Sunday 6 July 2014

#76 The self-help industry: a two sided coin

On Saturday morning, I went with a friend to the Excel centre to check out a personal development seminar. The lead speakers were Duncan Bannatyre, Les Brown and Chris Gardner from the movie The Pursuit of Happiness. It was a pretty packed event, full of small business owners, mostly in their thirties and over. It was my first time at something like this.

First up was Duncan, who had a pretty good story to tell, from his first job as a paperboy right the way up to property management. He'd had a couple of scuffles along the way and described with shameless bravado how he hospitalised a fellow trader during his time as an ice cream salesman and then later misled his bank manager by convincing able-bodied members of the public to occupy beds in his nursing home so that it looked full. I remembered how Richard Branson similarly wrote in his autobiography about ilegaly evading tax on the records that he transported across the channel in his early Virgin Records days. Overall though, the Duncan seemed to be a legitimately good businessman and his Scottish accent lent charm to his story.

I enjoyed Les Brown's talk too. The guy had a good sense of humour and I don't have a problem with listening to encouraging soundbytes underpinned by common sense. It's a signature routine of an industry whose followers are convinced that they know the true power of belief, especially when it's accompanied by a few practical tips. Like religion, the critics see no proof that it works. In a sense, they are right and for every celebrity that loudly endorses their own accomplishments as an example, there are many others who wouldn't bother for the same reason that only a minority of the attendees at these events will become very rich. After all, if every bee were a Queen, there's be no-one out collecting the honey. 

I ended up missing Chris as I had to leave for a friend's BBQ. In between Duncan and Les, was a chap that purported to be the world's leading authority on public speaking. I doubted whether Duncan or Les had used his services but knowing how to speak to groups was doubtless a good skill for business people to have. What concerned me was how this guy managed to hype up half the crowd and get them to flock up to the stage in order to convince some of them to buy his product during the next ten minutes. I'd already decided to stay seated when he announced sincerely that his DVDs were worth £5k... but that he'd offer them right now for just £100. I found this mildly amusing. Somehow he'd managed to amass a personal fortune without having any understanding of basic economics. I hate being marketed at. Especially at 9am on a Saturday.

I think the encouragement and general messages are mostly ok though if correctly interpreted and can sometimes be put to good use. My own experience of self-help is after listening to a load of Tony Robbins' audio a few years back, I ran a marathon, started dating and decided to move some savings around to get a better interest rate (which I use to justify the purchase of the audio, since I made more than I spent). Still, maybe I would have done those things anyway. Maybe it was my friends Mark and Tim that really inspired me to do all that running. 

A full day's or week's course run by some millionaire who knows NLP shouldn't be compared with an MBA, a doctorate, natural talent or good old fashioned hard work but such courses have their place in society. At the very least, they do provide some tips, inspiration and enthusiasm for business owners and others that need somewhere to turn to. I had fun at the seminar and might go to another one sometime. Self-help content, if consumed, should be done so responsibly, with a healthy amount of skepticism and as part of a varied diet and an active lifestyle.

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