Attitude Adjustment

Work harder! Earn less! Learn to love it!

"Help us set the stage," BetterLife co-founder Eric Worre keeps saying. "You'll have a better experience down here, I promise." Those of us who are here don't appear inspired to move, and it's turning into a minor standoff. The first speaker should have taken the stage some time ago.

When I bought my ticket, I assumed I would be spending two days networking with businesspeople, as the program guide suggested. Maybe corporations don't have the budget for this kind of thing this year. Maybe the real sales pros are out closing deals left and right, trying to stick a fork in the recession. Whatever the cause, I won't run into any of them here.

In fact, I won't run into anyone who paid for his or her ticket. Everyone I meet got theirs free from a nonprofit, a business school, or a friend. This morning I'm sitting next to a man who got up early on a Saturday and put on a suit at the behest of a friend who just started working for the organizers. (Worre did not return City Pages' calls for this article.)

The first speaker, Connie Podesta, announces that we're going to "do therapy," and leads us in a funny exercise where we all identify with one of four shapes. Each shape stands in turn, and she ridicules us and mimics the seething resentment with which we view our differently shaped co-workers. Later, I look her up credentials and learn that she is licensed as a professional counselor in the state of Louisiana.

She's followed by the man who wrote Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, John Gray, who turns out to have gotten his counseling credentials by taking a correspondence course from an unaccredited university located in a former mortuary in San Rafael. The ersatz bona fides don't seem to be much of a problem to the millions who lap up Gray's relationship advice, though. He's a hotter seller than Covey.

His shtick is that men and women are wired differently, and that an understanding of this is the key to marital felicity. Not a bad hypothesis on its face, but the longer he talks, the angrier I get. Biology, it seems, is why boys will be boys, and why women would do well to get over it and stop demanding that they learn to talk about their inner landscapes. Men can help this process along by reminding themselves how far sweet little gestures go. He tells a story about the day he realized his wife was far more turned on when he built a fire in the fireplace himself, instead of instructing Juan, who I presume to be some kind of servant, to do it.

Even though it's 12:30 by the time he wraps up, the organizers want to bring on the next speaker right away. The emcee is desperate to get us to stay, but half the audience gets up to leave anyway. I go to lunch. With my bill, I get a fortune cookie that says, "Listen not to vain words of empty tongue."

When I get back to the Convention Center lobby, I see the speaker I missed, Gary Coxe. There's a young woman trailing behind him trying to open the foil pouch of a disposable camera. She's having trouble tearing the packet, and Coxe's handlers keep moving him away from her. After a few minutes, he realizes what's going on and offers to help her. He asks his minders to take a picture of the two of them, and puts an arm around her shoulders.

Afterward, I ask what she found so inspiring. She tells me that Coxe solicited a volunteer from the audience who was scared of spiders. He led her through a series of four exercises--the theme of his talk was "Beyond Positive Thinking"--and then plopped a live tarantula into her hand.

She's from India, a student at the University of Minnesota and an aspiring entrepreneur. She's getting a degree in computer science, and she was hoping the speaker could tell her the difference between people who do all right and those who excel. Her mother is a doctor, her father an attorney, and they made sure she had every advantage, she says. She's had summer internships with a couple of New York investment houses, but still she worries that she might not achieve her dreams.

For the better part of two days we've been hearing terrifying facts about the upheaval in the American economy. Several speakers have reminded us that even skilled jobs are being moved to China and India at breakneck pace. Does that give her pause, I ask?

She looks uncomfortable. "We're in an age of constant change," she says. "Many, many things are changing." She excuses herself to go back into the auditorium. She's saving a seat in the front row. "It's just such a different experience down there," she says. "They're actually talking to you."



The following week's New Yorker carried a long and riveting profile of two recent business school grads who moved to Chennai, India, and set up shop recruiting Indians to perform such highly skilled jobs as legal research, equity analysis, and accountancy. The punch line, of course, is that they've found a way to beat the system, at least for the moment.

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