An autumn storm soaks the streets and paints the outdoors a dull shade of gray, but inside the Fort Worth Convention Center the scene is all bright lights, pyrotechnics, and red, white and blue. More than 12,000 people have packed the arena for a one-day dose of inspiration at Get Motivated!, paying less than $5—or $19.95 for a whole office—to see an all-day speak-a-thon featuring former Secretary of State Colin Powell, aging motivational sales guru Zig Ziglar and former President George W. Bush. At the center of the floor, on a stage decorated with yellow chrysanthemums and periodic columns of fire that shoot toward the ceiling, a perky woman in a bright red suit and matching lipstick stands smiling while the throngs leap up and down and pump their fists in the air. Her name is Tamara Lowe, the woman who for the past 25 years has presided with her husband over this traveling spectacle—an odd blend of QVC, tent revival and Fox News on the Fourth of July.
As if to magnify the corny, old-timey feel of the place, The Beach Boys' "Surfin' Safari" blares from the sound system and Lowe invites a few people from the audience to lead the crowd in an impromptu dance-off. A middle-aged man takes the stage and does a jerky wave. Next to him, a 20-something woman in a cardigan shimmies. And then an army of red, white and blue beach balls materializes, seemingly out of nowhere. The crowd tosses them into the air, and the building resembles a massive, patriotic popcorn popper.
George W. Bush
Web extra: Check out our slideshow for more photos of this year's big event.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Lowe cries, "I want to introduce a two-term governor of Texas and two-term president of the United States: George W. Bush!" The crowd goes nuts. They're shouting, jumping and clapping, many of those relegated to the upper floors streaming down toward the stage to get a glimpse of the former president, who today marks his first major public speech since he left the Oval Office amid two unpopular wars, a tanking economy and record-low approval ratings. Clearly, these folks don't share the views of the woman who stood outside in the rain earlier holding an "Abolish Bush" sign.
The 43rd president takes the stage to "Hail to the Chief" and waves until the audience quiets down. "It feels good to be home," he says. "Thanks for that warm Texas welcome."
Bush begins with a few anecdotes about the curious onlookers who flocked to his Preston Hollow cul de sac after the announcement that he and wife Laura had purchased a home there and a joke about getting caught on camera walking his dog Barney while holding a doo-doo bag. Then he turns to the task at hand: motivation.
"The thing about life is, you gotta live it to the fullest because you never know where it's going," he says, kicking off a string of vague clichés that hinge on values and principles. "Every man, woman and child should be free, that's what I believe," he says. "I believe it's in our interest to help people realize the blessings of freedom for the sake of peace." He veers from motivation to a spirited defense of his record, saying he made decisions based on his principles and not on "the politics of the moment."
"I never wanted to be a wartime president," he goes on. "Sometimes you get dealt a hand you don't want to play—the question is how you play it."
As he talks of being a father—"tough choices"—and the sacredness of America's religious freedom, scattered cheers and uh-huhs erupt throughout the audience. To succeed and remain motivated, he says, each individual, at the end of the day, must answer to himself and his own conscience. "It doesn't matter, your political party," he says. "What matters is how you live your life and how you act. It's so simple in life to chase popularity—but popularity is not real—what is real is principles. Always follow your conscience, so when you look in the mirror you're proud of what you see."
Bush's appearance after lunch stokes the most enthusiasm of the day so far, but it's only the midpoint of a seemingly endless parade of speakers spouting can-do slogans and pitching books, online training programs and financial seminars. Get Motivated!, with its array of celebrity speakers that changes depending on the tour stop (Suze Orman, Larry King and Bill Cosby have made appearances, as well as Joe Montana and Goldie Hawn), is a particular brand of motivational seminar. Its hallmarks are patriotism, sales and the more than occasional mention of Jesus Christ. But the business, which Lowe lauds as "the biggest business seminar company in the world," is just one piece of a sprawling industry that, according to MarketData Enterprises Inc., was worth $11 billion in 2008 and seems to be swelling despite the recession.
Peter Lowe, referred to in company literature as "America's Success Strategist," grew up the son of Canadian missionaries, became a computer salesman and emerged in the '90s with a Tampa, Florida-based motivational seminar organization called Peter Lowe International. In 2000 he merged his operation with a joint venture between Success Magazine and the Champions Tournament, a popular tennis event. But what was to be a multi-faceted motivational bonanza spiraled into a financial mess that left investors millions of dollars in the red and resulted in dozens of complaints from people demanding refunds for canceled seminars or inspirational tapes that never arrived or didn't deliver what they promised.
In the wake of the meltdown, Lowe resigned and with wife Tamara started the current incarnation of the business. Asked about the failed venture, Brian Forte, senior vice president, claims that after Lowe sold his organization, he became an employee of the company and didn't make any of the decisions that led to the collapse, though his former partners countered in media reports at the time that he was in fact head of the seminar subsidiary. In any case, the Lowes have managed to put the mess behind them to orchestrate some 35 seminars across the country every year, each drawing 12,000-14,000 people. The company wouldn't say how much they pay the speakers, but in 2006 Rudy Giuliani was reportedly paid $100,000 for appearing at one of the seminars.
Since most motivational speakers sell books to go along with their workshops, they're tied to publishing's vast and varied self-help genre, which includes everything from motivational/success titles such as Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Successful People to mind-body-spirit volumes like Louise Hay's You Can Heal Your Life and Doreen Virtue's guides about how to communicate with the archangels. While most publishing genres are flat or sinking, self-help volumes are flying off the shelves. Mitch Albom's Have a Little Faith: A True Story took the top spot for adult nonfiction in mid-October, according to Nielsen BookScan, whose ratings system shows the self-help category up a whopping 22 percent over the past three years. Total nonfiction sales inched up just .24 percent over the same period, with computer-related book sales plunging 26 percent and history/law/political science sinking 15 percent.
"Self-help is bucking the trend," says Jim King, BookScan senior vice president and general manager. "The idea of self-improvement is really part of Americans' DNA. I mean, who was the first self-help author—Ben Franklin?" It's true that Franklin was a tenacious self-improver, an embodiment of the American rags-to-riches story. With little formal education, he apparently taught himself to write by copying famous essays and adhered to a list of 13 virtues that included being frugal, honest and industrious. If Franklin was the grandfather of American self-improvement, the fathers of modern self-help were Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie, who penned Think and Grow Rich and How to Win Friends and Influence People in the midst of the Great Depression. On their heels came Zig Ziglar, who had a hardscrabble Depression-era childhood in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and then fashioned an empire of motivational books and tapes that drew on biblical themes. Since this breed of self-help was born in the Great Depression, perhaps it's no surprise the industry is staying afloat while others sink in the recession.
"When you have this financial situation, people are looking for different ways to look at things and trying to find some comfort," King says. "Self-help provides that."
At a time of widespread home foreclosures, double-digit unemployment and news of Hoover-esque tent cities springing up across the country, many of those seeking a jolt of inspiration at the Fort Worth Convention Center this Monday in October are out-of-work employees or small business owners whose incomes have plunged.
Terri Antley, a blond, tired-looking woman from Granbury, lost her job as an oil company dispatcher last fall. "I'm on my second extension of unemployment, I'm 48 and there's nothin' out there," she says during a break. "This gives you hope to not give up—to not be so down."
Randy Safford, who lives in Dallas and has a company that sells GPS tracking devices, hopes to glean some wisdom that might help him take his business public. "It's scary right now—volatile," he says. "I'm looking for some new insight, maybe a new direction."
Marsha Whaley, who lives in Mansfield and has 12 children—a number of them adopted—brought three of her teenage sons to the seminar. She wants them to get some general inspiration and maybe some tips for a landscaping business they want to start to put themselves through college. "With the way the economy is, I worry about my children's future," she says. "I want them to have tools I never had. And what better speakers for them to hear than Colin Powell and George Bush?"
Mid-morning finds Colin Powell pacing the stage in a dark suit and talking about leadership. The general and former secretary of state, who clashed with administration insiders over the invasion of Iraq and endorsed President Barack Obama, seems to command just as much respect as he did during the Gulf War. People lean forward in their seats and some take notes. Powell, drawing on the principles he learned in the military and while serving under successive administrations, seems to gear his remarks toward CEOs and business owners, people who find themselves in the challenging position of having their effectiveness rise or fall with the productivity of subordinates.
"The people who get it done aren't the leaders, it's the followers," he tells the crowd. "And you as a leader must focus all your passion and all your intensity into inspiring your followers. Everyone has to have a purpose in life, and every organization has to have a larger purpose." The key to success in any organization, he says, is ensuring that its goals are guided by a broader intention that ripples out into the world. The people who clean the State Department offices, for instance, were not merely janitors. They were difference-makers, crucial to making America's portal to the world a clean and welcoming place and thereby advancing diplomacy and peace.
To advance any larger goal or purpose, you must "give your troops the training and equipment they need to get the job done," he says. That means incentives like bonuses, promotions and raises, not to mention recognition when people do a good job. While at the State Department, Powell recalls, he'd write employees notes to thank them or recognize their efforts and accomplishments. The slips of paper cost nothing, but later he'd notice the recipients had framed the scrawled words of encouragement and displayed them on their desks. "You've got to reach out and touch people," Powell says. "Make sure they know you value them."
He concludes his speech with praise for America—"We continue to be the leader; the world wants to be free!"—and the crowd rises, cheering, as "Proud to Be an American" sounds from the speakers. While waiting for the next part of the show, some people sit and thumb through their 25th Anniversary Commemorative Edition Get Motivated! Workbook. The glossy cover features a photo of Tamara and Peter Lowe grinning and holding up a Vince Lombardi Super Bowl trophy (it's unclear what the couple had to do with this triumph, but similar pictures appear throughout the book—Tamara hugging Jerry Lewis, Peter posing with Naomi Judd, even a snapshot of the couple talking with Mother Teresa). There are articles by celebrity speakers. (Zig Ziglar writes, "Motivation gives you the 'want to,' training and education give you the 'how to,'" while Jerry Lewis offers, "We all need humor to get through life.") There are articles on finance ("How to Get Out of Debt and Stay Out"), health ("Diet Myths You Need to Know") and relationships ("How to Spice Up Your Marriage in Two Weeks!").
That so many people are drawn to self-help is a testament to how many people want to make changes in their lives but don't want to go into therapy or simply can't afford it, says Marion Jacobs, a psychologist, adjunct psychology professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of Take Charge Living: How to Recast Your Life One Role at a Time. "Sometimes it's high-quality, and sometimes it's quackery," she says. "That's the dilemma—often people don't know how to evaluate that." The problem with general advice of the sort delivered by many motivational speakers, which she refers to as "bumper sticker advice," is that people may be momentarily pumped up but lack guideposts for how to implement change. "A change that's hard to make takes more than advice—it takes time and persistence, and inevitably you're going to come up against personal resistance about doing it because there's something that held you back, and that something needs to be dealt with."
Yet Forte, the Get Motivated! Seminars vice president, stresses that their product is simply a day of "refreshing inspiration...things people can take home to make their business and professional lives more successful," not a prescription for a magically transformed life in the space of a day. That may be, but the speech and subsequent sales pitch by Phil Town, advertised as "America's No. 1 Investing Trainer," is filled with financial advice that sounds too good to be true.
Town, a Vietnam veteran and former river-rafting guide who says he became a multimillionaire after studying with one of Warren Buffett's business disciples, is tall and handsome, with the chiseled jaw line, broad smile and dimples of an Eddie Bauer model. He's also the author of Rule #1: The Simple Strategy for Successful Investing in Only 15 Minutes. Strutting the stage, he tells of the mentor who went on one of his rafting trips and invited him to La Jolla, California, to apprentice with him. At first Town resisted the idea since he didn't have any money to invest, but once it got cold in Flagstaff that fall, he took the bait. "I apprenticed with him for a year and got hooked," he says. "I went out on my own, and five years later, I was a millionaire."
The crux of his talk was the age-old American tenet of self-reliance—learning to invest so you don't have to depend on money managers. It was a particularly timely pitch, what with the collective rage toward bankers dispensing bonuses with bailout money. Town's PowerPoint presentation shows a photograph of a secretary he taught to invest and who went on to get—he claims—an annual 25 percent rate of return. "Everybody's out to tell you you can't do that," Town says, shaking his head as he paces the stage. "But the people who say that want to make money off investing yours." With pensions and retirement funds flagging or wiped out, he continues, people can no longer expect mutual funds with less than a 10 percent annual return to do the job. "What I'm trying to tell you is you're going to have to do something on your own."
Now he launches into an Internet investment tutorial, complete with the keys to identifying a stock worth holding for 10 years. "What used to take all week now takes a minute or two," he says, stressing that the Web is to investing what tractors were to farming.
Town brings a few members of the audience to the stage, points at graphs with the green and red arrows indicating good or bad buys, and quizzes the three women. With each correct answer the crowd goes wild and Town grins and nods. He turns to the women. "Let's teach you to invest," he says. "I'm gonna give each of you a tool set for free!" One woman screams and hugs him. "I'm gonna put you through a two-day workshop," he goes on, "You're gonna learn everything, and then the staff is gonna work with you for three months. You're gonna go out and make a ton of money and teach your kids!" At this, the other two women squeal with delight, and the four of them close in a group hug.
To seal the vision of wealth, he talks about how for years he spent his time traveling the world and shows photos of himself at his horse ranch and snowboarding in New Zealand. "How many of you would like to have so much money you could do whatever you want?" As if in answer, when he's finished, scores of people stream toward the back tables to sign up for his two-day Wealth Magazine Investor Education workshop, which he explains usually costs $2,000, but today is available for just $99.
Marsha Whaley—the Mansfield mother of 12—was among the hundreds of people who flocked to the tables. "I'm excited," she says on a break. "If we can make more money and get out of debt, I'll adopt more children." The woman waiting in the bathroom line next to her—a sales representative named Shelli King—has come to Get Motivated! several years in a row, and one year she did one of the investment seminars afterward. "It re-energizes you and you get excited, you just want to go sell," she says. Yet the excitement about investing wore off, and after learning some new tools, she says she didn't really put them into practice.
Brian Bruce, a finance professor at Southern Methodist University and director of equity investments at PanAgora Asset Management, a division of Putnam Investments in Boston, takes a skeptical view of Town's advice. "The principles are good, but believing that any individual can find stocks better than an institutional investor who does it for a living—well, it would be difficult," he says. "The devil is in the details—how do you know when a company's at fair value or 50 percent off? Many times when it's on sale, it could have good management but also be a potential bankruptcy candidate." The simple rules listed in Rule #1 "ignore a huge piece of what a professional investment manager does—there's a lot of research that goes into determining which investments are sound; you'd have to do 20 to 30 hours of research on each stock just to get to the same knowledge level." Town's assertion that you can make large returns by spending just 15 minutes each week tending to your investments is "an appealing thing to say to a retail audience," Bruce says, "but when you think about it, it doesn't make sense." A frequent criticism of Town on financial Web sites is that while he constantly refers to the venerated Warren Buffett and his advice to invest long-term, much of Rule #1 actually prescribes short-term trades. "That's not an easy way to make back what you've lost in the market correction," Bruce says. "It requires patience and adherence to sound principles, which means diversification."
Tamara Lowe—modestly billed as "The World's No. 1 Female Motivational Speaker"—has the distinction of being the lone woman talking today, and as soon as she launches into her motivational sermon, she takes a warm, motherly tone. "I'm so proud of you," she says. "You spend your whole life on everybody else—making everybody else happy—it's OK to take a day for you." She pauses and flashes a bright, peppy smile. "Say this out loud," she says, "'Today is all about me.'" The crowd obliges.
"A lot of folks think the folks up here [onstage] haven't had the same challenges as they have," she says. "But I'm a former drug addict and dealer with an eighth-grade education." At this, the crowd lets out a collective gasp. "The message of my life is this: The past does not define you. It's something that happened to you, not who you are. It's the actions you take today that determine your tomorrow. If someone would have told me that I would have worked face to face with six presidents, I would have thought they were smoking the same stuff I was."
Then comes a double-dose infusion of patriotism and Christianity. "I would have overdosed and died if it weren't for the grace of God," she says. "America is still the greatest country on earth. Everybody has a chance here, and I'm living proof of that. After I got off drugs, I got a GED. This year I got a master's, and now I'm starting doctoral work. So I went from LSD to Ph.D." The crowd cheers.
She moves on to a concept outlined in her book, which—shockingly—is titled, Get Motivated: Overcome Any Obstacle, Achieve Any Goal, and Accelerate Your Success with Motivational DNA. In order to motivate anybody—whether an employee, client, spouse or child—you must discover the drives, needs and awards that inspire them to action, she explains. People are either driven by productivity or relationships, they need either stability or variety, and they respond to either internal awards such as personal satisfaction or external ones like salary or recognition. Once you discover people's inclinations, she says, "you unlock the ability to perform like champions."
And here's when the real sermon comes out—in the form of a rap. "The real superstar is Jesus Christ," she says. "He's the way, he's the brightest light and the highest high...Here's my rhyme and the bottom line. Give your life to God while there's still time." This is met with thunderous applause, though for some reason—perhaps because the seminar's overtly religious theme isn't advertised and has been criticized in other cities—she explains that she's about to talk for three minutes about the spiritual side of success and gives those uninterested in the expansion of her Christian rap the chance for an early break.
"The greatest motivation you will ever experience," she says, "is having a relationship with a living God who loves you. That's what changed my life 28 years ago. I said, 'Lord Jesus, I need you. Forgive me for the wrongs I've done and make me into the person you want me to be. Amen.' The very moment I made that affirmation, the chains came off and all the addictions were gone."
It's past 3 p.m. by the time Zig Ziglar, "America's No. 1 Motivator," makes his appearance. The seminar, with its Bush administration star speakers, is already a throwback, but Ziglar's presence is an irrefutable and nostalgic window into a bygone era. In his 80s and unstable after a 2007 fall that left him with short-term memory problems, Ziglar is helped up onto the stage by his daughter. She asks him a couple of friendly questions, interview-style, and then turns the show over to prerecorded video of her father when he was still in his prime. There he is on the big screens, pacing stages and punctuating his sing-song sermons with air-punches and one-liners. "The more things you have that money can't buy, the more you'll have things that money can buy!" he shouts in one clip that, judging from the teased bangs and baggy rayon blouses in the audience, was filmed in 1988. "If you complain about problems, you just make them worse," he says in another. "You've got to understand that problems are in your head, and the solutions are there too."
Always fond of old-timey analogies, in one clip he actually yanks out a miniature metal water pump, plunks it down onto the podium and pumps away with a showman's furor. "If you pump long enough and hard enough, a big reward will follow the effort, and once that water starts to flow you'll have more than you could possibly imagine," he says, his face turning red as he works the metal lever. "Too often, people quit. When you follow through on a consistent basis, I'm gonna see you not just at the top, but over the top!"
Another more recent segment shows his son asking him about people who "pooh-pooh the whole motivational thing, say it doesn't last?" The question is an obvious prompt for one of Ziglar's favorite quotes: "Well, no, it won't last, but neither do bathing and eating. But if you do them every day, you'll live longer and smell better."
Similar tenets can be found in the relatively new academic and clinical field of "positive psychology," which happens to be the title of a popular class at Harvard and includes a growing body of research on the neuroscience of happiness. Optimism is generally accepted to make for more success and better health, but some experts say that in certain situations—surviving the death of a spouse or facing the loss of one's home and livelihood, for instance—simplistic advice that hinges on "staying positive" can be useless or even damaging. "It's not helpful to give people the idea that they should be walking around being cheerful when they're in great pain," Jacobs, the California psychologist, says. "Positivity can get a little Pollyanna-ish. The question is, are you thinking constructively, taking action on your own behalf and doing everything you can given the circumstances?"
Nanci Pradas, a clinical psychologist and former executive vice president of myselfhelp.com, agrees. She echoes Ziglar to say a healthy mindset and productive life are the results of daily practice and constant cultivation of positive thought and action, but she also says it's misleading to tell people that if they merely "think positively," good things will happen. "Then people think worse about themselves because they're not finding employment or being successful," she says. It's constructive if a motivational seminar spurs people to take action toward their goals, she adds, but no one should expect some sort of "magical" change.
But Tamara Lowe, when asked about this later, says that while she believes being positive is better than being negative, Get Motivated! doesn't prescribe denial. "We don't think you should stick your head in the sand and ignore challenges," she says. "Our recommendation is to find the best option to solve those problems, not to gloss over them and say, 'I'm OK, you're OK.' We provide experts who have risen to high levels and can say, 'Here's what works in leadership, communication skills, relationships.'" She says she often hears from people who say attending one of the seminars changed their lives. "They say, 'This turned my marriage around, I got off drugs because of this, my business was failing and this helped me turn it around,'" she says. On the more dramatic side, she adds that in the past six weeks, four people have written on customer surveys that they were going to commit suicide and as a result of coming to the event changed their mind (in such cases, she says, the company contacts them and connects them with mental health services). "People go away encouraged and hopeful. We hear so much bad news; this is the counter-balance."
Yet Pradas also questions the wisdom of packing a seminar lineup with famous people. "Not everyone can be like Colin Powell or Terry Bradshaw," she says. "I think it's almost worse to have big-name people like that because you're never going to reach that level of success." Forte, of Get Motivated!, counters that the focus isn't the celebrity, but the principles that led to success. "I don't think many people are going to come to the event and start comparing themselves to Colin Powell," he says. "You can strive to be like him, though, to focus on the strategies they've used to become successful."
On stage after the Zig Ziglar video presentation, one of the event announcers leads the audience in applause. "The legendary Zig Ziglar!" she says. "The master of motivation!" Visible on the monitors, today's elderly Ziglar stands and leans on his daughter, smiling and looking a bit dazed.
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The afternoon is coming to a close, and one of the last speakers is Rudy Giuliani. He focuses on three crucial qualities for any leader: having strong beliefs, being optimistic and cultivating courage. Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King Jr. both accomplished great things, he says, because they had strong beliefs and held fast to them, regardless of others' opinions. "They didn't do it by themselves," he said of defeating communism and segregation, "but without them, you wonder, would it have happened?"
He defines an optimist as someone who embraces problems and turns themselves into problem-solvers. "What if I came out and said, 'Things are bad, very bad, and they're only gonna get worse,'" he says, melodramatically putting his face in his hands. "There's no hope. Follow me!" He gets a laugh from the crowd. "People follow hope, they follow dreams, they follow the fulfillment of dreams. Being optimistic doesn't mean you'll accomplish every goal, but you'll certainly have a better chance." Remaining as positive as possible, he adds, helped him fight prostate cancer after his diagnosis. Optimism doesn't cure cancer, but research shows that a positive outlook makes treatment more effective, he says. "Like in life in general, it doesn't make success inevitable, but it does make it more likely."
Past 5 p.m., people wander toward the doors and spill out of the convention center onto the downtown streets. Many of them look exhausted and a little stupefied after nine hours of speeches and cheering and fist-pumping. When asked what they're taking away from the experience, some speak in generalizations, like one woman who says, "You just have a good feeling when you leave," while others say they've set new goals. Anabel Rosales, a 21-year-old student at North Lake College, says she now realizes why she's having to take algebra for the third time in order to pass. "One of the speakers said something about how if you're weak at something, you need to ask for help, and I wasn't doing that," she says. "It's a really competitive world right now, and [if] you're weak at something you have to reach out for support."
George White, an Arlington real estate agent who came looking for ways to jump-start slow business, is a little cynical about the whole thing. "It's obviously a sales pitch, with them selling their seminars and everything," he says. "Basically, it all comes down to, 'Get off your ass and do something!'" He laughs. So, does he think it works? "It can for a while, but it's up to the person," he says. He compares motivational speaking to the times the boss comes in and tells people to stop arriving at work late. "At first, people start gettin' in on time every day, but little by little, some people go back to being late. This is like that—what happens next is up to you."