Sunday 26 April 2009

A Dirty Secret

A couple of years ago, my wife Danielle and I stumbled across The Secret, the by now well known self-help film about the law of attraction.

The Secret's take on this is decidedly metaphysical, but that in itself doesn't put me off, and we chose to ignore the money-obsessed undertone of the narrative in favour of the central message. Before long our enthusiasm had transformed into a pair of tickets to go and see the speakers featured in the film at an event in downtown Toronto.

The law of attraction isn't entirely a metaphysical concept; there's some fairly down-to-earth research about the effectiveness of positive thinking. An Australian professor by the name of Richard Wiseman did some interesting research into people who considered themselves lucky and unlucky.

In one experiment, he had self-selected "lucky" and "unlucky" participants count the photographs in a newspaper. Unbeknownst to them, he had inserted a giant ad into the paper reading, "Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250." The lucky people found this significantly more often than the unlucky people, leading Wiseman to believe that lucky people were actually just more observant.

Eventually, Wiseman concluded that luck was anything but, and that it consisted of learnable habits. In a 2003 BBC News article, Prof. Wiseman wrote,
"The results reveal that although these people have almost no insight into the causes of their luck, their thoughts and behaviour are responsible for much of their good and bad fortune."
Wiseman went on to write a book about how to think and behave like a lucky person. I consider myself a lucky person, and happen to think my life is pretty good. If there's a way to spread this around, so much the better!

Unfortunately, The Secret was an entirely different animal.

On the morning of the event, the registration lineup was immense, snaking out of the auditorium's ample lobby and across the skyway into the adjoining hotel. After about twenty minutes of under-caffeinated people watching, it dawned on me that everyone looked somehow different than the people I was used to seeing.

Was it the almost imperceptibly eccentric body language of entrepreneurs? A vaguely hungry look in their eyes? The subtle difference between dressing for success and dressing for imminent success. ("Please, haven't I waited long enough?")

Over the course of the day, it became obvious that The Secret was little more than a marketing umbrella over a number of otherwise unaffiliated self-help mavens. Impressively charismatic mavens, mind you. Mixed in with the motivational speeches was a strange mixture of useful tidbits (including ideas that led me to the realization that I'm uncomfortable with the possibility of earning more money than my father, and an entertaining presentation of a video very much like this one).

Overall, I found it alarming just how unabashedly the whole thing presented itself as a multi-level marketing scheme. (Take our trainers' training courses and you, too, can be successful on the self-help talk circuit!)

Danielle, bless her, signed up for a free money management follow-on conference. I never believed it would come through, assuming it was just a grab for addresses to pad out their mailing list, but months later her ticket arrived in the mail - entitling her to an excruciating weekend of psychological assaults.

She's very self-aware gal (this helps, being a marriage and family therapist), and immediately noticed how the most hard-core sales pitches (for thousands of dollars' worth of training workshops, where they purport to tell you the real goods) always occurred in the hour preceding meal times, when participants are at their most vulnerable. The way that those who identified themselves as being unconcerned about money were singled out for scorn. The way that people who left early were derided as quitters with no potential.

When the woman to her right broke down in tears, deeply in debt already and having just signed up for a whole series of conferences she couldn't afford, Danielle couldn't bear any more and left.

I guess that makes me lucky I didn't go!

It annoys me that this sort of thing happens. People who are curious about the nature of the world - or worse, those who genuinely need help - can easily find themselves exploited by people claiming they've got the answers, and it discredits the whole search whenever a big cashectomy operation like this sets up shop.


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