Max Lucado is a best-selling author who has written almost 100 books & has over 130 million copies in print. He shares how to become a genuinely happy person, how he landed a book deal after 14 rejections from publishers, his process for writing, & more
All right, for those of you who listen to this show on a daily basis, the show might sound a little bit different today. And that is because, well, the studio, the Camp Clark and Chicken Palace, ThriveTime Show studio at the Camp Clark and Chicken Palace, where I live, is currently under water. You see, we had flash floods that hit Tulsa, Oklahoma. And it’s a crazy deal, but I found out that about four feet of water mixed with equipment doesn’t work very well. I found out that Apple computers and microphones can be fascinating flotation devices that don’t float, so they’re sinking devices, but they’re paperweights, but the show must go on.
So here we are at 3:28 in the morning. We’re about 30 minutes into editing today’s podcast. And I can tell you what, there’s only so much you can do with canned air and backup equipment. So you might hear some, audio faux pas, but today’s guest is absolutely great. His name is Max Lucado, and he is a bestselling author of over 50 books. And on today’s show, he’s going to share with us how he landed his first book deal after 14 rejections with publishers.
Oh, come on. Who let the wookiees in here? I know this is a backup studio, but we have to have a new rule. No wookiees in the studio.
On today’s show, Max Lucado shares his process, or as the Canadians would say, his process for writing his books, how he gained traction with his literary career, and much, much more. Oh yeah. And by the way, he just wrote a new book on how to become a genuinely happy person when you’re pushing through adversity, which reminds me of us right now. How could you possibly be a happy person at 3:29 in the morning after you’ve been up for a full hour, and you only slept three or four hours the day before, and all of your gear’s destroyed and your basement’s destroyed?
The question I would have for you is: Are you a happy person if you’re only happy when things are going good, because that’s the real test, right? Because yesterday was a complete disaster. But yet the show goes on and you deserve the absolute best quality content possible, check, you deserve for your host to show up nine days a week, check, and you deserve good audio quality. Let me get that canned air. No, not checked, but we are working on it.
Everything’s under control. Situation normal.
It’s like weapons malfunction, but everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now. Thank you. How are you?
Max Lucado, welcome onto the show. How are you, sir?
I’m doing super. I really am, thank you. It’s a great honor to be on the broadcast.
Well, I know you’ve had a lot of success in your career, and a lot of our listeners have read your books or know of your books. Could you tell us about the bottom or the very beginning of your career? What was your life like growing up, and how did that impact who you’ve become today?
Well, I grew up in really a delightful small town in West Texas, and I’ve come to appreciate that it was a real simple yet wholesome upbringing. My father was a mechanic for Exxon Mobil, and wherever there was oil, we had the potential of living. We were not in the super wealthy oil part, we were on the blue collar part. He was a pipeliner and a mechanic, but stable income and a stable family. And it was a happy upbringing.
I was not a respectful teenager. I was a heavy drinker, very rowdy, a brawler. And only when I was 20, when I was in college, did somebody convince me that God loves me, and that Christ could forgive me, and that there’s something more to life than this life. And when I tossed my hat in the ring and said yes, it really did. It was a pretty miraculous transaction.
I soon thereafter decided I wanted to be a missionary, initially my thought was I wanted to be a missionary, and so I trained for that. I went to seminary for that. I ended up in Brazil in 1983 and served in Brazil until 1988.
While I was in Brazil, I started writing, and I’ve always loved reading, but I never had tried writing, but I took a stab at it, mainly, because, it sounds crazy, but I had time on my hands, because I was learning the Portuguese language, and there wasn’t a whole lot I could do. I would go to Portuguese for four to six hours a day, but that’s about all a brain can take. And so I had time on my hands, and so I began writing, and submitted a book to be published, and that one got published, and then I had another idea for a second and a third.
By the time 1988 came around, I had realized that I wanted to write and preach. And so I returned to the United States. There was a church and in San Antonio, Texas, looking for a pastor, they took a chance on me, and I’ve been here ever since. And so we’ve raised our family in San Antonio. I’m semiretired now from the church. I’ve been in ministry for 40 years, I’ve been at this church for 30, but I’m no longer in charge of the staff, which causes a lot of hallelujahs coming from my heart. But I do get to preach about 20 or 25 times a year at the church.
And so, it’s been great. It’s just been a delight. I’m very, very blessed.
There are so many listeners that listen to this podcast very consistently who’ve reached out and said they want to become an author, or some of which who have become authors. They’ve actually written books, many pastors in fact, who’ve written books. What do you attribute the traction of your books, or when did you first began to gain traction with your books?
I think there’s a practical answer and there’s a spiritual answer, and the spiritual answer needs to be said, but I won’t spend a lot of time on it. The fact of the matter is, God just said, “I think I’ll use Lucado to write books.” It’s just simply that sovereign, because I really did not set out to be a writer.
I do think there’s practical things, though, that I came across that really helped me. One of them is that I write books for people who don’t to read books. I don’t write academic books. I don’t write technical books. I don’t try to take on minute doctrinal details. I think about people who don’t really have time or a desire to read many books, and I try to take a big idea and put it right where they have access to it. And that, to me, has really been a game changer.
Somebody the other day sent me a question. They had written a book and somebody had said, “You need to figure out who your audience is,” and that really puzzled that young writer. She said, “What do you mean, I have to know my audience?” And I agreed. I wrote back and I said, “I agree with the person who said it.” You got to figure out if you’re talking to academic people, if you’re talking to people who are very well read, or if you’re talking to truck drivers. As for me, I talk to people who don’t read books.
And so I would encourage people who want to write, figure out who your audience is, just lock in. Are you writing for teenagers? Are you writing for the elderly? Are you writing for people who are depressed? Are you writing for people who need to be motivated to do better at work? Figure out who your audience is.
So that’s number one. And then number two, and I’ll just give two, because I could talk about this a lot. Really, I could talk. Number two is that good writing is hard work, but it’s worth it. Good writing is hard work. It really is. I keep a little framed quote. I can see it right here. I’m in my office, I can see it. And it says, “Do you want to write? Then put your butt in that chair and sit there a long, long time.” And that’s really what it is. Good writing is hard. It’s just anything else. If you want to do well at it, it’s going to take hundreds of rewrites. My chapters go through at least 100, maybe 150 rewrites. It just takes a lot of work.
And I think that might surprise people, because a good book, when you read it, you say, “Oh, this reads so easily.” Or you could say the same about a painting. You look at the painting and say, “It’s just so beautiful.” Well, I cannot paint, but I know that artist painstakingly labored over every brushstroke to get it just right. And you and your broadcast, you can’t just flip the microphone and have a great broadcast. You’re inspired by God to do this, but you come in prepared, you’ve thought it through, you’ve got some questions. I looked at the questions you wrote out for this interview. It’s thorough. You thought through everything. And that’s what makes your program so great.
And so I think just those two thoughts, those two thoughts. Figure out who your audience is, and then be ready to roll up your sleeves and put in the work. And I think that the result will be some good books.
Now, Max, we all know you’re a titan of the book world now. But going back to the first book you wrote, I’m curious, when did you start to get some traction? Was it a couple of books later? Was it your first book, did it get traction right off the bat? What did that look for you?
Well, it was really slow initially. I had no expectations, however, so I wasn’t disappointed. I might mention that it took 14 times for me to get published. I submitted my manuscript to 14 publishers, and the 15th one said yes. So I got 14 rejections, and then the 15th one said yes. And then that book never really took off.
But the second book I wrote fell onto the desk, somehow, of a well known writer and pastor named Charles Swindoll or Chuck Swindoll. And he really took a liking to the book. And he mentioned it on his radio program, and he used it as a premium to send out to people who made donations to his radio program. And so that’s really when I began getting some traction. When somebody of his caliber, and who is so well trusted and known, gives you an endorsement, that then began to blow wind in my sails.
And then I just kept writing. I think about some writers, like the Left Behind series that’s sold tens of millions, our good friend Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Life, I may be wrong, but I think I read it sold 10 or 12 million copies. It’s just stunning, stunning. Maybe even more. I don’t have anything that’s sold a million copies, but what I have done is I’ve just done a lot of writing. I’ve got 50 books out. Some people are called to write two or three really powerful books, and some of us are just like the Studebakers. We just show up, and we’re not fancy, but we just keep stepping up and trying to get on base. And that’s been my philosophy.
Now, Max Lucado, I understand that you have, I mean, throughout your career, when I was doing research for you, you have different books that have been re-released, but how many books have you actually written? Is it 52, 53? What’s the total number of books that you’ve actually written throughout your career?
It all depends on what qualifies as a book. I’ve written about 43, what we could call adult nonfiction books. And these are the books that are my bread and butter. I write one of those a year. And those are books based usually on a passage of scripture or a section of scripture or a theme in scripture. And then I’ve written a lot of children’s books. I don’t even know how many, but I’ve written 40 or 50 of children’s books. And those are so much fun to write that I almost feel they’re cheating. I can write one usually in a day or so if I get an idea or even less, and they’re just fun. And the hard work in children’s books is finding the right illustrator and the publisher does that. I’ve tried my hand at some fiction. I don’t think I’m a great fiction writer. I’ve written three fiction books, but I’ve tried my hand at it and I think I’ll try again at some point. And then there is a whole other genre of gift books, compilation books, and I try not to include those on the list because those are simply the existing material that’s been either recycled or reconfigured or reorganized and used as a gift book or a special occasion book.
Max, you’ve written so many books throughout your career. Can you tell us about your new book, How Happiness Happens, and what first inspired you to write this book?
I am really and genuinely excited about this book. I know you were supposed to say that in every book, but this was a fun book to write, and the people who’ve already read it are having a lot of fun talking about it, and I’m having a blast talking about it because everybody wants to be happy. And the truth of the matter is most people are not. One survey said that two out of three people in America do not self-describe as happy. That is sad, isn’t it? I didn’t mean to be funny there, but it is sad that we’re so unhappy. And that really struck me, that research, and so I set about the task of, first of all, trying to determine if that was true and number two why it’s true and number three what can be done about it. And it is true. Many surveys are revealing that this is a very unhappy society in which we live and we’re paying a high price for it, relationship wise, productivity wise, health wise, and even financial wise. We’re not better people when we’re unhappy. That doesn’t surprise us.
And so then I began digging into why that is, and the book, I try to unpack that in the first chapter, but most of all, I’m excited about at least the strategy that I’m suggesting, and that is that we really are happiest when we make other people happy. That happiness happens when we make other people happy. And in the book I try to unpack the one another verses in the Bible that encourage us to think about others more than we think about ourselves, to forgive one another, serve one another, teach one another, encourage one another. I selected 10 of them. I think there’s over 50 one other verses in the new Testament, and just challenged people to try to lead a life in which you’re really trying to make other people happy, and you’ll be surprised how happy you are as a result.
Max Lucado, in a world that is searching perpetually for happiness, whether that be through social media, new food, vacation, new cars, new girlfriend, new, new, new. How do you find lasting and fulfilling joy? What tips would you have for our listeners to find lasting and fulfilling happiness?
What a great question. I think two things. We’ve got to have the right definition of happiness, and then we have the right strategy. The definition of happiness that resonates with me is something like this: A deeply rooted sense of contentment that does not depend upon circumstance. A deeply rooted sense of contentment that does not depend upon circumstance. As long as my happiness depends upon my circumstance, then I’m not going to be happy. As you well know, storms come..
Yes, they do.
Challenges come your way and we get flooded. It’s going to happen. But we can be content even in the midst of those, because we have a joy that does not depend upon everything going our way.
Now, the reason, I think, that so many people are unhappy, is because we are all under constant attack by a multi billion dollar marketing campaign that exists to tell me that I will not be happy unless I make a certain purchase or make a certain decision. A good example of this, I went home today to grab some lunch and turned on the television, turned on ESPN to see the scores from last night’s games. There was a commercial break. And before I could see the scores, I had been told that I need to do something about my balding here, I need to drive a different make of car, and then, I don’t know how to put this tactfully, but that since I’m getting old, if I want to be the kind of man my wife wants me to be, I need to take some supplements.
So within 90 seconds, I was told that my hair’s too thin, my car is out of date and that I’m too old. Now, that that struck me, because I’m in the middle of talking about happiness and about what’s going on in the marketing world. Otherwise, it probably wouldn’t have dawned on me, but the fact of the matter is, in order for somebody to sell me their product, they’ve got to convince me that I’m deficient without it. Consequently, all day long, you’re being told you don’t have enough, you don’t drive enough, you haven’t earned enough, and as a result, the subliminal message is if you’ll do this, you’ll be happy.
And so it gets me on that that merry-go-round of trying to be happy, and we never quite find it. Okay. Now that’s always been true. That’s been true since the Garden of Eden. But it’s especially true right now, because we are bombarded with this multi billion dollar, highly sophisticated marketing engine that comes at us through television, through media, and especially through social media, telling me that I need more in order to be happy.
So I need a strategy. I’ve got to say, “Okay, I’m not going to let them convince me. I’m going to put my happiness in my identity with God, God loves me. And I’m going to find happiness by giving it away, not by expecting others to give it to me.”
Now, you’ve been in ministry a long time, so you can correct me if I’m wrong here, but I know you’ve taken some strong biblical stances in your career, and I’m going to assume that you’ve taken heat from both the secular and religious world having served as long in ministry. So when you’re trying to give happiness to other people, have there been times where you feel you can’t make everybody happy, and the difference between serving others and trying to make them happy, and like you said, relying on your identity in Christ, can you talk about walking through those kinds of moments where you’re trying to provide happiness to others, but it seems you’re just getting attacked from all sides?
It is the oddest thing, isn’t it, that if we get 10 statements in response to what we do, and nine of them are positive, but one of them is negative, we’ll remember that negative one. It’s just a crazy thing. And I wish I could say I’ve matured out of that, but it happens. If I preach a sermon and 10 people come up and have something to say to me about it, and nine of them are gushing and wonderful and it’s just great things, and then somebody comes up and says, “You didn’t really study hard, did you?” Or something tacky that. I will go to sleep that night thinking about that one comment.
So we’ve just got to decide. We’ve just got to decide that not even God makes everybody happy, and in ministry, that’s especially the case. We’re just not going to make people happy. And that’s not our job. When I say making other people happy, I’m not talking about pleasing them. I’m talking about taking an attitude of serving them, trying to prove their life in a genuine fashion. And I can do that. I can’t make everybody happy with me, but hopefully I can make them happier in their life.
Max, you’re writing some books that make a lot of people happy, and I want to know the secret sauce. I want to know where are you physically located when you’re writing these books? Are you writing the books outside overlooking a cliff, a ravine, trees? Are you in a sauna, writing in the sauna? Where are you writing your books?
You’re funny. Well, like I say, good writing is hard work. It really is. I’m in my office when I write. I for years had an office at the church building, but I’m like a lot of other people these days, a office at home now. All of my books begin as sermons. And so I will take a sermon series that’s usually in our church, 14 or 15 weeks’ worth of sermons, and if it seems to resonate with the church, then I will go to the publisher and I’ll say, “Hey, I just finished this sermon series on happiness. Would you be interested in it?” And they’ll say, “Well, what’s it about?” And I’ll draft up a little proposal. Sometimes I’ll write it up. Most of the time it’s just over the phone, I’ll tell them and they’ll say, “Yeah, let’s give it a go.”
And so I’ll set about the task of writing it, and I’ll take about two or three months to turn those sermons into a book. And then I’ll send that first manuscript to my editor. And I’ve had the same editor now since 1987. And she will take that manuscript and she’ll beat it up. I finished a manuscript, not the book we’re talking about right now, but a book for next year. I finished it up about two or three weeks ago, and she’d looked at the first draft of the manuscript. And you know what her first response was? The first line in her email was, “Max, this is a long way from being a good book.”
And, I mean, she just tore into me. But that’s her job, and I think it’s a better book because she’s that honest with me.
And so then we’ll be back and forth with it for about three or four months, and eventually she’ll come to San Antonio, and so will somebody from the publishing house and we’ll sit down and we’ll read the manuscript out loud. It takes us two or three days to read it together out loud in a room. And then only when all of us have signed off on each chapter do we move on to the next chapter. And then I’m finished.
So all told, it takes me about a year to preach a sermon series and then turn that sermon series into a book.
Now, how many times do you typically make edits to the manuscript before you’re ready to print a book? I mean, is this something where you’re spending hundreds of hours editing? Is this something where you’re spending a just 24 hours, 36 hours? If you had to estimate, I mean, how many hours … I think there’s a lot of listeners out there who want to write a book and they want to edit it twice and then be done. Tell us about that process.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, for me, on the conservative side, would be 60 rewrites for a book. I just go over it and I go over and I go over it. And I think, at least for me, some people can write really well the first few drafts. For me, I just have to keep working on it and just keep working on it.
Ernest Hemingway, according to the story, wrote and rewrote The Old Man and the Sea 365 times, whether that’s just what you’re told in creative writing classes, but that his process was that he would rewrite the entire book every time, that he was sit down and rewrite it and rewrite and rewrite it. And for me, I’ve got to do that. Now, some people this doesn’t take that much. I’ve never finished a book, I’ve just run out of time, because you can always rewrite it. You can always be better. And I’ve never read one of my books because I know if I’ll read it, I’ll say, “Oh man, I should’ve said that better.” So it’s futile for me to read it. But yeah, I think rewriting is really essential to good writing.
There’s somebody out there listening to our show who’s going, “Okay, you’ve got Max Lucado on the show. Clay, ask them the crazy questions. And I’ve talked to your people and I can’t ask you the crazy questions, but I do want to ask you about some of these idiosyncrasies. We’ve interviewed so many super successful people, Wolfgang Puck and John Maxwell, we’ve read about so many successful people and broken down their lives, and we all know that Steve Jobs wore the same thing every day, Zuckerberg likes to wear the same thing every day. We know Wolfgang Puck has this insane work ethic. Do you have an idiosyncrasy that you or that you believe to be your superpower? Is it your good looks? What is your idiosyncrasy?
Well, I surely don’t land in the same level of the people you’ve just described, first of all. But I do have a terrible fear of failure, just to be honest. I just cannot bear the thought of letting somebody down that’s counting on me. That will keep me up at night. And that can be a blessing, and it can be a real burden. I’ve got to be very careful. I let my identity be caught up in my success or in how many books have sold or how large or how small or, I mean how effective our church is, but it’s been a battle through the years, and I’ve prayed, it’s my thorn in the flesh. It’s something about which I’ve prayed, for whatever reason, I continue to battle it. I compare myself to other people, I shouldn’t do that. And yet, at the same time, I think that weakness of mine drives me to really work hard, and makes me want to do well at what I do. I think that it has generated some … we’re talking about rewriting. That’s where that comes from. I want to make sure I’ve got it right. [crosstalk 00:29:33] giving it my best effort.
I have a book idea for you. Feel free to reject it here, but do you know John Maxwell?
Oh yes. Yes.
I was thinking maybe if you wrote a book, and again, this probably wouldn’t help you with the whole comparison thing, but what if you wrote 22 Super Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, the Max Lucado version? What about that? Could you do that? [crosstalk 00:29:54] Puff Daddy remixes songs from the ’80s [crosstalk 00:29:58] yeah, you could just do 22 and then the next year he’ll do 23, and you’ll do 24, and pretty soon you’ve just rewritten the whole Bible. You can rewrite Proverbs together.
That’s funny. You talk about a guy who’s productive and prolific. John, where does he get his energy? He’s just nonstop.
Max, following up on what you just talked about a little bit. You told us your editor has that relationship where she can speak truth to your manuscript and really help you in that area. As someone who’s experienced a lot of success, is there someone in your life that reminds you to be humble or builds you up when you’re feeling down, and is there someone that you rely on that speak truth into your life when you sway too far either way, either they need to bring them back down to earth a little bit, or you have that thorn in the flesh and you’re like, hey, build you back up, build you up to remind you what your worth is?
Yeah. The fleshly part of Max Lucado is so still prevalent, that it seems to be God’s way of reminding me not to get too high on myself. I wish I could say that I don’t have struggles, or the temptations that others have. But I was well on my way to alcoholism by the time I was 20. My brother died of alcoholism. I have a family tree that is blighted with battles with alcohol. And I’ve struggled with that in my life. I’ve had to really be careful. I’ve had to swear off any alcohol for years and years. And now I allow myself wine, but I have to be careful because I can just sense that there’s something inside of me that that is not satisfied with just one glass or two. And here I’ve been in ministry for 40 years. I would think that a person might think, “Well, he should beyond that.” I have that same thought. I think I should be beyond that too. But it’s still there.
I have filters on every smart device and computer I own. When I check into a hotel room, the first thing I do is tell them to turn off any adult movies. I don’t trust myself. I don’t trust myself to be alone just a few clicks away from what I should not see. Again, somebody could say, “Boy, Lucado, you’ve got a beautiful wife, you’ve got a great marriage, but you’re still tempted in that way? You ought to be beyond that.” Yeah. Maybe I should.
But I say all that to say somehow I’ve not really struggled with feeling like I’m really that great. Maybe that even sounds bad. I don’t know. But I don’t have to be convinced that I’m a sinner. You don’t have to convince me. I’m still genuinely surprised that people would listen to me preach or read what I have to say. I really am. Yes, I have some friends who speak honestly to me, but they don’t speak any more honestly than I speak to myself. And just that awareness, I think, has helped me to keep my feet on the ground. I don’t know. I rambled on that answer. I hope there’s something in there worth hearing.
We found your super power. It’s humility.
You know what? Max, also, I’ll tell you this. You sound you’re smelling terrific tonight. You just sound you’re smelling terrific. That’s just something I want to throw out there. There’s no proof of that, I don’t think, but okay.
Now, I want to ask you this. My final question I want to ask you, because I think this is powerful. All of our listeners, let’s say you had opportunity to meet with you one-on-one, and so you’re meeting one listener and then two and three, pretty senior guys, there was like 500,000 people wanting to meet you one-on-one and so you’d say, “Okay, okay, here’s the deal. I’m going to send you guys all a text message with my one piece of advice. Here we go.” And it can be a long text, it can be multiple texts. There’s no limit on the characters here, but if you could just share one piece of advice with all the listeners, one just core principle that you feel everybody needs to know, what is the number one piece of advice that you wish you could teach all of our listeners?
I think I would say be kind to yourself. Most of us are our own harshest critics. We’re hard on ourselves. We carry a lot of guilt and a lot of regrets. But if God can love us in spite of all of our mistakes, can we not learn to, in a good way, love ourselves. We don’t need to worship ourselves, but we can be grateful for who we are. And so I catch myself saying that a lot to people at church when I’m visiting, I’ll say, “Just be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up so much.” Maybe I should write a book called Be Kind to Yourself.
Yeah. For sure. For sure. In that book, you can provide tips for looking so handsome here. I mean, you’re the one making me unhappy. I’m not looking at any commercial. I look at you and I feel bad about myself. You look great. Are you eating fish oil? Are you drinking fish oil or you eat organic? What are you doing?
Say that again three times and then stop.
How much kale are you? Are u just 100% kale at this point. What are you doing?
Well, you know the hamburgers in Texas are not nearly as fattening as everywhere else in the world.
This just in. I did not know that.
Max, we thank you so much for being on today’s show. We’re going to buy a copy of How Happiness Happens right now, because we want you to see the verified Amazon review, right there. We’re going to get another copy of the book and leave you a review right now. We thank you so much and hope you have a wonderful rest of your evening.
Well, you’ve been more than kind, both of you, and thank you so much. It’s a great honor to be on the program with you.
Whether we are broadcasting from Camp Clark and Chicken Palace or from a backup studio, or from the chicken coop, we always to end each and every show with a boom, but before we do that, I want to encourage you, I want to encourage you to go to thrivetimeshow.com, and to book your tickets to attend our next in-person ThriveTime Show business conferences. At these business conferences, we teach branding, marketing, sales, accounting, customer service, everything you need to know to make that business grow can all be learned at the ThriveTime Show business conferences. If you want to learn more about it, go to thrivetimeshow.com and click on the “Conferences” button. Again, go to thrivetimeshow.com and click on the “Conferences” button, or just Google “ThriveTime Show conference reviews.” I think we have over 1000. I know we have over 1000 video reviews right now, over 600 Google reviews, thousands of iTunes reviews. It’s all out there transparently for the world to see, both the people that like us and those that don’t. But if you want to take your business to the next level, don’t be a stranger and book your tickets to the next in-person ThriveTime Show business conferences.
And now without any further ado: Three, two, one, boom.