The Way of the Wayward Andy

Being a motivational speaker is easy when your resume includes gigs at the White House, books on the New York Times Best Seller list and an opening act for Cher. It’s not easy when you’ve lived under a pier, when catching fish means not going hungry and when cut bait is a form of currency. Andy Andrews’ resume includes all of that, with no regrets.

Today over 5 million people around the world have heard him speak and every 60 seconds, somewhere in the world, someone buys an Andy Andrews book. He credits his past hard life for his present day good one.

Back in 1979 and 1980, when Andrews was 19, the Birmingham native lost his parents within a year. His mom died of cancer; his father was killed in a car wreck. Shuffling from relative to relative, young Andrew was rudderless. 

“I took a bad situation and made it worse, ” he recalls. “I went from living in a house, to a car, to a tent with a motorcycle and then to just a tent.” It couldn’t get worse. But it did.

“I discovered the Gulf State Pier, at Gulf Shores, was dry and enclosed underneath, ” recalls Andrews. “It was comfortable, no one knew I was there, and it made a good home. I was homeless before it was a word.”

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He spent his days catching fish, not for fun but for food. Some fish he ate, other fish he cut, diced and sold as bait. He hired himself out as a fishing guide to show tourist anglers where they, too, could find the catch of the day. With no goal in mind, the future author and speaker began to hone the survivor skills he delivers to this day in his presentations and books.

“The life I led was nothing I would choose, ” he recalls, “but had I not experienced it, I would not be where I am today.” When the future looked the most dismal, hope knocked on the door — or, in Andrews’ case — visited the pier. He met an elderly man named Jones.

“I never knew his full name, never knew where he was from, how he got here, or where he went, ” he recalls about the mysterious stranger. But he does remember the sage advice. “Andy, ” the mysterious Jones said to the pier dweller, “When God passed out talents, you didn’t get the cool ones. But you have other talents.”

“He directed me to read biographies of famous people, to see what they had in common that made them successful, ” says Andrews. After devouring about 200 books in his 20s, Andrews posed the question that would one day be a theme of his self-help presentations. “Is life just a lottery ticket, or are there choices one can make to direct his future?”

It was time to find out.

After studying biographies, Andrews took the principles these men and women had in common that made them great and turned those principles into the cornerstone he preaches to this day — “The Seven Decisions.”

“Since being a kid, I knew I had something to say. I wanted to communicate, and the best way for me to do it was by being a comedian, ” he says. In the early 1980s, you didn’t find a comedy club in every city. Young comics sought different venues. Andrews’ was the Gulf Shores Holiday Inn. He would stand in for or be an opening act for others, developing his comedic skills and learning how to interact with an audience.

His work spread. Soon he played the college circuit and, on a fateful day in 1983, landed a stand-up gig at the University of Alabama. Performing in front of a laughing Crimson Tide crowd, Andrews could see a woman, stage left, behind the curtain, watching, analyzing and making him nervous. She was Joan Rivers.

“This was back when Joan Rivers was Johnny Carson’s guest host on the Tonight Show, ” Andrews says, about the comic superstar. “We had never met, and here I was, warming up the crowd for her.” At the end of the young comic’s act, Rivers approached, took his hands in hers, looked him straight in the eyes, and said, “Kid, you are fantastic.” For the next two years, Andy Andrews traveled with and was the opening act for Joan Rivers.

From there it was a stepping stone to bookings with Dolly Parton, Cher and Kenny Rogers, whom Andrews calls “The funniest guy I know.” It was Rogers who guided him from stand-up comedy to motivational speaking. “Kenny Rogers and I talked a lot traveling to shows, ” he recalls. “We had some things in common.

Kenny spent some time in poverty, living in Houston. I lived under a Gulf Shores pier.”

He told Rogers about the experiences with the mysterious Jones, and the life-changing principles learned from the puzzling pier visitor. Rogers responded, “You need to work that into your show, try three minutes of it in your act; see how it goes.”

He did, and audiences agreed with Joan Rivers: “Kid, you’re fantastic.” Fans told Andrews, “We loved the ‘serious’ part of your act. How can I get in touch with you to speak to my company?” Since then, Andrews has done “the serious part” for AT&T, Chick-Fil-A, the U.S. Air Force, IBM, the Atlanta Braves and dozens more.

He had succeeded in comedy, mastered speaking. It was time to write. Andrews wanted to reach a wider audience by writing books. Now with more than 20 best sellers totaling about 3.5 million copies around the world, in 27 languages, he’s still working on it.

Perhaps his breakout book is “The Traveler’s Gift, ” written in 2002 and based on the “Seven Decisions, ” but “The Noticer, ” released in 2009, was based on conversations with the stranger turned teacher, the elusive Jones.

Andrews coordinates his writing life and speaking engagements from his home in Orange Beach, just a few miles from the pier he once called home. But he’s traveled a journey that would make Jones proud.

Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Mobile. 

Emmett Burnett

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