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.
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.”
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:
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” is.)