03 June 2010

When is a Rectangle Not a Rectangle?

Yesterday, my employers booked a group of seven of us into a workshop with a motivational speaker. We weren’t really told what the sessions would entail or even what they were about. We were just told the program was called “Brilliant Attitude” and would be “unlike any other training we’d ever done before”.

The whole thing was run by a guy named Bob Allwright, whose business card describes him as a leader, mentor and inspiring speaker. He opened by showing photos of Richard Branson and other multi-millionaire entrepreneurs whose names I’ve already forgotten. It came with the usual questions about what made these people different from anyone else, and the questionable assertion that the difference between me and Richard is essentially nothing. It was suggested that all I would have to do to be as rich as Richard Branson is do exactly what he does, which I suspect is complete baloney.

According to Bob it all comes down to attitude. Essentially all we need to succeed in life is to believe that we can. The only reason we’re not all multi-millionaires is that most of us are held back by our own fears of failure or judgement. A simple examination of domestic economics renders this a questionable theorem, to say nothing of the global economy. Street kids in the slums of India aren’t going to become millionaires simply by believing they can. They have to go on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” like the rest of us.

I don’t want to be too judgemental about this. The idea of improving your life by starting with your own attitude is a valid one and it is, I’ll grant, an incredibly powerful thing to change your view of the world by changing your view of yourself.

But here is where it started to get weird.

The guy drew three rectangles on the board, and asked us what the drawing meant. My first thoughts were “They don’t mean anything, they’re just rectangles”. But Bob encouraged us all to look deeper, to find what the deeper symbolism of the rectangles might be and how we might apply it to our lives. After we all gave answers ranging in profundity from “a failed domino run” to “the fear of rejection in abusive relationships” we were given Bob’s interpretation. His answer was “They don’t mean anything. They’re just rectangles. Isn’t it amazing, the sort of deep meaning that our brains are able to give to completely meaningless things?”

At this point, I began to suspect that Bob might just be a complete wally.

Then he went on to give us the old post-modern chestnut about how nothing has any inherent meaning apart from the meaning we ourselves give it. His point was that the only person who can stop us from achieving and give us an attitude of failure is ourselves, and that’s all well and good. But since when was I charge of the rest of the universe? If it’s true that I’m the only person who can control me, then it’s also true that I’m the only person in the world that I’m in control of. So not only does that leave me with no more personal empowerment than I had in the first place, but it also leaves me with a rather disconcerting sensation that the entire world is hurtling toward anarchistic self-destruction. Personally, I think that’s of much greater consequence than the question of whose fault it is if I get angry while I’m driving a car, but for some reason Bob didn’t mention the more troubling implications of his philosophical statements. He was too busy telling us to give ourselves more success in life by looking at ourselves in the mirror and smiling.

Actually, from a Christian point of view, Bob got it half right. Unfortunately it’s the half he got wrong that has all the important implications. The Bible is quite clear that outside of God, nothing in the material universe is of any real cosmic significance. The things we fear, the things we trust in, the things we struggle against and the material things we worship don’t actually have any power over us apart from the power we give them in our own minds. The rectangles are just rectangles.

It’s Bob method for breaking free from those cosmic rectangles that left me with a bad taste in my mouth. The idea was to break through the powers that bind us in our lives and keep us from achieving the things we want by believing in ourselves. To put it in religious terms, we can be saved from the troubles we have brought on ourselves by faith in … ourselves.

Now, my self-esteem is as healthy as the next guy, but I’m not for a moment convinced that putting faith in me is a good idea. Yes, I’m intelligent and ambitious, and spirited and deep and all the other things that make humans so brilliant, but I’m also arrogant, deceitful, envious and fearful and all the other things that make humans so full of crap. Furthermore, I’m also the one who got myself into this mess in the first place, remember? This, in my view, is where post-modern humanism falls into a pit of its own construction, and where the notion of an external creator, redeemer and sustainer begins to appear a more plausible explanation for the continued success of the human race.

Bob’s final demonstration was to get us all to write down the things that are holding us back on a piece of plywood, about 18mm thick. I wrote down a few things that have been troubling me lately, but honestly, by this stage I was done with taking Bob’s instructions seriously. On the other side we wrote down the life we wanted to lead, where those problems were gone and we could have the things we desired. Just to stick my point to Bob, I wrote down “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD (Zechariah 4:6).

Bob told us we were going to break through the problems and reach our dreams by breaking through the plywood with our hands. Honestly, looking at the thickness of the wood, I doubted if I would be able to punch through it. Bob told us that the secret was to look past the board, believe in ourselves and know that we had the power to reach our goals.

Actually, the secret was to place the board between two chairs, kneel on one of the chairs and bring our full weight down on the plywood. I probably couldn’t have broken the board with the strength of my arm. I sure as hell couldn’t have broken it with the power of my mind (sorry Bob). But no plywood board is going to withstand 90 kilograms coming down on it through the two square inches at the base of my hand.

So there you have it. I may not have the brilliant attitude Bob was looking for, but at least I came away with the knowledge that, while I may not be able to turn myself into a billionaire by believing I can, at least I have the ability to spot four hours worth of philosophical hokum when I’m force fed it. That, and a broken piece of plywood.

And that’s the way it was.



Garry with 2 Rs
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