Dr. Phil and Life Lessons

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Many of your students, particularly female, love to watch Dr. Phil. He has been super successful as a TV talk show therapist. When you mention him, those students who respect him will listen. What practical life skills lessons can we learn from his rise to fame? (These are also available, organized by topic, in the members section.)


Dr. Phil, the straight-talking TV therapist, is about as successful as anyone can get. He's a media sensation, having exploded onto the airwaves with a weekly spot on the Oprah Winfrey Show, before launching his own blockbuster show. His books are best-sellers, his live seminars sold-out.

To look at him now, you'd think that he must have shown signs of his future success in middle school and high school, probably a brilliant student who moved from success to success to reach his current pinnacle. Actually, in Dr. Phil's case, his record before college was rather dismal. His path to success was lined with more shortcomings and failures than successes.

Economic Hardships: His family didn't have much money, so that he couldn't dress as nicely as others.

Family Issues: His alcoholic dad went from job to job, requiring the family to pull up roots and move every 3 to 4 years.

Poor Grades: Phil did poorly in school, majoring in sports rather than academics.

Personality Problems: Phil seemed more destined for a juvenile detention center than becoming a problem solver. He failed as a boy scout, lasting only 2 weeks before being booted out for throwing rocks at cars. (p. 12) His uncontrolled anger regularly got him into trouble (p. 17). He was suspended for three days from school for getting into a fight and then talking back to the administrator. If not for his involvement in sports, he probably would have dropped out entirely.

According to Dr. Phil, "In high school and college, my friends and I were pretty violent. It wouldn't be unusual to find us in a bar fight before the end of the night on a regular basis...." [p. 32 - from interview on Pinnacle, CNN (September 8, 2001)].

Seeing him on TV, you'd think that he was always the smooth talker, probably the focal point of any party. But according to his high school classmates, he was the "strong, silent type, not someone who would strike up conversations easily with others." (p. 32)

Failed Marriage: After high school, he married his high school sweetheart. The relationship deteriorated quickly and they went their separate ways after about three years.

Failed Business: He opened a health spa in Topeka, Kansas, which folded two years later, as he filed for bankruptcy.

Yet, after all these failures, he continued to pursue success by studying Psychology through college and graduate school. He loved it. He worked intensely at his studies, completed his Ph.D. and went into counseling. But again, a defeat. He discovered that he hated one-on-one counseling and considered himself a failure at it.

In spite of all the defeats, he kept bouncing back, looking for other niches for his interests and talents. For awhile, he led seminars on success, bypassing the need to counsel one on one. Then he started a business counseling attorneys and defendants on how to present their cases most effectively to juries.

Then came his big break. When Oprah Winfrey got sued, she called for Dr. Phil. Oprah recognized his wisdom and talent and invited him on her show. Although his first show was a flop - he appeared so direct and uncaring compared to Oprah - she believed in him and had him back, the next time introducing him as a straight-talking counselor who could get to the root of problems. They loved him, and the rest is history.

Do you ever get discouraged by your failures? If you do, I think Dr. Phil would like to tell you, "Don't give up. Your school days are a small part of your life. You don't have to always be the way you see yourself today. Keep learning. Keep growing. Don't let your defeats stop you. Keep looking for your niche until you find it."

Small Group Discussion

1. What are some ways in which Dr. Phil failed?

2. If you were in high school with Dr. Phil, what would you have thought of him?

3. What can we learn from Dr. Phil's background to help us in our own pursuit of success?

(Written by Steve Miller, Legacy Educational Resources, Copyright June, 2005, All Rights Reserved) Source: The Making of Dr. Phil, by Sophia Dembling and Lisa Gutierrez (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey, 2004)

Failure/ Wisdom

(Hint: Tell this story without letting students know at first that you're talking about Dr. Phil. It gives you kind of a surprise ending.) Phil loved football. As an adult, he vividly remembers a junior high game that changed his life. His well-funded school team played a rag-tag Salvation Army team. In Phil's own words,

"We were bad-ass. We had the black jerseys, the black helmets, and here were these kids wearing rolled-up jeans and loafers for football shoes. They beat us like we were clapping for a barn dance. At that point I really got interested in why some people, with all the advantages of the world, don't do well, and those with no advantages can be absolute champions."

"I started getting interested in what makes people do what they do." "Why were those kids who had none of the advantages so good, and those of us who had all the advantages weren't so good?"

"I thought if I could ever figure that out that would be an overwhelming edge in life. I started studying success."

His motivation was so great, that by the time he hit college, he'd already read all his father's graduate school texts in Psychology. He went on to get his Ph.D. in Psychology and become one of the most famous Psychologists in the country, watched by millions each day on his talk show: Dr. Phil.

When some people experience defeat, they just get mad. When Dr. Phil experienced defeat, he learned from it and got smarter. I suppose that's often the difference between those who ultimately succeed and those who ultimately fail.

(Written by Steve Miller for Legacy Educational Resources. Source: The Making of Dr. Phil, by Sophia Dembling and Lisa Gutierrez (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey, 2004), p. 26. Also, from the biography Dr. Phil Getting Real on the A&E Television Network.)

 Failure/Finding Your Niche

If you've ever seen Dr. Phil on his super-successful TV show, you'd think that he's always been a smooth-talker, someone who'd be the life of any party, the type anyone feel perfectly comfortable speaking one on one to. After all, he's a counselor, right?

Actually, Dr. Phil considers his one-on-one skills to be a deficit. In high school, he was very quiet, finding difficulty in starting conversations. After completing his Ph.D. in Psychology, he went into a private practice and found difficulty counseling people one-on-one. He considered himself a failure at that approach. Even to this day, in his own words,

"If I have something structured to do, you put me in front of 10 million people with an agenda, a job to do, that doesn't bother me at all. You put me in a cocktail party making small talk, and I'd rather get a root canal." (Jan Carl, "One-on-One with Feisty Dr. Phil," ET Online (August 26, 2002), available from http://www.etonline.com/celebrity/a12001.htm .

Dr. Phil found that his nich was in front of groups rather than sitting down with individuals. He still uses his Psychology, but as a group counselor rather than a personal counselor. He had to find his niche to find success.

Success in Business: Learning from Others

Dr. Phil, the super-successful TV talk-show analyst, is known for being super smart. He's also got a Ph.D. in Psychology. But a part of his success is that he never assumes that he knows it all. He's still learning. He listens to the input of others. "Show executives say McGraw reads e-mails, including those that disagree with him. 'Especially from experts who disagree with him,' emphasizes Terry Wood, executive vice president of programming.... 'His viewers are very opinionated. That's the way they interact with him.' Stewart adds, 'That's how we keep our core audience, which listens and responds. We don't ignore negatives."

Wise Counsel, Teamwork

If you ever watch Dr. Phil, the super-successful TV talk-show analyst, you might mistakenly think that the show is pulled off by Dr. Phil alone, pulling from his own Psychological wisdom, plus a few people holding cameras. You might be shocked to discover that "McGraw has close to 150 staffers, 90 percent of whom are women."

None of us can do it on our own. Learn from others. Draw others around you who are sharper than you in your areas of weakness.

(Written by Steve Miller, Legacy Educational Resources, Copyright June, 2005, All Rights Reserved) Source: The Making of Dr. Phil, by Sophia Dembling and Lisa Gutierrez (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey), 2004.


"Any time we're picking a topic, choosing guests, and deciding what all we're going to go through, our number one question is what's the takeaway? What can someone take away from that show that they can use today or tomorrow in their lives?" (Dr. Phil, quoted from KSEE News at 5, KSEE-TV (May 13, 2003), interview with Lori Hernandez.)

Work Ethic

A former employee of Dr. Phil says, "Phil will be successful at whatever he does. He works like a horse. He never sits on his butt. He's very very smart and he's very, very driven." The Making of Dr. Phil, by Sophia Dembling and Lisa Gutierrez (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey, 2004), p. 153.

Decisiveness/Bias for Action

Life Law #5: Life rewards action

Dr. Phil has spent a lifetime studying success. According to him,

"People who win take purposeful, meaningful action; they don't just think about it. They don't plan themselves to death; they don't have a meeting to plan a meeting to set up a meeting to decide what to do. There comes a time when you have to pull the trigger. To have what you want, you have to do what it takes." Life Strategies, by Phillip C. McGraw (New York: Hyperion, 1999).

Dr. Phil is one of the most successful people in the world. He says that part of the best advice his father ever gave him was this: "Create your own experience. Make a decision and pull the trigger." (The It List, Entertainment Weekly (June 29, 2001), p. 60)

"Well done is better than well said." Benjamin Franklin


Dr. Phil has spent a lifetime studying success. According to him,

Life Law #9: There is power in forgiveness. "Take your power back from those who have hurt you. When you harbor hatred, anger and resentment, your body's chemical balance is dramatically disrupted. Your 'fight or flight' responses say aroused twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That means that hatred, anger, and resentment are absolutely incompatible with your peace, joy, and relaxation." Life Strategies, by Phillip C. McGraw (New York: Hyperion, 1999).


Dr. Phil has spent a lifetime studying success. According to him,

Life Law #10: You have to name it to claim it. "If you cannot name, and name with great specificity, what it is that you want, then you will never be able to step up and claim it." "Most people do not know how to describe what they want, because they don't have a clue what it really is." Therefore, he recommends goal setting.

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