Attitude Adjustment

Work harder! Earn less! Learn to love it!

The irony is killing me, but we're not done yet. Covey marches to stage right and picks up a tall, carved rod. It's a talking stick given to him by some Indians, he says, without being more specific. While I'm looking around to see whether anyone is laughing--they aren't--he explains that only the person holding the stick gets to talk. Everyone else just listens. "That kind of listening affirms the other's worth, and they gradually become less hostile and less defensive," Covey promises. "It dissolves barriers." Pass it back and forth until everyone feels heard.

One last PowerPoint slide goes up. It's of clouds parting and pale rays shining down over Covey and the audience. "Self-actualization is not where it's at," he says. "It's self-transcendence." A woman in my aisle is crying.

I can't decide whether Stephen Covey is the most cynical, devious capitalist I have ever laid eyes on, or the most subversive. All I know is he's one of the smartest.

 

THE MARK

I'm standing in a coffee shop on Nicollet when a guy we'll call Lenny spots me.

"Enjoying the conference?" He motions toward the badges dangling around our necks. We're both on a break from the National Leadership Summit, two days of motivational speakers like Covey being held a block away at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

We swap quips about the morning's second speaker, Harvey Mackay, author of one of the best-selling business inspiration books of all time, Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive.

I tell Lenny I'm a reporter. "So you're reviewing this," he guesses. I nod.

The whole truth is a little more complicated. I forked over $600 for my badge hoping I could better understand the appeal of motivational speaking and publishing, a $6 billion industry. The same corporations that hire Covey, Mackay, and the rest of the speakers on this weekend's bill often buy blocks of tickets to these events to reward their best salespeople. Equal parts corporate indoctrination and motivation to sell, sell, sell. It's genius, I figure, and I want inside.

Harvey Mackay's a local figure, the owner of an $85 million envelope company. His talk revolved around making sales by building good relationships with people. He described the 66-item profile questionnaire his company requires account executives to fill out on every prospect they meet, and told some funny stories about how the profiles helped him close big deals. The point is that there's no substitute for knowing your clients' needs. But I'm guessing that instead of being given the time to do this, most of the salespeople in the audience are required to prove they're making enough calls, accosting enough new prospects, and otherwise driving themselves like cash cattle.

Lenny, however, is at the conference because he's having a hard time selling himself. He's been looking for work unsuccessfully for quite some time, and got his ticket to the event from a nonprofit agency, HIRED, that he got hooked up with through the unemployment office. His counselor there had a bunch of free tickets, and thought Lenny might pick up some tips on selling himself--or at least the resolve to keep sending out résumés.

Fortysomething and dressed in a plain gray suit, Lenny looks like exactly what he is: an academic in a mainstream discipline that's neither particularly sexy nor dying out. He rose to be wunderkind of his top-flight graduate program, wrote a groundbreaking dissertation, got a big-name first job, and proceeded to fall off the map. The exact details would identify him and probably make his job hunt even harder, but the gist is that he keeps climbing onboard with the wrong sponsors.

In the couple of decades since he earned his Ph.D., Lenny has had a number of short-term jobs at colleges around the country that failed to turn into full-time, tenure-track appointments. Most recently, he's been teaching simultaneously at a bunch of different schools in Minnesota. He's put thousands of miles on his car traveling from class to class, working the equivalent of three full-time jobs at once. (The best of them paid him a princely $16,000 to teach four courses.)

But even a few years after he landed here, family in tow, none of the gigs have turned into anything. Most heartbreaking, the last job he was up for--one he was already doing on a part-time basis--disappeared when the college in question realized it could save $50,000 or $60,000 by just having him continue as a freelancer.

It takes Lenny quite a while to tell his story. His anecdotes are peppered with names and digressions concerning faculty power struggles, gossip overheard by research assistants, and promises made by colleagues who shouldn't have promised what they couldn't deliver. I can't tell whether he's piling on the details in an effort to make sure I see he's a smart guy, or whether he's starved for a sympathetic ear.

In any case, he's a little embarrassed about being caught at a motivational speaking event, and moreover to discover it's making him feel better. He agrees to let me call him after it's over to learn whether all of this inspiration in fact made a difference.

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