Certainly, I've known failure. In high school, the day I got cut from the varsity football team after the coach told me I had hands like feet; the night of the homecoming dance when my date, on whom I had a terrible crush, informed me she'd agreed to go steady with someone else starting the next morning; the history of Russian film class I took in college that was supposed to be a cakewalk--all the jocks took it--until the professor decided to show the films in Russian without subtitles; the year I went cold turkey and became a freelance writer, exercising the fundamental right of every American to impoverish himself if he so chooses.
Perhaps my failures have hardened me, but the idea that they could have been avoided if I'd only taken a one-day "success" seminar seemed a throwback to the human-potential movement of the '70s, when a primal scream, a mud bath, and some wheat germ qualified as a transcendental experience.
Yet there it was in black and white, a nearly full-page ad in the business section of The Dallas Morning News peddling Peter Lowe's SUCCESS 1998, "the most electrifying and energizing day you will ever experience!" (Obviously, they weren't there when I dropped the Russian film class.)
Playing on my ennui about the approaching millennium, the ad warned: "Don't miss your opportunity to get the innovative tools you need to prepare for a new decade of success and personal achievement." If I would attend the seminar on September 29, the day the road show was docking in Dallas, I, too, could learn the "deep, dark, mysterious secrets of success" from the superstars of our time: Motivation meister Zig Ziglar would teach me "how to get more of the things money will buy"; Cowboys superstar Emmitt Smith would explain "how to achieve the competitive advantage"; virtue vigilante William Bennett would instruct me on "the power of ethical ideas"; Iraqi-butt-kicker Gen. Colin Powell would tell me "how to triumph over anxieties and apprehensions."
What the "Honorable Ann Richards," who was unsuccessful in her last gubernatorial bid against George W. Bush, had to teach about success was not clear. But for only $225, I could spend the entire day at Reunion Arena and find out. And if I acted now, I could take advantage of the "special early bird" rate of only $49.
But even at this low, low price, would Peter Lowe's SUCCESS 1998 deliver on its promise? Would I "gain new motivation to fuel my life to new heights"? Would I "discover the latest secrets of success that work in today's world"? If these seminars have changed "thousands of lives," as advertised, would this one change mine too? And if it didn't change my life, would it at least change my mind: convince me that someone would benefit by attending a Peter Lowe success seminar other than Peter Lowe himself?
Just who is Peter Lowe, anyway? The ad informed me he was "America's #1 Success Authority," the founding president and CEO of a $25 million organization. His rags-to-riches story--the son of Canadian missionaries, a man with an unremarkable career as a computer salesman who teetered near bankruptcy as he chased his dream of motivating others--seems to have been profiled by journalists everywhere, particularly since he conducts more than 200 interviews annually. Each year his touring company promotes 25 success seminars in North America alone. More than a million people have attended them--26,000 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, 22,000 at the Thunderdome in St. Petersburg. And today at Reunion Arena, Lowe is playing to a sell-out crowd of some 19,000 folks hungry for his message.
First, however, they are hungry for breakfast. VIP participants--those who paid $190 for choice arena seats and the privilege of munching muffins with celebrity speakers at Union Station--had the option of an intimate 7 a.m. coffee klatsch with either Ann Richards (seating limited to 289) or Energizer Bunny Zig Ziglar (seating limited to 645). Since the media were forbidden from eating, I decided the over-the-top Ziglar would be rough listening on a caffeine-deprived morning.
So I opted for Richards, who seemed a bit caffeine-deprived herself--her voice sounding gravelly as she seized the opportunity for questions rather than answers. Apparently, she'd only brought one speech and wasn't about to give it twice. Although I voted for Richards, I hadn't forgiven her becoming, of all things, a Congressional lobbyist for the tobacco industry.
Yet it is a testament to her down-home charm and good-ol'-gal humor that, by the second question, I am ready to vote for her again. Only she's not running.
"No mas. No mas." She throws up her hands, the sun casting her face in shadow. "I have a wonderful life and no intention whatsoever of going into public life."
"How are you the way you are?" asks a woman, clearly an existentialist.
Richards' tone changes, copping a "but seriously folks" resonance. "Let me tell you--you don't know what it is that makes your core. I can't think of a time when I didn't know that I couldn't do what I was doing."
Compelling sentiment, I guess, but where did that leave the rest of us? If you are what you are, how can your life be changed by a one-day success seminar?
Glen, who sells wholesale eyewear and is just finishing his breakfast of three eggs, ham, sausage, and hash browns, tells me not to expect any epiphanies from the day's events. "If you can get a few pearls, something that keeps you motivated in your everyday life," then the seminar will be a success, he says. I thank Glen for his advice and think about eating the roll he leaves behind. But it's nearly 8 a.m. and time to make the trek to Reunion.
Rush-hour traffic being what it is, I am one of the first to arrive at the arena. Looking around, I notice a half-dozen TV monitors and two large screens projecting an image of the empty stage. A hint at the day's patriotic theme can be gleaned from the red, white, and blue Peter Lowe logo hoisted high overhead. A fog machine begins to cloud the stage, giving it a disco feel.
Then, from nowhere, a slight man in a black double-breasted suit approaches me. Other than his red hair and a passing resemblance to Jerry Seinfeld, he looks like the kind of guy you never spoke to in high school. Only it is Peter Lowe, America's No. 1 Success Authority. He is a merely affable man whose presence takes more significance only after he begins to speak about his work. His eyes bug and his voice elevates an octave as he tells me how he started by giving speeches about 17 years ago to a handful of people. Then, in 1988, he matched up with the irrepressible godfather of motivation, Zig Ziglar, and his career began to take off; that is, until he skyrocketed to the next level of success in 1993, when he convinced a reluctant Ronald Reagan to speak at his seminars. Once he secured Reagan, all the president's men followed: Gerald Ford, George Bush, James Baker, Oliver North, Colin Powell. His seminars feature a medley of world leaders, entertainers, broadcasters, sports figures, and motivational speakers who are themselves motivated by the hefty speaker fees Lowe pays them. (Ziglar reportedly gets $30,000 a pop.)
A well-appointed fiftyish woman interrupts Lowe's historical account and gives him an awkward hug. A glimmer of recognition brightens his face. "I told him to get out of this business years ago," says the woman. "Thank God, he didn't listen."
Lowe quickly excuses himself, tells me to enjoy the opening ceremonies. The arena is still filling up, but there's a tight schedule. Christian singer Babbie Mason enters the stage and sings a gospelized version of "The Star Spangled Banner." As she gets to the part about the rockets' red glare, fireworks leap from the floor of Reunion--an eye-popping spectacle of sizzling reds, whites, and blues. The pyrotechnics do their job, grabbing the crowd by the throat and demanding it wake up or else.
The "or else" is Tamara Lowe, master of ceremonies, "Peter's adoring wife," and head cheerleader for what will soon become a pep rally for prosperity.
"Good morning Dallas!"
"Good morning," the crowd echoes.
"You are the metroplex's best and the brightest. Its movers and shakers. You are the business owners. One out of five of you already are making over $100,000 a year."
If that's true, I wonder, why do we need this seminar?
She must have heard me. "You want a motivating, educating, life-giving event. If that's true for you, say yes."
"Yes!" the crowd hollers back.
She continues in her pump-up-the-volume, singsong delivery. "I want you to give these speakers the greatest response they have ever had." She incites the masses to leap to their feet, stand on their chairs, stomp and shout and generally make a spectacle of themselves. She even has them practice. Twice. The decibel level is deafening.
"Ladies and gentlemen," she hollers. "Would you put your hands together for Ann Richards?"
The warm-up obviously worked; the ovation is through the roof. Richards looks radiant, her silver hair as luminous as the day she gave her famous keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. "Let me begin by quoting that great director and child-rearing expert Woody Allen, who said that 90 percent of success is just showing up...You don't have to be the best person for the job. You just have to make people believe you're the best person available at the time."
Already the audience is hers for the plucking. Failure, she suggests, is the key to success. "You learn something from every failure...You do the best you can, and then let God and let go."
What she avoided telling us were the lessons she had learned from her own political failure--her defeat as an incumbent by a rookie politico with a fancy pedigree. It's one thing to be a salesman and get rejected when you make a cold call; it's another matter to get rejected by an entire state. Despite the benefit this information might offer those assembled, no comeback secrets are revealed, no dark days of the soul shared.
Instead Richards turns her attention toward health. She tells us she is strengthening her bone density, lifting weights. She has cut back on fats and carbohydrates. "I always have the dressing on the side and never eat red meat. I am determined to make my body strong." And she enlists the crowd to do the same. "It's the God's truth. If I can, you can too."
The crowd bellows its admiration, but I'm pissed. I mean, didn't she--just 30 minutes earlier--preside over a breakfast with enough cholesterol to clog traffic? And how can someone extol the virtues of a healthy life in one breath and be a lobbyist for the tobacco industry in the next?
No matter. Because Tamara Lowe is at it again, this time enticing the crowd to climb to its feet and do, of all things, the wave. The obstreperous Mrs. Lowe then begins an incantation of "Go, Go, Go, Go" as four sections of grown-ups, many of whom have obviously lost their perspective as well as their dignity, toss up their hands stadium-like, clapping and shouting while the sound system belches out that thankfully long-forgotten Beach Boys ditty: "Catch a Wave." And it's not even 9 a.m. yet.
Against this fever pitch, there could be no better backdrop for the next preacher, I mean speaker. Dallas' own Zig Ziglar.
If celebrities provide the glitz for the day's events, motivational maniacs like Ziglar do the grunt work. He is that rare combination of Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, and Henny Youngman. He mixes eternal optimism with borscht-belt shtick. Like a boxer looking for an opening, he scores points not with a knockout punch, but with a ceaseless flurry of one-liners and cliches. "I dieted religiously--I quit eating in church...Denial is not just a river in Egypt...Don't sweat the small stuff...When I enrich others, I enrich myself." Every so often, he gets off a good one: "A hypocrite is someone who complains about all the sex and violence on his VCR."
At 71, Zig will slow down for no man. He paces the stage, prancing back and forth, making certain all eyes move as he moves. For sincere moments, he gets down on bended knee, pointing one finger toward the heavens, his eloquent, country gentleman's timbre trailing off to a whisper. "When you start saying the right things to yourself, about yourself, you will change yourself...I'm not going to ease up, let up, or shut up until I am taken up."
Wild applause and a smattering of Praise the Lords greet anything he says of a spiritual nature. But he seems a tad uncomfortable, dragging what was packaged as a secular seminar into non-secular waters. So he tops himself off with a joke about the relativistic philosophy of secular humanists. "Everything is not relative. Not once during all my travels did my wife ask me if I was relatively faithful."
As he rambles relentlessly in search of some thread to tie his 65-minute presentation together, the veins in his neck bulge, and he seems to want to make eye contact with every person in Reunion. If he goes on much longer, he just might. When stripped down, Zig's message is pure: Success isn't just about money, it's about friends, family, character, the love of a spouse. Of course, you can purchase that message and any other offered in his many volumes of books and tapes at the Success Resource Center, just outside the arena. For one day only, Zig tells us, we can get his career and family package, his complete sales package, his entire motivational package--the whole shootin' match--for only $1,595, a savings of $676 off the regular price. Like Zig says: "Money is not the most important thing in the world, but it's remarkably close to oxygen."
Clearly, Ziglar owns this crowd; they hang on his positive attitude, his delivery, his turns of phrase. For me, all this motivation stuff resembles a crack fix, a high that can't last once the participants go about their lives. Amazingly, Ziglar agrees with me. But his remedy is to make it permanent either by buying his tapes or by looking into the mirror twice a day, morning and evening, and repeating what amounts to a mantra of success: "I am a compassionate, respectful encourager who is considerate, gentle, and generous...I am a person of integrity with the faith and wisdom to know what I should do...These are the qualities of the winner I was born to be." It all sounds like an old Saturday Night Live sketch where a cloyingly offensive 12-stepper named Stuart Smalley employs similar motivational techniques. I wonder if Zig Ziglar credits Al Franken or vice versa.
I decide to poll the crowd, looking for someone, anyone, who doesn't seem so emotionally invested in this seminar. I spy Ray, a rugged, twentysomething guy with long hair curling down the length of his back. He is speaking to Melissa, also in her twenties. Certainly this pair has enough rebellion left in them to reject the party line. But no, they both work for a Christian singles dating service, and Ray believes the motivational techniques he will take away from this seminar will keep him "excited" about his job, which will, in turn, "excite" his clients.
As for Melissa, she has a large collection of Zig Ziglar tapes that she plays each morning before she attacks her day. "It makes me feel optimistic, like I always have something to look forward to." Could these folks have come here predisposed toward this event changing their lives? If I had to listen to a Zig Ziglar tape every morning, death by lethal injection might seem a more humane alternative.
It's 10:30, and Brian Tracy is on next. He's a laid-back version of Ziglar--more cosmopolitan, less preachy. His motivational approach seems more intellectually appealing--at least that's what I glean from the titles of the books and tapes he shamelessly hawks: The Psychology of Selling, Accelerated Learning Techniques, The Science of Self-Confidence. He tells us that his best-selling audio cassette How to Master Your Time was purchased by one man who listened to it every month for two years and increased his income in sales 700 percent. "He went from average to being one of the top salespeople in the world."
Tracy pitches himself like a walking infomercial: steel-blue suit, slick demeanor, clever sense of humor, mellifluous voice. "I can promise that if you do this simple exercise, the next year of your life will be the best year of your life." He folds his hands gently in front of him. "Write down a list of 10 goals. Will you do this? Say yes."
"Yes," the audience mimics.
"Decide which one goal, if you achieve it, will have the greatest positive impact on your life. And whenever you become tired or depressed, you think about those goals, because you become what you think about. Are you enjoying this? Say yes."
And they do--despite this sort of New Age visualization seeming a bit touchy-feely for the crowd.
Calmly, Tracy explains that he, too, was born into poverty, never graduated from high school, worked a series of meaningless jobs. He was only able to change his life by changing his self-concept and building his self-esteem (as explained further in his best-selling Psychology of Achievement, which contains "12 of the most powerful thinking principles ever developed"). "And you build self-esteem by simply saying the words, 'I like myself.'" He encourages the audience. "Will you say it? Come on, 'I like myself.'"
"I like myself."
"I like myself."
In a crescendo of motivational tidbits, Tracy urges us to be decisive, resolve what we want and write it down, set a deadline, take action, think every day about that goal, and commit ourselves to excellence. "And remember, failure is not an option! Failure is not an option, right?"
"Right!" The crowd yells back, rising to its feet in a brazen display of approval. I grow confused. Ann Richards has just told me I need to fail in order to learn. Now Brian Tracy is telling me failure is not an option. Does that mean learning is not an option either?
I grow even more confused when the next speaker, former drug czar and chief presidential critic William Bennett, speaks. Whereas Zig tells us to pursue happiness and follow our dreams, Bennett, a veritable cheerleader for virtue, urges us in another direction. "Do not pursue happiness. You can't. If you want to be happy, pursue work." And whereas Brian Tracy has only minutes earlier told us that the way to build self-esteem is to look in the mirror every day and chant I-like-myselfs, Bennett claims the only way to build self-esteem is to earn it.
I want to agree--but with what?
In a rousing ode to the "moral fixation" of the American people, Bennett somehow concludes that our ethical structure was responsible for the liberation of Europe in two World Wars, the death of communism, the victory of capitalism, and the fleeting success of Nancy Reagan's War on Drugs.
It isn't hard to figure where he's going with this: Our philandering prez is about to get his.
"The greatest authority of the [oval] office comes from the moral authority of the person that holds it," says Bennett. "I'm sorry, but what's on my mind is what's on my mind. I am who I am."
No need to apologize--not to this crowd.
"A great shame has occurred in the office of the President of the United States," Bennett says in conclusion. "I call on the citizens to do the right thing."
The crowd bursts into applause, standing, cheering, smelling presidential blood. But what did any of this have to do with motivating people toward achieving more success? Prove that even an amoral person, if given the right motivation, can someday grow up to be president? What a country. It's time for lunch.
Although VIP participants could share an intimate dining experience with either William Bennett (422 people), Brian Tracy (256 people), or Emmitt Smith (596 people), I choose to lunch with those in the cheap seats, who graze on such nutritious Reunion delicacies as hot dogs, fries, and pizza. Ann Richards would not approve.
I do find a few people who are troubled that a motivational seminar would turn so blatantly political. But most are basking in the morning's optimism, convinced that their lives had either been irreversibly changed or "positively impacted" by the speakers. Only two guys employed by Scottish Rite Hospital express any doubts about the staying power of the information. "They say I shouldn't procrastinate," one of them explains. "Well, I know that. But that don't mean I won't."
"It's just a show," says the other. "Nothin' in my life that's gonna change." He also doubts whether the next speaker has anything to offer except entertainment.
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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So how do you measure the success of a success seminar? Had I gained new motivation to fuel my life to new heights? Not really. Could I count myself among "the thousands" who'd come before me whose lives had been changed by this experience? I don't think so. Had I learned innovative tools that would prepare me for the quickly approaching new millennium? I wish.
What I did sense, however, was that there is a hunger out there for positive change, a thirst to make our lives better, more meaningful, less average. It's not necessarily a money thing or an American thing. It's just a good thing. And SUCCESS 1998 does its best to tap into whatever that thing is...and exploit the hell out of it.
Because Colin Powell is such a tough act to follow, the show should end with him. But the event's final speaker is marketing consultant Dan Kennedy, who begins by urging the crowd not to leave. "Now you can either get stuck in traffic, or you can let me tell you how to double the size of your bank account in two short weeks."
But after listening to 12 speakers in 10 hours, after being confused by contradictory advice, after being denied access to "true success" in this life and the next, rush-hour traffic is all the motivation I need.