Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Conversations with Peter Wink, Part 2

The second of several (who knows how many?) Wink Wednesdays…

In my previous post
I went to some length to ’splain why and how I began having conversations with self-help industry insider Peter Wink, “The Marketers’ Marketer,” as he has described himself. I hinted at some of the topics we spoke about, and even that little teaser of a post opened up quite a discussion, which became a bit heated at times. But that's part of what this open conversation is all about. Presumably most of the ruffled feathers have been smoothed out, just in time to be ruffled again, perhaps.

Before I get into the meat of our discussions about the self-help industry in general, I’ll address some questions about Peter’s past stint with Joe Vitale, as well as his current association with flamboyant infomercial pitchman Kevin Trudeau. I know many of you are curious.

Russian to conclusions…and Operation Maybe
Peter told me his side of the Joe Vitale "Escape from Russia" story, which at the very least seems to be an example of differing perceptions. (I’m trying to be charitable here, though I have my own opinions, based on personal experiences, observations, and information from other sources.) But what the heck; you’ve read Joe’s side so I’ll tell you Peter’s. To begin with, Peter insists that he never actually read Joe’s “Escape from Russia” blog post in either its original or revised form, but he said several people emailed him about it and told him what it said. He also said a few folks told him they’d emailed Joe about the matter shortly after the piece was published, and Joe had replied to those folks rather snappishly. Peter told me he was entertained.

He also explained that he was never technically an employee of Joe’s, but a contractor (“for many intelligent reasons,” he told me), and that Joe was well aware that Kevin Trudeau had made him an offer in July of 2009. I get the idea that Kevin was rather aggressive with his recruiting, and Joe wasn’t at all happy about it. At any rate, Peter said he finally accepted Kevin’s offer in early September and gave Joe three weeks’ notice. He said that Joe seemed angry that he was leaving, and that’s likely why Joe lashed out. The important point is that Peter initiated the split, but Joe, for reasons of his own, told it a different way.

Peter, however, said it was a very good move for him. “I helped Joe make plenty of money and will do the same for Kevin – as I’ve been doing for many others in my career,” he said.

As for the trip itself, Peter said that about two weeks before Joe was to depart for Russia, when it looked as if things were not going to come together as planned, Peter advised Joe that he should just cancel if he did not want to go. In fact, at one point he strongly advised him to do so. He said Joe decided to go anyway; he had signed a contract and meant to honor it. At any rate, the trip apparently left a bad taste in the mouth of more than one person, although Peter indicated that Joe made a lot of money from the Russian trip. (When and if one of the other parties involved decides to come forth with
his side of the story, perhaps we’ll have an even more complete picture.) Despite any bad feelings there might have been, however, Peter told me, “Joe was very good to me during the time I was working with him.” And during our second phone conversation on December 20, he mentioned that he and Joe were on friendly terms again, and had been exchanging emails.

I was curious about Joe’s Operation Y.E.S. program, because Peter’s name is still listed on the web site as a participant. Joe has described Operation Y.E.S. as a way to end homelessness and foreclosures in the United Sates. In some interviews he has said his program can end homelessness and foreclosures in one day. As of now, however, the program’s web presence is still largely confined to a one-page teaser/sign-up page, though recently Joe wrote that he flew to Houston and talked with a CNN radio host; he says they are making plans to “make a reality TV show out of my helping homeless people with the Law of Attraction and my other work.”
I recall that at one point not long after Operation Y.E.S. was first announced, Joe was writing about possibly bringing his fight against homelessness to Camden, New Jersey, which is one of the most economically depressed cities in the U.S. As it happens, another Joe Vitale – that would be Senator Joseph F. – has been pretty heavily involved with initiatives to fight homelessness and poverty in the area. Senator Vitale has been serving in the New Jersey Senate since 1998, representing the 19th Legislative District. Besides homelessness and poverty, his pet causes include health care, protection of civil liberties, and ethics in state government. However, I got the feeling that “our” Joe – that would be Joseph G. – was more than a bit ambivalent about taking his show on the road to Camden.

To the best of my recollection (although I can’t seem to find any relevant links any more; maybe my Googling skills are slipping), there were some missed flights and other incidents that apparently led him to the conclusion that the Universe was telling him to back out of that deal. My first guess was that the jaded and recession-weary community leaders in Camden were searching for a program that would actually have measurable and concrete results, and Joe G. feared that the nascent Operation Y.E.S. (or Operation Maybe, or even Operation Probably Not, as one wag calls it), couldn’t deliver the goods. When you boast that your program is going to solve, or at least make a big dent in, a serious and chronic social program, people do tend to demand a certain degree of accountability, darn it all. Or perhaps Joe just didn’t see a way that being involved in the Camden project could possibly be profitable for him and his main partner in Op-Y.E.S., Craig Perrine.

But let me stress that those are my speculations only. Peter’s only comment when I asked him about Camden was, “Jon Bon Jovi got involved in the Camden project and is doing a marvelous job! Joe could have been working with him. Self-sabotage...” Indeed, New Jersey native son Bon Jovi, of whom Peter has been a devoted fan for many years, has his own charitable gig that actually seems to be getting some work done, “one soul at a time.” However, Peter is not sure what’s going on with Operation Y.E.S. these days and is not involved with it at all any more.

Shooting themselves in the foot
That self-sabotage monster alluded to above does tend to rear its ugly head now and again, and Peter says he has seen his share of self-saboteurs in his career. When talking with him about this, I noted that as a book editor/ghostwriter/re-writer (in my “day job”), one of the most important tasks Ron and I have is not only to help writers look their best in print, but also to keep them from making themselves look bad. But one can only go so far in offering suggestions. Ultimately, the client makes the final decision about what goes to print. Similarly, one of Peter’s jobs as assistant/adviser to his clients/partners has always been not only to help them put their best foot forward but also to help them avoid making unwise decisions. As has been the case with Ron and I and our own clients, Peter has had varying degrees of success with his preventive and proactive measures, as some clients seem to be all too willing to shoot themselves in the foot despite his best efforts.

For example, Peter shared during one of our exchanges that he can’t stand it when authors say or imply that people attracted tragedy to themselves, a theory that has long been a part of New-Wage lore, but became even more popular in the wake of The Secret/Law of Attraction craze. Peter thinks that saying people attract horrible things to themselves is “just plain sick.” In his view, writing in this vein almost always does an author more harm than good, stirring up ill feelings in readers and making the author appear callous and uncaring. He also said he has told several authors in the past to never blog about murky or controversial topics unless it has some benefit to someone. And he casts a wary eye at self-help authors and workshop leaders who make too many confessions about their personal lives – either boasting too much about their near-perfect relationships, especially when it can easily be verified that their personal lives are dysfunctional, or sharing T.M.I. about failed ones. Either way, he says, those confessions often have unintended consequences.
On that latter point, he and I are pretty much in agreement, though I won’t go into the awful relationship story that spurred this part of the discussion. I’ll just say that Peter told me that this story made him feel “kind of weird” about the person who told it. I had the same feelings.
“Negative writing does nothing for a (self-help) author in the end,” Peter said. “But egos overrule reason all too often.”
I should note that most of Peter’s remarks about egos and negative writing were general statements, based on his cumulative experiences with many authors over the years, and he did not give me any specific examples, despite my open invitation to name names. (And yes, I know that, notwithstanding Peter’s gracious (the more cynical might say "ingratiating") remarks about my blog, I am a “negative” writer myself, and on occasion have been known to engage in gratuitous gossip, but that’s kind of my shtick, ya know?) When it comes to self-sabotage, truth be told, we all do it at one time or another, whether we’re self-help producers or consumers, or snarky bloggers, for that matter. The topic is probably worthy of a whole book by itself. In fact, I’m thinking that’s something Peter could write about.

I also want to add that I think I understand why some self-help authors would want to address the “murky” topics head-on despite advice to the contrary. At least I can speculate about the reasons (and these are my own speculations again, not Peter’s). Some self-help leaders, for example, are genuinely concerned about ethical issues. Some want in their own way to do damage control for the industry, or, in some cases, to deflect negative attention from themselves.
Whatever their motivations may be for either publicly speaking or not speaking about a controversy (e.g., the James Ray tragedies), I think we also have to take into account that interesting phenomenon I wrote about in my previous post: the damned-if-they-do-and-damned-if-they-don’t syndrome. When members of a controversial industry fail to address the controversies, they can and almost certainly will be perceived as trying to gloss over the negative aspects or striving to protect their own turf. And I’m sure that in many cases, that’s exactly what some are trying to do. On the other hand, if they do attempt to make a statement, the critics (including the snarkers) are likely to jump on their every word. We had a bit of a back-and-forth on the previous post in this series about that very matter.

My strong sense from talking to him was that Peter learned some pretty valuable and sometimes painful lessons about friendship, betrayal, and forgiveness from some of his recent work experiences and from hearing about some of the experiences of others. He didn’t seem to be ready to open up completely about that, however. No big surprise there. He did say, “One thing I’ve learned is that people will judge others on what they (see in themselves).” And that will have to do for now, for that topic. As I noted in my previous blog post, I’m not going to try to force anything. Nor, contrary to various accusations from some of my snargets, am I going to just make stuff up, a la Rita Skeeter (although there are times I would seriously love to have her magic quill and note pad).

The joy of giving
Peter seemed emphatic about letting me know about the “other side” of some self-help gurus he’s worked with – the big hearts behind the big egos, if you will. On the surface, this is not all that surprising to me, especially since, to name but one example, various friends and business partners of Joe Vitale have made it a point over the years to let me know what a goodhearted and generous guy Joe can be when he wants to be. And, setting aside the whole issue of “conspicuous altruism” – acts of generosity that are used either as marketing tools, deflection of criticism, or both – it is true that a big heart and a big ego often go hand in hand. Case in point: the late great consumer advocate and Texas legend Marvin Zindler, whose death – and life – I blogged about in 2007. Of the altruism/egotism issue, I wrote (if you’ll pardon my quoting myself):

There are so many ways in which Marvin Zindler differed from the New-Wage/self-help/pop-spirituality gurus I love to skewer on this blog. True, Marvin had an ego that could easily have put the lot of the New-Wagers to shame. From a very early age, he was an inveterate publicity hound and would do just about anything to get his name and picture in the news. But he wasn't just another fame whore. The man had a heart that was even larger than that ego of his, and he touched countless thousands of lives – not by selling vague promises of enlightenment or unlimited wealth via self-help books and DVDs and weekend workshops, but by actually solving everyday problems for everyday folks.
Of course Marvin Zindler was no self-help guru, but the example is relevant nonetheless because the big-ego/big-heart phenomenon can be observed among moneyed folks in all industries. Peter’s point in bringing up the altruism issue with me was that he wanted to ensure that I – and my readers – were aware of a facet to many self-help stars that, in his view, often gets overlooked in the process of criticism. Forget Operation Maybe for the moment. There are other ways to give of one’s self besides trying to tackle social problems head-on. For example, Peter said that during the time he was working for Joe he was personally aware of hundreds of fan letters and emails to Joe – emotional outpourings from folks who were grateful to Joe for how his work had changed their lives.

This revelation wasn’t a surprise to me, and I told Peter it probably wouldn’t be to my readers either; after all, Joe himself has mentioned more than once that he gets lots of fan mail, and he is always publishing thanks and kudos on his blog. I have no problem believing that the complimentary blog comments are just the tip of the iceberg, praise-wise. The same goes for other New-Wage leaders. If they’re even moderately successful and well known, they are almost certain to be inundated with praise from sincerely grateful fans and starry-eyed hero worshipers (as well as, inevitably, from sly wannabes who wish mainly to further their own agendas). I will concede that to really give a fair and balanced portrait of any guru, the praise and kudos should be factored in with the complaints and criticism. Life is just not all black-and-white. Even the self-help authors who dispense the most vapid and simplistic advice are, in reality, complex human beings.

But I’m guessing you knew that.

I do understand Peter’s wish to drive home the point that in my snarking, I sometimes overlook the kindness and heartfelt actions of those whom I delight in calling hustledorks (a neologism coined by my guy Ron), even though I think most of my readers are aware of the generosity of many self-help leaders. This awareness comes in no small part because the gurus themselves often go out of their way to publicize their good deeds (e.g., Joe and “Little Kirk”). As one wag put it, "No good deed goes unpublished."

I hasten to say that self-help leaders are hardly alone in touting their own goodness; after all, rock stars, athletes, and Hollyweirds are very much into conspicuous altruism, and the social-consciousness shtick is a great marketing strategy these days for every type of company from auto manufacturers to big oil (uh-huh) to insurance companies. (Sometimes I find myself actually yelling at the TV when a big insurance company runs a commercial touting “Aha! Moments” or that “Do the right thing” mantra.)

Where self-help gurus are concerned, though, Peter said there are other unpublicized everyday acts of kindness. He spoke, for example, of times he walked through the streets of downtown Chicago with Joe, and Joe would just hand out money to homeless people, no questions asked. Again, I have no problem letting anyone know about things like that. Nor do I have a problem with Peter’s attempt to present a more nuanced view of Joe and other industry leaders. In my observation, however, few critics of the New-Wage leaders actually think the gurus are completely heartless and selfish; that’s really not the point of their criticism. The question is: Do these acts of kindness and generosity make up for the extravagant promises and unfounded claims about products, services, and events? Or for the greed and the egotism? Or for the lamentable way some of these folks treat those closest to them? Or, in some cases, for the real harm they do to others?

I’m thinking that most critics would say no.

I asked Peter about these matters, and while he didn’t directly address them in relation to anyone specific, he did have a few things to say about the issue of extravagant promises and unfounded claims from self-help leaders, versus the sometimes unrealistic expectations and demands of consumers. It’s a two-way street. I reminded Peter that consumer expectations are both created and earnestly nurtured by marketers, as well as by our entire “we want the world and we want it now” culture. The self-help industry doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it is as much a product of our culture as our culture is of self-help. As it happens, this is one point on which Peter and I pretty much agree, even if we are coming at it from slightly different directions. But Peter believes we also have to consider internal factors – an individual consumer’s personality, experiences, and predisposition – when evaluating the potential benefit or harm of any self-help expert or product. “You just can’t make a blanket statement either way,” he says.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll cover those issues in more detail later on. The point Peter wanted to make was that despite the super-sized egos and the deep mercenary streaks that seem to characterize so many self-help stars, these characteristics are often tempered by acts of kindness, generosity, and selflessness that are not always publicized.

Since I mentioned extravagant promises and unfounded claims, I think it’s time to turn our attention briefly to Peter’s current gig.

Earning some true dough
If you’re searching for dirt about Kevin Trudeau on this post, then I am sorry to disappoint you, because Peter Wink is the wrong person to ask. “Kevin is one of the warmest, sweetest, sincerest people you’ll ever know,” says Peter. Yeah, that’s pretty much what Joe Vitale said about Kevin too, and for that matter it seems to be the way Kevin is painting himself, more or less – and I wasn’t impressed. Peter gets that. He knows I’m not exactly a fan of Kevin’s. He knows that when it comes to True-dough I’m a serial snarker. It doesn’t seem to bother him, but it is clear where his loyalties lie.
Peter went to work for Kevin as his director of sales and product development in October of 2009. Though Kevin made Peter an offer he couldn’t refuse, this was not some rash, spur-of-the-moment decision for Peter; he had to consider how his choice would impact his relationship with Joe. He told me he has admired Kevin’s work for years and had actually wanted to work with him for a long time. “He’s one of the most successful authors and marketers in history,” Peter explained during one of our conversations. “Who wouldn’t want to work for someone like that?” Well, I can name several who probably wouldn’t, but that’s neither here nor there. In Peter’s view, Kevin is pretty much at the top of the heap in the direct marketing world, as measured by brand recognition – controversy and all – not to mention sheer earnings.
Peter and Kevin both have roots with Nightingale-Conant. As I noted in my first post, Peter worked for N-C for several years, and the company published several memory-enhancement products of Kevin’s in the early 1990s. Peter told me that at one time Kevin had been a partner of sorts with Nightingale-Conant. When I asked him to clarify, Peter said, “Maybe ‘partner’ isn’t exactly the right word. N-C published some of his products and I think he had some sort of manufacturing agreement with them.”

At the time I first spoke to Peter, Kevin had just stepped up his efforts to promote a fourteen-CD set, Your Wish Is Your Command, which supposedly contains some of the information Kevin learned as a member of a “secret society” known as The Brotherhood. He had enlisted Joe Vitale in his efforts to promote the set. Needless to say, I had quite a bit of fun with that on my blog.
Peter, I must say, has been a very good sport about it all. While he understandably did not want to discuss it at length with me, he did volunteer his opinion that there is validity to Kevin’s claim that secret societies have long been the jealous guardians of knowledge forbidden to the masses. Peter says his own experience as a Freemason has taught him this. (Peter was recently inducted into the Shriners. He says he wants to help kids in need, and “the Shrine gives me a platform to do good in this world.”)
However, he told me that he hasn’t actually asked Kevin about his own background in “The Brotherhood.” Another case of “plausible deniability?” Perhaps. But that’s Peter’s story and he’s sticking to it.

And that’s really the extent of our conversations about KT. As I noted in my first post, Peter considers Kevin to be a friend as well as his employer, and he’s loyal to the end.
More salient to the larger purpose of our conversations, Peter says that there are two crucial points that he thinks most self-help critics overlook: (1) The sins, such as they are, of the self-help industry are mild compared to those of the pharmaceutical industry, the food manufacturing business, and the medical/psychiatric profession, to name but a few (not to mention the U.S. government); and (2) He firmly believes that far more people have been helped than harmed (or even just disappointed) by self-help products and services.

We’ll get into that – Peter's points as well as some of my counterpoints (and Peter's thoughts on the latter) – in the next "Wink Wednesday" post(s).
Meanwhile, keep those comments coming. I appreciate everyone’s participation, even comments from those who love to loathe this blog!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Conversations with Peter Wink, Part 1

The first of several (who knows how many?) "Wink Wednesdays"

The wait is over.
For over four (!) months I’ve been teasing you about an upcoming blog post covering my talks with self-help industry insider Peter Wink. Well, I am finally making good on my promise with not one, not two, but an entire mini-series of blog posts based on our exchanges.

Peter Wink has been in the self-help biz in one capacity or another for nearly twenty years. He’s not a self-help guru himself, but he has worked with plenty of them, and he definitely has an insider’s view. He was with personal-development publisher Nightingale-Conant for several years, and says that his marketing, negotiating, and deal-making skills helped save their bacon in the early 1990s. (Peter is an expert negotiator, and wrote a book about that subject, Negotiate Your Way To Riches.)* He has also worked with numerous individuals in the business, including Bob Proctor, Brian Tracy, and Joe “Mr. Fire” Vitale. But his experiences reach beyond the self-help industry. In his long career Peter has been a consultant for BluBlocker Sunglasses (owned by legendary marketer Joe Sugarman); Jamba Juice (Peter says he was single-handedly responsible for saving their failing Midwest market); and even the Church of Scientology (no, no, he’s not a Scientologist; he only helped them with some online marketing strategies). He has worked with numerous other individuals in various professions as well. Currently Peter is working with infomercial pitchman Kevin Trudeau. Yes, that Kevin Trudeau (is there any other)? More about that in a little while.

Peter seems to have been born for sales and marketing. I’d call him a hustledork if it weren’t for the fact that he’s not constantly pushing his own stuff in people’s faces, so I will cut him a little slack in that area. It could be argued that he’s a hustledork enabler, or in some cases, the hustle behind the dork – and that may be true, but there’s more to him than that. He says that over the years he has helped a lot of people make millions of dollars. And I tend to believe him, in light of his résumé – plus the fact that one thing he has not done is spend his career churning out dozens of vapidly derivative info-products on how to get rich in one weekend while sitting on your butt.

A Chicago native currently residing in a suburb of the Windy City, Peter is an upbeat fellow – so optimistic and cheery, at least on the surface, that you sometimes almost want to slap him. I mean, this is a guy who used to work for Successories, and actually found inspiration in the motivational posters and other products they sell. (He told me a story of being inspired, many years ago, by seeing the famous “If you’re not the lead dog, the scenery never changes” lithograph in someone’s office. I have my own issues with that particular sentiment; for one thing, dogs have better peripheral vision than humans, so even non-lead dogs are surely able to see something besides the poop-chute of the dog in front of them. Moreover, if you’re mushing across the Arctic tundra, the scenery can be pretty drab and unchanging from any perspective. In addition, in the real world not everyone can or should be a leader. But I digress.) Despite Peter’s motivational pedigree, and the rather unfortunate fact that he reminds me of an insufferable positive-thinking enthusiast/motivational type I dated years ago, I can’t help liking the guy. “Yes, but Cosmic Connie, he’s working for KEVIN TRUDEAU!” I can hear you saying. Yeah, well, there is that. (Be patient; we’ll get to it.)

Above all, Peter is unabashedly a fan of self-help products, and not just because that’s how he earns his bread and butter. “I’m a product of these products, you might say,” he explains. “I was a consumer of the industry long before I was involved in the industry, and I believe I’m living proof of the value of the advice that can be found in self-help products.”

One of the things I have noticed about Peter is that while he has apparently done quite well for himself, he does not appear to be obsessively focused on materialistic pursuits. He lives a comfortable life but doesn’t seem to be centered on moving into a larger mansion every couple of years (or at least bragging about mansion-hunting), or acquiring an exotic car collection and making a second career of boasting about his acquisitions. I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s a deeper thinker than most of his public writing makes him appear. I suppose the same could be said of many of us (even me, on occasion, though I am quite comfortable with my self-described “profound shallowness.”). For his part, Peter assures me that he does publish “deep-thinking” stuff too.

Anyway, you can find out more about Peter’s background, philosophy, and tastes in cars, movies, and music by going here, and here, and visiting his Facebook page.

How it all started
I initiated the exchanges with Peter in October of 2009 because I was curious about something I had read on Joe Vitale’s blog. At the time, Joe had just published a blog post about his mostly disastrous trip to Russia in September of 2009. In the original version of the post, he appeared to be pointing a finger at his vice president of marketing, who at the time was Peter. Joe wrote about how his VP and other staffers had enthusiastically encouraged him to take advantage of an opportunity to go to Russia for a speaking engagement, although Joe himself was very wary of going. Joe wrote that as the time of departure grew nearer, there were warning flags popping up all over the place, but he said his staff was still strongly encouraging him to go ahead with his plans. Once he got to Russia the crap started hitting the fan. Things got rapidly worse, and, according to Joe, there were several times that his life and that of his traveling companion, Mark Ryan, were in danger. But, Joe said, his VP back home seemed dismissive of the troubles. To that Joe added, “He’s no longer working for me.”

I should note that Joe did not name his VP, but some of his commenters helpfully provided that information. The clear implication in the blog post was that Joe “let Peter go” because of Peter’s poor handling of the whole Russia trip. And I am not the only one who interpreted it this way. A commenter named Larry wrote, “Although I don’t support the firing incident, I don’t have all of the facts either…hopefully there were other problems with the VP.”

Not long after that, however, Joe deleted the parts of the post that seemed to be pointing the finger at Peter. But he didn’t delete the comments about this matter.

Call it intuition, but as far as I was concerned, something about that original story, and the responses, didn’t add up.

For one thing, Joe apparently hired Peter in January of 2008, at which time he described him as a long-time friend. He and Peter “split up” in October of 2009. If Joe had been having two years of problems with Peter – as he told his commenter Larry in the above-mentioned blog post – that means he would have been having problems since at least September of 2007. If that was the case, why did he ever bring him into his organization?

As a matter of fact, in September of 2007 he wrote a post describing Peter as a “guardian angel.” That’s because Peter had been Joe’s champion for years, using his influence to get Joe published with Nightingale-Conant, which was arguably Joe’s first really big break. Joe says that Peter is the reason he, Joe, ended up with his first Nightingale-Conant audioprogram (in 1997). He says Peter believed in him before anyone else did and worked for an entire year to make Joe a N-C author. He repeated his oft-told tale of how Peter put Joe’s pic up in every office at N-C, and in the men’s and women’s restrooms, and even on top of the company Christmas tree. Joe wrote:

He wanted people to know who I was. He eventually sold me to the company, and my program, The Power of Outrageous Marketing, remains a top bestseller for N-C even today.

Oddly enough, in Joe’s March 7, 2010 blog post on “How To Treat People,” he mentions his acceptance into Nightingale-Conant as a turning point in his life and career, but fails to mention the guardian angel who helped get him there. Probably just an oversight.

But back to that September 2009 post. I was curious about the splitsville story, not that it was any of my business, but you know me. I had also heard in the ethers that Peter had gone to work for Kevin Trudeau, who, as you know, has also been…ahem…a subject of some of my blog posts. (The most recent one is here; I began it in December and added updates in February and March.) So I sent Peter an email, not knowing if he would even bother to read it, much less to reply, seeing as how I am, after all, one of those critics, a.k.a. “haters.” Conventional “wisdom” in the New-Wage world has always seemed to be that truly successful people make it a policy to mostly ignore criticism and, above all, to never engage their critics in any way.

Turns out that Peter isn’t afraid of critics, doesn’t ignore them, and apparently doesn’t consider them to be “haters.” He not only replied, but we struck up a series of friendly conversations via email. He said he likes my blog and that I deserve a much wider audience. My first thought was that he might be blowing smoke, perhaps hoping I would let down my guard and spill some intel that he could take back to his pals in the self-help cartel. My second thought was that this was part of some orchestrated attempt to persuade me to soften my stance on the self-help industry.

Over the course of our communications he repeatedly mentioned that he enjoys my writing, that he doesn’t find me at all cynical, that I am simply writing what I feel. He said that he and I think a lot alike. I still wasn’t entirely convinced, having received numerous emails and comments from other people who were supportive and agreeable on the surface but had quite another agenda as apologists for people or organizations I’ve snarked about (e.g., the late Maharishi’s TM org). Yet I couldn’t completely dismiss Peter either, since I am, after all, a narcissist and somewhat susceptible to flattery. Money works even better than flattery (hint: see “Donation” tab above), but I’ll take what I can get.

Out of the corner
I also knew I had to take into account my own tendency to back people into a damned-if-they-do-and-damned-if-they-don’t corner. Actually, this is something we all do at one time or another, whether we’re dealing with politics, religion, New-Wage belief systems, or any other potentially controversial area of life, including our personal relationships. We get to the point where those with whom we disagree can do or say nothing right in our eyes. (At the same time, we conveniently ignore the shortcomings or inconsistencies of those with whom we agree. Funny how that works.) In this case, if Peter had ignored my communication or had been dismissive or terse, I would have told myself that his response was to be expected because, after all, he was “one of them.” Yet when he replied in a friendly manner, one of my first thoughts was that he was being manipulative.

I knew it was unfair to both Peter and myself to keep him in that metaphorical corner.

After a couple of months of emails back and forth, Peter suggested that I interview him and write a blog post based on our conversation. “But let’s make it positive,” he suggested (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the essence). “Let’s do something that will really help people, and maybe we can show them some things they might not be seeing about some of the self-help authors you write about.”

As you can imagine, my own flags went back up immediately. I thought, “Girl, he’s gonna try to play you like a cheap fiddle.” I figured he wanted me to be a conduit for some rah-rah pro-self-help propaganda – or at least a carrier of the message that the “bad guys” aren’t so bad. After all, if you read Peter’s blog, you’ve probably noticed that he does sound pretty rah-rah. (And for me, the fact that he resembles that inveterate positive thinker I dated years ago only aggravated the problem.) I also couldn’t help thinking of that classic bit of wisdom, alternately attributed to The Godfather and to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” Maybe, I thought, Peter’s friendliness towards me was just another strategy.

Or maybe his real agenda was – gasp! – to somehow persuade me to help plead Kevin Trudeau’s case to the world. Peter did mention at one point that he thought Kevin probably appreciates the publicity I give him, and that the Wimberley gang is enormously pleased to be associated in any way with Kevin – so my snarky blog posts are actually doing all of them a favor. Whatevs, as Salty Droid might say. I have never had any particular end in mind with this blog, and if my snarking happens to inadvertently benefit one or the other of my snargets, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

Anyway, after going back and forth with this stuff in my mind, I figured I was once again being unfair. For one thing, it’s not Peter’s fault that he reminds me of that guy in my distant past. More importantly, he had given me indications that he wanted our talk to be more than fluff, and judging by some of the matters he’d alluded to in emails, I decided it was worth a shot.

Peter had previously told me his perspective was different from that of most people. He says he has worked with some people who are a lot more screwed up than their faithful followers. He’s seen plenty of what goes on behind the curtain. He noted, “I’ve met the gynecologists who admit to being turned on by their cute female patients; the psychologists who admit to giving just enough advice to keep patients coming back…the relationship experts with a trail of relationships that were miserable; the financial guru who declared bankruptcy…do I need to go on?”

Oh, please do! was the first thing that came to my mind when I read that. But Peter really isn’t interested in doing a tell-all – not at this point, anyway. Let’s just say he has some really, really good material, should he ever go over to what most of his friends and followers would probably consider the “dark side” (which is “my” side). And I know of some really, really good ghostwriters or editors who could help him with that project.

Anyway. I could live with keeping things “mostly positive,” but I was still a bit up in the air about the focus of our conversation. I made it clear to Peter that I have no problem with presenting some positive aspects of the self-help industry, at least for a couple of posts, if for no other reason than to provide a counter-balance to my ceaseless snarking. On the other hand, I knew y’all wouldn’t be interested in mere cheerleading for the industry. On yet another hand (yes, like most issues, this one is a many-handed entity, somewhat like the goddess Kali, but without all the violence and flowers), Peter had and has clear limits to what he was willing to say about Kevin Trudeau, whom he considers to be a friend as well as an employer. Since I’m neither a hard-nosed investigative type nor a particularly skilled manipulator, it’s not my style to keep ruthlessly digging and harassing till I get someone to spill the beans about something they might later regret. On that level, I did and do fear disappointing some of you. (I mean, c’mon. Kevin True-dough!) And I won’t be too surprised if some folks on certain critical forums were to raise their eyebrows and speculate that I’ve gone over to what they consider to be the “dark side” myself, or that, at the very least, I might have some hidden agendas of my own. Regarding the latter, I will concede that pot-stirring just for the sake of it is an occasional agenda of mine. But I sense that some of you have already figured that out.

Still, I decided to respect Peter’s friendship and his need to be sensitive to others. I figured he had something of value to share even if he didn’t want to feed Kevin or any of his other past associates to the snark machine.

Amusingly, I wasn’t the only one having reservations about our conversation. Peter told me that after he announced the upcoming talk on his Facebook page, some of his Facebook friends were taken aback, asking him why in the world he would want to communicate with the likes of me. After all, didn’t he know that I’m one of those hateful critical peeps – the kind best left ignored? But Peter seemed determined to boldly go where some of his colleagues had been too cowardly to go before.

Peter did ask me to prepare a list of questions and send it to him in advance. Some might protest that at this point he was already trying to assume too much “control” over the interview, but since I wasn’t attached to any particular outcome, I didn’t mind. Given my habitual snarkiness about his current employer and that guy he used to work with, and given the fact that this is, after all, my blog and I retain ultimate control over what I publish, I didn’t mind a few concessions. Accordingly, I sent him the list of questions, but didn’t actually stick to it all that closely when we first spoke on December 6, 2009.

We talked for nearly three hours the first time. That should have been more than enough for a blog post of some kind, but when going over my notes later, I found there were still a few gaps. I confess that part of the problem was that I didn’t think the information I got was “edgy” enough, even given my self-imposed restrictions. So we made plans for a follow-up conversation. That conversation took place exactly two weeks after the first one, and we ended up speaking for nearly three hours again. The time flew by. (And no, he didn’t try any covert persuasion or hard-sell stuff regarding the self-help industry.)

The intervening time has flown by nearly as quickly, and here we are, four months later…and it’s high time I start publishing the “Wink talks,” don’t you think?

It was and is clear to me that Peter knows what side his bread is buttered on, as the idiom goes. Since I tend to look askance at the self-help industry myself, I’ve wondered if he has ever felt morally or ethically conflicted in any way by his own involvement. In our initial conversation I asked him if, in his nearly two decades in the self-help industry, he sometimes had to deliberately turn a blind eye to some of the stuff that goes on. He said no, because he has never been involved with anyone who, to his knowledge, did anything truly objectionable. Further, while some self-help advice (or advisors) may be questionable, Peter’s philosophy is pretty much to “take what you need and leave the rest.” He thinks self-help consumers should do that too.

That sounds great when you say it fast, as my partner Ron likes to say. Taking only what you “need” – and knowing just when to stop – are sometimes easier said than done, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of pages of blog posts and discussion forums dedicated to that very point. (One of the most recent is Steve Salerno’s exposé on yet more LGAT (Large Group Awareness Training) madness.) But we’ll get into that later on. Peter is clearly no fan of LGATs anyway, and certainly has no use for dangerous cults and cult leaders. And like most people with any sense of decency, he is appalled by the whole James Ray debacle (again, more on that later). Rather, it seems that he has always gravitated towards the less pricey or “extreme” self-help products, such as books, tapes, CDs, and DVD series. He likes to stick to the pragmatic material. “No matter what some of the gurus might try to tell you, you don’t have to spend your life savings to get the advice you need,” he says. “You surely don’t have to do anything to endanger your life.”

Despite the fact that Peter and I remain on different sides of the fence regarding some issues and individuals, it appears that once we go beyond the boundaries of my Whirled, we have many more opinions in common than we do differences. (F’rinstance, we both agreed that the whole Tiger Woods saga is completely unworthy of so much moral outrage from the public. It’s none of our friggin’ business. Shut up already about Tiger Woods and his wandering willy.) For that matter, I have quite a few opinions in common with other folks “from the other side” with whom I have been communicating.

Not that this knowledge is going to stop me from snarking about what I find snarkworthy, nor will it stop my friends “on the other side” from doing their thing. We may have very few differences, but the differences we do have are significant. Don’t think I’ve gone all soft and neutral on y’all or anything.**

Anyway. What follows are highlights of my conversations with Peter, both on the phone and, to a lesser extent, by email. In our conversations I picked up several tidbits I won’t share, simply because they’re too gossipy, even for this blog. I’m thinking some things are better left to the imagination. I’ll share most of what we talked about, though. It’s not exactly Shermer versus Chopra, but I think you might find something of interest nonetheless.

But…oops, it looks like we’re out of time! You’re going to have to wait until the next post for more.

* Peter is currently working on a couple of new books that sound pretty interesting. He told me he’d rather just pen a few substantial works about matters that he thinks others might find helpful or at least entertaining, than to keep spewing out books just for the sake of saying he has more books. “I’d rather get the one winner that’s heartfelt than just keep cranking them out,” he says. He considers himself primarily a businessman rather than an author.
** Also, in case you’re wondering – and in the service of, if not utter transparency, at least translucency – Peter has not paid me off. To date I have not received a dime in donation money or any other sort of compensation from him. I’m including this disclaimer not only because of the new FTC regs for bloggers, but also because I’ve received a few snide comments (to previous posts) asking how much in donation money it would take to control the content on this blog. I’m not sure if the person(s) asking that is/are miffed because of the actual content on the blog or because they think I’m selling out by requesting donations, but my facetious answer to their question is this: “Let’s experiment! Donate, and just keep on donating, and we’ll see what happens.” (Of course, the request for donations isn’t facetious, but the implication that I can be “bought”

Monday, April 19, 2010

Apologies, updates, and the 2010 Scammy Winners

First, the obligatory apologies and updates...
My apologies, Dear Ones, for being away from here for such an extended period of time. I've been tending to work and family issues and have had precious few moments to tend to my hobby blog, or even to participate very much in others' blogs. I deeply appreciate the continuing support from all of you, however.

Things have been pretty busy around The Ranch at the Edge of Nowhere and surrounding areas. There have been adventures aplenty. Or at least they seem like adventures to people such as Yours Truly who are easily amused. F'rinstance, it's kidding season at our friends' organic goat dairy up the road, and we recently got to watch an actual goat actually being born. I was thrilled. I love watching things being born (told you I was easily amused). I even like to watch YouTube videos of foaling and calving and kidding and whelping and such. But there's nothing like being right there in the barn when a brand spanking new critter makes its debut, and the whole place is filled with the sweet and heady aroma of birth, not to mention the scuffling drama of chickens and barn dogs jostling for a taste of the afterbirth... Okay, T.M.I. (But I have a really good goat afterbirth pic if you want to see it.)

Our friends separate the new goats from their mamas almost immediately after they're born, though the kids are carefully bottle-fed and otherwise lovingly attended. They're usually sold at a very young age. Their fate depends upon their gender; sadly, most of the little boys (bucklings) end up as cabrito, whereas most of the doelings eventually become milkers. A few of both genders simply become pets, but our friends are very choosy about the people to whom they sell goats as pets. They are extremely responsible farmers and stewards.

Ron took a few pics at the place. Here, for example, is a bucket full of brand-new future cabrito.
Here are a couple of slightly older kids bellying up to the milk bar.
And here's me, or part of me, trying to feed one of the new kids on the block, and in case you were wondering, that's colostrum ("first milk") in the bottle, not a brew. The newbies have to get their fill of colostrum in the first days of life in order to get their little immune systems off on the right track.
To the right of the picture is the little fellow's mother, making sure I'm doing it correctly. Actually I kind of suck at feeding new goats (I know: the kids are the ones that are supposed to be doing the sucking); my friends said you just have to get the hang of it. This one was fighting the bottle.

Goat feeding glitches notwithstanding, I sometimes wonder if I was born to be a farmer. I've seriously considered it. Maybe it's in my blood. Both of my parents grew up on farms, after all, as did their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents before them. I come from a long line of farmers, y'all. On second thought, maybe I'll just continue to hang with my farmer friends and experience the joys of farming vicariously (while buying as much of their delightful fresh feta, chevre, and cajeta as I possibly can). Yeah, that sounds a lot smarter, not to mention cheaper. Besides, farmers are on call 24/7. I don't think I could keep up with that pace.

There's a dangerous side to farm and ranch life too, as Ron and I were reminded a few weeks ago when one of our favorite horses pulled a knife on Ron. We were strolling around The Ranch late one afternoon when we ran into a lady who was riding the horse she boards out here, a handsome chestnut Thoroughbred gelding named Gyro. We stopped to chat, and as we were shooting the breeze, Gyro suddenly reached down and smartly plucked Ron's razor-sharp Swedish military knife out of the sheath attached to his belt. Ron always carries a serious knife with him when we're walking around The Ranch, just in case we run into any copperhead snakes, carnivorous plants, or other dangerous life forms. (Actually, I'm just kidding about the carnivorous plants, but not about the snakes.)

Gyro, who apparently couldn't decide whether the knife was a food item or a toy, began bobbing his head vigorously, waving his new-found prize around, and he almost got Ron with it. Fortunately Ron has excellent reflexes and was able to grab the weapon with no one being hurt. Gryo's "mom" was alarmed and very apologetic, but Ron said, "Hey, no big deal."

Just another day in The Country... But we are keeping our eyes open for any signs of equine gang activity.

Occasionally Ron and I still venture into The City – Houston, that is. On a recent Friday evening we attended a big book launch for a client and dear friend, held at a major New-Thought church in Houston. It was a beautiful event with professional musical entertainment and numerous speakers, including some local celebs. Our client sold quite a few books; one person bought 25 copies.

Despite my being at odds with the New-Wage/New-Thought world in so many ways, I am quick to acknowledge that there are some truly lovely people in this church – people who aren't so humorlessly hung up on their "issues," and so devoted to New-Wage gurus, that they are offended by snarks and critics. Ron and I ran into a few folks we hadn't seen in years, who seemed genuinely glad to see us. One in particular, J, has taught one of the church's most popular classes for nearly twenty years. Ron and I had done editorial consulting and layout/design for a couple of his books years ago. J never fails to make me smile and is still the delightful person I remember. He said he was very pleased to see that Ron and I are still doing the book thing.

As we were talking, he asked me what else I was doing these days besides the book biz. I told him about our moving out to The Edge of Nowhere, and, oh, yeah... I mentioned that I have a little hobby blog... "kind of like Cosmic Relief [my old book, with which J is familiar], but slightly meaner, and using real names," I said. He grinned and said, "Good for you!" I told him I am kind of the anti-Christ among some fans of Law of Attraction and The Secret. He said, "Hey, don't call yourself the anti-Christ. Call yourself the Auntie Christ. Auntie Christ and Uncle Buddha!" he said, looking at Ron and grinning again.

Good people everywhere, even at Ground Zero of New-Wage Land.

The announcement you've been waiting for (or not)
But I realize, Dear Ones, that goat birthing, knife-wielding horses, and big book launches are pretty flimsy excuses for my neglecting to announce the winners of the
2010 Scammy Awards. (Yes, I know that transition sucked, worse than I suck at feeding new goats; I could have done a segue involving the New-Thought church, but I'm in somewhat of a hurry.) I wrote about the Scammy Awards briefly in one of my previous posts, and I hope you voted. Anyway, Dr. John Curtis of Americans Against Self-Help Fraud announced the winners during National Guru-Free Week, as promised, but I was otherwise occupied and didn't jump on it. Better two and a half weeks late than never, though.

If you don't know the results already, it might come as somewhat of a surprise to you that this year's runaway winner was not the man who runs those killer seminars and retreats, James Arthur Ray. Oh, he was a runner-up in several categories, and in some cases it was a tie, but he was not the hands-down winner. That honor belongs to one Vianna Stibal, founder of something called Theta Healing, which purports to offer healing for diseases of all kinds.

Here's the complete list of winners of the 2010 Scammys:

  • DUMB SPEAK AWARD - given for the most unintelligent thing uttered by a Self-Help Guru!
    Winner: Vianna Stibal, founder of ThetaHealing who claims to have a cure for cancer
    Runner-up: James Arthur Ray, who needs no introduction, just read the arrest records
  • HYPOCRITE AWARD - given to the Self-Help guru with the biggest gap between their professed values and how they actually behave!
    Winner: Vianna Stibal
    Runner-up: James Arthur Ray
  • DADDY BIG BUCKS AWARD - given to the Self-Help Guru whose lifestyle shows that they are only in it for the money!
    Winner: Vianna Stibal
    Runner-up: Joe Vitale
  • HOODWINKED AWARD - given to the Self-Help Guru who did the best job of tricking a celebrity into being their sponsor!
    Winner: Vianna Stibal
    Runner-up: James Arthur Ray
  • BI-POLAR AWARD - given to the Self-Help Guru whose promises got the opposite results!
    Winner: James Arthur Ray
  • BEST PERFORMANCE IN A MIS-LEADING ROLE AWARD - given to the Self Help Guru who did the best job of deceiving the public!
    Winner: James Arthur Ray
    Runner-up: Vianna Stibal
  • BERNIE MADOFF LIFETIME MIS-ACHIEVEMENT AWARD - given to the best, all around Self-Help Guru who did the most to diminish the human race!
    Winners: James Arthur Ray & Vianna Stibal share this year's award

I'm thinking that either not many people voted in this year's Scammys, or Theta Healing – and its founder, Vianna Stibal – have many more detractors than even I had realized. I'm not surprised that James Ray did so well in this year's competition, though Joe's performance was a little disappointing, I must say.

So just who is this Vianna Stibal, anyway? Well, she's a mother, grandmother, and now a New-Wage entrepreneur who claims to have spontaneously healed herself of cancer. She says that what she does is teachable (for a price, of course). She claims that she just hooks up with the Creator of All That Is, and somehow gets the ill or injured person's theta brain waves going, hence the name of the healing method. Some proponents of Theta Healing claim it can be taught in fifteen minutes or less. Here's a link to more information and opinions...

Famed magician and skeptic James Randi offered a few strong opinions about Theta Healing on this video, and mentioned a Utah FOX-TV affiliate station that ran a completely uncritical segment about it.

Theta Healing is not to be confused with, which also claims to have found cures for every disease known to humankind, and then some. (Mr. Fire himself appears to have endorsed Immunics.)

So there you have it: the 2010 Scammy winners. Congratulations to all of you...well, all three of you: Vianna Stibal, James Arthur Ray, and Joe Vitale.

PS ~ In case you're interested, here were Cosmic Connie's pics for the 2010 Scammys (some are repeats of my 2009 choices). In most cases I also 'splained my reasons...

  • DUMB SPEAK AWARD - given for the most unintelligent thing uttered by a Self-Help Guru!
    James Arthur Ray (for his many insensitive & nonsensical post-jail Tweets)
  • HYPOCRITE AWARD - given to the Self-Help guru with the biggest gap between their professed values and how they actually behave!
    Joe Vitale -- for too many reasons to mention here
  • DADDY BIG BUCKS AWARD - given to the Self-Help Guru whose lifestyle shows that they are only in it for the money!
    Joe Vitale
    -- for obvious reasons
  • HOODWINKED AWARD - given to the Self-Help Guru who did the best job of tricking a celebrity into being their sponsor!
    Church of Scientology [okay, that's not a guru but it's a definite force in the New-Wage world]
  • BI-POLAR AWARD - given to the Self-Help Guru whose promises got the opposite results!
    James Arthur Ray (for promising that all participants in his 2009 Spiritual Warrior retreat would become "new people." (Becoming a corpse does not count.))
  • BEST PERFORMANCE IN A MIS-LEADING ROLE AWARD - given to the Self Help Guru who did the best job of deceiving the public!
    Kevin Trudeau
    (sorry, PRW)
  • BERNIE MADOFF LIFETIME MIS-ACHIEVEMENT AWARD - given to the best, all around Self-Help Guru who did the most to diminish the human race!
    Werner Erhard, for starting it all
There was also a bonus question at the end of the survey, and I answered it.
  • What other comments or questions do you have about the 2010 Scammy Awards?
    For future Scammys, there should be a new category: The James Arthur Ray Unintended Consequences Award

So those were my choices. Regarding the bonus question, though, I am thinking that there ought to be an entire new awards program dedicated to James Ray. Call it the James Arthur Ray Sociopathy With a Smile Awards. There are plenty of contenders for that in the New-Wage world, I'd say, although they don't always smile; some throw tantrums on occasion.

'Kay, that's it for now. I'm outta here, but I'll be back in the next day or so with the first of the long-awaited Wink Posts. And this time I really mean it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Shameless "bump": don't forget to feed The Snark!

For details, click here.

(Don't worry; I have some "real" posts coming soon (including my version of the overdue announcement of the 2010 Scammy Award winners). )