Sunday, January 15, 2012

It's not about glass houses. It's about crappy, porous foundations.

Seems that the inspirational empire of Peter Lowe, whose movable motivational feast became quite the rage during the mid-90s, has again run aground. In the early 2000s his "Success" seminars flamed out amid a sea of unsavory allegations about money mismanagement, unpaid vendors, and false advertising that touted A-list speakers (e.g. Bill Clinton and cookie-preneur Debbi Fields) who sometimes failed to appear at the designated events. Out of that rubble, Lowe managed to salvage his current venture, "Get Motivated" Seminars (which, incidentally, mis-use the following quote from my skeptical 1998 Wall Street Journal piece as their very first endorsement: "a barnstorming feel-good tour-de-force." More false advertising?). Now Lowe is mired in an ugly divorce battle with wife Tamara, a self-confessed drug dealer-turned-motivational speaker who runs a company called Take Action Media. Peter has accused Tamara and her brother, Brian Forte, formerly one of his top lieutenants, of not just taking action but also taking his intellectual property in the process: back-stabbing him and his company by stealing "trade secrets."

Got all that straight? Need a scorecard?

As for me, I'm left thinking that if that's what "success" is all about, I'm not particularly "motivated" to want to get it.

Every time I blog something in this vein, there are always readers who chide me for "dancing on someone's grave." (That allegation took on a near-literal meaning after I wrote cynically about the suicide of David Bassett, husband of anxiety guru Lucinda.) I also ruffled a few feathers when I lampooned Tony Robbins for hawking videos about keeping romance alive in your marriage at around the same time he was trading wife No. 1 for Wife No. 2. And I've often drawn ire for my here-and-there comments on Dr. Laura's nonstop sanctimony..

Please understand—and this is important—that I am not getting on these people for their hypocrisy, per se. (Trust me: I'm the last one who's entitled to be casting first stones.)
It's not about schadenfreude, either. I am getting on these people because their personal foibles, to me, are emblematic of the core flaw in the self-help movement as a whole: Through their mishaps, they demonstrate beyond dispute that success is no simple matter...certainly not a simple matter of repeating a few affirmations or cultivating seven bullet-pointed habits. And this applies regardless of what kind of success we're talking about, whether in relationships, business, one's career, etc.

After all, if the link between knowledge and success were that ironclad and reliable, then who would we expect to be more successful, to do a better job of embodying those traits, than the gurus themselves?
So when Tony puts out a video about keeping the magic in your marriage, I am reasonably moved to wonder: If the techniques were all that good, or that easy to master, then why couldn't Tony keep the magic in his own marriage? Or if Cindy Bassett's prescription for beating anxiety and depression were so inspired, shouldn't she at least have been able to keep her business- and bed-partner from toting a shotgun out onto a lonely stretch of Malibu beach?

If the folks who originate these concepts, and live with them daily, can't even make them work in their own lives, then what level of life-changing epiphany are you apt to achieve in a three-day retreat or even after spending a few weeks curled up with their books or DVDs?

I ask you: Would you pay good money to be taught foolproof financial planning by a guy who's now in bankruptcy, being sued for back taxes, and has a credit rating that's a negative number? And even if your rebuttal is, well, he knows what to do, he just can't do it because of certain personal're just making my point. If a self-improvement system depends for its efficacy on foolproof peopleif it can be sabotaged or even undone by certain everyday human idiosyncrasies, or if you basically have to be a very specific type of person to use it successfully...then it's not foolproof. It's kind of like organized religion. In theory it provides comfort and peace. In practice...well...look at the world! If something that sounds so poetic in concept can turn so counterproductive, if not lethal, when actually introduced into society, then what good it is?

See, it's just not that easy, folks. There are too many variables. Human nature being what it is, there can't possibly be a one-size-fits-all (or even "fits-most") path to achievement. Then we have the fact that when you reduce complex philosophies or strategies to bullet points (which you must do for marketing reasons), they lose all nuance and subtlety, making them virtually impossible to apply to any real-world situations. Then we have the law of unintended consequence to deal with (i.e., sometimes what you think you want does not turn out to be what you really need once you have it; or sometimes your pursuit of that goal sets in motion a whole other dynamic that totally backfires on you).

Am I arguing that there's no point in trying to better one's self? Of course not. I'm arguing that the Lords of SHAMland are knowingly and outrageously overstating the promise when they claim to have The Answers to Whatever Ails You. And I'm arguing that you're delusional if you're a self-help addict who believes that by mastering a few key phrases and retraining your mind to think a particular way, you can predictably, unerringly enjoy the kind of rewards that projects like The Secret dangle before you.

Just ask Peter Lowe.


Cosmic Connie said...

This post sums up the core of what SHAM and SHAMblog are all about. To me it's another reminder of the many reasons that you gotta keep blogging.

As one New-Wage/selfish-help/McSpirituality guru after another continues to fall, fans and wannabes are still desperately defending them. And when they reach a point where it is clear that their heroes' deeds are basically indefensible (James Arthur Ray, anyone?), many say, "Well, you just have to separate the message from the messenger." They also rationalize by saying the gurus are only human, and humans make mistakes in their personal lives.

My main counter to the first argument has always been that it is exceedingly difficult to separate the message from the messenger when brand-happy gurus put their indelible stamp on so many of their "teachings." And as for the second rationalization, I think it's perfectly valid to call gurus on their hypocrisy when they use their allegedly perfect and joyous personal lives as marketing tools.

But the larger and deeper issue, which you address so concisely in this post, is that no matter who the "messenger" is, more often than not, the message itself is derivative, simplistic and vacuous, with limited application to everyday life.

I think you summed it up perfectly when you wrote: "If a self-improvement system depends for its efficacy on foolproof people—if it can be sabotaged or even undone by certain everyday human idiosyncrasies, or if you basically have to be a very specific type of person to use it successfully...then it's not foolproof."

Anyway, my hope is that as you continue to recover from The Event, you will find new reasons to blog.

PS ~ I thought about you when I recently read an article about the Houston Texans' running back, Arian Foster. Arian is shorthand for "Aquarians," and the guy is apparently into all sorts of New-Wagey, motivational stuff. SHAMblog fodder, for sure.

Steve Salerno said...

Thank you, Connie, for the strong vote of confidence. If only I had the same level of confidence in the medical establishment, all would be OK...

Anonymous said...

I suffer from bi-polar depression. I am a sceptic, but curious about self-help programs. Without information from people like you, I would surely have fallen for Lucinda's very expensive program. Poor financial decisions, spending spree's, are one of the downfalls of my condition. Insomnia is another which eventually led me to your blog. Please keep up the good work.