This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 16, Issue 1, from 2003.
I became interested in the sceptical project in mid-2001 while working for a political organisation. A colleague (the colleague – it is a very small outfit, albeit with a relatively high public profile) had recently started work and had distinguished himself in my eyes by his thumpingly patronising air towards me and breathtaking smarminess toward everyone else. Actually, that is terribly unfair, because my thoughts about him were pretty patronising too: I was sanguine about his Reiki training, but I wrinkled my nose when he said he was about to take a weekend course with “one of my favourite motivational speakers, who’s over in London at the moment”. Didn’t he realise how unaesthetic that sort of thing is? Wasn’t he aware that intellectual snobs such as myself might snigger?
On the day after the course he did something strange. I had idly commented that there were no serious prospects for small political parties such as ourselves in the absence of proportional representation, and he replied that “people keep saying that but it isn’t true …”. He then stood up, made fixed eye contact with me, slightly dropped the pitch of his voice, slowed down his delivery and started reciting what sounded like a prepared speech. The content of his speech might best be described as cod-Nietzschean drivel: twaddle about Greatness, History, We Are Great Individuals, We Can Make History, We Are Making History. Oh no, I inwardly groaned, he’s bonkers; we’ve attracted another David Icke. As he was leaving no pauses for me to say anything (and what polite thing was there to say?) I just mumbled “I have to go” and walked out of his office.
The thing is, I was actually quite disturbed by this: I felt oddly assaulted and slightly shaky. What was all that about? Some urgent web research was in order. The American motivational speaker of whom my colleague was a fan is Anthony Robbins. He is ubiquitous in the US: he flogs his books, videos and courses via endless late night ‘infomercials’, he is casually mentioned on TV programs such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he makes a short appearance in the recent Hollywood film Shallow Hal (he kicks off the plot by giving a hypnotic suggestion to the main character, causing him to fall in love with Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit). Robbins seems to have started out as a Neuro Linguistic Programming disciple, then branched out into firewalking, and is now a ‘Personal Development’ guru. A current Robbins buzzword is ‘leadership’. This explains my colleague’s behaviour: he was ‘modelling’ Robbins and being an inspirational Leader, presumably because I was a Sad Little Follower. (But is use of the word ‘Leadership’ any more than a way of making middle managers feel heroic?) Apart from that, his general line is familiar: you have not fulfilled your potential, if you believe in yourself you can do anything, don’t let yourself be held back by people with no imagination. Unleash your awesome personal power. Oh, and eat more fruit (really).
This is genuinely beguiling stuff and it does contain some truth: many people do have unfulfilled potential, attitude can make a huge difference to performance, and there is scope for manipulating one’s own attitudes. So why did I remain unbeguiled? And am I losing out by being such a spoilsport? When I look at Robbins I do not see a person who has unleashed his awesome personal power and is driven to share his discoveries with humanity. I see an immensely astute multi-millionaire salesman with an airbrush tan and too many teeth. His product probably does have some value: I’m sure his seminars are inspiring. Anyone who has undergone even a small amount of drama training will have experienced the emotional energy that can be generated by a well-directed group: if that energy is created in a particular context and then focused in a particular direction you can convince participants that … well you can convince them of almost anything, at least for a while.
Robbins is relatively harmless. My ex-colleague is also harmless: he attempted to impose a hypnotic suggestion on a co-worker and failed to realise that not only was this unlikely to work outside the fevered atmosphere of a self-improvement seminar, but that most people would be hugely insulted by what the attempt implied. His behaviour was clueless, not dangerous, and I’d just love to see it used as a canvassing technique in the next council elections were it not for the fact that I still support the political organisation concerned. (It will be obvious to some readers which party I’m talking about – I must stress that typical members are intelligent and independent-minded and the few people who have obtained office are seriously talented. Trees are hugged, occasionally, but only when the trees consent.)
Robbins may be harmless, but my research into him pulled up incidental references to all manner of wacky beliefs, cults and pseudoscience. Because the enthusiasm of his fans and the techniques used in his seminars are somewhat ‘cultoid’, the territory he occupies abuts onto the land of the distinctly dodgy. This was new to me: I had not known how unaware people can be about how their own minds and emotions work; about how literal-minded people can be. (I entertain my own share of dippy new age ideas, but ‘entertain’ is an apt word for my relationship to them; they belong to the play area of my mind; I value fiction greatly, but I do appreciate the distinction between fiction and reality.) Scary.
P.S. When I wrote this article I had been absent from the mainstream world of work for a couple of years. Now that I’ve started to get out more, I realise that the use of the future tense in the title is wrong: it has come to a workplace near you. Books on hypnosis have become readily available in the same mainstream bookshops which now contain whole sections labelled “leadership”. Centres for ‘leadership’ in this and that are proliferating, and I’ve overheard suits in the street having earnest conversations about “I really need to work on my Leadership”. And “Vision”. Well yes, it’s a Good Thing I suppose, but it now seems to have become compulsory for everyone to have a Vision and tell others about it, as if they were Joan of Arc.
I was, and am, basically sympathetic to the view that language affects thought and thought affects action, which changes things in the real world (a writer has a vested interest in stressing the power of words). Yet observing these cultural trends has made me much more sceptical about how much can be achieved merely by minding one’s language. I doubt if the constant repetition of “Leadership”, “Vision”, and “Excellence” actually generates these rare qualities: it is more likely that automatic repetition may drain the words of meaning while giving the false impression that things are actually being achieved. In short, I have become aware of the ubiquity of magical thinking.