A couple months ago, I was hanging out with a good friend.. We shall call him Steve. Much like myself, Steve has spent the last 10 years realizing that our universe is much bigger than the neighborhood we grew up in. While our paths have been different at times, we still have a great deal in common. I’d say that he probably knows me, my journey, and my direction better than anyone.
Part of Steve branching out and exploring his new universe was reading more, expanding his interests, and trying out some self-help courses. He mentioned that he had gone to one and that it was a little weird but that he did learn a few things. Not long after, he was headed to the states for a follow up course or something to that effect. Maybe it was a Tony Robbins thing?
I had seen Tony Robbins on YouTube, and while I understood and appreciated the things he would say, I didn’t find them very motivational. Same could be said for the other ‘motivational’ speakers I’ve watched. I actually found their material rather repetitive and somewhat hollow. There was lots of talk about waking up at 4:45 am or loading up your desktop with pictures of things you wanted to accomplish, but very little mention of how to actually navigate the obstacles I was actually facing.
I think part of it is that I’m already motivated. When people are asked to describe me, ‘driven’ is usually in the top 3. Another element is an appreciation that not all strategies work well for all people or in all situations. I know plenty of people who have no business waking up at 4:45 am and are remarkably productive well into the evening. And perhaps the biggest for me, is recognizing their BS sales tactics. The one that sticks out for me is ‘look at my garage full of exotic cars, if you want to be like me, pay for my motivational BS’.
While I think those reasons should be enough for most people to be wary, I think there’s another level to it for me. Not long ago, I realized that I’ve made a career out of making things harder than they needed to be. If something was easy, there was a good chance that I would find a way to make it more difficult. I was constantly looking to challenge myself and push my boundaries. It led to a lot of mistakes and those mistakes often had rather significant consequences. But I learned. I didn’t learn to make fewer mistakes or to fear the consequences of my actions. I learned the value of making mistakes, the lessons which were afforded by them, and how to roll with whatever consequences presented themselves. As someone who embraces making mistakes but is fixated on not repeating them, you’re afforded the opportunity to learn a great deal.
So a couple months ago, Steve and I are hanging out at my place and he’s telling me about this self-help seminar that he did and he does a real soft-sell, asking if I’d be into it. I do my best to keep an open mind, but ultimately reply with a soft-decline. I tell him that most of what they’re teaching, I’ve already learned (the hard way), and that I’m not the type to be motivated by someone bouncing around on stage telling me about my untapped potential. He suggests that it helped him with a few things and that he thinks it would be a very interesting experience for me to go through. I say anything can be interesting with the right perspective, whether it’s worth my time and money is a different conversation. So I ask him what the course material is. He tells me that he’s not supposed to share it. What? Apparently, knowing the course material ahead of time tampers with the ‘experience’. I suggest that this is probably a better fit for some of his other friends. He tells me that it’s difficult to talk about this kinda stuff with his other friends. He tells me it’s a money-back guarantee. Hmm… I still decline. Then he reluctantly shares with me that part of his ‘success’ in this program is being able to communicate its value with others… and get them to sign up. I went from being surprised that he let them do that to him, to unsurprised that this was one of their tactics, to disappointed that he went along with it. But I could tell that it was important to him. A money-back guarantee you say? He says that if nothing else, he’s very curious to see what happens when you put someone like me in an environment like that. I agree.
A few weeks later, I go to a dinner-pitch hosted by Steve with a presenter from the weekend seminar. The presenter is a mortgage-broker by trade, and says that within the first 10 seconds of his introduction (I wonder how much business he sources from this). He goes on to introduce the organization that he’s a part of: PSI Seminars. He touches on a few basics like the value of living outside your comfort zone, or the mind-state of a jaded adult vs. an innocent child. He then moves on to talk about how much he benefited from the program, mentioning that his income doubled and that he has a much better relationship with his family now. He then brings up others who have gone through the process and they say the same thing. Then they deliver the sales pitch, referring to the cost of the seminar as ‘tuition’ and providing a discount to anyone who signs up that night. He all but confirmed that I was walking into exactly what I thought I was walking into, but I had made a commitment to a friend and that was more important to me.
A few more weeks go by and it’s time to go the PSI: Basic, a Friday, Saturday, Sunday seminar, each day running 10am-8pm.
On day one, we go through our registration and all 70 of us pile into a smaller banquet room at a mid-sized hotel in the burbs. The music is terrible.. like crappy, upbeat country kinda terrible. The man who takes the stage is a 50 something white guy in a boxy suit. Right away, he establishes a rapport with the audience by poking fun at his suit and talking about how half the people in the room still aren’t sure how they were talked into this. He shares that he was super skeptical when he went through the ‘basic’ 17 years ago. He pokes fun at the lack of participation from the crowd at first, but once he gets people laughing, the crowd seems to relax. Trust +1.
Then we break into groups headed by a ‘micro-leader’, someone who has done the program previously and wants to be further involved. In our micro-groups of 5, we’re told to go around in a circle and tell each other about the accomplishment(s) we’re proudest of. Then the rest of the group is asked to provide first impressions of that person. I ended up with a list of qualities which I aspire to.. things like honesty, integrity, intelligence, and work ethic. Others end up with similar positive lists. I’m a little disappointed as I’d much rather have constructive feedback. Validation +1.
We’re told a story about Jim Carrey, how he came from humble beginnings, and about the $15,000,000 check he wrote to himself. Apparently this was a turning point for him because every time he reached into his wallet, he saw that check and this motivated him to be able to cash it one day – the law of attraction. I’m someone who recognizes the law of attraction as a small part of a larger effort in achieving something. I’m not a fan of those who suggest that it’s the only thing standing between you and all your goals. Positivity +1
That afternoon, we do an exercise where we divide everyone into 4 groups, based on how you identify around dominance and formality. It’s basically a limited introduction into personality science, helping people understanding that different personalities behave and interact differently. As someone who’s been familiar with MBTI for over 10 years and is already reading Carl Jung’s works.. it was a bit light for me. Trust +1
Later that afternoon, he tells us about the innocence of children. How they don’t carry the prejudice, hurt, or other emotional baggage that tends to hold adults back. He talks about undoing ‘programs’ that we’ve built within our minds. I often see my thoughts as algorithms, and use the basic premise of re-coding to adjust my behavior. I would’ve liked to explore that at a deeper level but this was just a brief introduction. Trust + 1.
That evening, we were taught about the victim mentality. That when life gives you lemons, you can either take responsibility for those lemons and make lemonade, or you can bitch and complain about how you got lemons and hope that you get something better next time. As critical as I’ve been, it’s an important lesson these days. At the end of the day, there’s a lot to be learned and gained by taking responsibility for things, regardless of how they came about. I think this was intelligently communicated. Already a lesson which is near and dear to my heart, I still appreciate them teaching it here. Trust +1.
Leaving at 8pm, you become very aware that your only break for food was a lunch at 2pm.
We start the day off with sharing things that we learned the day before. A few people get up and say something to the effect of ‘I was skeptical when I arrived yesterday, but then the exercise that we did about ______ really stuck with me’. Good for them. Then this middle-aged Chinese lady with a thick accent stands up and proceeds to deliver quite the speech. You could tell that she had come from a place of hurt and frustration in how she was talking and she went on to talk about how the Jim Carrey story had motivated her to go get that money she felt she deserved. But it wasn’t the $15 million, she wanted $200 million! Then she referenced the analogy of the child, saying that she was also inspired by how when children want things, they want them *now*. She talked about how she wanted to make a movie, but that everyone around her implored her to at least start with a book. She was fired up. She wanted that $200 million and she wanted to make a movie and there was nothing that was going to stop her. She also managed to say that this is why she admired Trump, because he dreamed big and he was bold. It seemed that her takeaways from the day before were a sense of entitlement and a lack of patience. But the fact that she was passionate, speaking her truth, and overcoming a language barrier earned her a big round of applause from the crowd. I was hoping the facilitator would curb some of that behavior, but instead, he chose to ride the wave of applause and said “Someone get her a job at PSI!” Really?
The next exercise was about having a better relationship with your parents. We were told to close our eyes and take some deep breaths. Then this Disney-esque motivational music comes on and the facilitator begins to read a script. We’re told to imagine our parents in a few scenarios which are designed to create empathy. The lesson is that our parents did the best that they could, regardless of how well or poorly they did. The room was sobbing. I had a great relationship with my dad, and said everything that I wanted to him before he died. My mom and I had a more estranged relationship up until a couple years ago, but we’re in a good place for a variety of reasons, including understanding that she did the best she could. I managed to avoid any tears until I was told to imagine my parents together, smiling, and happy for me. My parents broke up when I was a young teenager. They were sleeping in different rooms well before that. Imagining my parents together was a brief moment of happiness, but reflecting on it now, it seems rather hollow. Trust +2.
That afternoon, we went through another eyes-closed exercise. This required you to visualize walking through a forest, into a compound, digging a hole… finding a chest.. and zzzzzzz. I fell asleep. When I woke up, I quickly figured out that the exercise was about the importance of keeping your word. As someone who is big on keeping his word, and surrounded by people to struggle to keep theirs, I appreciated this lesson. Trust +1.
The last exercise of the day was a game. We were divided into two groups, given a quick set of rules, and then our group was sent off to another room for the game to begin. I recognized it pretty quickly as an exercise in game theory so I asked the facilitator if he still wanted me to participate. He said ‘sure, go for it’. I asked my group if they wanted some insight, which they did, so I proceeded to give them a quick overview on what game theory was, how it applied to this game, and how it connected to everything we were talking about. People were on board pretty quick, and both groups managed to achieve the best possible outcome for 8 of the 10 frames we supposed to play. Then two people at the back of our group with name tags spoke abruptly and said, “the game is over, don’t talk and go back to the other room.” Everyone was confused as to who these guys were and why the game had ended short of its conclusion. Lots of questions were being asked, but no answers so we herded ourselves back to the other room. On the way over, an older lady asked why I thought the game had ended early. I joked and said maybe they realized we figured out the winning strategy and cut it short. The guys from the back of the room were right behind us and rather loudly said, “I said be quiet and go to the room.” My immediate reaction was to laugh it off, apologize, and proceed to the room. Once we were back, we were told about how game theory worked and how it connects to life in general. Someone asked why we weren’t given the opportunity to complete the game and we were reminded that we were only given 30 minutes to play. The person asking the question said that we weren’t given a clock, and we had been asked to keep our watches and cellphones out of sight. The facilitator snapped back pretty quick about being a victim and not taking responsibility. He said that the game wasn’t over yet though and we would continue tomorrow. For a lot of people, Trust +1.
On my way home, I was increasingly annoyed with the way that guy had tried to reprimand me for talking. Being able to explain game theory to the group, helping them navigate the temptations to preemptively screw over the other team, and helping us arrive at a perfect score was the highlight of my day. Especially because the people in the room really appreciated it. But we were cut short of a perfect game, followed by these two randoms barking at me like prison guards. We were told that the game was still going… maybe this was part of the game?
We begin day 3 with another sharing session. To little surprise, the Chinese lady from the day before is looking to share again. This time she opens up about some of her failures. She talks about borrowing money to invest just before the 2008 financial collapse. She lost that money, and borrowed more through her credit cards hoping that the market was coming back. It wasn’t, she lost that money too. Then her boyfriend left her. Her parents called her out for poor decision making, but ultimately bailed her out to the tune of $150,000. She went on to say how when she was at her lowest, she asked god what he had planned for her. Apparently god spoke to her, saying keep your head up, I have big things in-store for you and you just have to make it through this rough patch. She went on to talk a lot about god, and how he loves all of us, and that his love is the only love we need. I think it went on for about 20 minutes. Again, to a large round of applause and more positive reinforcement from the facilitator.
I can’t remember if it was the second or the third day, but the facilitator broke protocol and told us about his background and his path into PSI. He was a minister at a church in California. A pretty large church by the sounds of it as he worked with the largest youth group in the city. As he tells it, he married the wrong woman. When he looked towards a divorce, his church wasn’t having it. It sounded like he had to choose between leaving his church and staying in an unhealthy marriage, and he choose to leave his church. Good on him. Trust +1.
As we were getting into our micro-groups for the morning, my micro-leader asked what had happened the day before. I wasn’t sure what he was getting at. Apparently, he was told that I was starting trouble during the game theory exercise. I had almost forgotten about it at that point. I never expected those guys to escalate it, let alone to describe the situation as me being disruptive. That was annoying.
For our micro-group exercise, we were asked to identify our goals, our supports, and our obstacles. Basically, 3 people who represented your obstacles would stand in front of you and yell at you while 1 person who represented your support would stand behind you and yell supportive things at you. My obstacles seemed to want to avoid eye contact with me… not very intimidating. Everyone else found that they were able to tune into the positives while tuning out the negatives. Trust +1.
During one of our breaks, the older lady from the other day came up to me and started apologizing for the behavior of the guys from the day before. I told her that while I appreciated her apology, it was not accepted because she had nothing to apologize for. She may have been the one to ask me the question, but I was the one who chose to answer. And frankly, just because someone tells me not to speak doesn’t mean I’ve agreed to it. She offered to tell PSI about what had happened and was furious when she found out that they had already reported it and had cast me as the trouble maker. I calmed her down, told her the guy was probably just having a bad day, and everything was gravy.
Back in the seminar room, we were told that the game from yesterday was over. The facilitator fielded several questions and helped people better understand the point of the game. Once all the questions were over, I put my hand up. I said that some staff — “volunteers”, okay, some volunteers were rather rude to me yesterday after the game and I wanted to know if that was a part of the game. The facilitator said, “well they were trying to get you to stop talking.” To which I replied, “you’re right, and some ways are more rude than others.” I told him that I just wanted to know whether it was a part of the game, or if someone was just having a bad day, in which case I could resolve it myself. The facilitator said it wasn’t part of the game, and that he assumed there would probably be a conversation to be had after this. I thanked him and we proceeded.
I think after this was the ‘I love myself’ exercise. We were partnered up again, told to sit directly across from someone with our eyes closed, and to tell them what love means to us, and how we want to be loved. Again, the room broke into tears. I may have started with love is familiarity over time, but did my best to articulate what I understood love to be and the ways in which I wanted to be loved. It’s something I had already given a fair bit of thought to having just read The General Theory of Love, a book about the brain chemistry behind emotions. But again, it seemed like a big breakthrough for a lot of the people in the room. Trust + 1, Validation + 1.
I wish I could remember the exact sequence of events, but I can’t at this point. What comes next might not be an exact timeline, but I think the conclusions will remain the same.
What likely came next was this lesson that seemed half way between you can’t solve problems with the thinking that you used to create them, and there are different ways of closing the distance between where you are and where you want to be. Both very important lessons, but I don’t think they were effectively taught as what followed was an awkward soul train dance-party. Basically, everyone had to line up on one side of the room and make it to the other side of the room among music and clapping. The rule was you couldn’t do it the way someone previously had. Most people chose to make it across with bad dance moves, some with uninspired shimmies, and a few (mostly the staff and volunteers) with way more sparkle than the situation called for. But when everyone is clapping and cheering for you.. Validation +1.
While I’ve listed most of the core curriculum here, it was 30 hours of seminar work so there’s a lot that I’m leaving out. Perhaps the most significant of which are the ‘feel good’ moments. There was a lot of clapping. A lot of positive reinforcement for just showing up. A lot of ‘believe in yourself and the world is yours’. moments At one point, the facilitator actually said the only difference between you and MLK is that MLK believed in himself. I wanted to throw something at him. Just because most people who are successful are also confident, doesn’t mean that confidence leads to success. In reality, it’s often success that leads to confidence. To earn that success, you have to put the hours in.
Throughout the weekend, trust was being established between the audience and the facilitator. Peppered in were all these moments of ‘I am strong, confident, and deserve to be loved’. There were back rubs, and hugs, and lots of crying. During various interactions, people were trying to articulate what they thought about something, and the facilitator would say ‘forget what you think, tell me how you feel’. The room was being molded into this tribe which was exchanging critical thought for feeling good. Not just feeling good about themselves, but also feeling good about where they were, who they were with, what they were learning, and especially about the person leading the seminar. Hmm…
During the late afternoon of day 3, we were introduced to ‘The Ranch’. We were told that this was the PSI Basic, and that after this comes a visit to the ranch which was a 7 day seminar somewhere in eastern California. We were told how this seminar was only scratching the surface of your potential and that to really spread your wings and fly, you would need to attend this next seminar. Then some of the volunteers were asked to step up and tell us about what the ranch had helped them accomplish. Of the 5, 4 said that they doubled their income. 3 said that they then found the love of their lives. There was definitely a theme here. Including a 30 minute sales pitch for the next seminar during this session wasn’t ideal but it wasn’t the end of the world. But then things took a hard right.
There wasn’t just the ranch, there was also another leadership seminar after the ranch, which together would cost about $12,000. “but if you sign up in the next 20 minutes, we’ll knock that price down to $8950. Now I know some of you are thinking that’s a lot of money but the best thing you can do is just go for it. If you sign up for it now, you’ll find the money.”
As I was watching this unfold, and looking at the people around me wide-eyed and nodding their heads, I became frustrated. These people were in such an emotional, trusting, and positive state of mind, that they weren’t thinking rationally. Anyone who truly understands money knows that you don’t make financial decisions when in a highly emotional state. These people were being taken advantage of. Do I stay quiet? Do I let this happen? One of the core lessons of game theory is that you do what you know is right, regardless of how others might react. Fuck it. I’m saying something. I reminded the facilitator that his first piece of advice to us on day 1 was to appreciate that some of the things happening this weekend would take time to digest and not to rush into anything. I said that since this was a rather significant financial decision for a lot of the people here today, wouldn’t it make sense to think it over? Bless his heart, he paused, and said that’s a good point.
The room was rather tense, so the mortgage-broker from the dinner-pitch stepped up from the back of the room and started by saying they get that question all the time. The facilitator casually interjected that it was the first time he had heard that question in 17 years of teaching it. The mortgage-broker then proceeded to string many words together in an attempt to justify what was happening. He then asked me if that made sense, I was going to reply no, but the facilitator did it for me.
During that 20 minute break, I saw a few people going to the back of the room to sign up but really had no idea if what I had said made an impact. A few people did approach me and thank me for what I did though. What I really appreciated was that the facilitator came up to me and said, “I had to think about it, but I have an answer.” He went on to tell me that his advice at the beginning was about dating or soliciting business from people at the seminar, not about spending money. I asked him why the same principles didn’t apply. He said something to the effect of the momentum people have going into that pitch is the best opportunity for them to appreciate what they could get out of it. I asked how that was different from any other pressure-sales tactic. I criticized him for helping people arrive at a highly emotional state of mind, reluctant to think critically about the money they were spending or the value they were receiving, and then giving them 20 minutes to spend more than what the average family saves in a year. He was stuck, and said that this was how the company approached their business. I told him that I thought he was a good person, and sensed a very genuine desire in him to help people become better versions of themselves. He said whether it was this or the church, there were always going to be things that he disagreed with. I pressed and asked that if he knew this is how PSI approached their business, why was he working here? He laughed it off and said, “you’re not that good.” Maybe not, but I would bet good money that he won’t get that conversation out of his head any time soon. I hope so.. he deserves better.
The next activity was learning about the workshop of the mind. I think it’s largely an exercise in visualizing, not dissimilar to Sherlock’s mind-palace. We were told to think of someone with an illness and then share the gender, age, and name of the individual with our partner. The partner was then asked to visualize what was wrong with them and come up with some creative solutions on how to heal them. Both my partner and I proceeded to get ‘most’ things right about who the other person had in mind. We were told that this was like wifi, that our bodies just had to tune into the telepathic signals being sent back and forth. I was told about a 57 year old named Stanley. So I analyzed the person in front of me, ended up with some assumptions on the type of person she would likely choose, and then proceeded to identify someone with salt and pepper hair, with glasses, who wore a collared shirt, pants with a belt, nice shoes but not too nice. For ailments, I suggested lower back pain, a past knee injury, and that his liver could probably be in better shape. Right on all counts. But how many other 57 year old males did I just describe? Mentalism will teach you just how much information is communicated non-verbally. I think that to assume we can’t tap into these ‘frequencies’ of information would be premature. To say that this exercise is a real-life example of how human intuition borders on telepathy, would be overly ambitious. Unfortunately, I think that this exercise best demonstrates why astrology is still so popular.
Towards the end of the night, we were told about our graduation ceremony the following week. This ceremony would see each of us graduate and receive a certificate for completing the course, and we were encouraged to invite as many people as we could. We were told stories of how people renting 3 minivans just to bring all the people they had invited. Then we were told that after the graduation ceremony, there would be a short presentation on the value of PSI: Basic, and that if any of your friends or family wanted to sign up, there would be people waiting at the back of the room. Yuck.
The last exercise for the night was where we were all grouped together by who had invited us to the seminar. We were told to close our eyes and imagine how much that person cared about us, and what it took for them to help get us here. I immediately started thinking that they were bringing in the people who had invited us for a big final reveal, but I knew Steve was in Mexico for the week. With my eyes closed, I was tempted to flash a middle finger to let him know that I knew he was there (probably). I opened my eyes and there he was, fresh off his return flight. After being asked to stare into each other’s eyes for a couple minutes, we hugged it out and called it a day.
Earlier that day, we were asked to write a letter to the person who had invited us. It won’t be word for word, but I’ll give you the gist. Steve knows me better than just about anyone. He’s one of my few friends who knows about this blog and actually reads it. He’s the one who sees me write about loneliness and makes a point of hanging out. He’s also the one I use to hold me accountable to my goals, and the friend I bounce ideas off when those ideas are way out there. If someone’s going to tell my story some day, they won’t be able to tell that story without writing extensively about him. He’s my brother in the truest sense of the word and I appreciate why he wanted me to take this seminar. It wasn’t the pressure that PSI was putting on him, or him being swindled into the cult of self-help, or the fact that he thought I needed the help. He just wanted to see me continue to grow.. and that’s why we’re bros.
He also told me that he was talking to the mortgage-broker guy when he came in and that he was rather flustered about me speaking up during the sales pitch. Apparently he called me a ‘little shit’ and wanted to take me aside and talk to me one-on-one. Steve proceeded to tell him that this was a terrible idea and that I would talk circles around him. I love Steve. Not just because he put buddy in his place, but more so because he reminded him to stay within the spirit of what was being taught at PSI. Yoda’s voice is echoing in my head, “Remember your teachings young padewan.”
After it’s all said and done, our micro-group leaders reach out to us on whatsapp and start a group chat around accomplishing goals for the month. I get a message shortly after saying that I had been uninvited from our graduation ceremony later that week because I had asked for my money back. I found that a bit surprising as the PSI paperwork says that you must attend graduation in order to receive your refund. Part of me was happy that I didn’t have to waste more time on PSI sales pitches, but another part of me was a little annoyed that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to support those who did receive value from the experience.
Day 3 + 8
I think that if anyone asks for a refund, it’s the responsibility of their micro-leader to approach them about why. My micro-leader reached out to me and asked if we could grab coffee and chat. We did, it was super amicable, and not much was accomplished. I tried to impress upon him the importance of integrity when aligning yourself with organizations like this but I don’t think he was in the right state of mind to hear it. Nice kid, but I think he’ll need to figure this out for himself. We had brief conversation around what I had learned. I told him that the biggest take away for me, was having a deeper understanding of how and why religion appeals to people. The similarities between how PSI approached personal growth and how churches approached spirituality were remarkable. I’ll save that for the next one.