First off, since the publication of my Journal piece, I think it's fair to say there's been an outpouring of tips, observations and personal-experience vignettes regarding assorted self-help programs, scam artists, and low-level James Arthur Ray wannabes at work in our midst. (The general tenor of remarks in the last category is, "How much do you know about such-and-such? Because last year, my sister....") I want to thank all of you for sending these. Keep 'em coming.
Today we have a guest column from one such reader* regarding his experience some years ago with an outfit that is certainly no low-level wannabe: Landmark Forum. I think it's well-written, well-reported, and of course timely. My edits are minimal and for clarity only. To be clear: I do not present this as a fully vetted work of journalism; the writer's characterizations of the notoriously litigious Landmark are his own, though I think in the overall they would withstand any challenge for accuracy. And so:
Thank you for that interesting piece in the WSJ. I found it particularly interesting as a I am one of those business executives (PhD in Engineering btw) who was pushed by well-meaning friends into attending the Landmark Forum.==========================
I attended it with an open mind and the spirit of "well maybe I can learn an idea or two here." Instead what I got was exactly what you described. A concentration camp-type environment with sessions starting at 8am and going until midnight. Aggressive instructors who mixed natural charisma and impressive life stories ("I was a successful MD before I gave it up to spread the Forum") with physically intimidating techniques (e.g. yell at those who dared to stand up and question something by getting within a foot or less of their faces until they backed down).
What was even more disgusting was, mixed with all the mumbo-jumbo of self- actualization (by taking on your past, by confronting everyone you know/love/work with) was the constant set of exercises to sign-up more people to attend an informational session. Every time there was a break, the emphasis seemed to be to sign up as many people as you could. Then there was, by show of hands, public condemnation of those who failed to sign the assigned number of people. The alleged purpose of this was that you cannot change the world without changing those around you so you had to involve them in the 'work' of Landmark Forum. Of course there was relentless plugging of the various levels of instruction, with cautionary tales about how you haven't even begun to progress until you attend these further courses. All these were set as challenges/demonstrations of progress, i.e. if you didn't sign up for the next course you were showing how little you had progressed and had to stand up and defend your choice while being publicly berated. As you mentioned, people who dared get up to use the restroom were immediately put on the spot by the instructor pointedly stopping the lecture to question their need to go, saying they would miss key knowledge that would hamper their development.
Clearly within these groups were a large number of people down on their luck and self-confidence who were highly susceptible to suggestion. It surprised me during some of the "guided visualization" exercises how easily people allowed themselves to be talked into laughing hysterically or sobbing in tears.
Finally, as you probably know, Landmark has a relentless follow-up campaign that is, interestingly, staffed by volunteers. During the courses, they constantly repeat how volunteering to spread the word (mostly by calling on others to sign up for courses) is key to your self-growth. It took some effort to finally get me off that list.
I should say that I did go hoping to get one idea or two worth remembering, and I did. That was simply the concept that it is powerful to think of yourself as being indistinguishable from your word: If you say something, you mean it to be true in the most powerful sense. If you say you will do something then you do everything in your power to make that true. It makes you more careful of what you will commit to and at the same time, it is a powerful self-motivating tool, i.e. if I say it, then I do it. For a while I applied that frame of mind to myself and it was empowering. But as with all such ideas, it soon faded away.
I did this course many years ago and my precise recollection is fading, but the gist of it is well in line with your reporting.
Again, I invite others with personal stories to share to get in touch. Maybe we can do a compilation or use them for a follow-up.
* with his permission, of course. Regulars know that I never assume that emails sent to me off-blog are to be considered "for publication" unless I obtain the author's written say-so.