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 ).

18 replies
  1. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    Charlie – I’ll have to check out "The Secret", but the physics-defying "envisioning" method reminds me of a "breakthrough thinking" session I went through years ago with the other managers of the small software firm where we worked. The emphasis of the program was very much what I call the "Think Method" – and we were supposed to think our way out of the cold, cruel fact that we had crappy software, no money for developers or marketing, and were getting eaten alive by well-funded competitors. But to point out any of the obvious problems we were dealing with was to voilate the premise of breakthrough thinking. (In the long run, we were able to suck a larger company into buying us and putting us out of our misery.)

    While it’s true that you probably won’t achieve success unless you envision something or other, and that you won’t be successful if all you do is dwell on the negatives, "The Secret" sounds like a lot of wishful thinking.

  2. Karen Hudak
    Karen Hudak says:

    I love the movie The Secret. I also agree with much of your blog. The tools in The Secret work. Without exception. It’s “trying” to make them work that is ineffective.

    If you buy a lottery ticket and believe you will win the lottery, you will win the lottery. It’s the undercurrent of doubt that will prevent you from winning if there is any conversation going on within you (I may not win, I REALLY want to win, I really hope I win, gosh it would be so great if I could win, I know I don’t deserve it but I would love to win.)

    Wanting people to trust you does not have them trust you. Being trusting has people trust you.

    And one other note about The Secret – it’s clear about there being plenty for everyone in the world – a limitless universe of possibility for everyone. This to me was one of the most powerful parts of the film.

    Thanks for your great blogs Charlie!

  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    For me, the Secret is the Napoleon Hill, "Think and Grow Rich" of 2006-7. Ive seen the Secret and view it as a prime example of "spiritual materialism" which is behavior that is purely ego-driven. Some thoughts:

    When there is a conflict between a positive thought and a negative emotion, the emotion will always win. So, when one decides to "think positive" but is doing so because, emotionally, they are frustrated, angry, envious, jealous, or fearful, etc., there’s a pretty good chance the thought will not manifest – which is one reason why many folks’ attempts at living the Secret ("positive thinking", visualizing positive manifesting, and prayer, for that matter) end up in not "getting what I want." Too, when the effort, and for many it is efforting (which goes against the Yin and Yang of Universal flow) comes from one’s ego, there’s a good chance that one will not get what one wants or one will get what one doesn’t want (i.e., the Soul’s response to the ego’s demand). Trust is sorely lacking here.

    Too, in our Western culture, we are basically averse to pain on every level. This week I saw an interview with Jennifer Hudson, the young singer who was voted off of American Idol and stole the show in the movie, Dreamgirls.  Jennifer was asked how she responded to being eliminated from Idol when most people thought she would win.  She admitted that it was painful and that she cried a lot, but that eventually she returned to her faith.  "I chose to trust that God had a bigger plan for me than I could see at the time," she explained. Trust…surrender…allow…probably not a lot of hand-wringing, mental gymnastics, "mind control", positive thinking (better go see the Secret!!!)…..just allowing and trust.

    The Secret, in my mind, is supposed to be the antidote to experiencing life’s disappointments, or, for that matter, eliminating life’s disappointments. For me, Jennifer’s story is a powerful reminder of how life’s disappointments may in fact be preparation for something even more significant in our lives. And, this belief has the best chance of coming true when one makes a demonstrated (read "conscious") commitment to learn and grow from one’s present day circumstances NOT by evading, avoiding, denying and "thinking" one’s way away from them.

    So, for example, what am I learning about me, my work, my business, or how I am in relationship.. what’s really at cause when it comes to a dearth of clients, or clients I would like to have, or a painful breakup of a relationship, or… The pain and suffering are teachers pointing to what we need to learn about "me" – about who I am and how I am in life. The pain forces one to grow, to mature emotionally and spiritually, to face fears and frustrations…the pain is a call to action, a call to learn, an opportunity to grow…and since many folks refuse to be self-responsible for working on their own "stuff", well, now we have the latest quick-fix, The Secret, that says, "OH, no biggie, just think positive and all will be well." Hmmm.

    Just be positive…hmmm…my take is there are many, many silently angry, fearful, frustrated folks out there…folks who have 20, 30, 40, 50 years of anger, fear, frustration, etc. inhabiting their cells and have never dealt with their emotional awareness or maturity. These are some of the 98% of the folks who will find it challenging, well-neigh impossible, to sustain positive attitudes, positive outlooks, positive reactions to the vicissitudes of life…on whom the secret of The Secret will be lost. "Waddya mean, I thought positive six times yesterday and nothing happened!?" Six times in the midst of a day replete with negative judgments of others, bullying, gossiping, being sarcastic, angry, mean-spirited and disrespectful, not trusting anything or anyone, lying, cheating. 

    For the 2% who really, really get it, the Secret is no secret – living life from the inside out, trusting without needing to control, experiencing life’s pain as a teacher, surrendering their ego, seeing that life is larger than getting that parking space or Starbucks…that’s it’s not about spiritual materialism. When a pickpocket meets a Holy man, all he sees is the pockets. IMHO, The Secret, for many (over and above the 2%), is all about the pockets.

  4. Robert Lewis
    Robert Lewis says:

    The secret seems to encourage the vision of something for nothing.

    What happened to give before you get?

    Sure you need to be positive and envision and believe in your self and your success, but you also have it act.

    Remember the only time you have is now so what can you do now to make youe dream come true.

    What ever it is small or large do it now, the results and future achievements are dependant on what you do now.

  5. Michael Benidt
    Michael Benidt says:

    What I love about Charles Green (and the people like Peter Vajda, who read and post here) is that he is willing to make us think about things that most everyone else just slurps up without question. Charles (and Peter) remind us that it isn’t what we want that’s important.

    Many years ago Mark Hatfield told of asking Mother Teresa how she could keep going in the face of so much desperation, so much poverty, so much depair. She looked at him and said, "Oh, Senator Hatfield, you don’t understand. God didn’t call me here to succeed. He called me here to serve."

    The real challenge in life isn’t visualizing what we want – it’s in aligning ourselves with what Someone Else wants from us.

  6. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    A lot of great nuances, and some differing opinions at the root of it. 

    I’m a fan of one-liners, as a way of remembering great truths.  In that vein, I love "When a pickpocket meets the Holy One, all he sees is pockets."  And "give before you get."  And Mother Theresa’s comment;  wowza.

  7. Philip J. McGee
    Philip J. McGee says:

    I really liked your blog on “The Secret” because it made a lot of sense and was fun to read.  I saw the movie on one of the 30 copies of it that Rosie and I bought to distribute where we thought it might be helpful.  I also got a copy on CD that I listen to in the car occasionally. 

    Do I believe in a law of attraction?  Absolutely.  I’ve noticed over quite a few decades that when I believe life is turning to shit…it does.  Actually I spent all those decades experimenting with this negative side of the “Law” without knowing I was in an experiment. 

    At some point I looked back and noticed that the downturns in my life were almost always accompanied by a fearful attitude regarding my circumstances.  Chicken-Egg…sure but who knows.  I started to notice those ever present, fearful, doubt based thoughts and attitudes and began to know that they didn’t feel all that good.  I guess that as I noticed them they began to drift away and were occasionally replaced by feelings of confidence and well being.

    Chicken-Egg again…..probably but I feel better and life is pretty good.  I’ll use whatever is available to help me stay on the positive side of the ledger and I do it only because it feels good.

  8. Mary Schmidt
    Mary Schmidt says:

    I’m all for positive thinking and believe that the more I give – the more I get.  And money is the least of it.  The less I worry about what I have – the richer my life.   However, I’m with Maureen re wishful thinking.  

    When reading about such "revolutionary" life changing things – I always find myself wondering, how would this play in Darfur?  Or Lagos? Or Baghdad?

  9. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    You’ve missed the boat here, Charlie, for one simple reason: you are attempting to make sense of The Secret from a paradigm of scarcity ("there’s only so much wealth/health/love/parking spaces/whatever to go around") and it simply won’t work.  Quantum physics *is* mind-bending (I’ll leave the spoon-bending out of it for now) because it challenges us to adopt a new paradigm ("there’s more than enough for everyone").  A few specific comments to your comments:

    – Your lottery argument doesn’t work from an abundance context.  If you applied The Secret to win a $10m lottery, you would create a lot of new value with the money because you’d share it readily (remember, people don’t hoard when they know there’s plenty for everyone). If 10 million applied it equally, then the lottery pool would expand considerably and there’d be a lot more than $1 per person to be won.

    – "… maybe you’d hoard the secret" makes no sense.  If you really get and apply The Secret, the word "hoard" disappears not only from your vocabulary, but from your very way of being.

    – The Secret is not only about envisioning;  it’s about aligning thought, emotion, AND action (all three or it doesn’t work).  You consistently misrepresent the message.

    We are all so used to making sense of the world from a scarcity context that we can’t fathom it any other way.  Once upon a time some very smart people were certain that the world was flat.  Imagine the turmoil it caused when people started to assert that it just might be round

    Try on a little global thinking, Charlie.  You might be amazed at how the world begins to show up differently for you and the businesses you serve.

  10. Lise
    Lise says:

    Great reading.  Always love reading things that are in opposition to my own beliefs.  I love the comments to your post especially Amanda’s.  When I really pick apart the Secret et al, the upshot for me from watching this video is ‘do you want to feel good?’ and ‘if your limiting beliefs don’t work, why not change them’.  But then people who don’t agree/believe the same things will argue the point.  Cool.  It just shows there is no IT, reality, whatever you want to call it because your reality and my reality are REAL, so if you don’t believe the Secret its real (ie psychobabble is rubbish, wishin and hopin don’t cut it and therefore I see the proof of that in my world) and my reality which knows the law of attraction works, finds that life flows a little more easily, cups of coffee do just appear at the right time and no it doesn’t mean there’s no shit happening out there, its how I perceive it that has changed. 

    Belief is what the Secret is all about to me.  If you believe it you see it.   And if you don’t want to believe it you won’t see it.  I don’t need proof anymore, to stand on my soapbox to prove my point because as I said above we’re all right, there is no one reality imo but then that’s another story.  Whatever our believe we can always convince ourselves of it and yet at the same time there is another person right next to us proving their own opposing believe, so what is it all about Alfie?


    Lise, from downunder where we think a little differently! smile

  11. Renee
    Renee says:

    I think that those who see The Law of Attraction as being completely materialistic aren’t truly understanding it. Yes, there is a lot of that in the movie, but if you honestly understand how it works and how to use it, it is so much more than that. Abundance and Prosperity are words that can be used to describe more than money, and things. However, in our capitalist society, everything seems to have a price tag.

    The biggest thing we’re working on manifesting for our family is a quality education for our children. Is this materialistic? You might not think so, but it does come with a price tag so if I attract it into our lives, I am actually attracting something with monetary value. If I want it, I need to attract both the opportunity, and the finances.

    It’s a difficult thing to figure out for people who don’t understand how it works, and what great things can happen for the world though.
    Law of Attraction T-shirts (the college fund 😉 )

  12. Kris
    Kris says:

    Please enter your comment

    Long before "The Secret" I experienced it

    in all it’s power.  The Movie just confirmed

    all that I learned so many years ago that truly

    saved my life

    Why  is it when someone watches a movie and

    their  whole life changes as if by magic others

    tend to disclaim before giving it a go themselves?


    Things only appear  illogical because it doesn’t fit thier

    conditioned programming.

    So here it is:  "The Secret" Is NOT about POSITIVE


    NOW if you get this YOU TRULY Get The Secret

    You  MUST have plucked all Doubt from YOUR Mind and  then and ONLY then NOTHING

    is Impossible because Magnetic Pull in the Universe creates no resistant barriers because of your alignment with that magnetic Energy Field.

    We live in a magnetic energy field and if you don’t believe it ….just tell me how you think your car radio works?

    You radio works from Magnetic current frequency and so do you.

    Your flow like a current, and as you magnify your energy

    it wells up within to create more electromagnetic energy to be drawn to you whatever you most dominant focused energy consistantly resinates in you as.

     Likes attract Likes

    Think about it……Isn’t it true that you want to be around people that are like you and make you

    feel understood and who get you?

    All that you see do and experience is a reflection of your amplified  energized thoughts.

    But the one thing that must be eliminated before anything can be accomplished is Fear,

    because fear begets doubt and doubt begets failure.

    You know how I know this?

    I was told I would die in 5 years because of a ruptured

    spinal cord.  I told the doctor he was wrong.

    I studied quantum physics way back then  and 13 years later

    I am still here and the hole in my spinal cord has

    not increased.  A Miracle? We are all walking Miracles we just need to understand who we truly are.

    Never doubt in  The Power of You.




  13. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    More for your further reading list:  Connie L. Schmidt has a fabulous expose on the business around The Secret and the history behind it called The Wrath of the Secretons. (Apparently, she’s received some entertaining hate mail from the positive thinking people for tipping their sacred cow.)

    It might be all about a different get rich quick scheme promoted by a different set of scam artists…but somehow the anatomy of a scam never seems to change much.

  14. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    For me there is a big difference between "positive thinking" and "focused thinking". Positive thinking means to simply turn a thought or situation around and ignore one’s emotions. Focused thinking lets me activate and use my brain area where the "solution center" sits. The emotion is welcome, there is awareness, and still I focus on the result(s) I wish to have. Science has proven that the solutions center is located away from the "problem center".

    I think it is great to work with tools like mind movies in order to stay tuned when it comes to our visions and dreams. My personal experiences with it are very good – both personally and as a coach.

    Greetings from Germany

    Sandra 🙂


  15. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    I just read an interesting article on “creating reality“, and recalled this post. The article contains an excerpt from Israel Rosenfield’s book review in the April 2011 issue of Harper’s of The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks, which is about the neurology of language and perception. Some very interesting insights about how the brain “creates” the reality we experience.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] all the entries for this carnival expressed glowing praise for the Secret. This entry , American Secret, from Charles Green at Trusted Advisor, makes some good points about where the Secret might be […]

  2. […] and it will come true,” saying affirmations until they “manifest,” and best sellers like The Secret. We’ve gone way past “thinking your way into right action,” all the way to “envision […]

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