Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Grand Delusion

The arrival of a new year often signals an interest in pursuing goals. While sights like busy fitness centers, crowded health food stores, and people working overtime illustrate the power of determination, the psychological effect of said endeavors has a harmful side. The nexus of this effect is a destructive part of our culture, and it shames me to say that I once bought into it.

By now, you may be saying to yourself, "Wait a minute, isn't this a movie blog? What's with the social commentary?" Fair questions. To answer the first, yes, this is primarily a blog about movies. This brings me to the second question. As Phillip Lopate wrote in his splended introduction to the indispensible 2007 volume "Ameican Movie Critics", an interest in non-cinematic subjects expands intellectual exposure and, in turn, makes a better critic. Besides, this is my blog, and I'll cover any topic I damn well please. That being said, onward.

The crusade I'm referring to is the self-improvement movement. Specifically, I take aim at "The Secret", I take aim at Tony Robbins, and I especially take aim at all of the worthless merchandise in the way of books, audio CDs, DVDs, and toll-free coaching programs that promise health, wealth, success, and happiness beyond your wildest dreams. This is the kind of chicanery that turns people into check-mailing slaves and gives our society a bad name.

Since the economy took an unforgiving nosedive in September of 2008, the snake oil salesmen among us have caught on to the fact that people are desperate to make ends meet. Speaking to people from various backgrounds, these charismatic entrepreneurs tour the country giving magic answer lectures to anyone dumb enough to listen: "Laid off? Buy my book! Newly divorced? Download my action plan! Want to get rich in 90 days? Here's how to order!" Just about everywhere one looks and listens, one sees and hears these messages. There's no escaping them.

Here's my problem with the self-improvement movement: it makes exaggerated claims and places all of the fault on you when life doesn't go your way. Granted, there are books and courses filled with beneficial information on finance, nutrition, social skills, and other important subjects that have played instrumental roles in people turning their lives around. These are clearly exceptions to the rule and do not belong in my crosshairs.

As I stated earlier, I bought into this fraud years ago when I sold real estate full time. For more than a year, I was involved with a "telecoaching" program offered by a company that shall remain nameless. What attracted me to this "proven sales system" was its guarantee of increased production, a goal that every salesman wants to achieve. When I first signed up, I was told by a company employee that, if I followed the system to a tee, I would sell at least fifty houses by the end of the year. Excited beyond comprehension, I threw myself at the program with everything I had.

The coaching series consisted of weekly group phone calls on which a frighteningly enthusiastic team leader would give us high-pressure selling scripts to use in the field. When those of us enrolled in the program returned a week later to report that we didn't make any sales because the client listed their house with another agent, because the client decided to renew the lease on their apartment instead of buy a house, or because the client saw through our phony gimmicks like cellophane, the coaches would blame us for our failures. They'd scold us with comments like: "A good agent would've made that sale...but you didn't do that, did you?" Or: "I spent an hour going over this material with you last week and you're sitting there acting like it's rocket science. Seriously, what part of this do you not get?" Or: "The reason you didn't make that sale is because is because you have an attitude problem." Or, my favorite: "The reason you didn't make that sale is because you didn't think big enough."

And there's the common thread that ties this trash together: thinking big. Whether you're dealing with a real estate hustler, a personal finance hustler, a personal health hustler, or especially a religious leader, they'll tell you that any problem life throws your way can be quickly and permanently solved by convincing yourself that you're better than you really are. If you're poor, for example, your coach will urge you to think of yourself as a millionaire in the making. Color me pessimistic, but a grown adult can spend all day fantasizing about living in a Tudor mansion on Lakeshore Drive, but when said person returns to reality and looks at their ATM receipt, they'll see the same triple-digit balance that's been giving them heartburt for years. Once, I heard some self-proclaimed "expert" advising people to write their most challenging problem on a slip of paper, read it once aloud, and set fire to it. The expert said, "Watch: it's gone! Hey, Nixon did it to the Watergate tapes. Why can't you do it to your problems?"

For my money, this kind of thinking has never been better mocked than by Al Franken's classic "Saturday Night Live" sketch in which he portrayed the effeminate self-help guru Stuart Smalley. Remember when that goofy-looking gap would sit in front of a mirror and say, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me"? The United States is full of grown men and women who take that parody seriously! If you don't believe me, simply step inside a salesperson's office and look at the wall above their desk.

One could argue that thinking big is the key to the depression epidemic. It starts when people set unreasonably high expectations for themselves. After expending a painful amount of physical effort, emotional energy, and money into their goals and failing to achieve them in a short amount of time, they beat themselves up and fall into a funk. When said folks call their life coach to tell them that they're going to set a smaller goal the next time around or that they have to quit the program because they ran out of money, the coach berates the individual for thinking too small. The next thing the poor fool knows, he's aiming high and crashing hard again. That's how these crooks manipulate people into vicious circles.

What's really sad is when you meet someone who's so far gone with their chosen rip-off that they don't even realize they're being scammed. If you sit one of these folks down and try to talk to them rationally about what's going on in their life, within seconds they resort to bumper sticker bullet points that some babbling cult leader shoved down their throat. They make statements like, "Well, I just gotta fake it 'til I make it, you know? I just have to stamp out that stinkin' thinkin' and get busy! What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve, right? Like it or not, we become what we think about and we create our own obstacles." Sure. Tell that to a six-year-old with leukemia. Like compulsive gamblers, these people are convinced that they're just one spin away from hitting the big time, even though they're neck-deep in debt. The longer you watch them unravel, the more you ask yourself, "How many times is this idiot going to fall on his face before he realizes that his habits aren't working?" Recently, I had lunch with a dear friend who hit the nail on the head when this subject came up in conversation. He said, "The more I research that whole Napoleon Hill/'Think and Grow Rich' culture, the more I'm convinced that it's a lie. The only ones who profit from it are the publishers who sell the books."

Would you like to know the secret to my success, dear reader? It comes from following three simple steps: I think small, I act small, and I earn small. That's it. I don't trick myself into a god complex by chanting affirmations, I don't pay some charlatan a thousand dollars a month to belittle me over the phone, I don't bite off more than I can chew, and I'm certainly not burning myself out. I think small, I act, and I earn small -- and I repeat the cycle often enough to earn a decent living. And would you like to know something else? I have less stress and more satisfaction in my life now than I ever did when I deluded myself. Granted, I'm not a millionaire, I don't drive a luxury car, I don't own a yacht, and I don't have any venture capital to spare, but I'll tell you what I do have: stability. And at this point in my life, that means more to me than gracing the cover of Money magazine.

To tell you the truth, I wouldn't mind spotting a series on thinking small the next time I visit Barnes & Noble or tune in to late-night TV, but that will never see the light of day in this country. The reason for this is simple. People do not want to hear the truth. They want to deceived. They don't want to be reminded of how poor, boring, fat, bald, stupid, ugly, weak, or annoying they are, so they cling to their self-help CDs and motivational mobile apps like security blankets in order to escape from reality. Years ago, I read a quote from David Mamet that goes "people like to be fooled", and I thought he was out of his mind. Now, I know exactly what he was talking about.

The ugly, brutal, non-negotiable truth is that most attempts end in failure, and more dreams break than come true. It's a rough, dirty world in which we live, and there's plenty more that's beyond your control than there is that's within it. The minute you believe that there's nothing beyond your control is the moment you delude yourself. So, the next time I encounter someone who asks what being an American has taught me, I'll say, "Two lessons. One: the biggest and the meanest get to make all the rules; and two: with enough time and effort, people can fool themselves into believing anything." With that, I wish you a productive and rewarding 2012, free of the deception that contributes, as Arthur C. Clarke once noted, to the rotting of the human mind.

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