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McGraw quickly discovered the kind of psychologist he wanted to be: He returned to Wichita Falls upon getting his doctorate in 1979, went into partnership with his dad, and developed a practice among the country-club set. His patients were doctors, lawyers, and bankers and the wives of doctors, lawyers, and bankers. "Phil moved right into the money circles," Box says. "If there wasn't a buck in it, he wasn't much interested."
His specialty was cognitive behavior, a straight-ahead cause-and-effect therapy that treats thoughts as behavior. "People would come in and say, 'I had a hard childhood, therefore I am not doing well as an adult,'" McGraw explains. "A Freudian would say, 'Let's work through your childhood.' I would say, 'That's fine, but right now, you are an adult; you have a choice to stop yelling at your kids."
His direct approach won him loyal patients, particularly among small-town Texans who appreciated his candor. Yet he still downplays his effectiveness. "I was probably the worst marital therapist in the history of the world," he says. "I was teaching what they taught me, but I was real impatient...Everybody was getting divorced."
McGraw says he was always looking for "less traditional" ways to market his professional skills: pain clinics, weight-loss programs, executive recruiting, expert witness testimony. So in 1984, when Thelma Box, an insurance and real estate agent from Graham, Texas, approached him about going into business together, he was ready to listen. Something of a workshop junkie, Box had attended motivational seminars -- Zig Ziglar, Dale Carnegie -- to help increase sales. But as an abused spouse and single mom, she had recently been drawn to workshops that were more about personal growth.
Box had grown to know McGraw and appreciate his skills after her son Eldon hired him to renegotiate a series of bank loans for his faltering oilfield trucking business. "He is the most skillful negotiator I have ever seen," she says. "He has a God-given gift, a combination of charm and charisma that can mesmerize a roomful of people."
She had wanted to start a success seminar for single women, and she wanted McGraw to lead it. McGraw always hated one-on-one therapy. Here was a chance to reach a bigger audience. He agreed but didn't want to limit himself to women, single or otherwise. It would be a life seminar for everyone.
Box had anticipated they would be 50-50 partners, but before they incorporated as the You Seminars, which they later renamed Pathways, McGraw demanded they bring in his father as an equal shareholder.
"Getting his dad involved would give Phil control," Box says. "I didn't want to be a minority owner, but he threatened to do the seminars without me." Box lacked McGraw's credentials, his confidence, his star quality. She believed she had no choice but to agree. McGraw says he doesn't recall any conversation with Box about his father's initial involvement and is equally uncertain about who originated the idea for the seminar. "I had been doing management training in a corporate forum. Thelma was a goer and a doer," he says. "It just sort of evolved."
The program was "my dream" says Box, who claims she designed most of the processes and games, taking many of them from other seminars she attended and tweaking them to her liking. The idea was deceptively simple: Figure out what you want out of life and why you are not getting it; strip away all the lies, the self-deception, the self-defeating games you play; make yourself more accountable, more vulnerable, more in touch with who you are so you can get what you want. Although it sounded New Agey, it really wasn't far removed from McGraw's own therapy practice, in which he developed strategies for people to manage their behavior. But the group dynamic -- 100 people in marathon therapy sessions crying, sharing, and telling their stories -- made it much more powerful.
And so did Phil McGraw. Although Box fed him most of the questions at first, he was a quick study and even quicker on his feet. He would walk to the front of the room, his hands behind his back, glancing without smiling, intimidating with a stare. "His voice was miked, and he sounded godlike," recalls one seminar participant. "I watched powerful men crumble as he questioned them. He knew just the right buttons to push."
McGraw would get in your face, never take "I don't know" for an answer. He forced you to be honest with yourself, to admit your weaknesses so you could see how you kept yourself stuck. It was a cleansing, an emotional lift, a feeling of renewal. For as long as it lasted, anyway.
Over time, Pathways developed a loyal following, and many of the same people, wowed by the change it made in their lives, not only returned for another hit of transformation, but spread the word with near evangelistic zeal.
"When Phil walked out of the seminar room, there were people who thought he was sitting on the right hand of God," recalls Susan Britton, a longtime seminar volunteer and close friend of Thelma Box's. "He has so much charisma, you can't underestimate his power. But to what end for himself?"