Bottom Fine Line: Beneath every bottom line secret to success there’s a fine line between success and failure

Bottom Fine Line: Beneath every bottom line secret to success there’s a fine line between success and failure

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Have you heard about “The Secret”? A student invited me to his house to watch the DVD, which has sold over 1.5 million copies. He claimed it had changed his life. We made an informal field trip of it, but I had to cut the engagement short. It made my skin crawl. I couldn’t stay seated.

If you have been fortunate enough to have missed this fad (also 1.75 million books sold in three months), I’ll spare you the trouble of checking it out. I can let you in on the secret for free. It’s so simple it takes just two short paragraphs:

OK, so here’s the secret to everything in the universe: The law of attraction. Whatever you think about, you’ll get. Think about a Rolls Royce, you’ll get one. Think about the perfect job, mate, life ever after, you’ll get it.

One catch: the law of attraction doesn’t understand the word “not.” So don’t think about not being in debt or you’ll get more debt. Don’t think about losing weight because the universe will hear “weight,” and you’ll gain.

Does it work? You bet. Always. To quote the DVD, “Why do you think 1 percent of the population owns 90 percent of the wealth? Do you think it’s an accident? No, they know the secret.”

Right. Donald Trump never thinks negative thoughts.

I now show the opening of “The Secret” on the first day of every psych class I teach. It’s the launch pad for talking about a lot of the topics we cover in a term–the yearning for simple secrets, the natural quest for ways to get more of what’s good, the dilemma about when to employ the power of positive thinking and when to employ the power of neutral thinking, the population-level perspective (what if everyone employs the power of attraction get the same Rolls Royce–who ends up getting it?) and above all, the role of critical thinking, which this DVD is at great pains to distract you from in its promotion of positive thinking.

To be honest, I get livid when I see it. It’s all I can do to contain my editorial comments. And I have to keep them down because, despite the fact that many of my students dress up as skeptics and cynics, they are young and–like all of us, young and old–drawn to that which feels encouraging. I’ve had students who, upon seeing the segment I show, want to borrow the DVD. I’ve had students who start out defending the theory, and even though by the end of a discussion they acknowledge that the theory is wrong, they say it’s good, anyway, because it’s a virtue to promote optimism.

Certain terms strike some ears as monolithic. Optimism, kindness, generosity, peace, acceptance–they’re all terms with very positive connotations, so positive that they intoxicate us (see Exhalting Moves) and keep us from seeing the ways in which the very same sentiments are vile in the wrong context. Optimism that compels us to drive without seat belts is dangerous, kindness to dictators is pernicious, generosity to the indulgent is undermining, peace when being attacked is deadly, acceptance of the unacceptable is unacceptable. These sentiments have their place, but they are not universal virtues.

Imagine a preacher who got into a four-car pile-up because he stopped too suddenly. He should have gone on, but he made a mistake. Hitting the gas would have been good. Revelation dawns: If hitting the gas is sometimes good, then isn’t always hitting the gas even better? Hitting the gas is a life-changingly important message to him. He travels the country extolling the virtues of hitting the gas. Hitting the gas makes you move, gets you out there; it keeps things rolling; it’s progress.

The preacher feels good about himself, delivering such a simple and useful message. And the people who listen to him appreciate it too. His passionate preaching reminds them of times in their own lives when hitting the gas would have been a good idea. They thank him for making the Right Path so clear to them. They pledge to do better. Nobody’s perfect. Even though they should hit the gas always, they might slip up sometimes. At least they’ll try really really hard and hit the gas a whole lot more than they did before they learned that the secret was to always hit the gas.

These new converts are self-disciplined and so they succeed. They hit the gas a lot more, at red lights, when pedestrians are crossing, when other people have the right of way. They find themselves in more accidents but that’s probably just because other people haven’t learned the secret.

Or imagine another preacher who stubbornly answered no when asked, “Will you take this adventure?” Finally, he relents and says yes. Now he’s grateful that he did. Inspired by this, he goes out into the world and tells people to answer all invitations to adventure with yes. People are moved by his simple, positive message. They try to apply his teaching everywhere. Should we engage in this adventure of beating up these innocent people? “Yes.” Should we have an adventure nuking the enemy? “Yes.”

These are stupid illustrations, but it’s not my fault. I’m reduced to this because for some reason we have a terrible blind spot about these things. We learn a lesson in one context. We turn it into a lesson for all contexts. We make unworkable universal recipes out of successful local recipes. We ignore the way what the recipe cooks up for us changes with the context.

Preachers and pop psych experts commit whole lectures to extolling such sometimes-virtues as always-virtues. Their sermons aren’t even half-true and they’re worse than ineffectual. They are a kind of crime. They rob people of their awareness of difficult choices and leave them holding dangerous, unreliable solutions. They steal what no one has a right to take. Exponents feel great about themselves and their wisdom. They feel wise and generous when they’re actually ripping people off.

The theme here is not new for me. It’s form vs. function, method vs. outcome, letter vs. spirit, fundamentalism vs. pragmatism. Form, method, letter, and fundamentalism all have to do with the means by which you might achieve an end. They’re all about the practices, recipes, habits, routines that you have confidence will yield good results. With confidence people stop monitoring the results. We say yes even when it yields the wrong outcome. We don’t notice, because we’re certain that saying yes is the right thing to do. We honor the letter while abusing the spirit.

We do the opposite too sometimes, showing too little respect for the form, thinking that if we just keep our eyes on the prize the rest will take care of itself. To Bush’s spinmeister Karl Rove the ends always justify the means, and America’s time-honored forms, methods, letters of the law, and fundamentals are as a result corrupted, perhaps beyond repair.

Ironically, the main method of corruption an ends-obsessed guy like Rove uses is to appeal to people’s obsession with means. If he wants you to ignore his devious ends all he has to do is extol the virtues of generosity to the people of Iraq, optimism about the president’s plans, saying yes instead of no, hitting the gas on the Neo-conservative agenda, not because they’ll yield good results but because isn’t hitting the gas always the right thing to do?

Here’s the real secret. You want the bottom-line answer to every situation? The true one-size-fits-all solution?

The bottom line is always a fine line. There are no always-useful rules. Even the rule that no rules always hold isn’t always true. In fact you can treat some rules as though for all intents and purposes they are always in effect. Always breathe (except when you’re hiding from the secret police who are searching your home, or you’re escaping a burning building). Always sleep for a few hours every day (except in an emergency).

In fact most of these nearly-always rules are the trivial ones. Breathe. Sleep. Always try to do what will turn out well in the end. Duh. You don’t need to be told them.

You can bet though that when you read something about a brand new or recently discovered always-rule that is winning over millions, its appeal stems from the way it promises a solution to a puzzle about which people lose sleep, one of those tough judgment calls on matters that are far from trivial, like whether to yearn more or yearn less for something you want but don’t have, or for that matter, whether you’ll ever get whatever it is you yearn for.

You can also bet that if there were a simple rule that always applies, everyone would know it by now. It would have been discovered long ago.

You can also bet that it was indeed discovered long ago. Over and over. Newsweek this week gives a chronology of times that the core message of “The Secret” has been extolled in the past century. Lots of them.

You can bet that when it was discovered before, the excitement faded because it proved wrong. It’s only exciting in the rediscovery because a whole new batch of suckers have been born to rediscover the unworkable miracle solution.

No, on the matters that matter, the bottom line is a fine line. Like when to say yes and when to say no, or when to focus on means and when to focus on ends. That’s the secret. It’s not secret because people haven’t shared it. It’s secret because people don’t want to hear it. It’s not as much fun as finally discovering that the meaning of life is super-simple.