality on our earthly experience the easiest, the most meaningful path that we can walk as we live life from birth until we take our last breath.
For example, if you don’t obey the law of gravity and step off a 20-story building, you will die. So, obedience is the highest law in the universe because all other laws are governed by it.
We must use our free will agency to choose to obey and walk on higher ground. Otherwise, we will suffer the specific consequence of disobedience.
If we want to be the best version of ourselves personally, professionally we need to surround ourselves with people who choose to obey, who choose to be self-disciplined enough to wake up every morning with a routine focused in on service before self.
Some think “I can do whatever I want,” but, oh, no you can’t. We must choose to obey. We must use our free will agency to choose to obey and walk on higher ground. Otherwise, we will suffer the specific consequence of disobedience.
If I can take it one step further, to guarantee free will agency tests our obedience. To guarantee that we will always have a free will choice, the master organizer of the universe has given us an opposition in all things. We must have darkness to appreciate the light. We must have justice to appreciate mercy. We must have sickness to appreciate health.
We must have wisdom to appreciate knowledge because wisdom is the application, the practical application, of knowledge. We must have death to appreciate the sanctity of life.
And then because we’re human and we know we’re going to misuse our free will agency because of the opposition in all things, every person born into this world was born with an inherent ability to discern right from wrong, truth from error.
It will behoove us if we want to be the best version of ourselves personally, professionally to surround ourselves with people who choose to obey, who choose to step out of the crowd and walk on higher ground. People who choose to be self-disciplined enough to wake up every morning with a routine focused in on service before self.
Feldman: A big part of what you talk about in your book is how powerful having a true “why” drives a life of significance and success. Everyone thinks they have a why, but it’s usually not defined. What are some strategies to define your why, and how that should look?
Clark: What we have to do is simplify it. Make sure we can do it. The classic example is having a mission statement or a vision statement. Every company has one. The classic example of the simplified, straight-to-the-point purpose statement comes from The Walt Disney Company.
Their mission statement says, “Entertain, inform and inspire people,” essentially to make people happy. Bam. End of discussion. Let’s define what that means.
If you’re working at Disneyland or Disney World or an amusement park and your job is a groundskeeper, your job is to keep that amazing amusement park perfectly clean because it is the happiest place on Earth. And if you’re walking in the midst of trash, suddenly it’s no longer the happiest place on Earth.
Eliminate distractions. Why do you do what you do?
Let me share my own personal story. I played football for 13 years. One day in practice, the dream ended. We had a tackling drill. Coach blew the whistle. Two of us ran into each other at full speed. We slammed to the ground.
My right side was paralyzed, my arm dangled helplessly at my side. I couldn’t talk. Fast-forward: I recovered completely, but for 14 months I was paralyzed, physically and emotionally. When I was paralyzed, I lost my identity. I thought I was a football player when, in reality, football was just what I did. It’s not who I was as a man.
Every culture is created. Fortune 500 companies, family-owned business, an insurance agency — it does not matter. Every culture is created between the strongest belief — the highest expectation and the best behavior that the leader lives by — and the weakest belief — the lowest expectation and the worst behavior that the leader tolerates.
So, if you want to up level the culture in your organization, in your insurance agency, what we have to do is shrink the distance between the highest belief, highest expectation, best behavior and what we’re not willing to tolerate. And as we shrink that distance in our organizations, we create what I call a culture of significant partner leaders, where our “why” is bigger than our “why not” — where we hold ourselves accountable, where everybody leads, those with and without a title.
When I was paralyzed, I thought I hit rock bottom. But here’s what happens. Nobody ever hits rock bottom. We hit rock foundation. We hit rock belief. We hit the baseline core values on which we were raised. During COVID-19, what did we learn? Adversity introduces us to ourselves. No one will ever know how strong we are until being strong is our only choice. Is your current belief strong enough, deep enough, true enough to empower you to respond to rapid change? And if not, why not?
Feldman: What enabled you to deal with those challenges?
Clark: What took me so long to change? What took me so long to recover? What took me so long to recalibrate?
I was asking the wrong questions. I was asking the doctors how to get better when I should have been asking myself why I needed to get better. And once we answer why, figuring out the how to becomes clear and simple. We still have to do the hard things. We still must have the mindset on a daily basis to push ourselves intellectually, physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially to the next level.
We need to ask ourselves: Why do you do what you do? What is your true purpose?
And here’s how that happens. You have to understand the significance of making sure our own personal why aligns with the why of our agency, the why of our profession. And therefore, our why has to be bigger than our why not.
Feldman: I want to circle back on your family’s experience with life insurance, because it’s touching.
Clark: My dad owned an insurance company, and he died in 1990. Because of the financial advisor my dad had in his company, an insurance agent showed up at my mother’s doorstep after my dad’s death. The agent couldn’t fix the fact that my dad died. He couldn’t have taken away my dad’s six-and-a-half-year battle with cancer. But he could make sure that my mother could sustain her lifestyle, that she’s still would have enough money to stay in her home and invite her grandchildren, that she could keep my dad’s legacy of love and leadership alive.
To create an environment where she and my siblings and I could continue to tell the stories of my dad, my hero — horseman, legislator, Air Force officer, orator and extraordinary human being. That’s what this amazing insurance and financial advisory industry does for the world.