Psst! Want to hear…The Secret? Once you know it, you’ll become instantly successful, rich and powerful. So you want to know it? OK, first pay me $10, then I’ll tell you. Thanks. Alright, so what’s The Secret? It’s simple…Just tell everyone you know The Secret, and then charge them for it.
That’s what Rhonda Byrne did. The Australian reality TV producer burst onto the New Age scene in 2006 with her movie and follow-up book, The Secret, which has sold 6 million copies, making Byrne an estimated $300 million. Her story offers many great tips for people wanting to write their own self-help best-seller. Here’s how to do it, in six easy steps:
Step 1: The dark night of the soul
In the opening lines of the movie, Byrne tells us: “A year ago, my life had collapsed around me.” Any good self-help book needs a narrative of personal crisis. Think of Jesus on the cross; or Viktor Frankel surviving Auschwitz; or Eckhart Tolle having a breakdown and sitting on a park bench for two years; or Byron Katie suffering from crippling depression. In Rhonda Byrne’s case, we hear that, in 2004, her elderly father died, and her TV company was in financial difficulties. OK, it’s not quite Auschwitz, but still, a crisis of sorts.
Step 2: The awakening
Every self-help book needs a message, a top tip that can transform people’s lives. The simpler it is, and the less effort it requires, the better. Byrne says that, in her moment of bereavement and bankruptcy, her daughter gave her a book, The Science of Getting Rich, by New Thought writer William Wattles, which told her that our thoughts ‘create’ reality, so if you want to be rich and successful, simply think rich and successful thoughts. Genius.
Step 3: The training
This epiphany sets Byrne off on a journey of discovery – a journey symbolized in the movie by the opening shot of her struggling down a shimmering desert highway, a lonely seeker in the hostile midday heat. This is another great trope of self-help. Think of Jesus in the desert, or Buddha under the bodhi tree, or Neo training with Morpheus, or Gurdjieff going off to Tibet, or Luke Skywalker journeying off to Degobah to study with Yoda. We like the idea of our teachers having gone through a long, hard process of training and initiation. In actual fact, Rhonda’s odyssey involved her surfing the Net for two months from the comfort of her own home. But in that brief time, she managed to discover all the great people in history who had known The Secret: Socrates, Plato, Pythagoras, Galileo, Shakespeare, Newton, Emerson, Edison, Churchill, Einstein. The movie shows dramatic recreations of unspecified historical moments, to imply some sort of centuries-old Gnostic conspiracy along the lines of the Da Vinci Code.
So where’s the evidence that these figures all believed in The Secret, or used it to wish for whatever they wanted in life? Well, er, there isn’t any. None. She only had two months, after all. That doesn’t leave much time for serious historical research. The fact that, for example, Socrates was executed, Pythagoras was murdered, Galileo spent much of his life under house arrest, Newton was a manic depressive, Churchill was also a depressive, Einstein was forced into exile by Nazism – all of this might suggest that both the universe and our emotions are harder to control with one’s thoughts that Byrne suggests.
But that doesn’t matter. Just throw in some quotes from these esteemed figures, and it will give your product the veneer of historical legitimacy. For example, Byrne quotes Churchill as saying ‘You create your own universe as you go along’. Now, actually, Churchill uses this as an example of ‘absurd metaphysics’ in his memoirs, and advises his readers that such ideas are ‘perfectly harmless and perfectly useless’ – but Byrne doesn’t mention that. She also quotes Emerson as saying ‘The secret is the answer to all that has been, all that is, and all that will ever be.’ No one has been able to find this quote in Emerson. It appears to have been made up and falsely attributed to him. But that doesn’t matter. Your readers won’t bother investigating your claims. They’ll be too busy thinking positive thoughts.
Step 4: The Mission
After the dark night, and the awakening, and the training period, then you are ready to bring your message to the masses, and start cashing in. Claim that you are on a ‘mission’ to bring ‘joy to billions’ and to bring the ‘gift’ of ancient wisdom to the masses. This will inspire people and make them feel warm and fuzzy, then they won’t rationally scrutinize your ideas and will be disposed to see you as some sort of angel, some visionary sent from God. While they are thus dazzled, you should relentlessly oversell and overhype your product. Promise to make your followers rich and healthy.
The Secret, like all products that peddle the Law of Attraction, takes a basic and sensible philosophical idea, and then wildly over-sells it. The sensible idea is that our thoughts create our reality. This is the basis of Stoic philosophy. What it means is, our experience of the world is created by our beliefs, which we can control and change.
This is not the same as the magical belief that we can magically create whatever we want in the outside world through our thoughts. This is not what Plato believed, or Pythagoras, or the Stoics, or the Buddha, or anyone with half a brain. They claimed that controlling your thoughts could bring you spiritual inner wealth – but the outside world would remain a rough and unpredictable place, where Fortune could still take a dump on you. The essence of the ancients’ wisdom is knowing what you can control – your beliefs – and what you can’t – the outside world.
If you think you can wish the world into whatever shape you want it to be, you’re in for a rude awakening. Even the Pythagoreans – who liked their magic and believed all kinds of mad stuff – still reminded themselves that “no human casualty should be unexpected by men of intellect, and the wise must resign themselves to all vicissitudes beyond human control’. After all – think of how rough the lives of many philosophers were, including philosophers invoked by Byrne. Socrates did not have a great external life – he was poor, he was unhappily married, he was executed. But he believed he had a life of great inner richness.
But the masses are not interested in inner wealth, we’re interested in external success, in wealth, power, fame, sex, real estate, jewelry and so on. So, if you want to be a hit, promise people that you have the magic formula which can bring wealth and health without any real effort. The masses will LOVE this. As Bob Rainone, Byrne’s business manager, has said: “We desired to hit the masses, and money is the number one thing on the masses’ mind.” Byrne interviews a marketing guru , Joe Vitale, who is described as a ‘metaphysician’, who tells us that the universe is ‘a giant supermarket catalogue’ – you simply wish for something and, presto, it arrives in your life. The movie shows this taking place – a girl looks longingly at a necklace in a jewelry store and then – abracadabra! – it’s round her neck.
Alchemists have been claiming they have the Secret to wealth and happiness for centuries. And they’ve been making stuff up to support this claim, for centuries. The great alchemical text is the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, which Byrne claims is the oldest ‘trace’ of the Secret. People put great faith in the teachings of Trismegistus for centuries, because they thought the teachings pre-dated Moses and Plato. In fact, it turned out to be a historical hoax – the book was written in around the second century AD. But the discovery of this hoax didn’t stop people from believing in alchemy for centuries. People never get bored of the idea that there’s a magic secret that can bring wealth, success and fame – and every few years, someone makes a fortune by claiming to have discovered it: think of The Celestine Prophecy, or The Alchemist, or Conversations with God, or The Secret. Every few years there’s another pyramid scheme that becomes a word-of-mouth hit among the credulous. The masses never learn, and always welcome the next shyster who turns up in town with a wagon and a sign saying ‘I CAN MAKE YOU RICH’.
Step 5: Social proof
Get other self-help gurus and media pundits to big up your product for free. This was the real genius move by Byrne. Part of her ‘odyssey’ involved interviewing various Law of Attraction gurus for the movie. This is a beautiful example of reciprocity: they get to be in your movie for free, and they promote your movie for free to all of their followers. You get the free marketing, and the social proof of having some recognized gurus bigging up your product.
Now, the fact that New Age gurus have been selling the Law of Attraction for over a century, and that it’s the most well-known concept in the New Age movement, might undermine your claim to have discovered ‘The Secret’ known only to a handful of people – how can it be a secret, when so many people have made a career flogging it? And, if it’s so well-known, why isn’t the world a happier place and more full of billionaires? Why aren’t we all as rich as Oprah? But that doesn’t matter, your readers won’t care about that. They just want to believe they can be rich, healthy, beautiful and successful, instantly.
Oh, and don’t bother checking out the credentials of the gurus you promote in your film. Don’t worry if, for example, one of them runs a shamanic ‘sweat-lodge’ where three people die from hypothermia – like James Arthur Ray, one of the gurus prominently featured in Byrne’s movie, who’s now on trial for the manslaughter of three people at one of his ‘spiritual warrior’ camps. But that doesn’t matter. As long as the gurus give you a free interview and are willing to promote The Secret, they’re kosher.
Step 6: Use other people’s labour as cheaply as possible, and keep as much of the profit for yourself
Byrne uses the making of the DVD as her main example of The Secret in action. Her website says: ‘From the outset, conventional film-making procedures were disposed of in favour of powerful Secret processes, such as intention, visualization, appreciation, gratitude, and faith….As if by magic, the perfect people began to appear to help make the Secret….Suddenly the office was filled with brilliant, creative and talented people.”
People like Drew Heriot, who directed the movie, or Dan Hollings, who worked out how to distribute and market it via the Internet when the Australian TV channel who hired Byrne to make the film decided not to show it. Both Heriot and Hollings sued Byrne for her treatment of them. Heriot says: “Rhonda insisted that we not have a contract – she said they limited people’s freedom…She said we were going to share the abundance.” Instead, she quietly transferred the intellectual rights of The Secret to a legal entity in Hungary, and then told Heriot at a meeting that he would not share in the profits from the film or the book, although he claims both were based substantially on his scripts. He says he earned a “five figure sum” for his work on the multi-million-dollar Secret.
So this is the Secret to great wealth and success: peddle an infantile magical belief, claim that it saved you from darkness and despair, falsely claim that the great minds of history believed it and make up quotes by them supporting your product, claim you’re on a divine mission, get other self-help gurus to promote your message for free, get people to make your product for a pittance, and then don’t share the profits. That’s the Secret of success.