American Secret

If you haven’t heard about “The Secret,” you will soon. It’s a phenomenon.

It’s a 90-minute streaming video, a DVD, and a book. It’s ranked #2 on Amazon at the moment of this writing. It was on Oprah and The Ellen Show. It’s part DaVinci Code, part Blair Witch Project, and part Tony Robbins.

For the basics, see Wikipedia’s entry.  Or, The Secret’s website.

To some, The Secret is deeply spiritual—to others, egregious hucksterism. To some, it’s a rich message of empowerment—to others, a setup for disappointment.

But mostly, it’s a classic American blending of upbeat self-reliance with the promise of material success. (Yes, it has Australian roots—but the Aussies often out-American the Americans).

The “secret”—ostensibly guarded closely by some of the great leaders of all time—is the "law" of attraction—if you envision it, you help create it.

Variations on the theme: you create your own reality; your thoughts influence your health; your attitude affects how others react to you; to be positive, act and think and feel positive; be the change you want in the world.

Said this way, it’s a great message. It empowers people to take responsibility for their own lives, to lead their own change program. It’s a message of possibility, and of capability. It accords with folk wisdom, commonsense, and has a good measure of scientific support.

By encouraging responsibility, it feeds gratitude, while it reduces blame-throwing, conflict, and disharmony. This is good spiritual stuff, among other things.

So far, so good. That’s the first American part—the "good."

Then there’s the other part.

The Secret pushes “your attitude matters” across the metaphysical divide into the realm of inanimate objects. It says—literally—you can envision your way into having an empty parking space waiting for you on the street; you can envision and win the lottery; a kid can get a bicycle if he envisions it strongly enough.

It suggests starting small—“make it your intention to attract a cup of coffee.” (Hey Joe, I was walking down the street, envisioning a coffee, and darned if a Starbucks didn’t show up in just three blocks! Miracle!)

The Secret says, “Ask the universe—believe it’s yours—receive it… If it’s money you need, you’ll get it…It literally moves into reality, and that’s by law… It works every time, for every person… You will get what you want…”

Problem 1—Physics. Pushed to this level, this is spoon-bending, yogic flying, junk science. Not going there, uh uh. The Secret is (very) bad metaphysics; worse physics.

Problem 2—Logic: At various places in the video, you can hear all four possible logical forms of the statement:

a. If you envision it, it will happen (original conditional)
b. If it didn’t happen, you didn’t envision it (contrapositive)
c. If it happened, then you envisioned it (converse)
d. If you didn’t envision it, then it didn’t happen (inverse)

Affirming all four statements is what you call a closed system. All cults have them. (So does the system of mathematics, if I understand Godel correctly, but we generally give math a free pass. But only math).

The Secret isn’t necessarily wrong—but when it becomes immune to disproof, as well as the sole explanation of all that happens in the Universe, you gotta wonder.

Problem 3—Bad Capitalism: I don’t mind materialism per se. (Hey I went to HBS, the West Point of Capitalism!) But this is not about founding a wealth-creating business; that would be a value-creating and value-sharing materialism.

Winning the lottery—one of the visuals in the The Secret—is pure zero-sum materialism. Now suppose The Secret were true, and I envisioned so well that I won a $10 million lottery. Result—a whole lot of income redistribution—but no new value created. Not much of an economic program.

Now, suppose that 10 million people envision it equally well—and all win the lottery too! Result—we’d each win $1. Again, no value added. Not even any income distribution.

If you were the first to have The Secret, maybe you’d hoard it to avoid scenario 2. Which is exactly what The Secret claims the 5% knowledgeable did to keep the other 95% from finding it out.

If me getting mine means you don’t get yours, then it’s not much of a spiritual principle either.

This willingness to engage in zero-sum self-aggrandizement puts The Secret smack in the middle of a grand American tradition: helping people by giving them some good tools, promising to help them get rich, and letting them pay well for the privilege of trying. It’s been done before: “God wants you to drive a Cadillac! Leave a donation on your way to the dealership!”

Dale Carnegie wrote, “Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.” The American tradition is to focus on the former.

But there’s an irony.

In business, if people trust you, you’ll make a lot of money. Yet many clients turn the outcome into the goal—they try to be trusted in order to make a lot of money. And it doesn’t work in that direction.

The parallel: if you think positively, good things will happen to you. But if you turn the outcome into the goal—using positive envisioning just to make a lot of money, irrespective of the effect on others—it may bite you.

I propose the “law" of un-attraction: if you fake it, you will not make it. We don’t trust those who are in it for themselves. So we don’t buy from them. So they don’t get rich after all.

Watch out what you envision—it may backfire on you!

(For further reading, I recommend John Stackhouse’s blog.  Stackhouse is a theologian, an academic who explores contemporary culture and its interplay with religion.  See his comment on The Secret here ).