The Hazards Of Personal Development, Part 1: Aggressive Positivity


Beyond Growth: Exploring The Future of Personal Development is one of my favorite blogs. It features thoughtful, and sometimes scathing, critiques of the personal development industry and community. The questions the blog hosts raise are both timely and necessary. In this post, Duff McDuffie (one of the blog hosts of Beyond Growth) discusses his experience of attending a live seminar with Tony Robbins (“Unleash The Power Within”),

With drums beating in the background, everyone was chanting “YES! YES! YES!” There was no room for doubt. All fear had been overpowered by force of will.

. . . Nearly every technique employed for the firewalk employed aggressive positivity, actively negating reality through force:

• 2000 people in a huge conference room with 50-ft screens jumping up and down and clapping to loud music.

• Screaming “Yes!” when you are feeling “this is dangerous and possibly stupid.”

• Yelling “cool moss!” when you are feeling burning coals against the soft tissue of your feet.

• Making your “power move” to get into “a peak state”—a power move being an aggressive gesture (Robbins’ involves beating his chest like an ape) that stimulates a fight-flight nervous system response, overpowering subtler experiences.

Does this planned frenzy sound familiar? I won’t name the “usual suspects” of African-American cultural and political institutions that engage in this practice as standard operating procedure (while exploiting their base of mostly Black women “footsoldiers”). I won’t call the traditional Black (Baptist) Church’s name. I also won’t call the names of various other African-American organizations such as Operation PUSH, or the National Action Network. I won’t mention them.

Pep rallies are generally entertaining, and they can serve a useful purpose in energizing people to get over an immediate hump. However, pep rallies are usually inadequate for meeting life’s long-term challenges. Mr. McDuffie goes on to note,

Unfortunately few contexts are relevantly similar to firewalking, as I found out the hard way. Achieving most personal outcomes requires patience, persistence, and flexibility, not an intense emotional display and impulsive action.

This reality is why the Million Man March (one of the ultimate African-American pep rallies of the past twenty years) did not create lasting positive change. This came up during a recent conversation when a reader cited an article from The Root that looked back at the Million Man March. In response, I said,

About The Root article discussing the missed opportunities of the Million Man March: I was amused to see the author briefly ‘fess up to a few observations of INTERNAL failures. He said,

And so, for me, any celebration of that wondrous October day is tinged with more than a little sorrow that we squandered our best opportunity to arrest black America’s inexorable slog to Gomorrah.

The reality is that since 1965 — when I was born — black America has never had so many of our own in jail (in terms of absolute numbers or as a percentage of our overall population); seen more “good” jobs disappear; been sicker; experienced a wider income gap within our community; and, most important, seen more of our material gains reversed than we have over the last 15 years. This is true in almost all areas, including housing, educational outcomes, widening of the income gap and representation in trade unions.

Yes, in the aftermath, we elected our first black president, which many see as a major step forward for African Americans. And in some ways, that is true. But I would argue that using the election of Barack Obama as proof of black progress is central to the problem. His presidency has not stalled the downward spiral of so many African Americans. You would be hard pressed to identify a period over the last 45 years when black politicians have been less responsive to the black polity. In other words, while Marion Barry and Coleman Young and Harold Washington might have been flawed, they were ours.

No one would say the same of the Adrian Fentys, Cory Bookers and Harold Ford Jrs. of the world. We’re living in different times, times that we could not have foreseen 15 years ago as we gathered on the Mall.

But, unfortunately, he quickly got back to the traditional AA mantra of “blame the government…look to the government to accommodate internal dysfunctions.” As you know, the problem with this mindset is that it gives away our agency to so-called “all powerful” outsiders. Meanwhile,

Nobody is forcing AA males to engage in behaviors that lead to them filling the nation’s jails and prisons. That’s their free and voluntary choice.

Nobody prevented AAs from preparing ourselves for economic shifts. I recall Ross Perot warning everybody during his 1992 presidential campaign—3 years before the Million Man March—about what he correctly predicted would be the bad effects of NAFTA. I recall his comment about listening for the “giant sucking sound” of American jobs being vacuumed out of the US and into places like Mexico.

Nobody is preventing AAs from taking better care of our bodies and our health.

Nobody prevented AAs from creating our own infrastructure (businesses and other institutions) to safeguard whatever gains we had made.

Nobody put a gun to AAs’ heads and forced us to support and vote for Crossover Negro Politicians whose main claims to fame are: (1) how “post racial” they are, and (2) how determined they are to ignore AAs’ concerns.

Nobody prevented AAs from taking advantage of various HUD educational programs for aspiring homeowners.Folks didn’t have to be “snookered” into getting subprime mortgages. Furthermore, nobody required AAs who were NOT prepared for the responsibilities of home ownership to buy houses in the first place. I saw a whole lot of people who had never been responsible enough to balance their checkbooks or pay their other bills on time decide to buy houses. Particularly houses that it was quite obvious that they could NOT afford. Nobody forced them to do any of that.

When, if ever, will AAs grow up and assume adult levels of responsibility?

There aren’t any shortcuts to lasting change. Lasting change requires persistent, day by day, and often boring behavior that supports change.

**Addendum** A reader named Karen made the following observation,

I personally do not understand why all too many expect a quick fix. Our lives are the summation of every step, choice or action that we have done (or not done). There is nothing “sexy” about perseverance, discipline and consistency of effort along with continually reflecting/adjusting one’s goals to build a life for oneself and family (and/or laying the foundation for future generations).

She’s absolutely right.

October 21, 2010   81 Comments