Conversations with Peter Wink, Part 3
For most of you reading this, it's Saturday already. Where did the time go? But as this post was mostly completed and saved to my Drafts folder on Wednesday (hence the date stamp), I can at least pretend that I kept to my Wink-Wednesday schedule. My apologies for the delay.
Last week's non-post about my communications with Peter Wink gave rise to quite a conversation, resulting in even more comments than the first installment. Which just goes to show that you never know what might spark a conversation. Admittedly, though, much of the talk was devoted, once again, to the topic of online critics, with one (or possibly more) Anonymous commenters in one corner, and yours truly in the other. For those of you who think that conversation went on much too long, I apologize. But I hope someone got something out of it.
For this post, rather than spending a lot of time ruminating and philosophizing, I'm just going to lay out snippets of various exchanges between Peter and me so you can read some more of his thoughts on different aspects of this phenomenon we call the self-help industry.* In some cases I'll interject my own counterpoints because they were part of our conversation.
Since, as I explained at the beginning, I did not record our phone conversations but scribbled notes as we went, many of Peter's thoughts expressed during those conversations will be paraphrased. Hence this is not a verbatim Q & A interview.** I think some of you might have been expecting that, and perhaps this was why some felt that the previous posts had too much Cosmic Connie in them and not enough Peter Wink.
On the other hand, it could also be because I do have a tendency to go on and on about myself. I'll own up to that, with apologies to those who were bored or annoyed. (Jeez, I sure am spending a lot of time apologizing. Please forgive me for that.) Anyway, I do think I managed to get some Wink words in edgewise. And Peter has been actively participating in the "after-parties," the conversations following the posts.
When reviewing some of our earlier email exchanges, I came across something Peter wrote to me after our first conversation. He urged me to keep the blog posts honest as to what the interviews were about. Regarding my concern for the edginess, or lack thereof, of the series he wrote, "We should not make being 'edgy' a goal if that's not what it is. Let's present to your readers what I think and your opinion...The key is not to go into this with the goal to push something that's not there."
Fair enough. So here, in no particular order, are more thoughts, opinions, and insights from Peter, based on our original phone conversations in December of last year and, to some extent, on other exchanges.
It takes two (or two million) to tango
Some defenders of the self-help industry have accused critics of unjustly demonizing the industry. If you've been hanging around the discussions here lately, you'll know that I'm one of those "critics" so accused. In truth, I know and have said numerous times that we can't blame self-help for all of the evils of the world. I certainly don't. Peter contends that the industry isn't even to blame for many of the evils of which it has specifically been accused. He would actually prefer not to use the word "blame" at all, but would rather focus on the concept of responsibility. He's a big believer in personal responsibility – and the exercise of common sense – both by the creators of self-help products and their consumers.
As I mentioned in Part 2 of this series, Peter thinks that where self-help products and consumers are concerned, responsibility is a two-way street. On the one hand we have the sometimes wild and extravagant claims of the marketers. But on the other we have consumers – and that means all of us – who have our own sets of expectations, and who, in the U.S. at least, are very much a product of a culture of instant gratification. (I won't presume to speak for my friends in the UK, Europe, Oz, etc.) We want everything and we want it yesterday, preferably without working any harder than we absolutely have to.
Of course I'm oversimplifying a bit, and am probably being insulting to the people who do know the meaning of work and sacrifice. That's not my intention. I am aware that many people do work very hard for what they attain, whether it's material wealth, good health, or other desirable goals. Not everyone is lazy, and not all people who are "lazy" in some aspects of their lives are lazy in others. (And as I mentioned in the discussion on the previous post in this series, even laziness is not necessarily a bad thing.)
However, as one of my all-time-favorite songwriters Leonard Cohen put it in a song from his 1988 album I'm Your Man, "Everybody Knows": "Everybody talkin' to their pockets/everybody wants a box of chocolates/and a long stem rose/everybody knows."*** (Forgive me; I just had to slip a good old LC quotation in there. It's been too long.) My point is that we are, as a culture, quite spoiled. We want to have our cake – or our chocolate, if you will – and eat it too. We want our roses delivered to our door. (Come to think of it, chocolate roses would be the best of both worlds. (I bet y'all were wondering about that picture I chose for this post. That, obviously, is not a picture of Peter.))
But I digress. Peter believes that there really are a lot of good information products out there that can help people improve their personal or professional lives. He acknowledges that there is a lot of junk as well. But even the best product is only useful if people actually use it. This isn't a matter of putting the blame on the consumer when shoddy products or vapid ideas don't "work" (as some self-help gurus seem to do, for instance. I won't mention any names.). But sometimes people don't even take the first step towards using a product. Peter says, "I can't tell you the number of products that were returned unopened, still in the shrink wrap, during the time I was working at Nightingale-Conant."
Obviously the "effectiveness," or lack thereof, of a given product cannot be gauged solely by the number of units returned. It's also true that many people get into the habit of buying product after product after product, after which they simply let their purchases gather dust on their shelves. Maybe that's mostly a symptom of our obsessively consumerist culture. We love to buy stuff, even if it's not particularly useful stuff...or if it's stuff that we choose not to use. For some folks, the act of buying is more of a thrill than actually putting that purchase to use. We can't necessarily blame the creators or sellers of those products.
I do think that in many cases, either because of highly effective marketing or their own longings, people initially get excited about a product and then either get bored with it or distracted by something else. I have no doubt that on some level, many really do expect instant results without really working for those results, and when they don't get those results they throw the product on the shelf with all of their other impulse purchases.
On the other hand, as I've noted in previous posts in this series – as well as other posts and other discussions – marketers, including self-help marketers, work very hard to create and encourage consumer expectations. Self-help leaders promise wonders and miracles and amazing results with little work. Even those who are more honest about the amount of work and the possible results still tend to employ hype. Yes, it's just part of marketing, but where's the responsibility? Is it all on the shoulders of the consumer?
"Yes! We are all individuals!"
As I also mentioned previously, Peter says you just can't make a blanket judgment about the effectiveness of products or the larger effect of self-help on our society, because society is made of individuals, and every person is different. "You have to consider the individual's state of mind at the point of entry," he says. "Emotions cloud our judgment more often than not. People who are either overly exuberant or overly depressed when they buy a self-help product, or attend an event, may not be the most objective judge of the product or event's effectiveness or harmfulness."
It only follows, then, that we can't get the entire picture from either the enthusiastic testimonials, videotaped during or just after an event, or from the individual horror stories that occasionally make the headlines, or appear on the critical blogs and other forums. It's also true that many events – not the terrible tragedies, of course, but the more mundane events – are open to interpretation, People see and hear what they want to see and hear, and that goes for direct participants in self-help events as well as outside observers on all sides, including critics and critic-haters.
Yes, but shouldn't event leaders be more careful in screening participants – at least as careful as they are about making participants sign those all-encompassing waivers and disclaimers? And if there are repeated horror stories that can be verified, might it not point to patterns we should watch out for? Could detecting patterns of harmful behavior have prevented the tragedies that have made the news in recent months? Is it right to just ignore the negative and tell ourselves that the positive experiences of others will somehow balance it all out?
Further, it's all well and good to talk about common sense and personal responsibility. But what about charismatic leaders who prey on people's vulnerabilities and work very hard to override an individual's common sense and b.s. detectors?
What do y'all think?
"The self-help industry has gone Hollywood for no good reason," Peter wrote to me during one of our early email exchanges. He's often a man of few words, at least when he's writing, though he does love to talk – so I wanted him to 'splain what he meant.
Of course, while I was asking, I shared some thoughts of my own. (Those who don't care to hear me indulge myself yet again can just skip the next couple of paragraphs, but this was, after all, a conversation in which I too participated.)
I reminded Peter that ever since the 1990s, if not before, New-Wage/McSpirituality ideas have captured the fancy not only of film and music stars but also mainstream filmmakers, and have increasingly become themes in movies and TV shows. Further, in the past few years, even before The Secret, a whole new genre called
"Spiritual Cinema" arose. In other words, there's gold in them thar New-Wage ideas. Hollywood (not to mention Larry King and Oprah, especially after The Secret came out) did its part to finally push formerly fringe ideas much more into the mainstream.
And the gold flows both ways. While Hollywood types have long been mining the New Wage, in more recent years New-Wage types have been mining Hollywood. The explosion of the Internet, that great equalizer, made it easier for folks outside of mainstream show biz to grab their fifteen minutes (or more) of fame. Internet marketers and New-Wage hustlers began taking advantage of unprecedented opportunities to get their names and mugs before the public and reach larger audiences than ever. It was inevitable that some would start looking towards Hollywood, with greater or lesser degrees of success, to increase their fame and wealth.
What Peter meant by the industry going Hollywood was somewhat along the lines of what I had touched upon. He referred to the rash of "movies" in the wake of What The Bleep and, especially, The Secret. Peter doesn't really think much of The Secret, noting, as so many others have, that it is basically just repackaged material, though skillfully repackaged and cleverly marketed. Ever since The Secret, he said, dozens of people have tried to copy its success, making movies just for the sake of making them (and using many of the Secret "stars"). Basically they're just churning them out and throwing them to the wall to see what sticks, he told me. Peter said that when he was consulting for Joe Vitale, on at least a weekly basis he would field a call from someone pitching a movie idea that was guaranteed to be "the next Secret!"
To Peter's knowledge, not one of those offerings has enjoyed a fraction of the success of The Secret. I am not surprised.
You don't have to spend a fortune...
Peter thinks that most people can get practically everything they need, self-help-wise, from basic infoproducts. At the very least, he advises, you should start small and see if a given author's ideas resonate with yours. Buy a book. Listen to a CD or two. Actually make an effort to do some of the exercises and take some of the suggestions. A good book or other infoproduct, in his opinion, should be substantial and contain at least the fundamentals of the author's teachings; it shouldn't just be an empty gimmick, and it shouldn't be one long upsell for an expensive seminar.
Peter says you should think long and hard before committing to a pricey workshop that will cost you time and money (even if it doesn't cost you far more).
...but keep in mind that many gurus are out to make a fortune
Peter acknowledges that of course self-help authors and workshop leaders are out to make money. Anyone who refuses to see that is just being naive. That doesn't necessarily make the gurus bad; it's just a fact.
Moreover, to be truly successful an author has to do more than just write a book or two. Few people in the self-help industry (or any other industry) can make a fortune or even a decent living from just writing one or two books. They have to keep on creating products, and for most, the real money is in workshops and other events.
So, yes, one has to be cognizant of a guru's mercenary motives. If someone is profiting from you, of course he or she is going to try to get you to keep coming back. However, if the person is teaching practical skills that you really think will help you, there's nothing wrong with attending an event or two, as long as you can afford it financially and every other way.
As many critics would note, though, this is the area where many people get in trouble.
The real danger?
While Peter sees the self-help industry as generally benign and helpful, he does recognize that there is a dark side to the quest for personal growth, whether it's through secular self-help or more spiritual pursuits. (Of course, the two areas frequently overlap these days.) During one of our exchanges Peter wrote to me, "The most dangerous people in this industry are not those who are transparent frauds with idiotic products. They will take a few bucks and that will be the end of them. They come and go like the wind.
"The most dangerous are those who actually believe they are gurus and experts. They tend to be the most influential and outright dangerous. We have not seen the last Jonestown type incident." He says the recent tragedies that have made the news "are just a small time version of what can happen when you believe in gurus. "
Peter takes a dim view of external "gurus" of any type, at least when it comes to figuring out answers to the deeper questions in life. These are the questions we ultimately need to figure out for ourselves. There's nothing wrong with turning to others for advice, assistance, and expertise as needed, but as for looking upon anyone as the keeper of wisdom, that's a big no. "There are no gurus," he says. "That's a myth. Be your own guru. After that, it's all blind faith."
He's also a big believer in the saying, "If it sounds too good to be true, it is." And, despite our cultural addiction to "easy steps" and magic formulas, Peter says, "There is no easy path." As was the case with a point made in Part 2 of this series that self-help gurus are more complex than some of their advice, I suspect that most of y'all have already figured those things out. It's good to hear those words from someone in the industry, though.
I do see Peter's point about people who are transparent frauds. To me, however, his statement raises the question of what to make of people who seem to be serial frauds with a long series of virtually useless products – the folks who won’t go away but just keep on coming up with one bizarre product or service after another, such as "magical" items, or overpriced “readings” or “therapies” or workshops. Is this a moral issue, or is it just a marketing issue and thus morally neutral for the most part (even if the person is making what seem to be outrageous claims regarding how the product or service "works")?
Food for thought, and I'd love to hear from all of you about this.
The future of self-help?
At one point I asked Peter if he really thinks that tragic incidents related to self-help gurus are going to continue to happen. "Or do you think people are finally waking up?" I asked. "As a result, do you think there will be more personal responsibility (a positive development) and/or more laws (not necessarily a positive development)?"
Peter said that he doesn't really foresee that in the long run, people will take more personal responsibility because of any individual event, no matter how tragic. He seems to be pretty much in agreement with me that the public has a short memory, even regarding tragedies where the body counts were very high (e.g., Jonestown in the late 1970s, which didn't prevent Heaven's Gate less than 20 years later).
As for whether or not there will be more laws and regulations, that's anyone's guess. Peter thinks that even if more laws and regs are passed, enforcement will be a challenge, especially if it involves the government. There simply aren't enough government agents to oversee each and every transaction and event. (For more about the issue of self-help regulations, see my March 11 post.)
Peter says he loves the self-help/self-improvement industry, as he has seen all of the good it can be and do. "The occasional hiccup happens in all businesses," he says. "At the end of the day, if someone wants to change, they will no matter what. Books and tapes are just there to help someone along.
"And," he continues, "I think people need help right now... if nothing else, at least a friend that can help give them some direction."
That's it for now, Dear Ones. There's still more to come, but next Wednesday's fare will be a bit lighter.
* We had a bit of a discussion on last week's post about the exact definition of self-help. Though I suspected that the Anon contributor who brought up the question was merely arguing for the sake of arguing, I provided what I thought was a helpful link to Chapter 1 of Steve Salerno's book SHAM. Also see his Saturday, May 15 post on SHAMblog.
** In my opinion, many verbatim interviews are difficult to read anyway, because unless someone is a very careful and eloquent speaker at all times during a given conversation, the spoken word just does not translate well to the printed word (or the onscreen word, as the case may be). Try reading some of those transcripts of interviews with witnesses at the James Ray sweat lodge tragedy, and you'll see what I mean. So, lacking a podcast or other audio format, this combination of paraphrases, quotations, and my own thoughts is just going to have to be sufficient for this series.
*** © ROBINHILL MUSIC;MCA O/B/O GEFFEN MUSIC;LEONARD COHEN STRANGER MUSIC INC. Like most of Cohen's work, "Everybody Knows" is hardly a feel-good song. But can you imagine sneaking it onto the playlist at one of those rah-rah self-help seminars?