Motivated to kick ass: Rory Vaden as a young kung fu 
Motivated to kick ass: Rory Vaden as a young kung fu student.

Lord of Discipline

Rory Vaden does not believe in luck. More than anything else, he believes in discipline. It's his mantra, his ethos, the single factor responsible for everything that he has achieved so far in his young life, and for everything that he will achieve. In a blog entry on, his site dedicated to "Empowering today's youth to achieve by exposing them to the laws and techniques of personal Discipline," Rory, a 24-year-old "motivational humorist," discusses success: "The reality is that you got to where you are by Discipline. By paying the price, by doing what others were not willing to do. NOT because you were chosen, lucky, fateful, or somehow deserving of worship."

Luck has nothing to do with it.

So it's ironic to find Rory hooping it up in the latest commercial for the Colorado Lottery, the Holy Grail for those who believe in luck. In a thirty-second spot championing the lottery, Rory crosses over, dribbles through his legs, smiles for the camera, then busts a jump shot -- only to see the basketball burst into a cluster of decorative ribbons, each meant to symbolize the advantages that Colorado recreation receives as a result of the lottery.


Rory Vaden

"It's interesting that you bring that up," Rory, who's represented by Donna Baldwin Talent, says of the commercial. "Because the modeling and the acting has tied into my life really well. It's given me a reason to stay disciplined. I take it very seriously, but I don't take myself seriously at all. I think it's hilarious; it's the most cliche, I'm-going-to-be-famous-someday thing ever, but there's a lot of value to learning the industry and how it works. There's also value in it for me, because I'm learning to get comfortable in front of the camera. And that's necessary, because if all my plans work out, I'm going to be spending a lot more time in front of the camera."

Those plans are numerous. Rory would love to have his own HBO comedy special. He'd like to star in a couple of movies and then get behind the camera and direct a few. He wants to write a book and become a world-famous, Tony Robbins-like guru. But what he intends to focus on for the next half-dozen years is changing the trajectory of young lives.

"I want to give young people something to aspire to that is different than what they see in TV or pop culture," Rory says. "Because I think that is what I'm supposed to do. The world is ready for a role model who is not a rock star, who is not an athlete, who is not a reality-show baby. The world is ready for a young person who believes in values, who believes in hard work, who believes in God -- a person who makes it cool to be disciplined. I'm like a conduit for a message to pass, and the message is discipline. I'm not so great, I'm not so special, I have not done anything to deserve the talent I've been given, but I feel it is my responsibility to use it. I'm uniquely positioned to do something that the world really needs."

But before he can discipline the world, Rory Vaden must do something for himself: win the World Championship of Public Speaking in Washington, D.C., on August 26.

I go to the gym everyday. I don't eat fast food, drink soda, or eat candy. I've never had a cigarette and I've never touched a drug. While I do drink occasionally, I've never thrown up from alcohol abuse because I don't get obnoxiously obliterated.

At the same time I've never used money from my parents to pay for school, never been in trouble with the cops, and almost never gotten a grade below an A-, ever.

But I'm also not a nerd or a goody two shoes. I have an MBA, I have my own business; I am a speaker, a fitness model, and a stand up comedian. I'm not anti-social or prude, I'm just Driven and Disciplined. I am willing to make sacrifices that many people are not.

-- from Rory Vadens blog

Early on, Rory learned that if he wanted something out of life, he had to go out and get it himself. Born Rory McLaughlin in Boulder in 1982, Rory was raised mostly by his mother, Tessie Gale, and his older brother, Randy. Rory's birth father, a verbally abusive alcoholic, was in and out of the picture, and drifted off for good when Rory was five. His mother worked several jobs at a time to support her family. But rather than limit his options, she always encouraged Rory to chase his dreams.

"It was hard," Tessie says. "He had father figures, but he didn't have a father. But Rory came out of my womb kicking and screaming, always pursuing something, and from the time he was an infant, he wanted to do karate."

When Rory was three, she had a friend who knew a little about martial arts teach him how to kick and punch, and then she enrolled him in courses at a recreation center in Lafayette, where the family had moved. But Rory quickly outgrew that.

"His instructor pulled me aside and said, 'Tessie, this boy is special. He needs special instruction,'" his mother recalls.

Rory wound up at Shaolin Kung Fu in Boulder, where he was the first child ever to train. He was only eight years old; the next-youngest person in the class was in his mid-twenties. At first Rory was only allowed to train on a trial basis, but after two weeks, everyone forgot that he was a kid.

At the school, Rory was paired with a long-haired, tattooed biker named Kevin who initially terrified him. But he quickly became close with his kung fu partner, as the two studied together and began advancing through the levels at the same pace. The classes were held at night, and Kevin would drive his young partner home, since Rory's mother was usually at work. Eventually Kevin started coming over on weekends to hang out. Then Tessie and Kevin started going to movies. Soon after Rory and Kevin tested successfully for their black belts, Kevin and Tessie were married.

Rory legally changed his last name to Vaden, Kevin's surname. "I think Kevin fell in love with Rory first," Tessie jokes.

For much of his childhood, Rory had bounced from school to school -- Lafayette Middle School, Platte Middle School -- but after Kevin married into the family, they moved to the small town of Frederick, where they could afford a house and where Rory eventually attended Frederick High School.

"My mom had always told me that I needed to go to college," he remembers. "But she also told me that there was no way she was going to be able to pay for it. She told me that I had to get a full-ride scholarship."

So Rory attacked high school with his already-characteristic focus and discipline. He was involved in everything: He played golf, basketball and baseball and was student body president.

"We were a real small school, and I got to know him really well," says former guidance counselor Linda Kunches, who notes that Rory's graduating class had only 54 students. "And Rory was an exceptional leader who wanted to be involved with whatever was going on. Even back then, he had a great vision."

Rory headed his class fundraiser, and while in previous years students had employed more traditional tactics, such as chili suppers and garage sales, he organized a large-scale basketball tournament with players from the Denver Broncos. "It was the biggest fundraiser we ever had," Kunches recalls. "Rory was just an exceptional leader and an exceptional human being. Even as a young man, you could tell he had a really old soul."

It was at Frederick High School that this old soul first contemplated a career as a motivational speaker. Rory was sitting at a typical high school assembly where some guy comes in, tells a sob story about drugs ruining his life, how he killed a friend as a result of his addiction, and how he's been clean for X amount of years. But rather than ditch the assembly, as most high school students would, or simply endure it with a blank stare and a silent countdown until lunch, Rory was both enthralled and intrigued.

"I remember thinking to myself, 'Wouldn't it be powerful if there was someone who could do this who was just the opposite?,'" he says. "Instead of coming in and talking about all their mistakes, somebody who could come in and be a role model and talk about all the things they did right in their life and not be a total dork?"

Rory graduated from Frederick High School in 2000 as the valedictorian and headed to the University of Denver on a full scholarship. Although he was still considering a career as a speaker, he wanted to learn a more tangible skill and started working toward an accounting degree. He'd heard some statistic about 70 percent of CEOs coming from a finance background. Eventually he switched to a major in management.

Although Rory enjoyed college, his real learning experience came with the Southwestern Company.

Stop waiting for the right time, the right place, and right circumstances. Stop waiting for someone else to do it for you. Truly listen to what your heart is calling, urging, begging you to take action on and start moving in that direction. Go now!

If motivational speakers tend to mythologize their lives -- and they do -- then working for the Southwestern Company was Rory Vaden's Twelve Labors of Hercules. A 151-year-old company, Southwestern's avowed mission is "to be the best organization in the world at helping young people develop the skills -- and the character -- they need to achieve their goals in life." By selling books.

Often recruiting on college campuses, Southwestern finds young people who want to earn a lot of money over the summer as well as learn a thing or two about themselves, and signs them up to sell children's educational books in some distant part of the country, door to door, thirteen to fourteen hours a day, six days a week. While many students would consider working for Southwestern the worst summer job in the history of summer jobs, some overachieving types apparently view selling books door-to-door as an amazing opportunity. Of course, the promise of an average summer income of $8,000 doesn't hurt.

"The money is great, but I did it because of the person you become in the process," Rory says. "That's such a strong, powerful person. You're out there getting beat over the head with a stick, having the door slammed in your face. I would do 35 to 40 sales presentations in one day, and I would close two or three."

Rory was shipped off to Alabama in 2001 for his first summer of selling. He remembers driving through Montgomery the day he arrived, and the sinking feeling in his stomach as he looked at all the doors he'd have to knock on the following day. He saw it all that summer: Spat on at one house, he'd be offered sweet tea at the next. He encountered racism in both upper-class and lower-class neighborhoods, as well as profound kindness.

"It was one of the most grueling summers of my life, but there is no doubt it was the best time of my life," Rory says. "There is truly nothing that scares me now because of the intense emotional experience that was. That first summer, you experience every single human emotion it is possible to experience."

Including gratification: Rory walked away from that first summer with $17,000.

He was hooked. The next summer he went back as a sales-team leader, having recruited 22 DU students to be on his squad. That DU team proved the most successful in Southwestern's history, allowing Rory to take home $62,000 that summer: $32,000 from team commissions and $30,000 in personal sales. He continued selling, recruiting and serving as a team leader for Southwestern for three more summers.

"He's just a phenomenal individual," says Henry Bedford, chairman and CEO of Southwestern, who, like everyone in the company, started out selling books himself. "I first met Rory when I saw him receiving awards as a Southwestern student dealer, top seller and top recruiter. I've gotten to know him since that time, and I would say that Rory is exceptionally mature for his age. He's one of the most focused people I've ever met, and he's disciplined towards moving towards that goal incrementally. If you look back over his life, there are few things that he had an interest in that he didn't master."

During his stint at Southwestern, Rory attended a company meeting in Arizona. There Eric Chester -- a recent inductee into the International Speakers Hall of Fame and president of Generation Why Inc., a firm that focuses on recruiting, training, managing and motivating top youth candidates for the workforce -- offered a presentation to fire up Southwestern's troops. Rory was impressed and went up to speak with Chester.

During his speech, Chester had mentioned that he lived in Golden and had a son at the University of Colorado. Rory told him that he'd love to do what Chester does for a living, but first wanted to recruit his son for the Southwestern sales team. Chester told Rory how to contact his son, Zack, and Zack sold with Rory for the next two years.

"When he came to our house to recruit my son as a possible book rep and to talk to my wife and I about the commitment it takes, I remember thinking when he left that if this guy went on The Apprentice, he would win hands down," Chester says. "He was sharper than any kid I'd ever met. I've been doing this for twenty years, and after every gig, people come up to me and say they want to be a speaker, but most of them can't; they just don't have what it takes. I looked at Rory, and looked at all he was accomplishing and the very modest background that he came from, and thought, 'Here is an enigma. Here is a kid who has something to say to the million-dollar roundtable.'"

So Chester started mentoring Rory, meeting regularly over breakfast to discuss what it takes to become a world-class speaker. Both agreed that while it's amazing when any speaker can influence kids, it would be even more amazing if a young twenty-something was reaching those kids. And if that speaker just so happened to be one of the best speakers in the world, the force would be unstoppable. Together, they decided Rory was the man for the job.

Chester was so impressed by Rory that he wrote an essay about him titled "Wednesdays With Rory," a play on the national bestseller Tuesdays With Morrie, in which a Detroit sportswriter shares the valuable lessons that he learned from a former professor on his deathbed. In the essay, available on Chester's website,, he gushed: "So what is it that caused Rory to distinguish himself from millions of other Gen Whys that lack his tenacity, passion and singularity of purpose? Is it genetics? Is it his desire to push past the socio-economic deprivation of his childhood? Could this young man be so intensely driven by the promise of unparalleled success -- or perhaps a fear of failure, or worse -- ending up in a state of terminal mediocrity? While all play a part, there is simply no denying that some people are just born for greatness."

Chester introduced his prodigy to David Avrin, a friend and colleague who bills himself as the "visibility coach" and runs Avrin Public Relations, a firm that helps business owners and professionals raise their profiles. Avrin was impressed, too. "At the risk of overstating the point, Rory Vaden is a once-in-a-generation guy," Avrin says succinctly.

His two mentors told Rory that to become truly great at speaking, he needed to speak 1,000 times. To hit that number, Chester recommended that he join Toastmasters International.

I've been waiting my whole life to finally catch my big break, to finally be discovered by some producer or director or agent who instantly saw the potential in me to be one of the world's most famous celebrities. Sound stupid? It is. It is ridiculously stupid, but it's the truth and my bet is that you do it too.

In a large conference room of the Denver Tech Center offices of Jackson National Life Insurance, Rory Vaden shakes hands and hobnobs like a young politician. Dressed in a gray suit, with his hair firmly gelled in place, he greets the seventy or so JNL employees who trickle into the lunchtime meeting, many with name tags clipped to their pants. He's completely in his element. Were there any babies in the room, Rory would kiss them.

Several members of Toastmasters are in the group, and they regard Rory knowingly, well aware of all that he's accomplished since joining the speaking group last October. But most of the other JNL employees seem unsure about why they've gathered in the conference room. Eventually the room fills, the murmurs subside, and Rory takes the stage.

"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah!," he screams, gesturing as if he's turning a steering wheel wildly, trying to get a car under control. The drowsy noontime audience snaps to attention.

For the next seven minutes, and seven minutes exactly, Rory delivers the true story of T-boning a cow on a dark, windy, California highway, an accident that he figures should have ended his life. The speech meanders back and forth, alternating between the highly dramatic -- "crystal, glistening moon juxtaposed with the stench of death" -- and comedic riffs on Jessica Simpson. The effect is jarring. But these are wrinkles that Rory will iron out. Over the course of the summer, Rory will deliver this speech 34 more times.

After he finishes and the audience applauds, Rory takes a seat in front, removes a pen and notepad, and solicits the crowd's feedback. A Toastmaster in the audience explains to newbies that the comments should be useful but not cruel, so that the speaker is encouraged to get back up and try again. "We try to sandwich the negative with the positive," the man explains.

While Rory smiles politely at the compliments, there's an impatient look on his face, a look that says "Get to the relative feedback, already." Because while he plays by the Toastmasters rules, he doesn't need any sugarcoating. Someone could tell him that he was the worst speaker they'd ever heard, that he should just sew his lips together, and Rory wouldn't mind. Since joining Toastmasters, he's decided that he must win the Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking. And when Rory sets his mind to something, nothing can stand in the way.

It's easy to be Disciplined when you have this kind of dream. So what is your dream? More importantly, what are you doing today that helps you step towards it with every inch helping you believe more and more that you are actually capable of accomplishing it?

It was on October 27, 2005, that Rory Vaden took on this particular goal, waking with a start.

"It was a sign from God," says Rory, a self-proclaimed "hard-core, Bible-thumping, Jesus freak" who plans to stay celibate until he gets married. "Never before in my life have I had such a clear vision: You are supposed to pursue the World Championship of Public Speaking. You are supposed to be the youngest world champion ever."

Not exactly build an ark or sacrifice your son Isaac before me, but a sign nonetheless.

Aware that the competition required three seven-minute speeches, Rory wrote all three of his speeches the next day, then attacked the local public-speaking scene with appalling fervor. He joined the Cherry Creek Toastmasters, in part because of that club's outstanding track record, having produced several finalists and one world champion.

"We have these things called 'icebreakers,'" explains Nancy Spurry, a member of Cherry Creek Toastmasters for the past nine years, and a one-time semi-finalist in the world competition herself. "You have to get up and speak extemporaneously upon joining the club. And Rory stood up there and delivered, and it was so good, you could tell that he had to have done this before or something. It was a little weird, because most people join to just get better at speaking, and here was this guy who wanted to be world champion. I thought that he was too good to be true."

But Rory wanted to get better still. He began rehearsing the seven-minute speeches he'd use in competition over the next several months, first in the club competition, then the division clash, then at districts. The first speech, titled "Mysterious Ways," drew from his experience selling books door to door for Southwestern. In it, Rory told the story of a little boy who badly wanted the books he was peddling but didn't have the money to buy them. So Rory suggested that he save all summer, telling the boy he'd be back later to see if he'd saved enough. When Rory returned, he learned the boy had given all his money to his ailing mother to help her pay for surgery. Rory left the house, but was so moved by the child that he decided to leave a set of books for him, along with a note that read "Gifts come in mysterious ways" -- a message that Rory's mother had always impressed upon him.

From February through early May, Rory estimates, he delivered that speech over fifty times, wherever he could find a captive audience -- once even performing in front of four people in the back of a Perkins. All the while, he was tweaking and perfecting the speech, recording it and watching it late at night, aware that in a public-speaking contest, one word can mean the difference between a winner and a loser. He also began studying humor, watching videos, getting up on stage and doing standup, knowing that the best speeches were the ones that could make people laugh.

To the surprise of everyone and no one, Rory competed in the Toastmasters district competition on May 13 and won. He was now officially the best speaker in District 26, an area that encompasses Colorado, Wyoming and western Nebraska, home to 2,876 Toastmasters and 152 clubs.

But the regional championship -- for an area encompassing 22,500 members -- was coming close.

"I had done that same speech, 'Mysterious Ways,' for the first four rounds," Rory explains. "Which is fine, they allow that. Now all of a sudden, I had two weeks to get another speech together. It was a daunting task. Everyone was telling me, 'Just be thankful you've made it this far; we're so proud of you,' and all this other crap. But I wasn't finished."

Now he turned to his second speech, "Slam," which also drew from his days with Southwestern and focused on a man in a wheelchair whom Rory had encountered on another door-to-door sales effort. He'd immediately pegged the man as a non-buyer, but as it turned out, the man was a children's author who wound up spending more than $4,000 on books. The speech emphasizes the old don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover adage while showing compassion triumphing over judgment. Over two weeks, Rory delivered "Slam" twenty times, working with his characteristic drive and discipline to mold it. And on June 3, Rory won the regional championship.

There are no super humans with magical powers, for the most part we all have about the same capacity; the difference is Discipline. What you see on TV, in Comedy Clubs, in Movies, in Speech Competitions etc. are the final products of hours and hours (and sometimes years) of DisciplineThe reality is that luck had very little to do with it, so get off your "A" and get busy. So in the future I don't wish you the best of luck; I wish you the best of Discipline.

In what little free time he has, Rory enjoys going to comedy clubs, jogging (he slimmed down from 205 to 165 pounds last year), eating out at the Cherry Creek Grill and Mataam Fez, and hanging out in LoDo at Monarck and Lime. "It appears like I'm always driven to a goal," he says, "but it doesn't feel that way, because all of my hobbies turn into my goals."

Since winning the regional competition, Rory has found time to graduate from the University of Denver magna cum laude, with both an undergraduate degree and an MBA in business; compete in the Comedy Works' New Talent Contest (he didn't advance); pick up a few modeling gigs; and start a business, Success Starts Now, with several friends from his book-selling days with Southwestern. A sales-training company based in San Jose, California, that offers one-day sales motivation and technical-training seminars, Success Starts Now has the support and financial backing of Henry Bedford and the Southwestern Company. "It's never been my plan to do something like this," Rory admits. "But right now we're very successful at it, and it fits very well with what is going on in my life."

Success Starts Now's first event is set for August 24 in San Jose. The business plan predicted that the seminar would be profitable at 600 attendees; Rory and his partners would have settled for half that. But over 700 people are already confirmed, and a second event has been scheduled in San Francisco, with a third planned later this year in Nashville. In 2007, Success Starts Now expects to put on between six and twelve seminars.

Two days after that first seminar, Rory will be in D.C. for the World Championship of Public Speaking. He's been performing his contest speech all summer long, in front of all types of audiences. As a Toastmasters finalist, he's found doors opened far wider than they were last fall, when he had to beg to perform in front of high school speech classes. And now he's ready to take on the nine other finalists for his shot at the world title.

"I think that he absolutely does have a chance to win," says Nancy Spurry, his Cherry Creek Toastmasters teammate. "It's like when they talk to a football team before the Super Bowl and they say, 'On any given Sunday, any team can win.' It's about skill, dedication, discipline and a little bit of luck."

But Rory Vaden doesn't believe in luck.


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