Saturday, June 24, 2006

"Are you still coming up short of your financial goals? Are you struggling to lose those last few pounds? How is your love life?"

Those questions appeared in my inbox, unbidden, yesterday, courtesy of our old friend, Tony Robbins. Tony wants to help me with such matters as part of his DIVE INTO SUMMER promotion. I assume he'd like to help you, too. In fact, he'd like help you "put yourself on the fast track to achievement in all areas of your life with the Anthony Robbins coaching program [italics in original]."

This blunderbuss, promise-the-moon approach--"come on in, we'll help you lose all the weight you want, then fill your life with money, status, and sex"--is one of the things that troubles me most about self-help. (On a related note, it's also why, during the research for SHAM, I was both amused and dismayed to learn about Recoveries Anonymous, whose basic pitch is, "If you think you need to recover, but you have no idea what to recover from, don't worry, we'll find something...") SHAM's indiscriminate, all-encompassing promise is made possible by the fact that self-help operates (supposedly) in the gray area of your gray matter--"mental motivation." The guru is working on your head, and you simply have to trust that, in time, those wonderful inner changes (which you can't see, feel, smell, or taste) will inevitably yield the results you hope for elsewhere (everywhere?) in life. From the guru's perspective, the beauty of such an outreach is that once he succeeds in selling you on the idea that all problems are responsive to an "attitude adjustment," then basically he can sell you anything. The sky's the limit! He's promising benefits that, in essence, are invisible, and whose ultimate efficacy won't be measurable in any realistic way until a long, long time after your checks clear. Even then, if you fail to get the outcome you sought in a given area, he's going to deflect the blame right back to you-know-who: You weren't "motivated enough." Which means you need another large helping of SHAM in order for it to "take." It's "a process," after all.

(Question: If you brought in a painter to do several rooms in your house one day while you were at work, and you came home and found the house looking just as you left it, how would you feel about him telling you, "Yeah, I know, but just wait. In six months or a year the new paint will start to show, and this place is gonna look gorgeous..."?)*

In any case, armed with this tactic, a guru can write a book or do a seminar today about building true financial freedom, then can write a book or do a seminar tomorrow about putting the ooomph back in your love life. See the genius? There's no situation-specific expertise required!


Speaking of mental attitude: My daughter is planning an outdoor event today. I spoke to her a few moments ago and told her, "It looks like rain." So she says to me, "Don’t even say that! We can’t have rain...!"

Yes, I "know what she means." But you see how utterly ridiculous this PMA stuff gets after a while?

* Granted, there are other realms where you may not see the benefits immediately. Some might cite medicine. Doctors, however, can produce x-rays, ultrasounds or arteriograms showing what they fixed: You see the screws in your ankle or the way the new valves shut off blood flow from your heart's chambers with each beat. What does the SHAM guru have to show for himself and his wares?


Cosmic Connie said...

Right on target as usual, Steve, though I am not sure I agree with your interpretation of the basic intent of Recoveries Anonymous. Their home page says, “If you, or someone you know, have not yet found the recovery you are looking for, do not be discouraged! It is still here for those who work all Twelve Steps of our Program of Recovery.” I took that statement to mean that if one hasn’t yet achieved recovery from whatever the problem is, one can still do it by working all twelve steps of the R.A. program. I don’t think they’re actually trying to help you find something to recover *from*, though of course I could be wrong.

In any case, I agree that R.A. is pretty absurd, not to mention superfluous. For one thing, they’re not really offering anything original, just striving to be a generic, all-encompassing twelve-step program that, according to them anyway, preserves the intent of the AA pioneers (unlike "all those other" twelve-step programs, of course).

Actually, despite their extensive quoting of Big Book wisdom, R.A. seems to be trying to one-up AA with their “solution-focused” stuff. It brings to mind the “results-oriented” crap that corporate America tried to foist on us back in the 80s. (I remember the days of sitting in Monday meetings with a horrid hangover, listening to a smirking manager who yacked on and on about wanting "results, not excuses"…)

And I agree with the basic point you were trying to make in this post. I also find it appropriate that you open it by mentioning the latest spam-o-gram from Tony, a person I have always found intensely annoying. (Okay, he was pretty good as the straight man in the Jack Black movie “Shallow Hal,” but that’s about it, far as I’m concerned.) Geez, I wish I could make millions selling nothing of substance to people who have way too much money or time on their hands…but I guess I am just too honest, or not quite hammy enough. Or both.

Steve Salerno said...

Let's also remember that AA's "results" are pretty dubious anyway. The storied "up to 75% cure rate" that AA insiders have proudly quoted for decades omits the large numbers of people who try AA for a few meetings, find that it's not to their liking, and give up. By some accounts (including AA, in its more candid moments) this figure may run as high as 90% of all people who give AA a shot. So even if AA is effective for "up to 75%" of the folks who stick with it (which I doubt anyway, for reasons outlined at some length in SHAM), that means that quite possibly you're only reaching (up to) 75% of 10% of all comers--or just (up to) 7.5% of all the alcoholics who want and need help.

I make these points (yet again) because of the huge catalog of programs, like Recoveries Anonymous, that have been patterned on AA and hailed as "major sociological breakthroughs" in the treatment of various forms of dysfunction....when in fact there are serious doubts about whether the prototype for all this even works!

Cosmic Connie said...

Even Bill W., co-founder of AA, struggled with terrible depression for much of the rest of his life after sobriety. His authorized biography even says he experimented with LSD and other substances in an effort to beat his demons. And let's not forget that he died of emphysema, most likely from a lifelong smoking habit.

I actually attended AA meetings in my early days of non-drinking, and found the support and friendship helpful for a while (though the smoke almost killed me, LOL). I think I maybe got to Step Four or Five before I got bored with it. But nearly 20 years later, I'm still not drinking, and *not* going to meetings. I'm not complacent or smug about that, and I don't take my non-drinking-ness (is that a word?) for granted, but I just didn't want to spend a lifetime "in recovery."

Anonymous said...

This is what has long bugged me about these guys (and more and more girls now) who sell one size fits all self help programs. I'm glad someone is finally seeing through it!

Ted from Baltimore said...

It's easy to poke fun of these programs and there is no question that these people prey on a desperate clientele but, in fact a positive attitude IS helpful in a variety of areas of life if not all of them. So teaching a person how to improve his thinking and especially coping skills should improve their performance in multiples areas. I think that's the point of what Robbins and others like him are saying, right?

Melanie said...

Hello Steve, I read SHAM (thoroughly enjoyed it!) and just found your blog, which I'm reading as time permits- You sure do manage to write your fair share of posts! I must say Shamblog is every bit as clever and witty as the book itself, if not more so. I notice on Amazon that some reviewers attacked you for being sarcastic and shooting from the hip in your analysis, but that's what I find so entertaining about the book and the blog! Sometimes you can make a point through the use of sharp humor that is devastatingly more effective than what you could accomplish by presenting reams of data. Besides, you seem to have the data on your side anyway.

Speaking of devastating, you have a great smile. ;)

Steve Salerno said...

Melanie, glad you enjoyed the book and have decided, now, to take part in the blog. Please feel free to comment as the mood strikes.

I did feel that I had the data on my side--what data there were, anyway--which is why it was so frustrating to me when critics of the book attacked me for not presenting a more "documented" case. What's hilarious is that my critics seemed to want to hold my feet to the fire for my failure to prove a negative--which is, of course, impossible in most settings--and gave hardly a thought to the fact that the leaders of the movement had never even met their (REQUIRED) burden of proving the positive! Analogy: If a cardiac surgeon were to claim he'd pioneered a brilliant new procedure to add years to the average patient's life--but presented no proof whatsoever--and then I came along and merely pointed out that he had presented no proof... Why on earth would you attack ME for pointing out his lack of proof, before attacking HIM for not presenting proof in the first place!?

Thank God that so many of the major publications (WSJ, PW, etc.) rallied to my defense.