The bull market

Peter Lowe explains how to succeed in business without really trying: First, find 20,000 suckers Photographs by Mark Graham

Running back Emmitt Smith has the unfortunate task of speaking during the post-lunch malaise. But he is aided in that endeavor by film highlights of his football career and hard-driving rock music. The clips work the crowd into a frenzy, and Smith is obviously impressed by the reception he receives. But he stumbles over his words, and his message is an elemental one: "I'm going to talk about my three keys to success: passion, precision, performance."

Smith looks well-appointed in his three-button suit, gold shirt, and tie, but he doesn't hold my interest. I begin to peruse a copy of Peter Lowe's Success Yearbook, which is being sold at the seminar for $19.95. In it are some helpful hints on organization, a marketing strategy, a suggested reading list, and a series of articles by SUCCESS speakers, past and present. One of them is Debbi Fields, the founder of Mrs. Fields Cookies, who writes that her recipe for success is based on three ingredients: passion, perfection, perseverance.

Perhaps it is only a coincidence that Mrs. Fields' three Ps bear a striking resemblance to Emmitt Smith's three Ps. Or perhaps the fourth P is plagiarism.

Next comes Peter Lowe, the grand impresario himself, who is also aided by a video extolling him as a "phenomenon." He needs all the praise he can get, because his presentation is surprisingly mechanical and wooden. The high-pitched whine in his voice makes him sound childlike and naive, less authoritative than America's #1 Success Authority ought to sound. He reveals what he calls his five levels of success, moving from survival to security to surplus to significance to satisfaction. Satisfaction, he tells us, relates to the spiritual part of our lives. For him, the key to satisfaction became clear 21 years ago. "I began to discover a God who makes all things possible to those who believe. Surely goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life."

Someone must have changed channels while I was nodding off. I thought we were just worshipping at the altar of capitalism. Suddenly I am at an evangelical tent revival.

Lowe does offer a tiny sop to a Jewish boy like me. He takes a one-minute break--a few seconds to break for the doors--before launching into his 14-minute "bonus" session. However, he claims, "Your decision to stay will be one of the most important decisions you will ever make." Only a few hundred people head for the exit. I stay, getting a sense of the quandary placed upon children by "voluntary" school prayer.

If we want "true success," Lowe then tells us, we should accept Jesus Christ into our lives, and repeat silently to ourselves the same affirmation Lowe made when he was first saved. "Lord Jesus, I need you. I want you to come into my life, to be No. 1 at the center of my life. Forgive me for the wrongs I have done. Make me into the person you want me to be. Amen."

Reverent applause follows.
But for an event advertised as a motivational seminar suddenly to metamorphose into a Christian service seems not only outrageous but deceptive. And if "true success" can only be realized by converting to Christianity, what motivation is left for the rest of us? Such a narrow vision of the American dream seems decidedly un-American.

Although I have heard enough from Peter Lowe, he remains on stage, seated in a director's chair as he conducts what sounds like a canned interview with the next speaker. Christopher Reeve, once a screen idol as Superman, is after a tragic accident paralyzed from the shoulders down. As he sits in his wheelchair, his voice weakened by his condition, the sound system awkwardly picks up the mechanical breathing of whatever apparatus is keeping him alive. His presence alone is the most motivational moment of the day. By living his life with optimism and without complaint, he subtly implies that the rest of us have no right to bitch about our own petty annoyances.

Now that Reeve has pried open even my heart, it is time for the climax of the day. A stagehand cues the music: Oddly, it's the movie soundtrack to Superman. Fireworks burst from the proscenium, red flares shoot 20 feet into the air, confetti rains on the stage. Enter Gen. Colin Powell, advisor to presidents, a soldier in war and peace. Powell is a natural-born speaker; his delivery is effortless, warm, open. "The message I give you is that there are good things happening in a world being shaped by free enterprise and not the armies of containment."

He speaks eloquently about one of the programs he now heads, America's Promise, an alliance directed at 15 million at-risk children. He enlists the crowd to join his "new army." "We either build all our kids one at a time, or we build more jails."

His way to achieve success is to give back to others, to flag, to country. His speech is relentlessly patriotic, but coming from him, even xenophobia seems reasonable. He spends the next 30 minutes telling war stories: his battles with the forces of communism, his tour of duty in Vietnam, his exploits during the Gulf War as the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--how he brought Saddam to his knees and American troops home. The sense of adventure he creates in the minds of his listeners is downright intoxicating. But other than motivate some people to go to war, the speech has little to do with success.

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