No “Secret” to Success

I’m a big believer in positive thinking and self-help/motivational stuff. But when a fellow writer recently asked if I had read The Secret, I had to tell her the truth: I have some real problems with that book. And I think the kind of “magical thinking” that propelled it to the top of the best-seller charts is also partly to blame for the financial ruin of many people.

When Oprah and other True Believers (even church ministers!) got on The Secret bandwagon, people were riding the inflated real estate boom and tapping into imaginary equity in those properties to bankroll lifestyles that were beyond their means. The gains in home “values” were all based on pure speculation and greedy flipping of real estate, while lenders roped unqualified home buyers into the market with too-good-to-be-true mortgage deals.

Now that the bust has resulted in millions of people either losing jobs or making a lot less money, you don’t hear much talk about The Secret anymore, do you?

Here’s a piece I wrote three years ago when I saw the book’s popularity as a troubling sign of the times. Did you buy into The Secret or were you a skeptic?

From my April 29, 2007 Addicted to Life column in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin

The Secret’ of a Snake-oil Saleswoman

“WE BECOME what we think about.”

A line from “The Secret” best-seller? Nope. Anyone who’s ever been to a motivational seminar will probably recognize those words from Napoleon Hill’s book “Think and Grow Rich,” published in 1937, or Earl Nightingale’s audiotape “The Strangest Secret,” recorded in 1957.

I don’t begrudge author Rhonda Byrne for repackaging ideas that predate even those guys. But after reading “The Secret,” I have to say some of her claims are not just silly, but downright dangerous.

Yet I also credit my recovery and continued sobriety largely to the same principles she talks about. Positive thinking, gratitude and faith are all part of 12-Step programs for addiction. Except you get this stuff for free at AA meetings, plus coffee at no extra charge.

The main difference is priorities. In 12-Step programs, you’re frequently reminded that material concerns should be secondary to spiritual matters. By that, I don’t mean you have to adhere to any particular religion. It’s about believing in a power greater than yourself, and realizing you are not the center of the universe.

However, “The Secret” says we’re all gods in effect, since our thoughts can manifest everything from money to curing cancer. It’s really a return to the magical thinking of pagans. Byrne sidesteps that comparison by adding vague references to quantum physics and padding her book with feel-good stories that get broadcast on Oprah’s show to millions of people.

The Oprah endorsement mystifies me, because she achieved success the old-fashioned way: she earned it. But “The Secret” claims you need not struggle or work hard if you just go with the flow of the universe. Now it’s true that when artists or athletes are in the zone, they experience a state called “flow” in which everything seems effortless. To get to that level, though, requires perfecting skills that only comes from countless hours of concentrated effort or practice.

I know, I know, but on Oprah this woman said she didn’t do anything and she started getting checks in the mail! Folks, if I got a hundred people to join the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I predict at least one of you would have a stroke of good fortune that could then be attributed to becoming a Pasta-farian. Ergo, since millions have bought “The Secret,” it would be impossible not to have a few success stories.

“The Secret” has become a phenomenon, I think, because of the growing disparity between the rich and the rest of us. More families are living from paycheck to paycheck, and yet they continue to spend beyond their means. But like a drunk in denial, they don’t want to face the truth. Instead of making necessary sacrifices, they’re told they can make debts vanish simply by wanting more money and pretending they have it already. That isn’t a life of “abundance.” That’s insanity.

What’s also troubling is that Byrne tells followers not to read or listen to negative news. According to her, the media gives us “bad news” because the public wants it as evidenced by higher ratings whenever there’s a disaster. She says when the public “emits a new signal” of what we want to hear, the media will report “good news” instead. As if that will solve pesky problems like global warming, poverty and war. Reality is such a bummer.

I did laugh, though, when I read that food doesn’t make us fat — thinking about being fat makes you fat! Not so funny is her assertion that all illness is caused by stress, and victims of disease make it worse by their own thoughts of being sick. This is where it crosses the line from being a benign fad to quackery. No one disputes that a positive attitude can have health benefits. But to suggest illness is wholly the result of the mind not being in harmony with the universe is looney. On top of that, Byrne says aging is merely a figment of your imagination. Tell that to my mirror.

My advice: Don’t buy this book. Get a used copy of “Think and Grow Rich” or one of Earl Nightingale’s audio recordings. Then start praying to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I guarantee you will see amazing results by the time my next column appears!

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5 Comments on “No “Secret” to Success”


  1. Okay, World, I admit it. It was me. I was the one who asked if Rich had read the book, and I’m glad I inspired such a rant out of him. It’s wonderful to be a Muse!
    I still swear that The Secret did work for me as far as finding an agent and finally getting a book published. Of course, I had to add one element to make it happen. Me. I had to work hard, not just sit back and wait for something to fall into my lap. What the book did do for me was make me realize I deserved success as much as anyone else, and that I was a lot happier and productive when I was thinking positive thoughts. I borrowed the movie from the library and bought a used copy of the book that was donated to The Friends of the Library Bookstore, so my money went to a worthwhile cause. (At this point, I’m thinking of donating it back to them because I haven’t looked at it in some time.)
    One of my biggest problems is that I always expect common sense to be employed. I forget that I live in the midst of people who actually will believe they can eat an entire chocolate torte cake (Yum!) every day and still stay thin. And then, when they finally hit 500 pounds, they’ll sue The Secret for making them fat, and then get financially fat with the money from the nuisance suit settlement. Sigh!
    As far as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster goes, I’m game. I might join — just think of the interesting people you’d meet at those church services! Hey, I still believe in Santa Clause, even though he’s been stiffing me for a really long time.

    • richfigel Says:

      Pastafarians unite! And thanks to Lycan Librarian, aka Porter Grand — author of the soon-to-be released LITTLE WOMEN AND WEREWOLVES mash-up — for dropping in.

      BTW, check out her blog for book reviews — especially if you have a taste for the macabre and offbeat stuff… the book she just reviewed THE GIRL WITH GLASS FEET has been on my list for awhile, and I just got the Lynda Barry WHAT IT IS book she mentioned recently.

      Santa Clause? Must have book contracts on her mind!


  2. Everyone — pretend I never put the e in Santa Claus’s name!


  3. Now pretend I never put the extra s in it. I better just quit typing for the day.


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