W. Clement Stone and the Success of PMA (Positive Mental Attitude)

By Gerhard Gschwandtner  •  February 2, 2010

No success story in this century eclipses that of W. Clement Stone the super-wealthy, self-educated insurance magnate, world famous author, founder of the life-changing PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) concept, lecturer, publisher and philanthropist. Here is the fascinating story of a man who built his own legend on a positive foundation with the inspiration from the Horatio Alger tales of the poor hero who went from poverty to wealth, from failure to success.

The Early Struggles

William Clement Stone wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

In fact, before young Stone was three his father died, leaving the family destitute from his gambling losses. By the age of six, Clem Stone was selling newspapers in Chicago to help his mother, who worked as a dressmaker.

At age 12, Stone read 50 Horatio Alger books during one summer vacation in the country. Deeply impressed with these rags to riches stories, he began to envision his own success. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be successful, he declared when I interviewed him recently.

During high school Stone began to learn a few lessons about selling insurance from his mother, who had realized by then that the demand for dressmaking was limited. She subsequently pawned her only two diamonds to get cash to buy an insurance agency in Detroit.

W. Clement Stone was a quick learner and soon he was making more money than his high school teachers. According to Stone, one day he had an argument with the principal who gave him a lecture about the money it was costing the city of Detroit to educate him. I’ll save the city the money, Stone decided. I quit.

After four years insurance sales experience, he established his own insurance agency with about $100. That humble investment would later turn into an international conglomerate and lead to Stone’s personal fortune of well over $500 million.

The Science Of Selling

Clem Stone’s fortune is squarely based on his ability to sell.

He recalls his first selling experience with delight. He explains that when he was six years old, he borrowed money to purchase Examiner news-papers to peddle on the streets of Chicago’s South Side. He quickly had to learn how to overcome fear through decisive action. When he entered a prosperous German restaurant, he quickly sold three papers before the owner pushed him out the front door. When the owner wasn’t looking, he swiftly went back in and sold another paper only to be shoved out again. Stone, ignoring the owner’s efforts to keep him out, entered a third time. The customers laughed and pleaded with the owner to let the kid stay. Stone used the lucky break to sell his entire supply to the amused patrons of the restaurant.

Necessity is a great motivator, explains Stone. I was motivated because I could not return those papers. I could not read them, I had to sell them. He added, I also began to learn how to have courage to go to places and sell where others are afraid to go.

At age 16, Stone applied for an insurance license to help his mother during the summer months in her agency. My sales instructions from my mother were to completely canvass the Dime Bank Building in Detroit from top to bottom. Stone recalls. To open the sales call his mother had instructed him to say, May I take a moment of your time? He worked the entire day and sold two policies.

A few days later he used his standard introduction with a sales manager who nearly shouted, Boy, as long as you live, never ask a man for his time. Take it! Stone learned quickly: So I took his time and sold him and his 26 salesman that day.

Although he had made substantial progress in selling insurance, Stone says he still had not licked the fear of opening doors. He realized that success is achieved by those who try, but he was still afraid. Then he found a great self-motivator. As he left one office, he would quickly remind himself to get into action with the sentence Do it now! Without hesitation, he would enter the next office. He gradually achieved control over his fears by polishing every facet of his sales presentation from the opening to the close. It was only in later years that he realized that this technique was based on a very sound psychological principle of Harvard’s Professor William James: The emotions, such as fear, are not always immediately subject to reason, but they are always immediately subject to action. When thoughts do not neutralize an undesirable emotion, action will.

After W. Clement Stone had opened his own insurance agency at age 20, he began hiring agents and worked hard to help them duplicate his successful selling methods. Stone recalls: I trained them as I would train an actor, word-for-word, exactly the way I would do it. Stone, a master sales trainer, left nothing to chance. He worked on every single detail of the sales presentation: How to hold the policy; when to raise the voice; when to speak rapidly. He even practiced standing up and leaving a hesitant prospect saying, Thanks, just the same. I’ll see you in six months.

Stone explains, If I could see it would take me too long to close a sale, I wouldn’t stay on. When my time limit was met, I wouldn’t argue. Instead, I would try to leave the prospect happy — even though I knew that if I argued long enough I would be able to sell him. Some unsold prospects were so surprised at Stone’s unexpected exit that they followed him, saying, You can’t do that to me. You come back and write that policy.

Even today, salespeople at Combined Insurance Company learn how to keep a smile in their voices, how to make eye contact at the appropriate time in the call and how to relax a customer with humor. Standard joke: Mrs. Prospect, we even pay if your heart is broken.

Stone soon realized that knowledge alone does not guarantee sales success. He explained with a twinkle in his eye, Knowledge is not power; it’s potential power. You may have the knowledge, you may know what to do, you may know how to do it, but you may not know how to motivate yourself to do it.

Stone’s incredible sales success appears to be a result of his can do spirit which he calls PMA (Positive Mental Attitude). He habitually translates negatives in selling into positives. For example, the term cold canvassing translates in his mind into Gold Canvassing. The logic is obvious. Sales-people with PMA can find gold by walking through an office building from top to bottom, knocking on doors with the vision of selling everyone inside.

The Real Keys To PMA

When I entered W. Clement Stone’s private office in his luxuriously appointed lake front home in Chicago, the mega-motivator briskly walked towards me, hand extended, flashing a warm, beaming smile. I politely asked, How are you today Mr. Stone? His answer burst forth, I am happy, I am healthy, I am terrific! The energy in his words left the air bouncing as if Mary Lou Retton had just performed a dozen somersaults.

After the first hour of the interview, I began to notice a pattern. Stone has a habit of punctuating his comments with enthusiastic shouts. For example, when he explained how Napoleon Hill influenced his life, he began to recollect, I gave the book Think and Grow Rich to each of my sales representatives and (here comes a sudden burst of energy, he begins to holler like a carnival announcer) BINGO! I hit the jackpot! Fantastic things began to happen.

I hid my surprise at the sudden increased intensity of voice and asked. What exactly happened? He replied, Many of my salesmen became supersalesmen. Sales and profits increased.

Stone is now back in his normal, animated raconteur style. I ask, Can you define PMA for me in greater detail? He explains, A Positive Mental Attitude is the right mental attitude in a given environment.

And what is the right attitude?

Well, it’s very simple, continues Stone, It is most often comprised of the plus characteristics, the virtues that have made America great, such as faith, integrity, hope, optimism, courage, initiative, generosity, tolerance, tact, kindness and good common sense.

The real value of PMA, however, according to Stone, lies in dealing with adversity. He leans forward, pointing his big Cuban cigar towards me, his eyes firmly locked with mine: Stop and think about it for a moment. Do you know of a single instance where any real achievement was made in your life that was not due to a problem facing you? (He pauses, waiting for my head to nod in agreement before he continues.) With every adversity, there is the seed of an equivalent or greater benefit. That’s the basis of PMA. You know you can tackle the problem and conquer it with PMA. With every victory over adversity, you grow in wisdom, stature and experience. You become a better, bigger, more successful person each time you meet a problem.

Stone senses that by now I am buying every single word he says, yet he follows up with more evidence: We have introduced PMA to the clergy, to schools and even to penal institutions. It works. Here in Illinois, in Cook County, we found that for every 100 prisoners released, 87 come back. When we had PMA instructors work in the prison system, our return rate was only 15%. In training people to help themselves, we clear the cobwebs of their thinking. For a moment, my mind gets preoccupied with the question, How come this man is 86 and does not show any sign of aging in his thinking? Then I remember Dr. Wayne Dyer’s words, Thoughts don’t age. I ask Stone about his future plans and he tells me with a straight face that he expects to live to 110.

W. Clement Stone readily admits that PMA did not only improve his business, but it also became a profitable arm of his conglomerate. Together with Napoleon Hill, he would organize lectures on The PMA Science of Success. Soon thousands would flock to Chicago hotels to hear W. Clement Stone and Napoleon Hill, along with guest speakers such as Earl Nightingale.

Stone reflects on his PMA speaking rallies: We taught individuals how to use their own minds in helping themselves and others to achieve worthwhile goals.

Stone and Hill estimated that 98 out of every 100 people who are dissatisfied with their world do not have a clear picture in their minds of the world they would like for themselves. Audio/video cassette courses like The Napoleon Hill Foundation The Master Key To Success can benefit individuals whose unfocused thinking keeps them from achieving the success they want. Stone explains: Think of it! Think of the people who drift aimlessly through life, dissatisfied, struggling against a great many things, but without a clear-cut goal.

In 1960 Stone and Hill collaborated on the bestseller, Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude (Prentice-Hall) which was translated into German, French, Portuguese and Japanese. Asked about the potential drawbacks of PMA, Stone readily admits that many people tend to forget the principles. They lose their inspiration. He explains, We realized that motivation inspiration to action is like a fire. The flames will be extinguished unless the fire is refueled.

An eternal optimist, W. Clement Stone turned the disadvantage into an advantage when he founded Success Unlimited magazine in 1954. Although Stone sold the magazine a few years ago, he still writes occasional editorials. His life’s mission is to keep the fires burning.

The Meaning Of Success

Mortimer Adler, renowned for his educational and intellectual leadership in this country, once commented, There is a great difference between having a good time and having a good life.

Stone has been a wise architect of his life. Although he readily admits to a great interest in money, he never loses sight of the satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from finding meaning through his service to others. Stone defines success as the process of setting a worthy goal and achieving it. A truly successful life, he adds, is one where you share your blessings with others. In 1962 he and his wife created the W. Clement and Jessie V. Stone Foundation. According to published reports, the foundation had contributed over $100 million to charitable causes by 1984.

But how did he go about choosing his positive life philosophy? Stone mentions Lloyd C. Douglas novel The Magnificent Obsession, which he read in one sitting, staying up into the wee hours. The message of the book is to develop an obsession, a magnificent obsession, to help others. To share yourself without expecting a reward, payment or commendation. And, above all else, keep your good turn a secret. Stone is convinced that if you do this, you will set in motion the powers of a universal law. Stone explains, When our attitude toward ourselves is big, and our attitude toward others is generous and merciful, we attract big and generous portions of success.

I asked Stone why so many people fail to hang on to their success and he replied, They lose it for many reasons. Some for wine, women and song. Others, because they have been successful in their own business and believe that they can be successful in some other business, too. They often lose it all because they don’t stick to that which they are successful at.

Stone, who has been married for over 65 years, changes the subject from business success to personal success. I don’t think that there is any greater environment for success and happiness than a happy marriage. I feel so sorry for those who don’t have a happy marriage.

I ask, How many children did you have? He answers, Three, two boys and one girl. One son is living. I dare to ask the inevitable, You lost a son and a daughter. How did you cope with the deep disappointment? Stone looks towards the ceiling saying, I thank the good Lord for all the years that I had with my Donna and I had with my Clem. Instead of expressing regrets, you just take the positive attitude and show how grateful you can be. Stone feels that his blessings were far beyond what any individual deserved or could ever expect.

As I listen to his wise words, I realize the startling differences between external riches and feeling rich on the inside. What makes W. Clement Stone so extraordinary is that he has found both.