Cults have always fascinated me. It is only natural as several relatives of mine have been members of organizations which most people, myself included, would consider cults. Of course these relatives don't believe their groups are cults, no cult member ever does.
The other day I had occasion to think about cults and it struck me that cults are really just magic shows on a grander stage, and with far more and lingering audience participation. Everyone who joins a cult joins to see "magic" worked in their lives. They can no longer wait for or no longer trust the more traditional routes to their better selves. And so they seek out or end up at the doorstep of any of thousands of cults, religious or corporate, ready to be deconstructed and reconstructed. And if they give the group their money, their time, their compliance, and often a bit of voluntary servitude, they just might become the people they imagined was lying beneath all the accumulated baggage from their many pre-enlightened lost years on this good earth.
But the magical analogy goes further, I think. Because a magician's show is built as a collection of tricks. And the tricks themselves are clever combinations of many discrete techniques chained together (e.g., the "force", the "dual reality"). These individual elements form the well used language of magicians. Each element might come in many variations, but at their core are the same trick. Most magicians go to great lengths to make their shows feel new, fresh, exciting, draw in new paying audiences, but the reality is, there is little new in magic. The presentation has been improved, the patter upgraded, but the fundamental building blocks and end result of the tricks remain the same. And so, too, with the cult leaders, the gurus, and their groups. For hundreds of years (at least) the new guru has relied mostly on repackaging the old guru's teachings and presenting them in language and formats more palatable to each more enlightened generation. The Eastern-heavy new age movements of the 1970s become the more sophisticated Western, corporate awareness training. But what's different about them really?
Cult leaders manipulate experiences, emotional states, and outcomes using a clever combination of discrete (primarily psychological) elements. For example, they might use "breaking", wherein members or staff within the group are encouraged/led to confront and challenge another participant in the group. It is a simple trick. When you have multiple people ganging up on someone using strong and challenging words/ideas, in a context in which the individual cannot easily escape, because leaving would be socially unacceptable, painful, awkward, etc. then you can create in that individual considerable doubt, desperation, and compliance, almost regardless of the content of the challenges. We humans are social creatures, built to respond to significant doubts leveled at us with significant doubts bubbling within us.
Imagine if this happened in your life, perhaps you are at the wedding of your brother and four close family members come up to you saying they need to talk, they all tell you that they love you and that they are worried about you, that they believe your job is not good for you. You actually like your job. You politely try to explaining that to them, but they begin ad hominem attacks saying that you are just defending your job because you are too cowardly to face the real truth that your career is going nowhere. You try to end the conversation and move away but they follow you and insist that you are leaving the conversation because you know what they are saying is really true. They say you are being disrespectful to move away because they are doing this out of love. You stop. You feel trapped and listen to them some more. After some period of time the episode ends, either because you have capitulated enough or because they feel the important seeds of doubt have been planted. If you had even the slightest doubts about your life, your job, your career, their confrontation surely magnified them. Our brains are not meant for such circumstances. These people seem to care about you, seem to have your best interests at heart, why would they lie to you? It seems inconceivable. They are saying everything so strongly, surely there must be some merit to what they are saying, usually when people speak so strongly it is because they have some basis for it. You do want to move ahead in your career, maybe you are not moving as fast as some friends of yours, maybe you have seen others get a promotion you thought you deserved. In a matter of minutes or hours you go from happy with your job, with the normal level of dissatisfaction and hopes for more successful tomorrows that practically everyone feels, to thinking that perhaps you should quit your job, change careers, something. Everyone has insecurities, doubts, weaknesses and cults know a host of methods by which they can magnify them to motivate you to some end, their end (which they insist is really in your best interest).
Another technique they use is "love bombing", creating situations and environments in which people experience a heightened sense of connection with those around them to the point that they feel a heightened sense of love from those around them. Who wouldn't respond positively to feeling more love from those around them? Participation in the group activities creates a feeling of love, an experience that can't be easily be gotten on demand outside the group. So you are trained to keep going to meetings. There are many, many tricks that cults and groups use to gather and control their members. Some do it for power, some do it for money, all do it for allegedly noble reasons.
The feeling of awe the magician and the cult leader can generate is muted once you know some of their tricks, and see them being worked into their acts. The magic is still fascinating, but no longer short-circuits your rationality. In the cult setting, when you see most of a room of a hundred people reduced to broken, sobbing masses expressing their inner most limiting beliefs you do not ascribe this to the power of the truths being revealed by the leader, you ascribe it to the power of the psychological trick being used to manipulate the group. You know that almost any cult leader could create the same response in any similarly ready group of people with "truths" that almost any rational person would reject. The technique matters, not the guru, and certainly not the underlying truth. But everyone in a cult always thinks on some level that they are smarter than that. Just ask the participants in the Milgram experiment, they believed they were immune to authority.
The question I would ask of any cult or group is, what percentage of your members 10 years after first being introduced to the group believe the experience was positive and worth the time and money they invested in it? I would suspect that for almost all groups which use cult-ish methods the percentage of people indicating they were satisfied with the experience 10 years on is less than 10%. I believe this anecdotally based on the people I have met who have been in cults, the experiences I've read about, and my belief that those entering these groups did not do so with sober minds, most of them were duped on some level, had their wills bent into participation. They did not make free, sober, rational decisions to participate. And this low satisfaction score (if it exists) would prove to me that the groups are fraudulent. The groups will blame the former members and say they chose to give up too soon, that they weren't the right sort of people, that they didn't keep learning what the group had to offer, that others have benefited so the people who didn't are solely responsible for their lack of benefit. But, to me it's a hollow kind of defense. People routinely make succeed and make millions selling bogus diet pills. They achieve success because most people won't ask for a refund (most people will be as fat or fatter but will be too embarrassed or afraid of confrontation to complain), b) they always recommend combining exercise with the pills (and exercise does positively correlate to weight loss), c) the placebo effect will guarantee some percentage of users will find some new will to modify their behavior because of powers they ascribe to the pill. Just because 10% of the people buying a fat loss pill are satisfied doesn't mean the product contains any ingredients which actually work.
There is always a new cult, a new group selling a new method to solve a very human problem, an existential dissatisfaction, a sense that life can and should be more than it is. It surprises me that cult-entering people can't see the pattern. Can't see the endless stream of cults formed and reformed, regurgitating the same (but now repackaged) esoteric "truths". But, alas they will not... Cults will never run out of followers.
It reminds me of a line from the Sherlock Holmes story A Case of Identity by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In it Holmes decides not to reveal to his client that her missing lover was actually her step-father trying to wound her into life long maidenhood so he could have her money. Holmes explains to Watson his decision to keep quiet about it, "If I tell her she will not believe me. You may remember the old Persian saying, "'There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.'" (I try to ignore the contextual misogyny, and see it as a truth which applies to deluded men and women alike.)
And I may be wrong of course... but I do feel I at least have the carcasses of many abandoned cults and many disaffected followers adding weight to my side of the argument.
Being well informed about the world around has always been important to me but I think I've reached a point where I realize the bad of being informed outweighs the good. I can no longer keep tabs on the world and feel joy. How can one stay positive, optimistic when the news delights in relating the world's most miserable stories? The news media seems fixated on the doom and gloom, on the miserable problems we collectively can't seem to fix.
I'm old enough now that it feels like I've seen all the headlines before, so many, many times. A new war, a new plane crash, a new earthquake, a new kidnapped child, a new miracle diet; there is no end to the outrages, brutalities, and scandals, they are all different, yet all the same. The world is like some terribly unfunny situational comedy, the next week or month or year the show begins again with everyone and everything back as it was, as though we learned nothing from the previous episode.
This week the new stories which did it for me included the renewed struggles of Israelis and Palestinians (and everyone's pointless pontifications about how the problems can be solved, but somehow won't be), horrific stories of dogs being sadistically abused by one person and eaten by others, the grizzly horrors of the recent Malaysian shoot-down over the Ukraine, and yet another announcement heralding some new possible test for Alzheimer's that will let you know what's coming decades before you unavoidably succumb to it (as yet they offer no cures or meaningful treatments). The news delights in disproportionately reporting the horrors of the world, making us all feel unsafe, uneasy, unwell. I've had enough.
And so I think I will stop reading the general, unfiltered news. I'll customize my news feeds to show me only technology stories, stories related to my career, stories matching keywords of importance to me. I will let the rest of the news and the world worry about itself for a while. For all my decades of scrutiny and attention, my knowledge of world affairs has not been helping it, and its only been hurting me.
Few things in American history confuse me like the U.S. Civil War. I have spent time surrounded by its monuments, memorials, and museums, living for a few years outside Gettysburg, PA. What I can't quite work out is why...? Why would Northern brother, cousin, uncle be so willing to fight to their death against their Southern brother, cousin, uncle just to keep the United States of America as one nation? So many questions...
Why is the right to secede not a right core to a democracy? If a state feels so at odds and unrepresented by their parent nation why should they not be able to withdraw from it? Is this freedom not one that should be most sacredly preserved when a nation is formed from many states?
In the Civil War the Northerners were certainly not primarily fighting for the freedom of African Americans. That I could have understood as a reason to go to war, to liberate an oppressed people. Giving your life for that sort of a cause makes sense to this modern, arguably enlightened man. But while the North was somewhat more enlightened than the South on this issue, they certainly did not see African Americans as equals and it would be a rare Northerner willing to die for that particular cause.
Why could the North not just let the South go? I vaguely understand the Northern industrial and free farming folks were in an economic battle with the almost wholly agrarian South and its plantation and cheaper slave labor. But that's enough for a war, and not just a civilized parting of the union with peacefully signed free trade agreements?
What would it take for me now to be willing to take up arms against my cousin, uncle, or brother? I can imagine nothing, certainly not a mere secession. But 750,000 dead soldiers can't be wrong, they must have deeply felt their reasons were the right ones. I just wish I understood them.
I understand many of the aspects of what makes hunting appealing. I like guns. I like the outdoors, and experiencing it through hiking and camping. But where I begin to lose my understanding is with the selection of deer as targets. Deer are pretty inoffensive creatures. From my contact with them, in my backyard, on hikes, on roads, at parks, they seem fairly sweet, fairly trusting, and fairly stupid. A few times a year they wander into my back yard and even with me or my dog outside they don't immediately take flight. The only real danger they represent to man is of the jumping in front of the car variety; and while that is a problem, and does take human lives, the deer are as innocent as can be in the matter. So, why pick on deer? Making matters worse is the way in which many people choose to hunt deer. Today begins deer hunting season where I live and I just read a news article which included interviews from people about their kills and this one woman said, "The deer had just bedded down for a rest, right in front of me, and I got it!" Umm.... That just seems so unsporting. The deer doesn't have a chance. It's not moving, it's not afraid, it's not on guard, it's just lying down to relax after a hard day of deer-ing, and this woman sees that as the perfect moment to end its life?
I knew a guy who owned a large piece of land on which he ran a hang gliding school during the summer months. Someone approached him one fall to see if the property could be used for hunting. The guy I knew politely declined, saying he didn't think deer hunting was very sporting. The man then revealed that his method of hunting was to use only a large knife, and to leap from a tree to kill the deer. The property owner changed his mind, and gave the other man the go ahead. And apparently the guy was legit and did in fact kill a deer this way. Now, I'm not sure what was involved in that hunt, I imagine some bait was used to get the deer to stray under the tree where the man was. But, still, it seems a hell of a lot better than safely dropping a sleepy buck from fifty feet away with a scope.
I can make some sense of people killing lions, tigers, sharks, (perhaps) bears, creatures that seem to possess some cunning, that require some skill to take, involve some element of personal risk, etc. But killing a friendly, curious, inoffensive deer just does not make much sense to me. And of course when hunters use automated feeders to bait and lure the animals, providing them feed for weeks or months ahead of the hunt to ensure they will be easy, docile, trusting, available prey when the day comes, I completely lose the plot.
I don't get it. Clearly I don't. I must be using the wrong yardstick to try and measure the sporting-ness and enjoyment of deer hunting. Perhaps a more realistic understanding of deer hunting is to see it as a mix of a plinker doing some backyard target shooting and a farmer killing a penned animal. It's not about giving the animal a fair chance, or any chance at all, it's about the conversion of a deer into meat and/or a trophy, with the added enjoyment of firing a gun and relatively easy target shooting. Still, it doesn't sound like fun to me. Even if the deer was animatronic, and any moral questions were suspended, I just can't imagine myself finding much delight in this type of hunting, against what seems relatively easy prey. My only experience of anything close to "hunting" is playing paintball, against witting humans, and for me the enjoyment is the challenge of getting inside the mind of the opponent, trying to do battle with his strategy, and in the skill involved in the shooting, and selecting, tuning the equipment. If you replaced my human opponents in the paintball park with some deer wearing goggles and face masks I think I'd feel rather embarrassed to take a shot at them, least of all because they were wearing goggles and a mask; it just wouldn't seem sporting.
Actor Paul Walker of the Fast and Furious movie franchise and his friend and business partner Roger Rodas died the other day and the world seems to be mourning the loss as a horrific, unexpected, unfair tragedy, but I'm struggling to see it as they do.
Paul Walker and the Fast and Furious franchise celebrated street racing and tuning culture, directly and indirectly encouraging its growth in recent years. Paul Walker and Roger Rodas were business partners in a tuning, custom car company, which surely supplied sweeter rides to many people who would then drive them at excessive speeds on public roads. People illegally street racing, even if it's only racing against themselves, arrogantly put others lives in serious danger for their own pleasure. Paul Walker and Roger Rodas died in a car meant for racing going (we can safely assume based on the destruction of the car) well above the speed limit on a public road. It is a horrible thing when anyone dies, but I'm struggling to understand how this situation is extraordinarily tragic. He and the driver made a conscious choice, as they had no doubt many other times before, to put others' lives at risk by driving at excessive speed on a public road. They rolled the dice, and this time they lost. It feels more predictable than tragic.
Paul Walker may have been in many respects a wonderful human being, a kind and generous human being, doing more good for the world than bad, but I find it a little disturbing that so many who celebrate him and bemoan the event seem to fail to recognize the cause-and-effect nature of the accident, and how much worse it could have easily been if they had taken others' lives with them. I don't expect people in their mini Twitter eulogies/etc. to remark about this, necessarily, but in the dozens of news site comments I've read I've not seen a single person seem to make the connection, instead I see people saying things like, "If Paul had been driving I bet this wouldn't have happened, he was a great driver." and "If they'd been driving XYZ car instead this wouldn't have happened." Surely a lot of people are missing the point.
Imagine if this had instead been a heroin overdose death of a great actor whose professional life involved making six movies celebrating the wondrous joys of heroin and drug culture and co-owning a company that sold drug paraphernalia. People would mourn the loss of the actor but not fail to notice the pretty direct cause-and-effect relationship at work in the death.
If you drive recklessly and/or at excessive speeds on public roads you are selfishly risking other people's lives and your own for your own kicks. You should be jailed until and unless you can abide by the laws and pose a no-more-than-normal risk to others.
* I mean "tragedy" in a sense greater than that attached to anyone's death; all deaths being tragic.
Recently celebrity chef Paula Deen was forced to admit she had used the N-word multiple times in the past. She denied being a racist and seemed to excuse the behavior as as being done a) a long time ago, b) at least once in reference to an African-American who put a gun to her head in a bank robbery.
Whether it's Mel Gibson hurling abuse at Jewish people, Michael Richards peppering black comedy patrons with the N-word, or Paula Deen venting to her husband about the terror she felt, the explanations given always insist that they would ordinarily never use such language, but that it was a freak event, that they were under extreme provocation, and that, therefore, they are not really racist. Their position is indefensible. The insulting words spring to their lips because they are racist, not because the situation inspired the use of those words.
My own interactions with people of color have not always been positive. I have been a victim of a home robbery committed by an African-American. And I've been stalked/harassed over months by a separate African-American. But their skin color was not dominant in my thoughts about why they were a perpetrator and why I was their victim. One of the perpetrators was a homeless drug addict looking for money for a fix and the other a homeless person with serious mental problems who believed I was living in *his* house. But never did I find the N-word springing to my lips. I genuinely cannot imagine why on Earth it would. I have had ample positive experiences involving people of color that I cannot imagine any provocation sufficient to cause me to reduce an entire diverse race of people down to one ugly, monstrous word. The N-word couldn't form on my lips because it doesn't ring true in my ears. If you have ever known one great black person, how could you ever reduce any experience with another black person down to his/her color?
I am a at least a generation removed from most of the celebrities who get caught using the N-word, they grew up in less integrated times, grew up in more (arguably) ignorant times, grew up in more isolated surroundings so perhaps my environment saved me from their thinking.
I surely hold many subtle prejudices which I do not adequately appreciate; I think we humans are almost all of us naturally biased by experience and environment. But I am thankful that I am not so lost as to find the N-word in my thoughts or speech.
For some reason I've always loved director/writer John Waters. His outspokenness, his warmth, his humor, his stories, his loyalty to his native Baltimore, he just seems like he'd be a wonderful guy to have over for dinner. (I can't say I've ever loved his movies, though; they just didn't feel like my sort of thing, really.)
Here's an interesting video of John Waters speaking on free speech.
The film utterly loses me at the start. The captain of a tug boat (Michael Cane), his first mate, and a girl (Sally Fields) his first mate happened to pick up the night before stumble upon a massive upside down "four star" passenger liner, having seen a coast guard helicopter flying away from it. Now I cannot imagine any sea faring sort (or any human for that matter) coming upon the massive wreckage of a ship, the sea of debris and bodies that must surround it, and not being emotionally overwhelmed when they consider the hundreds or perhaps thousands who must have lost their lives. The normal reaction would be to look around the nearby ocean for survivors, for bodies, do something of service. Instead this crew of three immediately decides that the logical thing would be to climb onto the upturned, sinking ship find a way inside, and loot it for all its worth (sorry, "salvage" it). Now, being that this is the sequel to "The Poseidon Adventure" and that that movie was a tale of people desperately trying (and many of them failing) to escape the very same sinking ship, it's bizarre to think that these three idiots would be trying to get on board and make their way deep inside an upside down, unfamiliar, still on fire/exploding, ship they know is only minutes to hours from sinking completely. And sure enough they're not even in the ship five minutes before one of the many ongoing explosions prevent them from escaping the same way they came in. Rather than immediately try to get out they continue their looting. Flash forward through all the nonsense of finding some trapped folks they end up saving, including a blind man, a murder mystery, and an ongoing battle with Telly Savalas and his crew who have boarded pretending to be medics but really are there to haul out thousands of pounds of guns and plutonium, and most of Michael Cane's extended crew escape, but he's lost his first mate, and all their loot, save an uncut diamond Sally Fields smuggled out in her belly button. Oh, and now Sally Fields's and Michael Cane's characters are in love, or lust, or something. So I guess the death of his first mate was worth it after all, Michael Cane certainly betray any sense that it wasn't.
My beef with the movie is that I can never get past the fact that no three humans on the face of the earth presented with this situation would have done what these three idiots gleefully did. It simply defies everything I know about people. Sure, one idiot in any large group might potentially put themselves in harm's way to make a few bucks, but here we're talking about almost absolutely certain death: an unfamiliar, upside down, presumably unlit, debris ridden, fire/smoke/explosion ridden, sinking ship. And so every minute watching the movie I'm silently cursing these idiots and praying for the justice which would be delivered by their deaths. At best this is a movie focused on a day in the life of three mental freaks, perhaps a-logical sociopaths or something, at worst it's just an awful, unrealistic movie written/created by people who are a-logical sociopaths and think everyone's depicted behavior is somehow normal or believable. (And don't get me wrong, even "normal" people are capable of tremendous, horrendous thoughts/actions (the Nazis reminded us of that), but even then the evil callousness develops, grows, becomes believable because it fits into an increasingly awful pattern of thought/behavior. )
A common approach used by motivational speakers to help encourage their audience is to give examples of notable achievers and their achievements. The bigger the achievement, the more obstacles that opposed the achievement, the better. The story of a man or woman simply living a contented life and raising contented children is eschewed in favor of rags to riches stories and tales of mentally or physically handicapped people overcoming against all odds.
While this approach of using dramatic success stories to motivate people can be effective, it is not universally so. The inherent problem with the approach, as typically practiced, is in the poor selection and erroneous over-simplifications of the achiever and his/her achievements. The purpose of citing the success of others is to show the de-motivated that they too can achieve, that others who had similar (or more severe) challenges were able under somewhat similar circumstances to achieve truly impressive outcomes. With the proper selection of achiever and achievement this method is highly effective. All humans respond to this general approach, it is fundamental to how we learn. We are all more likely to attempt something we know others to have done successfully (or nearly been successful doing). However, if the achiever and achievement chosen for use as a motivational example is inappropriate, the motivatee will not respond, and may become highly suspicious of the motivator's abilities to motivate.
The selection criteria for a suitable achiever and achievement is quite simple. The achievement must not be heavily dependent on chance. Any achievement must contain within its story a basic recipe for success such that others could duplicate it. And, equally importantly, the achiever's success must not have been dependent on choices that the motivatee would refuse to make (on the grounds of moral, religious objections).
An example of a violation of the first criteria would be a fortune made from a piece of land a person inherited that happened to become valuable by way of a highway expansion. That person's tale of achievement is not a useful example. No choices of any particular merit were involved in the achievement.
An example of a violation of the second criteria would be a local drug dealer who made $1,500,000 in one year without having more than a 7th grade education. While the financial achievement is impressive, particularly against a backdrop of limited tuition, few motivatees would be willing to engage themselves in the illicit narcotics trade.
While these examples were artificially created to highlight the issues, and may seem extreme, the problem is that most achievers and achievements raised by motivational speakers are no better, they all rely upon over-simplifications which merely hide the violations.
It is often argued that complicating negative elements within the stories of achievers and their achievements can be ignored, arguing that the negative issue was not central to the achievement. The danger with this argument is that it fails to acknowledge that these strongly negative elements are often common byproducts/side-effects of the very personalities that are required by those who succeed. As a crude example, studies show that high achievers are more likely to be unfaithful to their wives/husbands. Some of this increased infidelity can be explained by the greater opportunities for unfaithfulness afforded to those achievers (products of their money, power, position, travel, etc.), but surely the most significant factor is their own psychology, which in an achiever usually places a far greater value on their own needs than those of others.
Below is a list of examples of some people and companies often used as motivational references which possess hidden violations of the motivational criteria. References to them invariably contain gross over-simplifications which hide elements of luck and immorality that makes them unduplicable for most motivatees.
- Apple - While a huge success in most people's eyes, I fear for a world in which others duplicate Apple's approach to technology and business. I think a reasonable argument can be made that Apple is highly immoral in the constraints they place on their end-users, in their monopolistic practices in business, in their treatment of business partners, in their tax dodging, in their use of underpaid and overworked labor, and more.
- YouTube - YouTube is the de facto video sharing site, a startup that within a few years was acquired by Google for $1.65 billion in stock. The founders of YouTube, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, certainly have achieved. But is their tale one that should be told in a motivational context? Was their success largely independent of luck? Was their success moral? YouTube was purchased by Google because of its popularity and ubiquity. But why was it popular? The reason is quite simple, illegal content. YouTube contained (and contains) volumes of pirated TV/movies/music/etc. and much of the content people created to upload included pirated music tracks. YouTube made (and continues to make) token efforts to remove copyright infringing content, but they do little more than mandated by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DMCA does not make a website responsible for the actions of their users so long as the website removes infringing material when notified of it. YouTube has been the target of numerous lawsuits related to the violations of copyright on their site, including a $1 billion dollar suit involving Viacom. YouTube may continue to prevail in court, hiding behind the DMCA, but this hardly seems to absolve them of the immorality involved in profiting from illegal activity. Other sites doing essentially the same thing (sharing/hosting video) have not been so lucky, being shut down and sued into oblivion, see the ongoing tale of MegaUpload, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Megaupload for comparison.
- Skype has been a marvelous success, connecting the world with audio/video conferencing. While they would seem to be an amazing motivational story, the reality is a little more complicated. Skype was founded by the owners of Kazaa, a peer to peer platform shut down for illegally sharing movies, music, and software. The founders took their million in ill-gotten gains, their celebrity, and founded a new company to essentially launder their money/reputation. While there are no doubt valuable lessons present in the tale of Skype's success, growth, etc. the overall story is unsuitable and unadaptable.
- Napster is now one of the popular music streaming services, but they began as one of the first peer-to-peer systems for illegally sharing music, movies, tv shows, software, etc. They could not be now what they are without having been what they were.
- Google - By any reasonable account Google is a huge success story, but throughout its short life it's also been involved in quite a but of arguably immoral activities, the scope of which is too big to get into here.
- Microsoft - Microsoft is in many ways a success stories, but its success has been achieved through various arguably unethical methods. For example, they have bought up competing companies only to shut them down. They have used their near monopoly on home and business desktop PCs to dominate indirectly related software products, such as their integration of Internet Explorer into the OS so as to destroy the market share of Netscape. They have given away various products of theirs for free (or at deep discounts) so as to destroy competitors. There are no doubt specific elements of the Microsoft, Google, etc. story which may be valuable for motivation but they must be picked carefully.
- Einstein - Inarguably brilliant, but is his story one which others can or should? He cheated routinely on his wife, had an illegitimate child he neglected (to the point where no one knows what happened to the child), married his cousin, and had two other children who felt profoundly neglected. Dissection of his brain showed particular structural elements which probably explain elements of his success, which makes his story less useful when told to the vast majority of people who lack those advantages.
- Thomas Jefferson - A brilliant man, but his treatment of people as property, his cheating on his wife, his fathering children with at least one slave, etc. make him a person I would hope people would not emulate. Surely Jefferson's selfish, private drives mirror his professional, public drives. Strip Jefferson of his selfishness in his personal life and no doubt his other accomplishments would have suffered.
- Lance Armstrong - Clearly a high achieving, dedicated athlete, his Tour de France legacy will not soon be forgotten. But while he seems like a great example for us all, certain questions exist. The doping allegations against him seem more likely valid than not. And when one considers his tremendous ability it's hard to ignore that his genetics have been found to explain much of his ability. His heart is unusually large, his lungs are unusually capable. He has been more scientifically investigated than perhaps any athlete. While his conditioning allows him to maximize his genetic abilities, and that is worthy of praise, one can't help but acknowledge that without those genetic gifts he would likely never have been a world class cyclist. And if he had not performed so well early in life, he may never have devoted himself to the sport.
- John Nash - Nobel prize winner, as shown in A Beautiful Mind. The movie's message is that John Nash was able to use his beautiful mind not only to conquer his severe mental demons but also to achieve his world changing Game Theory equations. But would it be responsible to encourage other schizophrenics to do likewise? If Josh Nash could conquer his schizophrenia without medication why shouldn't all such patients try? John Nash's triumph over schizophrenia can hardly be called a total success, nor did it come about without the specific and lingering injury of quite a few people around him. His process of self-curing occurred over a decade or more, and involved periodic, reluctant inpatient treatments with medication and electroshock. How many schizophrenics encouraged to go off their medication to do battle with their own psyches would take their lives within the ten years Nash required to treat himself? In the case of John Nash the movie also overlooked his homosexual experiences, the illegitimate child he had and refused to care for, his treatment of the legitimate child he did care for, his divorce/real relationship with his wife, and many other things (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2001/12/a_real_number.html). And so the question must be asked, is John Nash really a good person to laud in the context of a motivational speech? Do we want to people large numbers of people with serious mental illnesses to believe that they can conquer their mental disorders on their own? Can we not argue that his decision to value personal mathematics achievement over the health and welfare of his wife and children is not sufficient to deny him credit as a suitable example for those needing motivating?
By attempting to show that many high achievers are not suitable as exemplars for motivational speakers I am not trying to suggest that there exist no achievers who are suitable. Quite the contrary, I believe there exist a wealth of suitable achievers, though I think many are ignored by motivational speakers for not having achieved "enough". The problem with the highest achievers is that they appear far more likely to possess strongly negative attributes/character flaws. There are far more and far less flawed individuals who would serve as better role models, and it is they who should be celebrated and used as encouragement to motivatees.
The damage done by poor selection of achievers is that the motivatee loses faith in his being able to achieve without becoming someone he is not (lucky or immoral). This loss of faith is hard to repair.