Among the Intellectualoids

The Secret of The Secret’s Success

A self-help juggernaut that confirms we're beyond help and thus utterly hopeless.

By 4.12.07

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Has a book ever borne a more ironic title? In recent weeks it's become hard to avoid armchair discussions and more formal analyses of what is surely the greatest success story in the annals of viral marketing: a positive-thinking juggernaut known as The Secret. The original DVD went platinum late last year, some 1.7 million copies selling at around $30, sans paid advertising. In true viral style, the project then infected publishing: A hastily written derivative grabbed the No. 1 slot on Amazon and the New York Times' best-seller list for advice books, a lofty station it defends to this day. All told, at least 5 million copies are in circulation, counting the book and DVD. Unsurprisingly, assorted sequels and spin-offs are in the works. Due soon is the Secret Workbook, as well as an anthology of Secret Success Stories. Another film should be upon us by August. There is talk of a TV series.

But despite The Secret's high visibility, and the sheer volume of verbiage expended on reviews and critiques, journalists largely missed the forest in the tease here. In truth, The Secret is less important for the outrageousness of what it says to us than for the outrageousness of what it says about us. It is quite simply a colossal cultural wind sock, encapsulating the zeitgeist in a way that few other recent events or enterprises have.

JUST TO RECAP: In concept, one might call The Secret self-fulfilling-prophecy-meets-PMA-on-steroids. It's anchored in the so-called Law of Attraction, which, in simplified form -- and it never gets much more complex -- posits that what we truly believe in our hearts and minds will come to us. Good or bad. Or as one LOA fan site puts it, we are "living magnets." Early in the viral campaign for her pet project, Rhonda Byrne, its creator and producer (and, you might say, its Patient Zero), gave an interview in which she termed The Secret "knowledge that has been known by the greatest leaders, discoverers and philosophers -- the greatest men and women in history." Armed with that knowledge, Byrne added, "There is not anything any human cannot be, do or have...not a single thing. No limits whatsoever. It doesn't matter where anybody is now -- it doesn't matter if they're sleeping in a park, if they're totally broke, it doesn't matter if they're not well, it doesn't matter if their relationships are a mess."

To Byrne, no external circumstances matter. It's all, and only, about you.

It's tempting to play such Elysian pitchmanship for laughs, and also to wonder how the resulting goulash of competing aspirations could possibly resolve into a free-market society in which there must be management and labor, rich and less rich, winners and also-rans (as we'll see conspicuously in November of next year, when all but one of the living magnets now trying to attract the U.S. presidency will fail). Still, one must finally recognize that no enterprise reaches a Harry Potter-like level of cultural saturation feeding solely on low-hanging fruit. The Secret cannot be dismissed as some loopy fringe movement. Like it or not, this is today's America. I'm mindful of cartoonist Walt Kelly's famous twist on the Commander Perry quote: We have met the enemy, and they are us.

Secret-mania overspreads a fertile American landscape wherein any and all expressions of PMA receive nonstop ambient nourishment. Consider that between them, Larry King and Oprah Winfrey, those premier takers of the American pulse, have donated the equivalent of five hour-long infomercials to The Secret -- so far. Winfrey tearfully framed it as an omnibus solution to life's challenges, citing her own career as Exhibit A in establishing the validity of Byrne's premise.

HOWEVER, AS SOMEONE WHO HAS extensively studied the broad landscape of self-help, what I find most significant about The Secret is that it caps off a progression of thought (or anti-thought) that's been gaining traction in American life for a while now. Long after sales figures are forgotten and the self-help community has moved on to the next fad, and the next after that, The Secret will be remembered for mainstreaming the kinds of solipsistic, "life is whatever you think it is" mindsets that once were identified with actual mental pathologies: say, schizophrenia or narcissistic personality disorder. This spirit of uber-self-determination is irresistible to two polar but pivotal American generations: young adults weaned on self-esteem-based education ("You are special! Never give up your dreams!") and the roughly 77 million American Baby Boomers now approaching retirement pretty much en masse and desperate to unshackle themselves from everything they've been, heretofore.

The Secret provides an unambiguous, unconditional answer to life's mysteries, selling a cool, existential worldview throughout: You reap what you sow -- you get what you feel you are owed -- period. If you already enjoy prosperity and acclaim, it's because you believed in it, "attracted it," and thus are cosmically deserving of it. If you suffer with failure and disrepute, the same applies: You earned it. No excuses, no exceptions. In the black-or-white land of The Secret, 9-11 victims somehow invited those 757s into their lives. Further, sick people are sick because they embraced their illnesses in some karmic way. Indeed, Bob Proctor, one of the two-dozen self-styled mentors and "metaphysicians" Byrne showcases in The Secret, puts it like so: "Disease cannot live in a body that's in a healthy emotional state." (One supposes, then, that the surreally jaunty Proctor will never die.)

If this unapologetic philosophical hard line has attracted the ire of some social critics, it is also the real secret, and the perverse genius, behind The Secret's mass appeal. In your garden-variety self-help program, the fine print backs away from the more extravagant promises of the title or jacket copy; there are any number of conditions, caveats and disclaimers. Not so here. "Apply it," says Byrne simply, and your life "will totally change."

NOT ONLY IS THIS THE PERFECT message for its time, but also, in many ways, it is the only message that America-at-large will accept (as the canny Barbara Ehrenreich observed in a Harper's piece about the demonizing of those who refuse to buy into today's culture -- or cult -- of hope). If The Secret is about anything at all, it's about the abandonment of reason and the inconvenient truths, as it were, of the known physical world. To be sure, in the broad culture, science and logic have fallen out of fashion; common sense is declasse nowadays. Statistics on health-care utilization, for example, leave scant doubt that we're a people who increasingly flee orthodox medicine for mind-body regimens whose own advocates not only refuse to cite clinical proof, but dismiss the very idea of proof. Today, there are more total patient-visits to alternative practitioners, as a class, than to standard family doctors. We consult oracles before oncologists, shamans instead of shrinks.

In an era of lassitude and indolence, marked by the coming-of-age of a generation who long ago internalized the notion that they're entitled to have their needs met, the lure of what amounts to wishful thinking is not hard to fathom. The phenomenal success of The Secret validates my longstanding suspicion that what self-help-minded Americans crave is not so much actionable advice as a mechanism for putting off action: a mechanism that gives them permission not to face the tough realities of how success really happens (i.e., hard work, careful planning, scary choices, sheer fortuity, et cetera). Even more than success, they seek a way of postponing the admission of failure, with its consequent need for a Plan B. If that day of reckoning can be endlessly deferred by telling ourselves a pretty story about limitless possibility and the victories still to come, then we can see the glass as forever half full.

Just don't try to drink from it, because there's nothing there.

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About the Author

Steve Salerno is author of SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless.