Attitude Adjustment

Work harder! Earn less! Learn to love it!

THE SUBVERSIVE

Stephen Covey is striding purposefully across the stage at the Minneapolis Convention Center, preparing to unveil his Eighth Habit. The crowd is absolutely still, as transfixed as if Covey were about to demonstrate transmogrification.

The habit, like the seven that preceded it and made Covey a rich, rich man and a household name, is simple and irrefutable: find your voice and inspire others to find theirs.

It's as if waves of confidence are emanating from Covey's broad, straight shoulders and washing out into the audience. There is nothing in his demeanor that says snake oil. He really looks like a guy who has it all figured out.

There's a profound sense of alienation in the American workplace, he tells us. Most people believe their co-workers are more talented and more creative than their jobs require. And most people also say they are under increasing pressure to produce more for less. "There's all this talent," he thunders, sweeping an arm toward the crowd, "and we can't even use it."

A murmur of agreement ripples through the auditorium. Out in the seats I imagine we're all feeling the same fear--that our jobs are drying up, that they can be done for a fraction of our wages by someone more desperate somewhere else, that our hard-won skills are passé. And it's not our fault.

"Whole people," he explains, need "whole jobs" to stimulate our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits. To this end, we should ask four things of our employers: use us creatively, treat us kindly, let us serve human needs in principled ways, and pay us fairly.

We're nodding out in the audience. This is us. We want these things. If we had them, we could take over the world.

"Voice is when your talent and your passion overlaps what the world needs," Covey confides. And voice is inhibited by "five metastasizing emotional cancers: criticism, comparing, complaining, competing for a sense of your own worth, and contending."

People all around me are nodding. This is the feeling we're supposed to be getting, a kind of buoyant, hopeful conviction that we can be as successful as Covey--or at least the guy in the next cube. I don't know how much Covey is being paid for today's appearance, but corporations reportedly pay him upward of $40,000 to motivate their workforces. It's obvious why.

Thirteen million copies of Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People have been sold, as well as countless other books, workbooks, videos, and the like. And I'm betting that half of my seatmates own a Franklin Planner, the marvelously complicated date book that's helped make FranklinCovey, which he co-owns, a $350 million a year company. Clearly, Covey has found his voice.

Onstage, he's using PowerPoint slides to conduct a quick history lesson. When the agrarian age gave way to the industrial revolution, lots and lots of workers permanently lost their jobs. "A massive social dislocation," he acknowledges. "And yet most of the progress of that age comes from that."

He's right about the first part, anyhow. Legions of craftspeople were indeed put out of work by the industrial revolution, which took place in England in the late 1800s. They were replaced by mechanized production systems, which is how we as a society amassed enough time and cash to fixate on things like Franklin Planners, instead of where we might get enough bread and milk to keep all of the kids alive.

As I'm pondering this, something snaps in my mind. Has this guru of American capitalism been reading Karl Marx? In formulating his soon-to-be-best-selling Eighth Habit, did he borrow from Marx's theory on the alienation of labor?

It was bad enough, Marx held, that the industrial revolution replaced, say, skilled furniture makers with unskilled laborers who would only ever know how to turn a chair leg, wiping out countless jobs. This sea change destroyed any hope most folks had of reaping the full value of their own labor and put them at the mercy of a boss who literally owned the means of production.

But mechanization did more than put artisans out of work. It also robbed entire classes of people of the psychic rewards of work. Compared to the feeling of competence that comes with mastering a craft, how satisfying can it be to make the same cog over and over again? The craftsman has a sense of control over his destiny. The laborer doesn't.

Maybe what Covey is suggesting is that those of us who can get back to being artisans the fastest will be the winners in the changing economy. If so, he's conveniently skipping over the part where we learn how to wrest back control over the means of production.

Incredibly enough, back onstage, he is literally exhorting the bosses in the crowd to "let workers out of their chains, to allow them to use their minds." But he's lecturing the proletariat, too: "Get your head out of other people's weaknesses. Stop saying, 'Yeah, this is all great stuff but the person who really needs it isn't here.'" Instead, Covey orders, focus on learning the Eighth Habit.

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.

 

THE SCIENCE

Intrinsic motivation is the desire to take part in an activity for its own sake. It's why babies learn to walk and feed themselves, why we keep forming new relationships despite the fact that the old ones failed. There's a high degree of correlation between what an individual is intrinsically motivated to do and what they're likely to do well.

For someone to experience intrinsic motivation, four conditions have to be met, according to John Tauer, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas. The first is that they must enjoy some degree of competence: "Rarely do you find anyone who says, 'I love this activity and I'm terrible at it,'" he says.

Next is autonomy: An individual needs to feel that they have some control over what they're doing. Then there's a sense of relatedness, of being part of something bigger than oneself. And finally there's the sense that what you do is valued, that it's important, that there is meaning in it.

Some lucky folks are intrinsically motivated to get up and go to work every day. If you've ever been working along on a task and become so absorbed you lost track of time, or felt "in the zone," chances are that those four conditions were met and the activity in question perfectly matched your skill set, Tauer says.

But most of us are probably better off finding a way to at least like the job we have. When you have a job--or for that matter a life--where the four components of intrinsic motivation aren't all in place, or where your inborn need to be right is in conflict with your need to be liked (a job like, say, selling people things they don't think they want or need), then you need to get creative. And this, Tauer posits, is the reason motivational business speaking and publishing have become a booming industry.

"In the absence of intrinsic motivation, you see people searching," he says. "People often then decide to make as much money as possible. It's a way of resolving that cognitive dissonance: I'm spending all this time at a job I don't love, how do I justify that?

"Other times, people disengage," Tauer continues. "And this might actually be worse. If you start saying, I'm going to be doing this for 15 or 20 years, that's kind of a scary thought." Depression frequently includes an aspect of learned helplessness, he adds: "Why does someone stay in an abusive relationship when outsiders say, 'Why not just leave?' Well, it's not that easy."

On the job, that tends to mean a hopeless feeling. And so people are vulnerable when someone steps up and says, "I'm here to help you reach your potential," says Tauer.

Especially someone who has donned the mantle of authority, albeit one they stitched up themselves. "From earliest childhood, we learn to rely on authority figures for sound decision-making, because their authority signifies status and power as well as expertise," explains Robert Levine, a California State University psychology professor and author of The Power of Persuasion: How We're Bought and Sold.

"Authorities such as parents and teachers are not only our primary sources of wisdom while we grow up, but they control us and our access to the things we want," Levine writes. "As adults, it's natural to transfer this respect to society's designated authorities, such as judges, doctors, bosses, and religious leaders. We assume their positions give them special access to information and power. Usually we're correct, so that our willingness to defer to authority becomes a convenient shortcut to sound decision-making.

"It's so effective, in fact, that we often embrace the further shortcut of assuming that people who simply display symbols of authority should be listened to." Studies show that Americans are particularly swayed by titles, clothing, and luxury cars, he adds.

And there's nothing like confidence to anchor that image of authority. "[S]tudies show that decisive, swift talkers are actually no more sure of their facts than are their more hesitant counterparts," Levine writes. "But more important, they create the impression of confidence and, as a result, are perceived to be more expert, intelligent, and knowledgeable." The use of statistics, he adds, "even when they're meaningless, can signal expertise."

The disclosure of personal flaws only cements a speaker's credibility, Levine adds, making him or her seem to be just like us. And it's precisely when we're most confused that we are likeliest to latch onto a pat answer: "Too many choices can be overwhelming. They create a feeling that psychologist Barry Schwartz calls 'the tyranny of freedom,'" he writes. "The resulting anxiety leads to a desire for simplicity. Unfortunately, this can become an invitation to exploitation."

 

THE CLOSER

Tom Hopkins's devotees call him "the closer," and I'm not exaggerating when I say he looks exactly like WKRP's Herb Tarleck, minus the plaid. He's big, barrel-chested, and, unfortunately, sweaty.

"People say yes to your belief and your conviction," he starts his speech, "not your technique." Of course, he then goes on to deliver a solid hour of technique:

Try to come off not as a salesperson, but as an expert adviser.

Give buyers choices: Shall we meet at your home or your business? Today at 3:00, or tomorrow at 9:00?

Don't saycost, saytotal investment ortotal amount. Don't saysign the contract, sayauthorize the agreement.

Men, check your beards for stragglers after lunch.

Match your prospect's speech patterns.

Say this out loud three times a day: Today I will win, because I have faith, courage, and enthusiasm.

Hopkins's tips seem to run 180 degrees counter to Mackay's and Covey's insistence that the real key to success is having something the world wants and offering it up in a principled manner. But people are writing down his instructions as fast as he can spit them out. He builds to pitching his collected works, on sale in the lobby.

Next there's a grown-up Valley Girl speaker coach who does a funny bit on presentation mistakes, ranging from over-reliance on PowerPoint slides to making sure that your shirt is properly buttoned.

By now I've heard enough of this to pick up on some of the formula. We raise our hands a lot. We are asked to agree a lot. Each speaker mentions some early mentor, a high school teacher, coach, or in two cases, one's long-suffering single mother. There are typically some funny, pointed stories (which Lenny astutely describes as "competitive cruelty"). There are some statistics, perhaps a study, and quotations from a handful of big thinkers on their own moments of failure or self-doubt. Two of today's speakers quoted Helen Keller.

Inevitably, every talk winds around to the new, less secure economic era--67 percent of jobs in this country "soon" will be part-time jobs with no benefits--after which the speaker argues that surviving the change is a matter of choice.

The last speaker of the day is the only African American on the bill, Les Brown. His speech is entitled "Overcoming Adversity," and the adversity part is pretty compelling. His mother was a domestic in Miami Beach, and along with hand-me-downs from the wealthy families she worked for, she brought home tales of the spiritual impoverishment that accompanied their plenty. Brown credits her with teaching him to look beyond his circumstances.

"Most people never achieve their goals because they suffer from possibility blindness," he insists. "The most difficult thing I've ever done is to believe that I could do what I have done.... I am a speaker."

This is resonating with two middle-aged black men sitting in front of me. They're nodding and clapping and answering back like members of a congregation. One of them is wearing impeccably clean pieces from three different suits. I wonder whether, like Lenny, they got their tickets for free. I also wonder whether they really believe that one's mindset is the biggest obstacle to getting ahead in America.

 

THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING

At lunch on day one, I sit next to two people who used to work together. They still work for the same company, but one of them transferred offices and they're catching up. When I sit down, the woman is complaining nonstop about someone named Felicia. Felicia wants to move to Peru. Felicia has visited Peru, but the woman still thinks Felicia has no idea what she's doing.

The man, meanwhile, wants to talk about the workshop. "You need this kind of pep talk if you're in sales, or if you own your own business," he says.

She looks at him, brow furrowed, and keeps ragging on Felicia. Back and forth they go. Eventually, he sets down his fork and starts to defend Felicia's decision. Why shouldn't she move to Peru? Her chance to do something daring like this is while she's young. Plus, she's got a great marriage, so she has someone to share her adventure.

Apparently, this is too good a segue for the woman to let pass. She lets up on Felicia but starts complaining about her year-old marriage, which is much harder than she thought it would be. Her dining companion takes one more shot. He's recently divorced, he confides, and trying to look on it as an opportunity to make some big changes. He's excited to be at the event, and really ready to hear so many people talk positively about reinventing yourself. She gives him the same squinty look, and returns to complaining about her husband.

By the time I leave, they've both fallen to dissing Felicia.

 

THE GLOBAL VISION

Things get started very slowly the next morning. The folks who put on this event, BetterLife Media, have plans to start a television "life improvement" channel and they're taping these speeches to repackage as their first 12 shows. To that end, they're trying to get us all to move down into the front rows and into the center seats so they can tape an audience in the throes of motivational rapture.

The same thing occurred yesterday between speakers, as the number of people present dwindled. Despite the fact that they told us last night we could all bring a friend for free today, this morning there are even fewer people.

"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."

 

LENNY, INTERRUPTED

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.

This makes me think of Lenny, and the fat lot of good his prestigious Ph.D. has done him. I invite him out for coffee to find out what he got out of the event. It was worthwhile, he says: "There are kernels of truth within the bullshit. And it doesn't really hurt to be reminded of them."

He ticks them off. "Be yourself, do what you're good at, pursue your goals, act with integrity. I know all that stuff, but I forget it, and it's helpful to hear it."

But has it changed the way he's looking for work, I ask? He's more aware that everyone he encounters right now is a potential job referral, but outside of that, not really.

We natter for a while about the job market, and how hard but important it is to stay up when you have to sell yourself, but Lenny's heart isn't in the discussion. He's just had bad luck, he keeps repeating. Bad luck.

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