The Companion Experience (Part 2)

In my last post, I explored the idea of bringing one of our oldest professions into the 21st century.  I tried to make a case for understanding sex as a natural element of the human experience rather than something to be pursued or withheld for social gain.  I also tried to make case for why it would improve the lives of everyone involved.  Much like the legalization of alcohol and now cannabis, perhaps it’s time to let go of our prejudice and do what’s sensible for all those involved.  But it’s not enough to say we should do it. We need to find a way to do it with intelligence and compassion.

 

While I’m inclined to say that the first step is legalization, it really isn’t.  The first step is education for the purpose of destigmatization.  From what I can tell, the general public has a rather skewed idea of what prostitution is and very little interest in how it could be done better.  A dear friend once told me that you have to plant seeds in fertile soil.  I think it would be education that makes this soil fertile.

I’ve often said that dishonesty is the most counter-productive force known to humanity.  If we could have a honest look at who uses escorts and why, I think our perception would change dramatically.  There are certainly some seedy characters in the mix, but there’s also a full spectrum of service providers and clients.  From high-powered women looking to unwind, to couples looking to spice things up, to newbies looking to learn a few moves.. there are a lot of reasons to look to this industry.  And for those with a high sex drive, a desire to pleasure, an affinity for polyamory and an ability to tune into the well-being of others…. there are a lot of good reasons to be interested in the profession.  If we could show people that this doesn’t have to be about exploitation, we could open their minds to what this could be about.

If we could get to the point where the general public is willing to look at this industry with an open mind, they might start to value an approach which was both intelligent in its design and compassionate to all of those involved.  In my last post, I described what I called the companion experience.  It was this idea that sex was only one element of companionship, and not even a mandatory one.  It was recognizing that  within the human experience, we have gaps in our ability to connect with others in the way we want.  Some may lack the time to generate those connections, while others may lack the social skills.  Whatever the reason, having those connections are an important part of being a balanced and healthy human being.  History has shown us that there has always been those in search of companionship and those motivated to provide.  This is connecting those dots in a respectful and productive way.

So once minds are open and people are willing to leave their prejudice behind, it’s time to roll out a plan.  Something where a reasonable person could say, “It might not be for me, but I understand this and I would support it”.

Step 1 would be legalization.  There are certainly criminal elements within the industry today, but that has more to do with it being illegal than the actual profession.  We saw that with alcohol in the 1920s and we’re seeing that again with cannabis today.  When you make it legal, you bring it into the light.  Good operators shine while bad operators go out of business.  For those who continue to treat the industry as one of exploitation, there will be fewer and fewer places to hide.  The transition wouldn’t be immediate, but every journey starts with a first step.  Legalization would be the first step in creating a culture that encouraged the positive elements while discouraging the negative.

Step 2, would be regulation.  Most speaking about legalization and regulations as the same thing but I’ve learned to separate the two because of what they tend to mean.  Legalization, in a broad sense, refers to the public acknowledgement that something is socially acceptable.  Regulation determines the way in which we would allow it.  In the spirit of full transparency, I have some strong reservations around regulations in general.  Too often, those who are charged with the responsibility of deciding how we should allow something are incapable of deciding what’s best for all those involved.  Sometimes it’s politics, sometimes it’s prejudice, sometimes its a lack of motivation, and sometimes it’s just incompetence.  That said, perhaps we can set a few ground rules:

  1. A companion will always have the ability to choose their own clients.
  2. A companion will always reserve the right to excuse themselves from a situation
  3. A client will always reserve the right to excuse themselves from a situation

Beyond this, I’m having a hard time coming up with any other rules which should always be in effect.  I’m not saying there aren’t any others, but I’m having a hard time coming up with rules for which I can’t find obvious exceptions.  I’m also not much for rules…

What tends to be more effective than rules is a culture.  I’ve given a lot of thought to what culture is an where I keep landing is a collective intelligence.  So rather than write a set of rules which may or may not encompass all the complexities of something like this, how about we collectively and intelligently find the best ways of moving forward?  I’ve learned that with complex issues like these, there is no right way of doing something, only a continuum of finding ways to do it better.

I suppose this leads us to step 3.  As much as the experience between the companion and client is one of human connection, the exchange of value for a service is a function of business.  One reason why I’m not a fan of regulation is that those with the best policies tend to run the best businesses.  We would want to create ground rules for the respect and safety of those involved, but we would also want great businesses to have the freedom to find the best path to lift this industry up.

I’m not entirely sure what the best approach here would be as I can’t think of any modern examples where this approach has been applied.  That said, I have a few ideas:

  1. Ahead of legalization and regulation, build a think-tank consisting of the world’s most respected industry professionals and clients.  Provide them with an open-minded board of advisers who would be able to provide insight with respect to government relations, general and sexual health, technology, psychology, law enforcement, education and anything else that would help us make informed decisions.  Then ask them to produce a set of best practices which could be used as a template for all those looking to get involved in the business of companionship.
  2. Allow the members of this think-tank to play the role of adviser to a government funded investment firm with the mandate of investing in the companionship industry.  The best way to change someone’s behavior is to give them an option they’re more interested in.  The best way to move this industry from the black market to a place of respect, is to provide a better option to all those who are looking.  The way in which you accomplish that is by supporting a new generation of businesses who are looking to do it better.   And there’s no better way to do that than by giving opportunities to the entrepreneurs with the right motivations.
  3. Provide the opportunity for companions to work as independents.  I’m not a fan of forcing someone into the employment of someone else.  If this is your chosen profession, there should be a way for you to be your own boss and not have to compromise on things like personal safety.  Perhaps some of the businesses would be like the Air Bnb of companionship… where your accommodation comes with some in-house entertainment.

With a new generation of businesses equipped with the knowledge, motivation, and resources to do things better, I think we would see a massive transition from the black market to the white market.  The best companions would seek out employment with the best businesses, or perhaps choose a more independent route.  Clients could align themselves with the businesses which expressed values they identified with, just like we do with other businesses.  As certain businesses developed competitive advantages over others, and clients ebbed and flowed accordingly, better policies would be developed.  Ultimately, we’re trying to set the foundation for an industry which could evolve alongside our best understanding of it.

Part of me is tempted to unload some more ideas on best practices… things like:

  1. The disclosure of sexual health.
  2. The Education and training of companions to be more than just sex workers.
  3. Perhaps a database of clients so companions can better understand who they’re getting involved with.
  4. A blacklist of clients who have crossed lines which should not be crossed.
  5. Mediators who can peacefully and compassionately resolve disputes as they arise.
  6. I’m not the biggest fan of licenses which can act as barriers to good operators, but what about certifications?  Being certified in different practices and techniques would be one direction.  We could also talk about being certified by an organization which represents for integrity and high standards.

 

No shortage of ideas… but that’s mostly because there’s so much room for improvement.  But I’m careful to remind myself that I don’t have all the answers.  This isn’t about the few telling the many how it should be done.  This is about recognizing and appreciating a dynamic which has existed for at least as long as human nature.  It’s about recognizing that a modern society has room for this and opening the door to finding our best way of doing it.

Why Suicide is More Appealing Today than Yesterday

Before anyone worries too much, I’m not considering suicide.  Not today anyways.

This morning was Anthony Bourdain.  Not long before that was Kate Spade.  And between the two, how many others?  I can’t help but think that this is getting worse and not better.  There’s a negative energy that’s growing in our world and it’s impacting us in some profound ways.  I think these are conversations we need to have.

I can’t remember the first time I thought about suicide.  I was probably quite young.  It wasn’t a function of depression as much as it was an exercise in exploring the extremes.  It was probably a fight with my parents, or getting picked on at school.  A moment of woe is me, I bet I would matter more if they thought I had committed suicide.  In grade 12, I fell for a girl and was infatuated to the nth degree.  When she left me, I was convinced that I would never be happy again.  There was probably some consideration of suicide, but where I landed was that I wanted to be a fire fighter or something to that effect.  I figured that if I wasn’t capable of being happy, I could at least dedicate my life towards helping others.  It blew over and I moved on, but the conversation of suicide remained.

In my third year of university, I dated a girl who opened up to me about having tried to commit suicide.  According to her, she wasn’t dealing with a breakup very well and ended up going into the shed at the back of the house and slitting her wrists.  As she tells the story, her brother stumbled in on her and took her to the hospital, saving her life.  I asked to see her wrists, and saw no scars.  I was asked to keep this to myself as nobody else knew besides her brother.  I did my best to be supportive.  When we broke up, she told me that she didn’t think she could handle another breakup like this.  That she might go and do something extreme.  I reached out to her brother and asked him to keep an eye on her.   From what I can tell, she’s doing just fine these days.

It wasn’t something I could relate to.  Even in my darker, more melodramatic moments, I wasn’t interested in taking my own life.  It seemed like giving up.  For better or worse, this mindset of never giving up is hardwired into me.  I’d much rather go out on my shield.  Maybe that’s why I’ve often thought of ways in which I would be willing to sacrifice myself.. the hero’s death.  The idea was that if I was going to die, I wanted there to be as much value in my death as possible.  I either wanted to die of old age among a lifetime of accomplishments, or to die in a proper blaze of glory.  There was almost a mathematical element to it, if my life was worth ‘x’ and an honorable death would yield ‘x’ + 1, I’d take it.

When I started getting in over my head at the banks, I started looking for outs.  I wasn’t willing to throw any more money at the problem.  I wasn’t willing to quit or give up.  I wasn’t willing to compromise my integrity.  And I was running out of time.  Part of my role at the bank included being licensed for life insurance.  I remember reading that a life insurance policy would still pay out if you committed suicide, as long as more than 2 years had passed since you took out the policy and when you took your life.  Hmm…

Last year, I was in a relationship with a girl who had been through a fair bit.  In grade 11, she was in a head on collision with a motorcyclist and the motorcyclist didn’t make it.  She went through some rough patches around that.  Her family was not as supportive as they could’ve been.  I knew this, but I also knew that she had been keeping something from me.  I knew it was something dark, so I told her that I would be ready if she got to a point where she wanted to share.  One night, we were hanging out in my car and the conversation went in that direction.  Feeling like I had an opening, I asked if she spent much time thinking about death.

I told her that I think about it often.  In the last 7 years, I’ve lost parents, friends, and family members… how could I not?  I told her that every once in a while, when life gets to be a bit much, I think about suicide.  What would it be like?  How would I do it?  Would I have the courage or the conviction?  Would I regret it?  She was surprised that I was talking about these things so calmly and openly.  She opened up to me about her experiences and we had a remarkable conversation.

At first, I think she almost expected me to freak out or want to report her to a hotline.  I didn’t, I just listened.  And when she talked about life getting to be too much, I told her I could relate.  I told her that’s when I think about it too.  I told her about the conversations that take place in my head when I reach those dark corners, and then I told her about all the things that bring me back to the light.  I could tell that she had never connected with someone else on this.  It’s easier when you don’t have to face things alone.

After that conversation, I can’t help but think that the contemplation of suicide is a sign of a healthy, curious mind that’s going through some things.  I spent most of my life thinking that people who are ‘suicidal’ are mentally weak, or damaged, or so distraught with life that I could never relate.  I suspect that most people have had a similar perspective.  Perhaps this is why we feel alone rather than connected when we have these kinds of thoughts.  If thoughts of suicide only happened in extreme and rare cases, then perhaps it would be indicative of faulty hardware and perhaps those people should feel scared and alone.  But if thoughts of suicide were had by most individuals in times of extreme duress, isn’t that something we should be aware of?  Something that we should collectively acknowledge?

I’ve seen different ways of communicating what it’s like to have suicidal thoughts, none better than this by the late David Wallace,

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

And yet the final thoughts of almost every person who has survived a jump off the Golden Gate bridge, are thoughts of regret..

 

‘What have I just done?  I don’t want to die.  God please save me.  Boom.’

 

There’s something happening here.  We need to talk about this.  Posting the suicide prevention hotline to your social media account isn’t enough.  Thoughts and prayers are not enough.  We need to have real conversations.  We need to acknowledge that suicidal thoughts have a place within a modern society like ours, and we need to do a better job of understanding why.

Unemployment rates are at all-time lows while income inequality is at an all-time high.  There’s no lack of work, just a lack of income for it.  With a lack of income comes a lack of opportunity.. The lack of opportunity to own your own home, or to further your education, or even to start your own family.  How many of us were raised with the idea that the only thing between us and a good life was hard work?  How many of us are at a point now where no matter how hard we work, we can’t seem to make any progress?  And how many of us are getting a sense that these factors are largely out of our control?

That’s hopelessness.

I can’t help but think that this structural shift in equality of wealth is the underlying reason for all this pain and suffering.. it’s the root of what we’re ultimately desperate to escape.  Like J. Cole said, ‘you can’t take it when you die but you can’t live without it.’  When wealth has been shifted from the many to the few, this is how it plays out.  When there isn’t enough to go around, people fall back into their tribes, looking to protect their own.  Rather than looking for a solution to the problem, we’re looking for someone to blame.  People become quick to draw lines in the sand between us and them.  Social discourse becomes hostile.  Where we were connected, we are now divided.  And it all starts to break down.

If we’re looking for an analogy for how this plays out, we don’t have to look far.  It sounds remarkably like climate change to me.  The planet is a large and complex ecosystem which tends to exist within an equilibrium.  Adjusting the average temperature of the planet by a few degrees over a long period of time isn’t something that most people would notice, but that’s not all that’s changing.  With a shift in temperature comes a shift in equilibrium and the path from here to there is filled with chaos.  Heat waves are now keeping planes from taking off.  Blizzards are lasting well into the spring.  Every hurricane that comes along seems to be worse than the one before.

By shifting the distribution of wealth by a few degrees over a long period of time, a lot of people didn’t notice.  But they see the mass shootings.  They see the school shootings.  They see the police brutality.  They see the Charlottesville protests.  They see the government corruption.  They see how little they’re making.  They see how much they owe.  They see what level of health care is available to them.  They see the opiates in the community.  And they see that we’ve lost the ability to talk these things through.  Things are heating up.

When I think about the world we live in right now, it’s not easy.  Then I remind myself that for some, this path is harder than others.  Then I remind myself that not everyone is equipped with the tools to deal with these things.  And that’s when I think no-shit people are struggling, these are hard times.  These are the times where those with nothing to lose and those with everything to lose are choosing to escape rather than endure.  And I can’t help but think that this is a function of hope.

 

 

 

I don’t think Compelled Speech works

I’ve been observing the conversation around compelled speech for the last few years.  I had probably been aware of it to some regard, but it really wasn’t a focal point for me until Jordan Peterson started making a fuss over in Toronto.  He had this idea that language should be allowed to evolve naturally.  That the freedom of speech was fundamental and essential to the free exchange of thoughts and ideas, and that legally requiring people to use certain words or not using others was a line that we should not cross.

The counter argument was that certain words were capable of causing very real harm.  When those words are being used against people who are already generally understood to be from an underprivileged group, it seems to be human nature to want to support them.  For those who believe in compelled speech, changing the language we use is a simple solution to a complex problem.  I appreciate wanting to stand up for those who you don’t think can stand up for themselves, but I don’t think they’ve thought this through.

I grew up using the word fag about as often as anyone else my age.  I’d probably be lying if I said I never used it to describe someone who was acting ‘gay’ or being flamboyant, but I can say I’ve never used used it maliciously.  More often than not, I used the word fag with no homosexual connotations at all.  Mostly, it was a substitute for ‘asshole’ or ‘jerk’.  When I was in my mid-20s a close friend of mine came out as gay.  We loved him all the same.  A little while after he came out, I used the word fag around him.  At this point, it was still part of my vernacular… and I’m pretty sure that it was still part of his not that long ago.  He leaned into me, telling me about how I shouldn’t use the word.  I told him that if I was using it as a homophobic slur, I would agree.  But I wasn’t, so what exactly was the issue?  He told me about how words can hurt people, even without bad intentions.  I pointed out that he still used the word retarded fairly often when describing something that was dumb.  I asked if it was fair to ask him to stop using the word, even if he had never used it as a slur towards a disabled person.  He wasn’t happy that I was changing the direction of the conversation but conceded that he would probably stop using that word for the sake of backing up his argument.  So I challenged him.  I told him that if he wanted to change the language he was using, that was up to him.   But I didn’t think it was productive for him to change the language he was using for the sake of protecting the feelings of those who were more focused on being offended by the language than understanding the message.

Regardless of whether or not I was right, supporting my friend in a transitional time was more important to me.  So I stopped using the word.  There were plenty of words to choose from, and I just couldn’t think of a scenario where that word was necessary.  Since then, I’ve adopted a philosophy around language which challenges me to use the truest and most accurate language available.  As expected, I’ve yet to encounter a situation where the word fag was the truest and most accurate word available.  As language has become a political battlefield, there are a lot of reasons why someone might want you to use one word and not another.  What I’m personally up against right now is someone who believes that changing the language being used is a primary tool in how you remove the stigma around something.  I don’t think she’s thought this one through.

When trying to understand language, the history of words can teach us a great deal.  In this particular context, let’s revisit the word retarded.  The word retarded has been around for hundreds of years, and essentially means to make slow.  It wasn’t until the 1960s that advocates for mental disabilities pushed to adopt the label “retarded”.  From their perspective, terms like imbecile or moron had developed negative connotations.  And there’s where things get interesting, because both moron and imbecile were existing scientific definitions for someone with an intellectual disability.   So ‘advocates’ pushed to change the label to mentally retarded, you know, to remove the stigma.  But the stigma didn’t go away, it simply shifted to the new word.  People started using the word retarded in the same way they would use moron or imbecile.  So the advocates tried again with ‘special’, ‘handicapped’, and ‘disabled’.

The pattern seems pretty obvious…  Scientists discover something and come up with a word for discussing it.  When the word is used to describe a disability, it inherently comes with negative interpretations.  When the word finds its way into mainstream language, it evolves to have multiple definitions.  While it retains the scientific definition, those negative interpretations becomes slang.  When that slang is used often enough, certain individuals or groups become especially sensitive to that word.  Rather than deal with their sensitivities around that word, they push to introduce a new word which doesn’t carry the same stigma.  And repeat.

This isn’t an isolated example either.  The word cripple used to be a medical term before it became more commonly used as slang.  The word neurotic seems close to being overhauled for negatively characterizing neurotic people.  Whatever happened to sticks and stones?

At which point do we accept that we can’t protect people from language by controlling the language that’s being used?  You can try to remove the word that the stigma is attached to, but that doesn’t remove the stigma.  Compelling people to use the word retard instead of moron didn’t change the stigma, it just got people to associate the stigma with the word retard instead of moron.  I can’t help but think that the best thing we can do to protect people from language is to help them understand it.

There’s a good chance I have dyslexia.  I say good chance because after I self-diagnosed during a abnormal psychology class, I never bothered to acknowledge it as a weakness.  To me, it was a difference in how my brain worked.  While it made certain tasks more challenging, there were certain things I was exceptionally good at.  Some of the best computer programmers out there are off the charts autistic.  I’ve seen very cool (and very detailed) art done by someone with OCD.  I’ve yet to meet a group of people as positive and loving as those with down syndrome.  The changing of the stigma doesn’t happen with the changing of the word, it happens when we learn to appreciate the value in one another and recognize that we can all contribute.

If I was a parent to someone who was disabled, I’d care a lot less about the language being used around them and care a lot more about how they were able to navigate that language.  If I had a kid with a disability, I would do everything that I could to help my kid understand that they’re different.  I would want them to know what makes them different and why they are the way that they are.  I would teach them that being different didn’t make them better or worse than anyone else.  I would want them to know that who they became would be a matter of how they applied that difference.  I would want them to know that no matter how much or how little someone has been given, they will always be in a position to bring positivity to the world.

…But I would also want them to know that not everybody understands this.  Some people have grown up in a difficult world where they’ve yet to learn your value.  Some people will think that they can lift themselves up by putting you down.  Some people will tell you about all that you’re unable to do without appreciating all that you can do.  And that’s okay.  Sometimes, these people will call you names.  That’s okay too.  It’s okay because none of what they say will change who you are and how much you matter.  The only person who gets to change that is you.  If anything, they’ve given you an opportunity to show the world just how capable you are.  If you can use that moment to inspire others, you can change how people think.  It’ll be you who removes that stigma.

 

 

 

 

 

Compelled Patriotism

There have been times where I’ve felt more patriotic than others, but generally speaking, I find it a little strange.

The times where I identified as a patriot, were times where I felt good about how my country was impacting others, and felt aligned with the values my country had displayed.  That doesn’t happen so much these days.  These days, it’s difficult to understand what a patriot really is and whether anyone should want to be one.

The NFL looks to have passed a new anthem policy.  From what I understand, if you’re on the field, you have to stand for the national anthem.  The president’s remarks were something to the effect of, ‘if you don’t want to stand, maybe you shouldn’t be play.  Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.  If you’re not proud of the country, you shouldn’t be here.’  I’ve often said that Trump was going to be one of the best things to happen to this country.  Not because he leads or inspires, but because he’s forcing us to ask questions which weren’t being asked.

What if you’re not proud of the country?

Google defines a patriot as a person who vigorously supports their country and is ready to defend it against enemies or detractors.  Seems pretty straight forward.  So where’s the nuance?  I suppose it would be in how you define supporting your country, and who you determine to be the enemies or detractors.

Some people support their country by displaying the country’s branding as often as possible.  Maybe I should’ve said flag or colors instead of branding, but which is more accurate?  Some people support their country and defend it against enemies by joining the military and fighting overseas.  But how did you know who our enemies were?  Some people defend the country against detractors by protecting the commander and chief.  But what do you think the commander and chief should be protected from?  It seems as though patriotism has more to do with manipulation than it does with national pride.

I’ve struggled with the concept of pride recently,  When to have it, why to have it, and when it’s too much.  I grew up around ‘Azn Pride’.. it was kinda like white pride but Asian.  More often than not, it was about screen names and gamer tags but from time to time, it meant more than that.  It reminded people not be ashamed of where they were from or what they looked like, and gave them a sense of confidence and community among their peers.  But there were also times where Azn Pride was about showing dominance over other groups.  But what are you really proud of at that point?

Personally, I don’t think you can have patriotism without nationalism and nationalism never seems to work well out for anyone.  Nationalism really is a game of us versus them on a global scale.  Not only did we not have a say in where these lines on the map were drawn, we have no choice as to which side of the line we’re born to.  Yet these lines are enforced vigorously.  We are told that the people inside those lines are our brothers and sisters, and that the people outside those lines are potential threats.  And yet our country was built upon those who came from outside the lines.  And is under attack from those who were born here.

Perhaps patriotism is inherently flawed.  Right now, it encourages us to protect our enemies and betray our communities.  We’re told that we’re not patriotic when we don’t follow the direction of our president.  When the values of our people, country, and president are no longer aligned, who deserves our loyalty?  If patriotism is defined by a loyalty to a country, is that better understood as the people of that country, or those who are running it?  People in government demanding loyalty  sounds awfully undemocratic.  In a democratic country, where democracy literally means government for the people by the people.. the answer seems rather obvious.

So what does democratic patriotism look like?  Maybe it’s not necessarily an oxymoron.  I think it looks like a celebration of the people.  It’s a celebration of our diversity rather than a celebration of the red, white and blue.  It’s building monuments to the people who are making the world a better place today rather than arguing over old civil war statues.  It’s marching together for no more wars, and it’s marching together for no more police violence.  It’s not just about celebrating our accomplishments, but about acknowledging our darker moments in arriving here.  And you’re damn right that it’s about being able to take a knee during the national anthem to show your support for those the country has failed.

So what does patriotism look like when the lines between us and them disappear?

 

 

What it Means to be Good Looking

For most of my childhood, the only person who told me I was handsome was my mom. She would tell me that I would be such a heart breaker.  Then I ventured out into the real world and found no such validation.  Occasionally a girl would have a crush on me, but it was never one of the pretty or popular girls.  As far as my friends were concerned, all they knew was that I had a big nose.  I really had no idea of knowing whether I was good looking or not.  I wanted to be… few things were more obvious than the advantages of being good looking.

After high school, I was more focused on building myself up than what I looked like.  I was confident that women were more attracted to character than looks… how else do you explain Jay Z and Beyonce?  So I focused on building character.. integrity.. honesty.. honor.. intelligence.. humor, etc.  I proceeded to date 3 of the most eligible women at my university.  One of them was non-superficial that she could’ve dated a burn victim.  Another thought I was really good looking, but her ex was… rather plain, so not a great measure.  The third was really into the body-builder physique (of which I was not), and that led to some lackluster physical chemistry.  Coming out of university, I knew I had the ability to date beautiful women… but still no clue if I was good looking.

A few years after university, I dated a girl who seemed to be grateful and appreciative of everything in her life.  Even her most significant accomplishments, she would dismiss as good fortune.  It was foreign to me as I’ve always been one to celebrate work ethic.  She was extremely grateful for her looks, and said that I should be too.  I told her that I had given up on trying to understand whether or not I was good looking.  She told me that was ridiculous, and that to deny that I was good looking was to be oblivious of the privilege it afforded to me.  Perhaps she had a point.  Instead of exploring that point, I told her it just wasn’t something I thought about very much and I was pretty happy with the results.  It was the first time someone told me I was basically an asshole if I didn’t think I was good looking.  Well then…

Over the last couple months, I’ve probably been called handsome or good looking more than any other period in my entire life.  As someone who was trying to get back into the dating scene, one would hope those compliments would be coming from interested women.  Wishful thinking.  Almost every one of those comments came from older men in my professional life.  Something to the effect of, “you’re a young, good looking guy, the world is your oyster”.  There was an older Asian guy at my local tech summit who probably told me about 10 times in one conversation that I’m handsome, have a great smile, and should be doing business development for Intel.  He made sure to spell Intel for me.. Pretty sure he was several drinks in.

While it’s easy enough to laugh off, maybe there’s something worth observing here.  Am I good looking?  I’d say that depends on who you ask.  I’ve been told by friends overseas that if you were to drop me in a place like Japan, China or Korea, I’d be like catnip.  Put me in a place like California or New York and probably much less so.  So there are cultural factors at play.  I know facial symmetry makes for bonus points…  A full head of hair…  Good genetics… but  what about personal preferences?  When I was young, I spent a lot of time crushing on girls who just weren’t into me.  There seem to be elements of attraction which are general, while others can be highly individual.

So beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yes?  Seems like an easy out.  But maybe there’s yet another level to this.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but eyes of the beholders tend to follow similar algorithms.  I think it starts with good genetics.  When you mix genetics from diverse gene pools, you end up with great looking kids.  When you let a brother and sister get it on, there’s a 50/50 chance you end up with a cyclops.  We have instincts that pick up on good genetics and we perceive that as physical attraction.  In reality, we’re just instinctively trying to diversify our gene pool.

Good health is perhaps second on that list.  We seem to be in an interesting time where people who are unhealthy and overweight want to be perceived as attractive in the same way that someone healthy is.  In reality, we’re physically attracted to good health and there are different ways we pick up on that.  Are you fit?  Do you have good skin?  Good teeth? Is your hair falling out?  Something I’ve found interesting is that whether it’s a 5’0″ gymnast or a 6’3″ power lifter, I’ve always found a healthy woman to be attractive.

So based on these parameters am I good looking?  Probably.

My genetic background is Scottish, Irish, Jewish, and Austrian.  Not the most diverse gene pool, but certainly not kissing-cousins.    My face is largely symmetrical from what I can see.  I have a full head of hair and mostly straight teeth.  While I take liberties with my health and fitness from time to time, I’ve been a competitive athlete my entire life.  If I had to guess, I would say that I am above average looking.

Great.  Now what?

My concern before was that if I figured out that I was good looking, I’d let it go to my head.  I liked being oblivious to it because it kept my focus on what I thought was more important.  Now that I’m conceding, what changes?  … Nothing…?

 

I think that at this point, it’s unlikely to go to my head.  I’m appreciative for where it’s helped me, indifferent to where it didn’t, and hope that this baby face ages gracefully.  I’m also understanding and accepting where it may have created unearned advantages for me.  While it may have helped in my dating life, it probably wasn’t as big of a factor as some may believe.  Where I think it’s actually helped me the most is in my professional life.  Just about every person that’s hired me or considered me for a role has referred to me as good looking.  I think that early on, I just saw these compliments as innocuous or inconsequential.  Why does being good looking have anything to do with my performance in the work environment?  I know I look good in a suit.. maybe they were just saying something nice.  But I don’t think it’s that simple.  I think that things like facial symmetry, good skin, good hair, and good teeth make a difference in the willingness of strangers to trust you.  Match that with being presentable and well-spoken, and you’re able to earn trust faster than others.  In the world of business, that’s a very real advantage.

Are there any disadvantages?

I often see a duality around privilege, and good looks seem to follow that pattern.  While I’m grateful for my looks, I’m more grateful for that uncertainty while growing up.  It encouraged me to put my efforts and focus elsewhere, and not everyone is so lucky.  Think about the prettiest girl in your high school.  Was she more likely to be headed to university on a full scholarship or date the captain of the football team?  Was she more likely to get recruited out of school to the field of her choice or more likely to be working as a bartender?  Does she stand a better chance of accomplishing things on her own, or being accessory to someone else’s accomplishments?  From a certain perspective, being good looking provides an easier path than most.  But since when is easy a good thing?

A duality.. and a reality of our world.  At the end of the day, physical attraction has a rather functional purpose: visual markers of good genetic and good health that help you find a mate.  But I can’t help but see the tail wagging the dog a bit.  Rather than understanding how physical attraction plays out among several other factors like personality, resources, intelligence, and group-membership, we talk about it like it’s magic.  We often treat it like something that can’t be explained, and that even if it could, it shouldn’t.  That it would take the romance out of things.  I disagree.  I find the truth to be more romantic than any lie.

I think there’s a fair bit of magic in having an honest understanding of what we’re seeing and why we enjoy it.

 

 

The Religion of Self-Help

A few weeks ago, I attended my first self-help seminar.  I resisted the invite but a good friend insisted that if I went in with an open-mind, I was bound to learn something.  I told him that with an open-mind, you’re bound to learn something no matter where you are.  He said there was a money-back guarantee.  He said that if nothing else, he was very interested to see how someone like me to would behave in an environment like that.  I agreed.

I went to PSI Seminars: Basic which was a 3 day seminar with about 70 other people at a middle-tier hotel in the burbs.  The group was diverse but seemed to be weighted more towards newer immigrants and the middle-class.  I also noticed that while many came in with a healthy dose of skepticism, they also came looking for help in facing their own personal challenges.

The curriculum introduced several valuable concepts like game theory, personality science, and why it helps to stray from your comfort zone.  It also included classics like the law of attraction and self-love.  The 3 days were largely a mix of lectures, group exercises, and personal exercises.  There was a lot of clapping.

When I wrapped up the weekend, I asked for my money back.  It just wasn’t for me.  I think that when you ask for your money back, they follow up to try and figure out why.  They sent my group’s ‘micro-leader’, a 20-something nice kid who I got along well with.  In our conversation, he asked me what I learned at the seminar.  I told him that I learned many things, but perhaps most significant, I learned a great deal about religion.  I don’t think that’s the answer he was expecting.

I grew up without religion.  Both my parents went to church when they were young but they had fallen out of it by the time they had children of their own.  My earliest understanding of religion was that it was unnecessary.  It was easy to see that you could be a good person without religion, and that you could be a bad person with religion.  I also knew that many religious teachings hadn’t aged well, leaving their supporters with out-dated values.  More than anything, it seemed like religion was holding back the natural progression of morality.

As I got older, I became more spiritual and started focusing more on the intangibles of the universe which connect us all.  On that journey, I started noticing that much of what I was discovering for myself already existed in religious texts.  These epiphanies of mine weren’t new ideas, they were ancient ideas.  They were ideas that resonated so strongly with their audience, that people built entire organizations around these ideas.  This was the root of religion.  Things started to make more sense.  Where I once resisted religion, I was now in a place where I could understand it.

When I was younger, I came up with an idea: The Church of Good.  I think this is the first time I’ve ever typed that out because I just saw the play on words.  Anyways… the church of good was simply a church without religion.  This would be a place where people would come to hear the inspiring stories of what real people have done to make the world a better place.  It would be a place where we could learn the ideas and practices which would help us be better to one another.  It would also be a place were people could find community among others who were motivated to be good people.  It was supposed to be the best of religion without the worst.

That idea has sat in the back of my mind for over a decade now.  For most of that time, I saw religion as toxic.  But then I kept meeting people whom I admired in many ways, who also happened to be religious.  How could I admire someone who lived their life according to something which I considered to be toxic?  There was a disconnect.  The people I admired were good, decent people.  They generous when they didn’t have much, they were kind to those who weren’t kind to them, and they seemed to be more motivated by a collective good than by personal gain.   Most of them looked at the organized side of religion as a formality, traditions within their tribe.  For many of them, it was the least interesting part.  What they all seemed to have in common though, was an appreciation for the greater good and and enjoying being part of a community that prioritized it.

For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why religion had such popularity and staying power in the face of such obvious flaws.  Why couldn’t people see that they were being lied to?  And manipulated?  And often, for the sake of those who clearly weren’t operating in the spirit of the teachings.  But then it clicked, they were learning things at church that they weren’t learning anywhere else – Important things.

When I was fired from the bank, I was forced to leave a career I had put my everything into.  My world came crashing down and I experienced suffering.  That experience offered me lessons about myself and my journey that would’ve been very challenging to grasp otherwise.  I became a much stronger and more capable person because of it.  The last time something happened like that, it was my dad who died.  I noticed a pattern: that my greatest moments of growth followed my greatest moments of suffering.  With that understanding, my perspective on suffering changed.  Suffering was no longer to be feared or avoided, but understood, appreciated, and embraced.  I mentioned this to a friend and he told me that this was a classic Buddhist teaching.  Well then.

If we were to look at all the lessons learned from all the religions, I suspect we would find patterns of morality and purpose.  I’m not saying that everything we’d find is something which should be taught today.   What I am saying that we would find a pattern of people trying to understand how to be better to one another and a pattern of people trying to understand their place within the universe.  I can’t help but think that this is the true value of religion… an opportunity to learn about the more philosophical side of the human experience.. A deeper understanding of who you are and your place in the universe.

I knew all this going into the PSI Seminar.  I had even made some connections between religion and self-help before going in.  Experiencing it first hand was something else.

I would imagine that for those who weren’t raised to be religious, turning to religion is an exercise in finding answers.  I think self-help serves that same purpose.  The people in that room were not there because everything was going well, they were in search of a better way.  But many still arrived skeptical, perhaps like you would on your first day of church.

The facilitator (who happened to be a former church minister), took the stage with all the enthusiasm of a motivational speaker (or preacher).  And after some icebreakers, he started getting into some very real teachings.  People learned.  There were ‘a-ha!’ moments.  People were making breakthroughs.  Trust was being earned.

There were various exercises where you were encouraged to build deep connections with those around you.  Almost all were strangers who you didn’t know 48 hours ago.  It was a valuable reminder that we’re more similar than we are different.  It also reminded us that connecting with one another is a rather natural experience when we don’t let our personal baggage get in the way.  A sense of community was being built.

A few rituals were introduced.  Things like a big ‘good morning!’ response, jumping up and down yelling ‘I’m excited’, or the awkward soul-train dance party.  Part of how I picked up on it was observing the volunteers.  These were individuals who had done the course previously, and were coming back to observe.  They were on-point with all the rituals.  Culture was being established.

On the third day, PSI showed how they approached the business side of self-help.  The 3 day seminar cost about $800.  People who have taken the seminar are then heavily encouraged to have their friends take it.  The general message seems to be, ‘look at how great it was for you and everyone else here, don’t you want this for your friends?’  The PSI: Basic seems to operate as a feeder for their second seminar, referred to as The Ranch.  The Ranch is a 7 day retreat (to a ranch), and about 10x the cost of the basic.  When they made the pitch for the ranch, they also made the pitch for the course after it.  Then they offered to bundle the two together for a discounted price (about  $9,000).  They said “If you think that’s a lot of money and you’re not sure, just sign up for it.  If you make the commitment, you’ll find the money.”  Then they said this deal is only available for the next 20 minutes.

You’re doing what now?

After two and a half days of learning, and appreciating, and building community… where did this come from?  At least the church focused on the collection plate.  I couldn’t sit there and do nothing.  So I piped up and asked if this was the kind of financial decision that people should probably think about for more than 20 minutes.  The facilitator agreed.

During that 20 minutes, the facilitator came back up to me and offered a different answer to my question.  I reminded him that regardless of what answer he wanted to provide, he knows that these are classic pressure-sales tactics.  He conceded.  I asked him why he went along with it.  He said that whether it was the church or PSI, there were always practices that he didn’t agree with.  That sounds about right.

When I was doing the follow-up interview with our micro-leader, I asked him what he thought about these tactics.  He said lots of other people do the same thing.  I told him he was right, that you see it everywhere from MLMs, to time-shares, to religious cults.  I asked why he wasn’t more interested in holding them accountable.  He spoke about all the good that PSI does for people.  That being manipulated into a self-help program that turns out to be really good for you isn’t really that bad.  I asked him if the end justified the means.  He said no, not really.

But he found his religion.. his tribe.. where he wants to search for answers.. and I wasn’t going to change his mind.

 

 

 

 

PSI Basic & My Experience

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.

 

Day 1

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.

 

Day 2

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?

 

Day 3

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.”

 

Day 3+1

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.