Bill Cosby’s net worth is $450 million, according to Forbes magazine. I’m sure he was paid well for his 20-minute speech—Rudy Guiliani made $1.8 million speaking at these kinds of events in 2006 and 2007—but I cannot imagine why he would need the money enough to shill for “success” at an event that is not only virtually guaranteed not to help anyone become successful, but is in fact designed to dig people deeper into their sense of failure.
Of course, that is not the stated aim, and it’s not even the actual goal. The stated aim is to empower people and the actual goal is to separate them from their money, which they do by peddling all sorts of “business opportunity” workshops that appear to be little more than repackaged standards of the Get Rich Quick industry: property flipping, day-trading, and a “fresh opportunity” that’s at least 15 years past its sell-by date—buying and selling domain names. The big-name speakers are the bait, and the workshops and seminars are the hooks. And, if you look at what the speakers cost versus what the audience pays to hear them speak (perhaps a few thousand people, at two dollars each = not enough money for Bill Cosby’s airfare and hotel), you have to reckon that a lot of those fish are winding up on the hook for a pretty penny.[gn_pullquote align=”right”]The strategy for getting people to open their wallets is ingenious. It’s a combination of flattery and infantilization….[/gn_pullquote]
The strategy for getting people to open their wallets is ingenious. It’s a combination of flattery and infantilization, making people feel at once that they’re important people at an important event (the promotional material for the event exhorts people to come to the event in business attire, prepared to network) while also making it clear that they are lost and ready for someone to lead them to their salvation. The MC for the event, Joseph McClendon III—a self-proclaimed neuropsychologist who at one point reports that he was homeless, “living in a box,” until he read Napolean Hill’s Think and Grow Rich—initiates the dynamic immediately.
“I believe I know what you all are here for,” he says (“yells” is more accurate; he’s a man with one volume setting: 11) after berating the audience to stand up and yell good morning. “How many of you are here to learn some things to change your lives?” People cheer, and he says, “We’ll help equip you with all of the knowledge you need to change your life, but it depends on what you do in these seats the next two days….Are you up for it?”
“Yes!” the audience yells.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes!” they yell louder.
Then he primes them to yell “yes” even louder, “as loud as you can,” on the count of three, which they do—the logic of this new habit will become abundantly clear—and says, “So here’s how we roll here. There’s five things you need to do to get the most out of the next two days. Are you willing to do them?”
“Yes!”[gn_pullquote align=”right”]The crowd laughs, apparently missing the irony that mindless assent is the very purpose of the exercise.[/gn_pullquote]
“You don’t even know what they are yet,” he says, and the crowd laughs, apparently missing the irony that mindless assent is the very purpose of the exercise. “Number one is to have fun….When we have fun, our senses are open and we take in more. So if you want to have fun, yell yes as loud as you can….”
“Number two is to play full-out….Somebody tells you to do something, to take action, you take action. If you’re willing to play full-out, you know what to do, on the count of three—one, two, three!”
“Okay, the third thing is to have an open mind. Today you may hear something that you might not agree with, but how many times have you heard something and thought, ‘I don’t think so,’ but later on you wished you had listened? Raise your hands.”
“All of us. I don’t want that to happen. So if you’re willing to have an open mind, just take it in today—even if you’re scared, even if you’re unsure about something, take it in. So on the count of three, if you’re willing to have fun, play full-out, and have an open mind, at the top of your lungs, you know what to do—one, two, three!”
You get the idea. The fourth rule is to “invest in yourself,” unlike “all the people who didn’t have the guts to come here today,” and the fifth rule is to have mentors, which they are ready and willing to supply (and who help you with rule number four, because that’s how you’re supposed to invest in yourself).[gn_pullquote align=”right”]What shocks me is the extent of the compliance. The crowd looks like a cross-section of middle-class America, and my immediate assumption is that they came for the speakers, not for a hyper-emotional experience of “motivation.” But I am totally wrong.[/gn_pullquote]
As I sit there, seated while everyone around me leaps to their feet to shout their “Yes!” as they’ve been trained to do when the MC yells “Stand up!”, what shocks me is the extent of the compliance. The crowd looks more or less like a cross-section of middle-class America, and my immediate assumption is that they came for the speakers, not for a hyper-emotional experience of “motivation” that is clearly designed to extract money from them. But I am totally wrong. Nearly everyone participates fully, including in the ridiculous “Celebrate like you just won the lottery” exercise, which leads people to cheer and jump and stand on their chairs and high-five, and no one seems to express misgivings about what’s happening. When the speakers selling the programs and workshops (staggered between the celebrity speakers, so it’s harder to notice the bait-and-switch) direct people to go to certain parts of the hall to sign up, the frenzy is palpable.
“It’s first-come, first-served, so I highly suggest you get moving right now,” says one speaker at the end of his push for a stock-trading program that costs just $297 (despite being worth more than $3,000!). “Go! Go! There goes one, there goes another, a whole string of people over there!,” he says in auctioneer cadence, mixing congratulations for the action-takers with a dose of shame for the reluctant. “There are two things happening: people taking action, and people doing nothing.” (Joseph McClendon III would be extremely disappointed; it’s not even lunch and you’ve already broken your vow…..)
Some people would watch a spectacle like this and come to an easy conclusion: that these people are all idiots and suckers. But to do that is to blame people for being people, and I have enough trouble fighting off my misanthropic predilections as it is. So instead, I find myself asking this question: Why does this sort of event work in American culture? What dynamics lead people to fall so easily for this kind of thing? And that question, I think, points to a much more interesting answer.In his 1954 book People of Plenty, historian David M. Potter explored the relationship between, as he put it in his subtitle, “economic abundance and the American character.” His argument, in a nutshell: The natural abundance of a largely untapped continent gave rise to the American myth that opportuntity is naturally unlimited and equally available to all. In America’s early years, there was enough free land, enough resources for the taking, to embed the myth deeply in the national consciousness, and it remained even when the frontier had disappeared and the surplus had been exhausted. [gn_pullquote align=”right”]This is the quintessential American problem, Potter writes: “the problem of men and women who are broken and defeated by a system which sets one standard for what people shall attempt and another for what they may attain.”[/gn_pullquote]
At that point, the myth began to exact a terrible social cost: the expectation that every man (and, later, woman) was as upwardly mobile as he or she chose to be, and that any failure was his or hers alone, despite the fact that there is only so much to go around, and the finitude naturally creates losers as well as winners. This is the quintessential American problem, Potter said—“the problem of men and women who are personally broken and defeated by a system which sets one standard for what people shall attempt and another for what they may attain.”
I would wager that the people at the “success” seminar were typical, and so was their hidden desperation. They live in a culture that tells them they have every right to be rich, and yet they’re not, and without the actual routes to wealth that most wealthy people take—not just talent and risk and hard work, but privilege and access and good luck—they feel that something is wrong with them, that they’re doing something wrong, that they’re failing. Then someone comes along and tells them they’re just not fired up enough, they just don’t have enough faith, or they don’t know the right secrets to success (it’s no accident that every other book and seminar in this industry has the word “secret” in it). Why shouldn’t they believe it? It’s either that or believe that the American Dream is fundamentally false, that all people are not created equal, and they’re best off accepting their station instead of continuing to pretend that they live in a classless society.
That’s why this kind of motivational event is so insidious. It gathers elite individuals who have succeeded against great odds, and then presents them as exemplars not just of human potential (which they are), but of the rightful fruits of American life. If only you do as I did, they say, you can succeed like I did. But that is patently false. For every Bill Cosby who made it big, there are 10,000 comics who worked just as hard and wanted it just as much as he did, but just didn’t have the talent or get the right breaks.
In their book The Winner-Take-All Society, economists Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook argue that our cultural tendency to obscure the pyramid-like shape of success—with a small number of winners at the top, and countless also-rans beneath them—is actually sapping us of tremendous social capital. Instead of “settling” for jobs as teachers or electricians or middle-managers or any of the number of positions actually available in our economy, too many people, thinking they can be a top athlete or entertainer or novelist or entrepreneur if they only dream big and work hard enough, waste much of their energies in frustrating losing pursuits. They do this because they’re fundamentally mistaken about their odds, and one reason they’re mistaken is that they’re misled by all the successful people that the media parades before their eyes. “It is easy to think of examples of the relative handful who have made it big, but much harder to summon individual examples from the multitudes of anonymous individuals who have not; and hence, in part, the biased perception in favor of success,” they write.I am a longtime fan of Bill Cosby. In 1982, just a year before he broke into the stratosphere of American entertainment—first with his stand-up special “Bill Cosby: Himself,” and then with his prime-time colossus—I bought tickets for his stand-up show at the Louisville Palace Theater, a three-thousand-seat venue in Louisville, Kentucky. I was 16, I knew bits from his early albums by heart (If you can place this line, you know what I’m talking about: “But Dad, I’m Jesus Christ!”), and I looked forward to it for months. And then the show was canceled. Why? Because it didn’t sell enough tickets. Two years later, with “The Cosby Show” at the top of the Nielsens, people had a hard time believing that was possible. [gn_pullquote align=”right”]“Get up!” Cosby yelled. “You can’t get any plainer than that.” It was the only wisdom he had to dispense—the notion that everyone’s problem was that they just weren’t getting off their duffs.[/gn_pullquote]
Cosby is a mighty talent, and he’s earned his success. But the magnitude of his success is as flukish as the magnitude of anyone’s, and he’d have done the crowd in Denver a huge favor by telling them as much (and perhaps explaining why even his own success has not insulated him from the need to give crappy speeches at crappy motivational events). Instead, he cracked jokes about there being no trees in Colorado and how the baboon got its puffy ass (full disclosure: laughed out loud at that one), then quoted James Brown as the antidote to the fact that the people in the audience didn’t have any money. “Get up!” he yelled. “You can’t get any plainer than that.” It was the only wisdom he had to dispense—the notion that everyone’s problem was that they just weren’t getting off their duffs.
I searched online to see if anyone from the event had posted pictures of Cosby’s speech, because I wanted a closer look at the sweatshirt he wore, which was emblazoned with the “Success 2012” logo—which seemed like adding insult to injury, being either that proud of the event or too lazy to bring his own clothes. Someone had. A woman named Tara, exited about seeing her hero in person, posted a picture of him on her blog, with this text overlaid on it: “GET UP!!!! I will, Mr. Cosby, because you said so.”
And then at the end of her post, she wrote: “Okay, I must be candid here. I was in so much awe while Bill Cosby was on stage, I really don’t remember what he said other than, ‘Get UP!’
“Is that bad?”
Joseph McClendon III: http://makeyourfate.com/
Joseph McClendon III on polishing your turd: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iEaCs1f19M
The Winner-Take-All Society: http://www.amazon.com/Winner-Take-All-Society-Much-More-Than/dp/0140259953/
I’m unable to locate Tara’s blog post now, but here’s video of Bill Cosby taking the stage, courtesy of Tara Dane, who I assume is the same Tara: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6N-xFwBmeC4
And here’s some video of his actual speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5Y41C_-plo