“Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.
—Martin Luther King Jr
I’ve attended many personal development seminars over the years. Most experiences have been positive but there are times when I’ve signed up for an “epic event” that ended up leaving a bad taste in my mouth.
In this article, I want to share an experience that turned out completely different from what I expected. An experience that left me feeling frustrated, disillusioned and confused.
Looking back, I now see what happened…
I witnessed the Dark Side of the personal development industry.
Since then, I’ve been debating whether to write about it or not. It’s a controversial and complex issue, and I much prefer to write about positive topics.
Yet, in the end, I can’t stay silent about what I consider to be unethical behavior.
This post may upset you, or it may make you think “FINALLY someone is saying something about this!” Either way, I believe it’s important to shine light into the darkness.
My intention is to write this as a ‘User’s Guide’ to help you make more educated decisions about how you invest your time, energy and money to accelerate your evolution… without being misled by deceptive sales tactics.
Friday morning, 9am. I arrive at a personal development seminar with a room filled with 200 people who have come from all over to learn how improve their lives and businesses. The excitement is palpable, and I’m feeling ready to rock!
But within minutes of the beginning, I start getting uncomfortable because the leaders are using a heavy amount of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) and influence techniques as they engage with the audience.
To the untrained eye, this behavior is discreet and disguised as “crowd participation”. To the trained eye, it’s clear what’s going on- a subtle method of mind control.
1. On countless occasions, we’re requested to raise our hand and shout out “Yes!” (technique: escalating the YES’s).
2. Several times, the people who are already a part of the leader’s “high-end program” stand up and we’re asked to applaud them (technique: elevation of status/significance).
3. In addition to all of this, throughout the day, the leaders get us to play a call-and-answer game where we shout out a specific word… which eventually we find out happens to be the exact name of the leader’s high-end program (technique: commitment & consistency).
I try to reason with myself that none of this is new, and that seminar leaders have been using these techniques for decades.
For the rest of the day, I try to keep my distance and see the big picture so I can make the most of the experience. Some of the content is quite valuable so I decide to set aside the conflicting navigation of my moral compass and focus on learning.
Don’t hate the player-hate the game, right?
Saturday morning, 9am. After a good night sleep, I’m back for round 2. As the day progresses, I become more and more uneasy. The seminar’s motive is becoming clearer:
Every element of the experience (from the videos we watch, to the exercises we do, and the influence tactics we’re exposed to), have been carefully crafted with one goal in mind:
To get us to say “YES!” to the big upsell on Saturday night.
All of a sudden, I feel like Neo in the Matrix. I can see through the illusion.
I’ve invested significant energy, time and money to get here, book a hotel room, and give these men my full attention…
Only to sit through a glorified 3-day sales pitch?
I look around to see if anyone is coming to these same realizations. Honestly, many people haven’t studied the psychology of influence so I’m not surprised when I observe that they don’t notice the techniques that are being used so readily.
The leaders’ manufactured vulnerability, the stories they tell, and the quotes they use all have the same effect: they get people to feel like they MUST invest in a program or else they’ll never reach their dreams.
As Saturday night approaches, most people have been effectively influenced by the whole production. Of course, it’s only then that they make their “big offer”.
Alas, over an interminable 2-hour sales pitch, we’re given an explanation on all of the reasons why we should step up, be leaders, and sign up for the high-end program.
After a while, I can’t take it anymore. I grab my stuff, stand up and leave the room.
As I’m walking out, my head is spinning: have I gone crazy? Or have I gone sane?
What’s most contradictory is that the leaders seem like genuinely good men. I believe they truly want to help people. But the seminar feels deceitful and like a huge set-up to me. What gives?
With all these thoughts swirling through my head, I walk back to my room, wanting nothing more than to sleep it off and forget about all this.
Sunday morning, 9am. After going through my morning ritual, I turn on my phone to find a text message from one of the seminar leader’s assistants.
She writes: “I had a chance to talk to [Seminar Leader] last night he thinks that you are an ideal candidate for [High-End Program]… Come see me so we can talk about your enrollment, etc.”
Wait a minute, this makes no sense. I’ve only talked to the guy for about 8 seconds in my life, I haven’t filled out any application or questionnaire, and this person knows nothing about me or my business. Yet, I am now considered an ideal candidate?
I go down to confront the assistant about it. She’s noticeably uncomfortable, gives a cryptic answer, saying that “based on the list, you’re good fit”. “What list?” I ask myself. She then casually laughs it off saying she has gotten some rest since sending that message.
With this, my assumptions have been validated. It officially wasn’t my imagination, this seminar has indeed been designed as a marketing offensive on unsuspecting attendees.
The content is a cover-up, selling more programs is the real intention.
On this note, I decide I’ve had enough, and walk away from the event… feeling frustrated, disillusioned and confused.
Since coming back to Boulder, I’ve been reflecting deeply on the experience, and what leads good people to misuse their leadership.
Spending time away from the mainstream personal development world while I was in Bali has only sharpened my disdain for questionable business practices, and heightened my desire to shape the industry in a more ethical manner.
For the time being, here are some points I want to share with you:
I sincerely believe that working on ourselves to become a better human and perform at a higher level is one of the noblest things we can do.
And to do it as effectively as possible, working with teachers and coaches can be immensely beneficial. It can save years of time, help us stay on the path when it’s difficult, and make the whole journey a heck of a lot more stimulating.
I’ve personally invested more than $100,000 of my own money over the past decade, and most of these experiences have provided an excellent return.
But as you choose your teachers on this journey, I invite you to ask yourself these questions:
2. Are they someone you’d feel comfortable inviting to your house for dinner?
3. Do you get uncomfortable about some of the sales tactics they’re using? Does it feel manipulative to you?
4. Does their offer sound too good to be true? Do they have a track record that shows that they can consistently deliver on their promises?
5. What does your gut tell you about them? Do you feel like they care more about you or about your money?
Those are all important questions to ask yourself as you move along your path.
Mastering sales and marketing is easier than becoming a master teacher, so there are bound to be more world-class marketers than world-class teachers out there.
I often like to think of the greatest teachers in history: Jesus, Buddha, Plato, Confucius, Aristotle, etc…
As I’m reflecting on this experience, I ask myself:
What would these great men think if they saw what’s going on in the expert industry today?
How would they share their wisdom with the world if they lived in this day and age?
How can my work benefit all of humanity and while setting an example for other leaders?
I’ve shared this experience with you to shed light on these situations, to give you permission to be more discerning about who you get advice from, and to uphold integrity of the personal development field at large.
The reality is, there are several great people in the industry, and there are others who will promise you the moon but only leave you feeling disillusioned.
It’s your job to choose carefully. Giving someone privileged access into your consciousness is a sacred decision.
And they should be someone who will see your tutelage as their divine mission. Someone who will care deeply for you, your journey, and the impact you have on the world.
Your mentors should go above and beyond the call of duty, use their influence with utmost care, and do everything in their power to help you become the best version of yourself.
As you continue on your path, keep your eyes open and be discerning.
Seek extraordinary teachers, not sleek marketers.
Find the people who really have your best interests at heart.
And once you’ve found them, be the best student you can be.
Now I’d love to hear from you: what are your thoughts on the “Dark Side of Personal Development”? How do you discern between sleek marketing and great teachers? Let me know in the comments below.
PS Please share this post so more people can make more educated decisions on their personal development journey.