And The Secret Is…

Ever since Facebook started cluttering our daily news feeds with paid placements, there has been one product genre that seems to muscle out all the other ads. I am speaking about ads promoting products, seminars and business selling what I shall call “success without effort”. I speak,for example, of invasive ad placements for trifle such as The Millionaire Mind; The Secret; seminars for how to buy real estate with no money down; various weight loss fads; and online diploma mills masquerading as legitimate colleges. This is in addition to the dozens of books and courses purporting to teach one how to find and maintain the perfect relationship or teach you how to raise your kids like a Tiger Mom. And let’s not forget updated versions of the old Amway and water filter multilevel scams with juices and vitamins instead of household products.

While the ads themselves seem almost cartoonish in their simplicity, and the actual products for sale appear benign, I cannot help but be disturbed by two particulars of note: (a) that people I might otherwise have respected for their intelligence and good judgment clicked the “Like” button, or even worse, shared the ads on their own posts. This, of course, is exactly what the advertisers are hoping for, which is to create the patina of legitimacy as a result of peer endorsements; and (b) these ads are really aimed at the most desperate amongst us. And what better way to market to people’s insecurities than through Facebook- that great new social media platform where everyone else’s life appears more exciting and successful than your own. If ever there was a place where the putative cool kids shine and the insecure are driven insane by the constant bombardment of their insufficiency, Facebook is it. Facebook- where the cliquishness, one-upsmanship, and passing of judgment continue long after high school can no longer be seen in one’s rear view mirror.

These ads are in addition to the hundreds of re-posts of articles, videos, photos and the e-version of those old success posters, which like the ads seem to suggest that the key to success is just the right mindset.

The ads and the underlying promotions are not new. It is only the method by which the message is disseminated. Tom Vu had jiggly ladies on a yacht and fancy cars in front of a mansion on late night infomercials 25 years ago. Television shopping channels would never have gotten off the ground but for the various exercise and weight loss fads. Amway, the granddaddy of the success without effort school of sales, has been around for generations now, having recently changed only its name but not its insidious sales tactics. Self-help gurus are nothing new. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, perhaps the template for the tens of thousands of self help books since, was first published in 1952. A generation earlier, in 1937, the “imagine untold riches and they will follow” school of thought was firmly established with the publication of Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.

It’s hard to blame anyone for falling prey to the twin temptations of fame and fortune. The desire for financial success is ingrained in our first world capitalist mentality. Even in Canada, our greatest socialist thinkers were more often than not the scions of wealth. Speaking frankly, money does matter. It provides one with options and allows for a certain freedom. To those on the outside of the fishbowl, all that money and fame sure looks like fun. Celebrity culture has increased the pressure on women (and increasingly men) to look a certain way. All the while, those of us who are parents are all motivated by the desire for our children to grow up to be happy, independent, financially successful adults. We are equally terrified we will screw them up and as such yearn for any competitive edge that will give our kids a leg up.

Even as a young barely pubescent boy mesmerized by the charlatans on late night TV (amazed at their unmitigated chutzpah, yet grudgingly respectful of their oration skills and rhetorical flourish), it has been a mystery to me that any seemingly intelligent adult could fall for this clap trap. And just when it seemed that the dawn of the 500 channel universe and the rise of the Internet giants would quell the self-help beast as people pacified themselves with all that the e-universe had to offer, Oprah helped turn The Secret into one of the bestselling books of all time.

A quick search of reveals thousands of books on parenting, many of which offer conflicting advice. The same can be said for books on romantic relationships. As for self-helping your way to money and power, it seems that sadly with each new generation, the expectations go up in direct correlation to the decline of the work ethic. Factor in the immediacy of social media, the pervasive influence of reality TV, and an era in which advertisers often control the production of seemingly innocuous entertainment like puppets on a string. The result is a society where everyone wants to be rich, famous, thin, glamorous and live out what Robin Leach called their “champagne wishes and caviar dreams”. The difference today is that in the 1980s when Leach’s show aired, those lifestyles were looked upon with wonder and amazement, but always for entertainment purposes only. Today, too many people devoid of genuine talent and/or work ethic feel entitled to that lifestyle as well. Sadly, what is left is left out of the narrative of the rich and famous today are the years of toil and dedication, the sleepless nights, the financial peril in which they existed before the big time hit. Of course, with the advent of Youtube and reality TV, some people really do become overnight successes with little or no effort. But such success is fleeting. Real enduring success, be it career, relationship, parenting, business or financial, cannot be constructed in an afternoon like a 7 year old’s Lego creation.

Just today I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, a comedy podcast that often takes listener calls. At least twice a week someone calls in and asks how to “make it” as a stand up comedian. When pressed by the host, the caller inevitably admits that he has never even so much as done an open-mic amateur hour, and often has not even developed 5 minutes of material. A brief conversation ensues that makes it abundantly clear the caller isn’t even funny. But that doesn’t stop the aspiring Seinfeld from seeking advice on a shortcut to the top of the comedy world from one who has made it.

The Secret, my friends, is that there is no Secret. There is no shortcut. There is nothing that will come merely by hope and prayer. Financial success will come with hard work and by being smart with your money. Education that will actually yield dividends will not be found on the Web; it will be found in a respected educational institution where entrance standards are high and getting through to graduation requires effort. At least in this country, one cannot buy real estate with no money down, and our foreclosure laws do not allow for below market value sales. Real estate investment is a long game replete with risking your own money and credit. And losing weight is, at end the of the day, simply what every doctor of repute will tell you- take in less calories daily while burning out more calories through exercise.

There are no magic beans, potions or secrets that will allow you to achieve your goals, be those goals personal or financial. Every one of us is able to achieve certain goals we set for ourselves. But we must be willing to work for those objectives, to persevere even in the face of the most Sisyphean challenges to our long term goals.

If there is one thing that I am trying to instill in my three children, it is the concept of grit. I want them to understand that they can achieve almost anything they set out to do, provided they are focused, driven, work not just hard but also smart, keep going when the chips are down, and never, ever, expect to achieve merely because they dream. And depending on the goal, they must actually possess some basic aptitude. I will make sure they know that they will not become rich by joining a multi-level marketing program, nor will they achieve their ideal “look” by ingesting some special formula. They will not obtain a career-making degree without going to school- real school and studying long and hard.

As for me, I will not be a better parent merely by reading a book. Parenting is the most challenging job of all. It requires time and much thought to do it correctly. I will not be a better husband for my next wife than I was for my last merely because I pick up some sound bites about communication from the Dr. Phils of the world. I must truly make an effort to listen with an open mind to the needs and wants of my partner. My future career success will not be an automatic merely because I have the momentum of past success. I must continue to dedicate the time and effort going forward that I have in the past.

So I guess what I’m taking 1400 words to say can really be summarized in 7: The Secret is there is no Secret.