Self-Help Gurus

Self-Help Gurus


Self-help motivational speakers offer wealth and eternal happiness — but can they deliver a lasting solution?

Self-Help Gurus

I’ve been to more than my share of motivational seminars — a few lasted several hours, others took entire weekends. Prices ranged from free to a hefty week’s salary. Despite their differences, all had one thing in common: The message was “You Can Change Your Life!” and “Yes, You Can Do It!”

This enthusiasm should come as no surprise. Americans are apostles of positive change. Ever since the Pilgrims hit Plymouth Rock to practice their new religion, we’ve believed in the right and power to switch tracks, to alter our circumstances. We’re optimists; we believe in a brighter future. We’re also terminally disgruntled and unhappy with our lot. It’s these twin propellants — our optimism and our dissatisfaction — that have fueled the motivation business. A business that’s doing very well, thank you. There are upward of 6,000 rah-rah speakers on the circuit, pulling in $150 billion a year. That’s right — billion. On any given weekend, there are a multitude of workshops and seminars offering a totally transformed you.

Maris Train, a divorcee from Costa Mesa (described by some of her friends as a seminar junkie) recently went to a $3,500 weekend with David Neagle, one of dozens of motivators who aim to ramp up ambitions, whether that means dropping a bad relationship or banking a million bucks. “If there’s poverty in your business it’s a symptom of poverty in your soul,” he says. “Success is a decision.”

After the weekend at Neagle’s seminar, Train quit her dead-end insurance job and started her own personal coaching business. “It had a huge impact on my life,” she says. “I had a big shift with Neagle. I believe I can make the money I want to make. I’m going to his seminar again— it’s the same exact one, but it costs $4,500 now.”

Another Neagle devotee, Alexandria Brown, exclaims, “He helped me manifest my dream house on the beach in 90 days!” Brown, who tossed away a crummy New York job and a fourth-floor walk-up to head for California, now runs a mastermind workshop for women who want to get rich. With a few millionaire pals, she spent a week this spring at Richard Branson’s $45,000-a-night private island in the Caribbean.

Going for the gold

This is the golden age of bettering yourself. It’s a great time to be poor. Not since the days of Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill, who wrote Think and Grow Rich, has there been such giddy attention paid to the possibilities of personal growth and the attainment of wealth. The problem is who to go to for the keys to the kingdom.

But first: Let’s break for a commercial.

Here’s what happens between sessions at a typical weekend seminar at Landmark Education. This group, headquartered in San Francisco and stepchild of EST, shuns advertising and relies totally on word of mouth to attract new sign-ups. Its leaders are unknown outside the Landmark community but are very effective at selling what Landmark calls “transformation.” During the break at any given introductory seminar, half the attendees are outside on their cell phones. They’re talking to friends, family and people they work with. “You’ve got to try this! It really works!” They gush about how imprisoned we are by our past. “I feel like a totally different person,” they say. “As soon as the weekend’s over, I’m going to (fill in the blank: start my new business, tell my estranged mom I love her, join a gym and stop eating Double Chocolate Mint Cookie Dough).

But does any of it work? There’s no denying the initial rush. Put 300 people in a room. Get a T. Harv Eker trainer exhorting, “True or true!” Kick off your shoes with a pumped up Tony Robbins and walk across red-hot coals. Have Loral Langemeier, the “Wealth Diva,” remind you how much time you waste in “chitty-chatty” phone calls with “Christmas card friends” when you could be salting away millions. Sure, you walk out transformed, ready to run home and lipstick “Just Do It!” on your bathroom mirror.

Group high, lasting high?

Then the next day, the excitement fades. Your resolve slips. The experience is not unlike dining on Chinese cuisine: A few hours later you’re hungry again. You stare at the bathroom mirror and try to remember what “it” was.

“When you’re in a big group,” says Sherrie Smith, who heads the National Registry of Certified Group Psychotherapists, “you get all jazzed up. The crowd process facilitates hope. So does imitative behavior. Everyone’s in the same position. But to sustain any change in behavior you’d want further contact over time. Without that, the session can be considerably less effective.”

Maris Train says part of the attraction is the group high. “You’re immersed for three days,” she says. “There’s a lot of excitement. It’s not only you — it’s the 1,000 or 3,000 other people. Then you go home. When I’m by myself, I don’t have that same energy.”

But let’s look at the upside. The fact is, most people’s lives are not brimming with encouraging support. Work is competitive, relationships subject to whim and ego (usually someone else’s). Family — well, family is a roll of the dice. It’s nice — OK, let’s say the word — empowering to feel you’re in control of your life. That’s the big draw on the guru circuit. Here’s someone with a recipe for feeling positive — and often with a bag of tricks to give you a running start.

There’s a speaker named Brian Biro. He holds seminars for big corporations and top college athletes. His aim is to promote breakthroughs — get rid of defeatist attitudes and raise expectations. The metaphor he uses is breaking through a block of wood with your bare hand — only it’s more than a metaphor. Everyone at the session gets a 16-inch-square slab of pine. I’d never thought about breaking a block of wood. I left that business to Jackie Chan. Then one day I found myself in a circle of fellow seminarians who were chanting, “Jo-na-than! Jo-na-than! Jo-na-than!” I focused on the glint in Biro’s eyes and punched right through that piece of wood. For days after, I felt pretty good about myself.

Self-Help Gurus

Your life follows your thoughts

To truly change, you have to want to change —and often it takes just a trip of the switch. Think of the glass as half full — and it will be. That’s the secret of The Secret and the law of attraction — if you think good thoughts, the universe will respond in kind. Sound simplistic? Don’t be such a sourpuss. It’s easy, for instance, to dismiss Zig Ziglar, the author of See You at the Top and a legend in the motivation business.

The day I visited him in his Dallas office, I came prepared to write him off as a cornball quack with a honeyed voice and a disk drive of bromides. Instead, I found myself jotting down his sayings. “‘Stressed’ is only ‘desserts’ spelled backwards.” “The distance between success and failure is 14 inches — the distance between the top of your head and your heart.” “You don’t drown by falling in water — you only drown by staying in it.” He’s no Dalai Lama, but he did get me thinking.

There are, of course, such things as legitimate qualms. Ever notice how people who’ve been to lots of seminars start talking alike? Groupthink may not be your thing. Then again, it could just be your excuse to stay home and brood. Another problem? All that money these people make. There’s the “introductory workshop”— which is bait and often free — then it’s time to sign up for the $5,000 weekend, which is only $3,000 if you sign up now at the back of the room. Does it bother you that these people make so much money from your frustrations? If so, maybe you don’t have the right wealth “mind-set.”

Speaking of the back of the room — that’s where the motivators truly cash in. Those stacks of books for sale are rarely published by mainstream commercial houses. Instead, the top names on the circuit — Ziglar, Tony Robbins or Robert Kiyosaki — have their own imprints. Why get a crummy 10 percent royalty when you can publish yourself and keep the whole enchilada? Kiyosaki, who often appears on the touring Wealth Expo, has a virtual army of assistants to man the half dozen tables to hawk the “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” franchise.

Seminar groupies

But we carp. A more rational gripe may be about the presumed ease to change that gets bandied about on the motivational circuit. Before Maris Train had her epiphany with Neagle, she’d been to dozens of seminars — Landmark, Robbins, Eker, Chris Howard, Sterling. Train scorns the label, but there are plenty of seminar junkies. Often they’re tugging your sleeve, urging you to come along on a Friday night. “It’ll change your life, they promise. This guy is fantastic! Can you afford not to go?”

The problem is, if you want to change, you have to be ready to change. There is no free lunch. Improving yourself takes perseverance. Short cuts rarely work. Which is not to say you can’t work on your technique. There are ways to speed up the process. Psychoanalysis, for instance, was once the preferred path to self-awareness. Change, per Freud and legions of his followers, used to take years and require a tortuous excavation of the past.

That strategy’s not dead, but mostly it’s been supplanted by the notion of coaching. Forget the past. Focus on who you are today and what you want to do tomorrow. Coaches point you ahead. Instead of having you concentrate on obstacles, they get you setting goals — and goals are what it’s all about.

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe…

Here’s another bit of good news. Whether motivational speakers “work” or not, it’s rarely a waste of time to shell out some cash for a look-see. In an age when we’re increasingly glued to screens — TVs, computers, movies, cell phones — there’s an undeniable power to live theater. Outside of church, how often do we ever encounter a live person telling us how to live better lives? When a communion of fellow seekers is added to the performance, there’s a good chance we will feel transported, if only briefly.

So how do you pick where to spend your $300 (or $3,000)?

Ah, good question. And of course, there are no definitive answers. If you’re big on drama and the power of group dynamics, you might give Tony Robbins a whirl. T. Harv Eker whips up a lot of excitement. Rethinking how you lead your life is more the realm of Landmark. Results vary, but Kelly Kamin is a die-hard convert. A longtime resident of New York and Los Angeles, she confesses she was “pretty jaded” when she took The Forum, Landmark’s introductory weekend and part of its “Curriculum for Living.” She’d wanted to run her own business — and within a month she did, a massage and yoga studio. She went on to become a managing director at the Sundance Film Festival and now does financial planning in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Now 45 and single, Kamin says, “One thing I love was it was really practical. I got concrete results. And, unlike other workshops where you feel good for a couple of days, the results lasted. It gave me the courage to go for the things I wanted.”

Todd Stoddard, 42 and single, is the events manager at the Ronald Reagan Library and another Landmark fan. He credits both ManKind Project’s New Warrior Training and the Sterling Men’s Weekend with helping him to discover “how I got to be the man I am today.”

If you’re less interested in introspection and want to focus on business success, there is no shortage of wealth cheerleaders; Chris Howard, David Neagle and Laurel Langemeier are doing very well. Bob Proctor and Brian Tracy are brand-name big. Since all these folks have published books, you might get a taste of what they’re about — and see whether they’re worth the price of a giant flat-screen TV. For a full menu of what’s out there, order a catalog from Nightingale-Conant, which publishes many top names and their audio offerings.

Or maybe we should just think really hard about becoming rich — and wait to get word back from the universe.

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