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Motivational Speaker Series

Lisa Nichols taps into her sports roots and details recent health scare

The motivational leader held high school records in track and field, played softball and was a swimmer

The current social media landscape essentially has everyone wanting to top their followers’ posts or attract more followers with outlandish feats of fancy. In a world of ubiquitous characters, vying to “slay” or have that “fire” is a challenge in today’s society.

Such isn’t the case for author and motivational speaker Lisa Nichols, who states emphatically that her “truth and commitment is to authenticity,” regardless of any unchecked thumbs-up “like” buttons.

“For about 15 years, I’ve been in my own private health hell,” Nichols said. “I received six transfusions in four years and was diagnosed with the worst case of sleep apnea the medical professions had seen.”

Her weight was one culprit, at more than 225 pounds, and she was waking up 62 times in an hour most nights, using a sleep machine during her slumber.

Nichols’ prodigious story, for which she has become a famed and sought-after public speaker, unfolds as a single mother who at one point was unable to purchase diapers for her son but later becomes a highly profiled motivational speaker. Before balancing the tremendous highs and lows of “adulting,” the Compton, California, native held high school records as a triple-threat athlete. There is evidence of Nichols’ victories in the Hall of Fame at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, where she played basketball and softball and ran track.

Her narrative attracts a specific audience to consume the positive outlook transcribed in her motivational books, speeches and conferences. Celebrating 20 years of helping others “reach their next best season,” Nichols spoke openly about how she became known as the Michael Jordan of speaking and, as she describes, “the Phil Jackson of entrepreneurs.”

How did you become a motivational speaker?

I became a speaker because I was so depressed and needed help just getting my own oxygen back. I needed to rescue myself. I was broken, broken. In the early 1990s, I found myself knowing I could be better, do better, be more, but I didn’t know how to get there. If I could be honest with you, it just felt like every time I heard ‘you have a lot of potential,’ I wanted to meet my potential. I wanted to meet the person people kept saying I was going to become. I was a single mom on government assistance, and my son’s father went to prison before he was 1 year old. I didn’t know he was a criminal. I was standing in lines during the holidays, a couple of holidays, getting the free meals they had. So I found motivation because I needed my own inspiration.

What was the turning point in changing your life?

I began to read books so I can change my life and I’m functionally dyslexic, so it would take me three months to finish a book. People always ask, ‘What was the turnaround point?’ It was when I couldn’t buy my own child Pampers and I said, ‘What can I do?’ I started seeking knowledge I didn’t have. It was in books.

Was it hard to open up to the public about your 2015 doctor-advised weight loss surgery?

I couldn’t lose weight because my metabolism was suffering from severe sleep deprivation for years and I was over 200 pounds, so I was this Molotov cocktail. If you look at me four years ago, I carried my weight really well because I have an athletic build, broad shoulders, smaller waist, strong legs, so I didn’t carry like someone who is morbidly obese. My ego made me wait two years [to have the surgery] because I still didn’t want to do it that way. For months I was riddled with guilt because I knew at some point this has to be a public conversation and I wanted my privacy. I had to be more committed to the woman I was becoming, to my future. I didn’t have the surgery to lose weight. I had the surgery to save my life and see my son’s children be born. If I die, then I committed a conscious act of suicide because this doctor told me what I had to do. It takes six months to get approved with psychological tests, nutritional tests, all kinds of things to make sure your mindset is ready for surgery of that magnitude. They looked at my charts, numbers and condition and had me on the table for surgery in 30 days. That’s how severe it was.

How did being an athlete influence your life?

I ran track for 13 years. My high school record, for 330 low hurdles, was held for 18 years. Athletics saved my life. It literally taught me my discipline, my resolve, that I don’t even know what I have in me and the spirit of conditioning. I still lean on my athletic training to this day. That is in the fiber of my being! As a matter of fact, being an athlete is the reason why when I lost over 80 pounds my body went back to this athletic way of being with skin and muscle tone. The athlete in me has been fighting to get out. You have to know that sports was my safe haven. I did swim competitions for nine years and synchronized swimming for five years. I started when I was, like, 9 because my brilliant father knew if I was occupied after school, then I can’t get in trouble. Athletes run with athletes. That’s a gang, that’s a troop, that’s a community.

How does someone go about hitting a reset button? What steps do they need to take?

No. 1, begin to fill your tank back up, because most often if you’re hitting reset, your tank is either half empty or bone-dry. You’ve given away the energy you need. You’ve given away the hope and support you need. So often we give away what we need.

No. 2 is I would recommend you get in the mirror and do three sentences. I got in the mirror every day. I said, ‘Lisa, I’m proud of you’ and found something to be proud of myself for; ‘I forgive you for’ and found something to cut the shackles of blame, shame, guilt and regret for; and ‘I commit to you’ with a commitment to my future. I did this for like six months. I began to heal and then get excited. Give yourself seven different endings to each sentence. Do it no less than 28 days straight, and start tonight. Find seven different things to celebrate yourself for, and make seven different commitments to your future.

No. 3 is enrolling other people who are willing to be in the reset mood or who are already there. While you do things wonderfully alone, recognizing you don’t have to do them alone is one of the most breathtaking things in reset.

No. 4 is accountability. Try to get someone who is willing — a small group of people, not over nine and not under three — to hold you accountable to the woman, the man, you’re becoming. Set clear, concrete goals that are obtainable, bite-size and palatable.

No. 5 is celebrating yourself often. We are undercelebrated. We wait once a year on a birthday, and hopefully someone else celebrates us.

How do you remain undefeated?

I feed my body for the marathon, not the sprint. I don’t ever play for the first quarter; I’m always playing for the fourth quarter. Many people are playing for an immediate return. No, I’m working on the greater later. And the other thing: I will never, ever quit. When other people sit down, I’m still up. When they found a reason — it got too hard, too lonely, too scary and too judgmental — I’m still moving. Getting done is never an option. When I make a decision that we are going to get here, I don’t measure the decision based on what is in my path. I make the decision, then I move what is in my path out the way. This is undefeated. When I step into a room to make something happen, I don’t monitor my temperature based on the room’s temperature. I don’t come in as the thermometer and adjust my temperature accordingly — I step into the room as the thermostat, because ultimately I am a servant leader. I want my life to say she played full-out in service of guiding, leading and setting examples of how to do it a thousand times and how to press reset when necessary.