I don’t believe in motivational speakers – those who claim that they can help you find love, or make you happier, healthier, or richer if only you take control of your life and pay them. But that doesn’t stop me from being fascinated by them. The motivational industry is such a hodge podge of airheaded optimism, pseudo-science, and half-truths that it reveals like nothing else the lengths to which people will go to find a shortcut to their goals.
At first, you might think that these New Age entrepreneurs have nothing in common. After all, they are all offer advice in different fields. Yet even when you look at them, the resemblance to each other is amazing.
Often, they even physically resemble each other. All too often, their clothes and the houses they are fond of filming themselves in have the bland taste of the aspiring middle class. The women among them have shoulder-length hair, often of that ash-blond color that you never see in nature, while the men sport mildly unruly surfer dude haircuts that suggest that they might have had an athletic past. Both sexes are tanned and seem to have had one face lift too many, leaving them with smiles that last a little too long, and show an alarming amount of gum. Both, too, have the unctuous manner of funeral directors – the types of postures and gestures that are never quite in sync with their body language.
Personally, their politeness always tempts me (purely in the interests of scientific research, I assure you), to see how long I can insult them until their facade collapses. I never do, but I am uncomfortable around most of them because they are so determined to project a Stepford Wife-like niceness that they are social hypocrites, and you can never be quite sure what they are thinking.
Yet even those who escape the physical stereotypes generally pitch a philosophy that resembles Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking or Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
This philosophy can be summarized as the belief that, if you feel good about yourself and project an air of confidence, you will succeed in whatever you are trying to do. To help you develop faith in yourself, the philosophy offers inspiring quotes (often ripped wildly out of context), and suggests that followers practice various forms of affirmation (repeated statements of their goals and general worthiness ranging from prayers and mantras to repeatedly speaking or writing declarations of it), The variations and the jargon are as endless as the speakers themselves, but the underlying similarity rarely changes; the perennial best-seller The Secret is a typical example of the belief system.
The trouble is, the only studies that suggest that any form affirmation leads to success either show a weak correlation or else are poorly designed, which makes their conclusions questionable. In fact, the result of teaching self-esteem in school for the last few decades are starting to seem like adults who expect to be rewarded simply for trying, and who become easily discouraged.
Such results fit well with my personal experience as a long-distance runner, when I found that being confident going into a race slid easily into over-confidence and losing. Pessimism and fear were actually more useful, because they encouraged me to think of tactics and stay alert.
When faced with contrary scientific evidence, motivational speakers and their disciples rarely respond by modifying their views. If anything, they are apt to ignore such results. If cornered, they are apt to launch into a condemnation of science and its narrow mindedness.
Yet, strangely, at the same time, the motivational industry is always eager to evoke science to create an air of respectability. Usually, however, their science is painfully outdated and simplistic, like the Myers-Briggs personality indicators. More often, it is not real science in the least, but pseudo-science – fringe beliefs like crystal healing that offer the appearance of science, down to the specialized terminology, but that lacks the rigor and testing procedures of true science.
Not that such limitations bother the speakers and their listeners – the appearance of science only needs to be superficial, since the point is to borrow the credibility of science, not to adopt its actual practices or criteria for truth. What the motivational industry is really concerned about is creating a closed belief system that can never be questioned or debunked, because no real standards apply.
I suspect that the reason that the motivational industry is structured this way is that the truth is very simple. Except in cases of glandular disorders and other medical conditions, the way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more, and find a balance between these two necessities that helps you to keep the weight off. Similarly, any real effort to teach people to successful would have to acknowledge that what is involved is acquiring skills, careful planning, and some luck – and that having money and connections doesn’t hurt, either.
But such answers are not very satisfactory for people looking for quick answers and minimal effort. Nor are they nearly as simple as affirmations. They are more qualified, and carry no guarantees, and who is going to pay for something that complicated?
In the end, all the motivational industry can supply (other than a way to spend money with very little to show for it), is a series of half-truths. Yes, a visible lack of confidence can work against you, but that does not mean that confidence is all you need. Yes, prayer might help you focus your mind on what is about to happen, but it the focus that is likely to prove useful, not the magic of divine intervention on your behalf. And, yes, science makes mistakes, and scientists can be as petty as anyone – but that doesn’t mean that science isn’t usually a more reliable way of interacting with the world than cultivating your self-esteem.
If anything, the motivational industry is constantly threatening to descend into either irrelevancy or farce. I know of one alleged relationship expert (with troubled relationships of their own) who preaches that the way to find a happy marriage is to settle for someone who is agreeable, a suggestion that is not going to be very satisfactory to those who want a particular person, or is dreaming of passion and true love. Still another suggests – with every sign of sincerity – that redecorating your bedroom is a key to finding a glamorous new lifestyle. In other words, in the case of the motivational industry, there is continual reason to believe that the emperor is not only buck-naked, but doing a lap dance.
What fascinates, frustrates, and frightens me is that, despite the ease with which the motivational industry can be debunked, millions continue to believe in it. Apparently, the desire for simple answers is so strong that nobody notices that the motivational speakers themselves are as flaky as phyllo.