Saturday, March 10, 2007

Are We Rich Yet?

Everybody wants to get ahead, have things work out, find security, and live happily ever after. Anyone who can convince others to pay good money for the supposed key to all this will get ahead, find security, and live happily ever after. One secret of success is to sell a purported secret for success.

As you may know, Oprah has been promoting a group of authors and speakers selling The Secret, a not exactly new New Age formula for achieving success by visualizing it. According to the “Law of Attraction,” if you think the right thoughts, about prosperity for instance, prosperity will be yours. The universe obeys your every wish, if your wish is sufficiently strong and single-minded. And of course, you’re in charge of your wishing, so it all comes down to you. Not rich yet? You’re the problem, buddy. For a thorough debunking of The Secret, see Ingrid Hansen Smythe’s report for the Skeptic Society. The New York Times style section covered the creation of The Secret in Shaking Riches Out of the Cosmos, also reprinted here - most entertaining.







To naturalists, this sort of magical thinking about thinking is a sad example of supposing the self is causally privileged over the world, of attributing to ourselves a supernatural ability. Playing to the universal desire for control and power, sellers of The Secret purvey the manifest falsehood that one’s thoughts somehow directly influence things outside the head. To state the obvious (from a naturalist perspective): thoughts, physically instantiated in the brain, are part of a causal chain that sometimes has effects on behavior, that then has effects on the world. Thoughts themselves have their own causal antecedents as well, of course. Oprah is doing her audience a vast disservice in promulgating the idea - that is, causing her audience to think - that they can merely think and grow rich, that behavior isn’t necessary to get the universe to give them what they need. It’s sad because it gives people false hopes, sets them up for self-blame, and blocks exploration of realistic means for achieving success.

But how could anyone believe such nonsense? Part of the answer is that Western society routinely sets up the self as a first cause, a mental controller that can bootstrap itself into anything it wants to be. We’re taught from day one that it’s all up to us, that we can rise above our circumstances, that if we want something badly enough, it can be ours. So, let’s all work on wanting things, really badly, and the culture is happy to help with that. In short, we’re predisposed by the mythology of the American dream to accept the premise of The Secret, that success is mostly a matter of your attitude, the force of your will and desire, which you can manifest if you just choose to. Work on your mind, the rest will follow.

Another part of the answer is our long love affair with mentalistic paranormal powers that transcend what the mere body can accomplish. The Secret plays this to the hilt, suggesting that the self-motivated mind or spirit somehow controls reality directly, without needing a bodily interface. Exactly how this works is necessarily left obscure, but the promise of such power is pretty seductive. We become like gods, self-created and practically omnipotent.

To suggest instead that our powers are merely material, and that the self and its will are a function of physical circumstances, might not fly as the core concept of a best-selling self-help program. It doesn’t have quite the all-American, individualist ring to it. Still, it’s arguably a better bet than magical thinking about the power of thoughts, since we can learn about how our circumstances affect us, our motivations, and opportunities for action, then change the circumstances in ways that generate effective behavior. It might be replied that the myth of thought-power is empowering since it gives hope, spurring motivation. Perhaps in the short run for some people it is. But the smart money is on staying in touch with reality, in which it’s always necessary to act to make things happen. The sellers of The Secret act effectively on their own behalf by promoting the myth that we need not act, merely think. Nice work if you can get it.

4 Comments:

Anonymous dbltapp said...

Why isn't it obvious that this is just a hyped up version of praying?

That said, there is an explanation that seems plausible, given some assumptions regarding the subconsious mind.

The theory goes something like this - concentrating on a problem, goal, or whatever influences the subconsious mind to work to find solutions for the problem or methods for attaining that goal. I suspect people experience this to some degree all the time - think about a problem just before going to sleep, and in the morning the solution pops into your head.

The difference here is that nothing external to the mind is involved. The "think and grow rich" crowd misinterpret any success they have as modifying the universe, which is where the BS begins.

Mar 25, 2007, 11:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a young man (about 25) I read a book called Psycho Cybernetics written by Maxwell Maltby. The concept that he espoused was deceptively simple. He pointed out that while the brain is not a computer, it has a similar feedback principle. That is to say, that if we want something badly enough, and we think we are capable of achieving it, the rest happens automatically.

Obviously, the person has to be “capable” or it comes to nothing. However, when I read this, I began to look back over things that I had set as goals. And almost without exception, I had achieved them. So I decided to raise the bar and set some goals that were fairly lofty (at least in my judgment).

I think to appreciate the scope of the challenge; you need to know that I have no formal education past the 9th grade. Further, I had no capital to finance a startup company. The goal I set for myself was to own a business producing propulsion system devices for communication satellites. I fixed this goal in my mind, and although it changed over time due to advances in technology, I managed to achieve what I setout to do. Of course, it took another 20 years of hard work and sacrifice to come to fruition. Regardless, for the last 27 years I have been living that visualization.

I realize that there are all degrees of success, and I certainly do not compare myself to Oprah. Nevertheless, I have achieved financial independence, and am respected in the industry that I serve. I do believe that it begins in your mind as form of visualization, but there is nothing metaphysical about it. It is made up of dedication and very hard and focused work.

Apr 16, 2007, 9:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Christoph Dollis said...

"As a young man (about 25) I read a book called Psycho Cybernetics written by Maxwell Maltby. [sic] The concept that he espoused was deceptively simple. He pointed out that while the brain is not a computer, it has a similar feedback principle. That is to say, that if we want something badly enough, and we think we are capable of achieving it, the rest happens automatically."

I have my copy open in front of me. I was reading it last night, actually.

Maltz said nothing of the sort.

He talks over and over about taking action, and developing the confidence and courage to act, and how the mind acts like a computer or a "servo-mechanism" in that you will adjust your behavior to move close to your goal.

If you think "the rest happens automatically" is what Maltz said then you are seriously deluding yourself unless by "the rest" you mean all the effort, work, and positive personality changes -- such as being happy and demonstrating your happiness to others -- which make it more likely to happen in the real world.

Read his book again, "Anonymous", with new eyes to see.

Tom, excellent article and I couldn't agree more. I like how you weren't saying success and bootstrapping are impossible. Rather, one needs to motivate oneself and act to make it happen. And of course there are factors other than one's own efforts at play.

Question for Anonymous: Oprah's success came about because she believes it will happen, or because she shows up to work?

I'd say they're both important contributing factors.

Mar 10, 2010, 2:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Christoph Dollis said...

The difference here is that nothing external to the mind is involved. The "think and grow rich" crowd misinterpret any success they have as modifying the universe, which is where the BS begins.

A distinction I'd like to make is Napoleon' Hill's book of the same name does have some pseudo-scientific religious claptrap in it... and also spends A LOT of time talking about the power of decision, determination, persistence, taking action, etc., and etc.

In fact, many people who are quite successful in the real world give Hill's (and Andrew Carnegie, one of Hill's mentors and his sponsors who must have been pretty damn successful insofar as there are buildings in my city with Carnegie's name on them, and I'm pretty sure he never actually came here himself... just gave money) philosophy as the starting point to their achievement.

Think and Grow Rich the book was not without its faults (e.g., Hill's belief that daily praying somehow caused his son's hearing to be partially restored), but it sure as heck offered great wisdom and insight on how to succeed in business too.

Thinking is the starting point for achievement. The middle point is the action, which the thinking sustains. And the "end" point is a grave 6 feet under.

So keep going until then!

:-P

Mar 10, 2010, 2:10:00 PM  

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