New Yorker: How to Build a Better Motivational Speaker: The upstart motivator Jesse Itzler wants to reform his profession—while also rising to the top

You don’t become a great motivational speaker ala Oprah and Tony Robbins by telling the truth. There are too many other people and institutions doing that. You become special by relaying something special, but few people have a trove of special ideas. What to do? You harness your talents to relay ideas that sounds profound, like a Dennis Prager or Jordan Peterson.

My favorite motivational speakers are 12-step speakers, but they don’t get written up in major publications. They don’t get wealth, fame and power from their work. Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, was offered an honorary doctorate from Yale but turned it down in accordance with the AA tradition of anonymity.

Twelve-step programs refuse large donations. AA, for example, won’t take more than a few thousands dollars from you, and then only if you were regularly attending AA meetings. They don’t want outside money. How many other groups refuse large donations?

Tad Friend writes for the Dec. 11, 2023 New Yorker:

[Teaching life lessons] was the work of shamans, imams, and ministers. Nowadays, it falls to muscular men in black jeans who prowl the stage: the motivational speakers.

Why do people turn to secular sources of meaning rather than religious sources? Because for many people, secular sources of meaning are more meaningful than religious sources. The biggest reason, for example, that most Jews are not Orthodox Jews is that Orthodox Judaism does not make sense to them.

For some people, their life gets better when they become more religious. For other people, their life gets better when they reduce their religious commitments. Some people improve their lives by following secular gurus and other people diminish their lives.

Just as there is no parenting style that produces results above normal, there’s no program for living that beats the pants off all alternatives. In some situations, following the old ways works best. In other situations, doing things the new way works better. I am sure there are some jobs such as sales that require more motivation than other jobs (where you just follow directions), and therefore thousands of people have a rational demand for motivation gurus. These guys meet a legitimate need while also preying on the vulnerable who would be better off with out.

They know that each of us has a dream life, one that seems as distant as childhood happiness. They make getting to it a matter of discrete steps—believe in your greatness; envision where you want to be in a year; find the window in every wall—and urge you to start taking them.

That doesn’t seem realistic except for the people selling these visions. I bet many of them make good money from retailing nonsense to weak people. What’s the basis for my disdain? The highest paid motivational speakers are Tony Robbins and Oprah. If the highest-paid and most successful members of this profession were admirable, I might change my mind.

Notes Wikipedia:

In 1984, Robbins married Rebecca Jenkins after meeting her at a seminar. Jenkins had three children from two former marriages, whom Robbins adopted. Robbins and Jenkins filed for divorce in 1998.

In 1984, Robbins fathered a child with former girlfriend Liz Acosta. Their son, Jairek Robbins, is also a personal empowerment coach and trainer.

In October 2001, Robbins married Bonnie Sage Humphrey Robbins. They live in Manalapan, Florida.

Robbins was a vegan for 12 years, he then reportedly added fish to his diet. Whilst eating a fish-heavy diet he developed mercury poisoning and nearly died. His diet now consists of mostly vegetables with a small amount of animal protein.

New Yorker:

The first challenge motivational speakers must overcome is that motivation galvanizes people for only about forty-five minutes. The second is banality: it is hardly an esoteric secret that it’s important to set clear goals, embrace opportunities, and persevere through rejection. The third is that “motivational speaker” smacks of quackery. So the motivators now call themselves “inspirational teachers” or “life strategists” or “global experts on human genius and personal transformation.” By transforming their own lives, at least, America’s twenty-five thousand life coaches and growth facilitators have helped make motivation a thirteen-billion-dollar industry.

Motivation outside of your connection to your family and friends and vital interests is usually going to evaporate. We evolved to live tribally. Normal people get all the motivation they need from their family, friends, profession and hobbies. If this normal life is not available to you, there’s probably something wrong that can’t be fixed by motivational speakers. On the other hand, most of us can use a pep talk now and again. Jordan Peterson, for example, helps thousands of people (in addition to hurting thousands of people). Some people can consume this genre with benefit, other people will consume it with mixed results, and other people will consume motivational products to their detriment. There’s no one size fits all variety of self-help.

Transforming your life by selling information products is not an option for most people. I would expect that out of ten thousand who try, only one makes a living from it, and only a minority of them sell something that is honorable.

One evening in June, two hundred and sixty people gathered in a ski lodge at the foot of Bald Mountain, in Sun Valley, Idaho. They had paid almost five thousand dollars to summit Mt. Everest, by analogy. At six o’clock the next morning, they would climb Baldy, take the chairlift down, and repeat, until, after fifteen ascents, they’d climbed 29,029 vertical feet—the elevation of Everest. A company called 29029 Everesting had organized the event and staffed it with inspiring coaches…

Is there any evidence that doing something like this consistently works for people?

Most of these people would be better off paying attention to why they wanted to sign up for such an event in the first place, and then paying attention to how they operated during the event, rather than focusing on achieving the ends of climbing Mount Everest. If you reach this goal, have you done yourself more harm than good or have you summited with grace and ease?

Motivational speakers usually focus people on achieving ends, but pay little attention to what usually matters most — the means.

[Jesse] Itzler, who co-founded 29029 Everesting, is rangy and puckish, and he appears to have plucked his outfits from a college student’s laundry basket. His résumé is all hairpin turns: a former rapper, he wrote the earworm New York Knicks theme song, managed Run-DMC, and launched five successful companies, including a private-plane-rental service, before becoming a part owner of the Atlanta Hawks. Having found his métier in motivation, seven years ago, Itzler is determined to become its leading practitioner. He believes that what we really want is to feel proud of ourselves. His chief method for instilling pride is to set physical challenges so difficult that you must discover something new within yourself to meet them.

He sounds like an extraordinary man. He’s right that we want to feel proud of ourselves. I am sure that setting yourself a physical challenge and meeting that challenge helps people feel better about themselves just as setting yourself communal, professional, educational, mental, psychological, and spiritual challenges and meeting them enhances your reputation with yourself. But none of these things is a shortcut to achieving secure attachment (so that you like yourself and you like to spend time with people who like you and minimize time with people who hurt you).

Overcoming is a staple of motivational speaking: I’m an ordinary person, like you, who overcame cancer/homelessness/getting bitten by a radioactive spider and achieved extraordinary results.

Most people are not going to achieve extraordinary results. The word “extraordinary” means unusual and remarkable. If everyone achieved the extraordinary, the word would have no meaning.

Telling people that they can achieve extraordinary results by following your program is a con. On the other hand, I’m sure that certain people can achieve extraordinary results following certain programs.

Itzler is a fervent believer in competition: after a recent colonoscopy, he asked the doctor, “Do I have the cleanest colon of anyone you’ve ever done?”

I’m sure this hyper-competitive approach to life works well for some people. Most of us enjoy some competition now and again just as most of us enjoy serenity, love and peace.

Do you enjoy hanging out with people who constantly want to compete with you? I find them exhausting.

There’s a time and a place for competition and a time and a place for chilling.

Itzler told me, “What I’m really doing is providing people with a foundation for how to live. I could definitely make this a hundred-million-dollar business, because the category has exploded, and there’s such huge need.”

It’s possible that Itzler knows more about how to live than various traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity that have lasted hundreds or even thousands of years, but I’m skeptical.

Itzler seems amazing, so it would not surprise me that he could build a hundred-million-dollar business. If his program consistently provides more value than cost to most people who buy it, that would put him on the right side of the moral ledger.

Yet motivation, like intimacy, is hard to scale. It works best in high-school locker rooms, less well in arenas, and rarely, or barely, on Instagram. Itzler intends to grow with his clients—yet he worries that reaching the summit in his field might prove incompatible with becoming his best self. “This space is filled with a lot of people regurgitating what other people have been saying for years, a lot of predatory marketing, a lot of snake oil,” he said. “Everybody says they’re not in it for the money, but everybody’s in it for the money.”

Being in it for the money (while following the law and not operating in an underhanded way) seems to me like the best possible motive compared to the common alternatives such as seeking attention and sexual conquests.

The American experiment has always been defined by the pursuit of happiness.

For most people, their motivation is for themselves and for their posterity (as stated in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution).

Self-help itself recently got an upgrade to “personal development.” It’s no longer the remedial training you undergo to quit smoking but a personal-brand refresh to catapult you into the C-suite. Every weekend, around the country, conferences attract aspirants eager to flip houses, or sell solar panels, or just get rich in some unspecified way. The conference-goers, mostly in their thirties and forties, have the air of commuters who missed the first train to the city and are determined to crowd onto the next one. They seek trade secrets and, better still, the mind-set to deploy them. Kent Clothier, who runs a conference called Scale and Escape, told me, “Whatever you’re doing—real estate or marketing or athletics—personal development is the foundation.”

This personal development builds upon the rickety foundation that predisposes isolated people to seek personal development.

Fleyshman described a pyramid of access, in which you upsell adherents and then sell them back down, keeping them continually engaged. “Start by selling something cheap—a paid newsletter, weekly coaching on Zoom,” he said. “Once you have their credit card, they’re in the funnel. Then you invite them to your conference and upsell into the V.I.P. and Super V.I.P. tickets.” People pay to be closer to the source of inspiration. A backstage pass might cost ten thousand dollars. A “mastermind” program—group-coaching sessions led by the motivator, often in an exotic locale—could be twenty-five thousand more. As Clothier told me, those who keep paying to get to the next level “are trying to compress time and go faster, the same way people pay more to get to the front of the line at Disney World.”

You are selling to people who feel like they are missing something in life. These are not normal people. They’re vulnerable.

Top speakers on the conference circuit make between fifty and a hundred thousand dollars for a talk, with a handful nearer to four hundred thousand dollars. Oprah, who’s on her own planet, charges a minimum of a million. Nearly all motivators espouse taking risks, serving others, and being grateful, but the most successful offer ready-made fixes for impediments to change—the fear of failure or embarrassment, the inexorable claims of inertia. Fleyshman told me, “People want to learn how to do everything, which is why they come to these conferences—only it turns out they don’t want to do anything. That’s why so many pitches from the stage are ‘Done for you’—we’ll build your Web site, or run your S.E.O.”

If Oprah is number one in your field, than your field has little to do with truth.

If you are selling people a way to get rich by doing nothing, then you are selling a con.

By contrast, the 12-step teaching is that it works if you work it, and it doesn’t work if you don’t work it. There’s no 12-step recovery without work.

He spoke about [his son] Lazer deciding to play baseball at age twelve, despite having no experience. (Itzler assured me, “I run anything I want to use by Lazer beforehand, and he feels like a superstar when he hears stories about himself.”)

…After a typical day at home, he told one audience, “Fifteen lessons happened to me in twenty-four hours!”

For most people, it will feel like they’re selling their soul when much of their public speaking relies upon telling stories about their family. There’s nothing inherently wrong in making a living talking about intimate parts of your life, it’s just not a good formula for most people. It usually won’t create a life that works (a life where you consistently look forward to the day ahead).

[Rony Robbins] now gets a minimum of five hundred thousand dollars to speak, and charges personal-coaching clients a million dollars a year, plus a cut of their profits. But he is best known for his events, such as the lavishly produced Unleash the Power Within, which promises “four days of completely rewiring your nervous system to attract overwhelming abundance in every area of your life!”

Large group awareness training is dangerous:

Psychologist Chris Mathe has written in the interests of consumer-protection, encouraging potential attendees of LGATs to discuss such trainings with any current therapist or counselor, to examine the principles underlying the program, and to determine pre-screening methods, the training of facilitators, the full cost of the training and of any suggested follow-up care.[20] One study noted the many difficulties in evaluating LGATs, from proponents’ explicit rejection of certain study models to difficulty in establishing a rigorous control group.[22] In some cases, organizations under study have partially funded research into themselves.[4]

Not all professional researchers view LGATs favorably. Researchers such as psychologist Philip Cushman,[24] for example, found that the program he studied “consists of a pre-meditated attack on the self”. A 1983 study on Lifespring[5] found that “although participants often experience a heightened sense of well-being as a consequence of the training, the phenomenon is essentially pathological”, meaning that, in the program studied, “the training systematically undermines ego functioning and promotes regression to the extent that reality testing is significantly impaired”. Lieberman’s 1987 study,[4] funded partially by Lifespring, noted that 5 out of a sample of 289 participants experienced “stress reactions” including one “transitory psychotic episode”.

New Yorker:

Robbins popularized the belief that the mind follows where the body leads. In between his curative “interventions,” he has the audience jump and clap and sway and shout along, harmonizing their systems with his. “I burn eleven thousand three hundred calories a day onstage,” Robbins told me. “They measured my bone density and I’m stronger than 99.9 per cent of the population, and I have the lean body mass of a lineman. What happens in my body—and in the audience’s, because everything in their bodies matches mine, down to the heartbeats—is that testosterone surges through the roof. So now you’re so focused that you retain whatever you’re learning.”

He really should do something about his hoarse voice.

Workouts increase discipline and energy, produce measurable improvements, and make you look ripped.

The way most people work out ingrains bad habits. Some of them would be better off not working out and just going for a nice walk with a friend.

Itzler has no patience for motivators whose message is “Be young and buff like me.” He says he wouldn’t have had anything to tell people before he’d had failures and successes as an entrepreneur; before he got married and had kids; before he built a repository of wisdom. Yet his obsession with fitness led him into the field, and it defines his brand.

There’s no objective test for wisdom.

To many rudderless men who feel at sea, toxic masculinity seems like a safe harbor.

For everybody who feels broken, there’s a guru waiting to make you feel whole.

Itzler’s masculinity is relatively evolved, but he does dwell on grievances. When a lone detractor called him “pampered” in a reply to Itzler’s Instagram post about an Ultraman (perhaps because he’d brought a team of six to film, hydrate, and Theragun him), Itzler groused about it for weeks: “I will never forget that!”

He didn’t forget it because the remark rang true.

When we’re called by our name, we answer.

Itzler turns nearly everything into a game, a contest, a chance to measure yourself. He and Blakely agree that if one of their children says, “I can’t,” they reply, “Itzlers don’t say that.”

There’s no evidence that this is a superior way of raising children.

His home is an incubator for optimization. Itzler recently told an audience, “I said to my brother about my son, ‘He’s a good swimmer, but he doesn’t really have that eye of the tiger,’ and my brother said, ‘That’s O.K., as long as he’s happy.’ ” There were murmurs of approval. “And I’m, like, ‘No! He’d be happy playing Fortnite and eating Häagen-Dazs every night. We want him to live up to his potential.’ ”

Sounds exhausting. In the end, it doesn’t much matter what you want for your kids. They’re going to do their own thing and they’re going to be more influenced by their peers than by you. Your best chance for influencing them is by choosing where they go to school and where you live and worship. Through these methods you can predispose them towards a particular peer group. I remember in my Pacific Union College Elementary School, my sixth grade class was filled with good kids while the fifth grade class was filled with troubled kids. I was lucky I got to hang with the good kids.

Itzler has a parental knack for infusing you with his intentions. You simply take it on faith that those intentions will behoove you.

Sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t. In general, you don’t want to put your life in the hands of gurus.

Motivators, like parents, don’t so much instruct you as remind you of good habits. Yet, if you ask ten motivators which habits are effective, you’ll get twenty ideas. Lewis Howes, who has interviewed more than a thousand leaders in personal development on his podcast, “School of Greatness,” asks each one for “three truths.” Howes told me, “My takeaway is that it comes down to ‘Love a lot. Love people, love life, love yourself.’ ” But if people were able to do all that, unprompted, they wouldn’t need the conference at the Marriott.

The “If books could kill” podcast has great critiques of airport best sellers such as The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, The 48 Laws of Power, The 4-Hour Workweek, The Rules, Atomic Habits, “Nudge”: A Simple Solution For Littering, Organ Donations and Climate Change, The Five Love Languages, Rich Dad Poor Dad, The Coddling Of The American Mind, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, The Secret, The Game, Outliers, and Freakanomics.

In the Atomic Habits episode, cohost Michael Hobbes says: “This is the fundamental tension of all self-help books — there’s very little advice you can give to everyone. And it’s all been said before.”

Cohost Peter Shamshiri: “I say it is pseudo-scientific because… there is no science he cites to back it up. What he cites is a tweet. It is one of several citations to tweet. The tweet is one tweet in a tweet thread about other stuff. There are citations to tweets and Reddit posts throughout the book.”

Hobbes: “You can’t debunk these things. It is not clear that they are true or untrue. They are just a way of looking at things.”

Shamshiri: “He’s just speculating. You’re just saying it. Where’s the science? What’s the explanation?”

Hobbes: “If that helps you, great, but it is not scientific or generalizable.”

“Motivational rise-and-grind books are written by people who are high-functioning. Somebody with a lot of energy, super extroverted, love planning things, loving having everything neat and in order, and people like this go through the world confused — why don’t you just do what I’m doing?”

“People who get a lot of satisfaction about being organized are the worst people to give advice. There’s a human tendency to chalk this up to my system. But this is a function of their personality. It’s something they enjoy dedicating themselves to. You can’t tell people — you should enjoy doing the dishes immediately when you are done eating.”

Shamshiri: “There’s a great paradox to this book. It pitches itself as a way to organize your life, but the book itself is disorganized, chaotic, and rambling. There are pieces of useful advice but you can only get that after sifting through unnecessary anecdotes, unsourced scientific claims, and contradictions and fabrications. Reading it was an experience similar to using social media — at the end of it I had a headache, I was tired, but I had two new habits, and it wasn’t worth it. This stuff works very well for some people, a little bit for others and not for others as well.”

Hobbes: “The core problem of these things is that you cannot meaningfully help people unless you understand the specifics of their situation.”

New Yorker:

The consensus in the field, to the extent that there is one, is that to create new habits you need motivation plus mind-set plus a methodology. Itzler believes the best way to start that process is by “building your life résumé.” He asks followers to fill out a wall-size “Big A## Calendar,” which he sells for forty-seven dollars. Schedule in mini-adventures every two months, build a winning habit (such as cutting out added sugar) every quarter, and, most important, frame your year around a misogi. In Japanese, the word describes a purification ritual, but in Itzler’s parlance a misogi is a daunting challenge that forces growth.

Goals are good, but the downside to chasing goals is that you narrow your vision and get tempted into making shortcuts.

He studies other speakers, constantly comparing, tweaking, seeking to improve. He told me, “I want to make someone feel bad they came before me and terrible they went after me.” His peers are no less competitive. The motivator Erwin McManus told me, “I was in a room full of great speakers recently, and they were all asking each other, ‘Who’s the greatest communicator in the world?’ I said, ‘Maybe the question should instead be “What do people most need to hear?” ’ ” McManus, who coaches other speakers, rates his clients on a personality test called the Birkman Method. “They’re all in the nineties out of a hundred, where the higher the number, the more you’re affected by how other people perceive you,” he said. “They all have a deep conviction that their message is the most important one. And that message, so often, is ‘Don’t care what other people think about you.’”

You should care, moderately, what other people think of you because you need to keep connection and you need information (other people might be seeing things more clearly than you do or conducting themselves more effectively). There’s no way to graduate from comparing yourself to others, but you can do it in an adaptive way (for connection and information) or in a maladaptive way (for social destruction or self-destruction).

Itzler disparages the measures of success in his industry—griping that you have to pay up to ten thousand dollars to be included on certain lists of top coaches, and that numerous colleagues “claim they have the top-rated podcast or bring in a hundred million dollars—all this uncheckable hype!” But he still wants to reach the top. Once, when we were discussing his coaching program, he laughed and said, “The bitterness you hear is that I haven’t been able to crack the code and get to a higher level.”

…When Itzler and Wintonick met recently to discuss revamping their programs for next year, Itzler declared, “This industry is built on predatory advertising that tells you your life is broken. ‘If you feel you haven’t lived up to your potential’—which is everyone!—‘the only way to achieve that is to take my ninety-nine-dollar program, and I’ll teach you how to get a private jet.’ To promise someone a free Webinar, and then bombard them with e-mails for all these other products, that’s horseshit—”

Wintonick interrupted to point out that their media team sends a flood of e-mails, too. Itzler looked stricken. “ ‘If you like that, we also have this’ is completely different from ‘We’re offering this free Webinar only so we can upsell you into our nine-hundred-and-ninety-seven-dollar program,’ ” he protested.

The key word here is predatory. The key product here is hope.

When you buy the program, you buy hope.

Whatever conventional wisdom recommends, Itzler is inclined to reject; one of his Webinars is called “Normal Is Broken” (normal, he points out, is overweight, divorced, and depressed).

If a guru simply repeats establishment wisdom, he’s unnecessary. He’s not special.

The Gurometer is “not a scientific instrument, not a psychometric scale, not a revolutionary theory” but an analysis developed by psychologist Matt Browne and cognitive anthropologist Chris Kavanagh who started the podcast Decoding the Gurus in 2020. It notes:

It is necessary that the orthodoxy, the establishment, the mainstream media, and the expert-consensus are always wrong, or at least blinkered and limited, and are generally incapable of grappling with the real issues. In the rare occasions when they are right, they are described by the gurus as being right for reasons other than they think. Kavanagh has coined the term ‘science-hipsterism’ which captures this tendency quite nicely. A guru can seldom agree with the establishment, because it is crucial to their appeal that they are offering unique insight – a fresh hot take that is not available elsewhere, and may be repressed or taboo. The guru’s popularity will obviously benefit, if this iconoclastic view happens to coincide with their prejudices or intuitions of their lay-followers. Thus, gurus are naturally drawn to topics where there is a split between the expert consensus and public opinion (e.g. climate change, GMOs, vaccinations, lockdowns). After all, if a guru is merely agreeing with an expert consensus on a topic such as COVID, then there is less reason to listen to the guru rather than the relevant experts. Thus, the guru is highly motivated to undertake epistemic sabotage; to disparage authoritative and institutional sources of knowledge. There is a tradeoff where the more the guru’s followers distrust standard sources of knowledge, such as that emanating from universities, the greater the perceived value that the guru provides. This tendency is at odds with the guru’s natural tendency towards self-aggrandisement, which may involve emphasising or inflating their (even limited) academic intellectual recognition, which results in some amusing contradictions. Gurus will also strategically utilise ambiguity and uncertainty within their criticisms, providing themselves with the means to walk back claims that prove wrong or attract criticism or to enable them to highlight disclaimers. This provides them both with plausible deniability and the superficial appearance of having nuance & humility. This dynamic of sabotaging other sources of wisdom is also evident in their fractious relationships with other gurus, with whom they may often have alliances of convenience, but are also strongly incentivised to compete with.

Back to The New Yorker:

He has spoken at five Tony Robbins events. He has a full-time staffer who shoots video of him and posts clips on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. And he currently has an online calendar club ($1,000); the Elite365 program, which provides coaching in such categories as business, nutrition, intermittent fasting, parenting, and mind-set, as well as quarterly calls and two retreats with Itzler ($35,000); and the Premier365 program, which offers even more coaching and face time ($75,000).


Erwin McManus, who’s also a pastor, told me, “This space has exploded with the loss of faith in organized religion. You can’t look at optimizing human potential and not feel it as a deeply spiritual calling.”

Are these gurus optimizing for truth?

The motivational experience mirrors going to church—the catechistic phrases, the stand-and-testify choreography, the joy of gathering with fellow-believers…

Even as he encourages people to pattern their lives on his, he fears the responsibility of becoming a role model. Two people in his program have asked him to bail them out of jail, and others have sought his counsel because they’re contemplating divorce, or suicide. “I’m a pleaser, I get energy from people, I’m not a therapist,” he told me, his eyes wide with alarm…

Where therapy leads to self-knowledge, and religion offers grace, motivation valorizes success. Its foundational premise is that life has a secret plan for you, and the motivator has acquired a copy. Dean Graziosi, who leads programs with Tony Robbins, recently said in a video aimed at potential enrollees, “If you’ve got the blueprint, and you keep trying, isn’t it a fact that you will succeed?”

Decoding the Gurus focuses on “the subset of gurus who make liberal use of ‘pseudo profound bullshit’ referring to speech that is persuasive and creates the appearance of profundity with little regard for truth or reference to relevant expertise.”

New Yorker:

In this reassuring view, setbacks don’t happen to you, they happen for you, so you can grow. But, if persistence guarantees success, then when you fail it’s entirely on you. You flunked life. This belief has powerful social consequences: governments and companies have no duty of care, because everyone should take care of himself. Zig Ziglar once told A.T. & T. employees facing a round of layoffs, “Don’t blame the boss—work harder and pray more.” This belief also has implications for family dynamics. Mylett warns audiences that, if you don’t become a superlative provider, you’re telling your family, “I was more scared than I loved you.”

There are advantages to this worldview and disadvantages.

Itzler is remarkably free of fear. He occasionally wakes at 3 a.m. worrying about his mother, or his children—yet his confidence in his own luck defends him against vulnerability. “It’s hard to get Jesse to explain the deeper meaning of all this, even to a close friend,” his childhood schoolmate Kenny Reisman said, at Hell on the Hill. “Maybe it’s the Mrs. Itz in him, the stoic underneath.” The promise of motivation is, If I do exactly what you do, I’ll be you. But what Itzler’s clients hope to emulate may simply be the charisma he was born with.

It’s easy to be free of fear, or to at least give the impression that you are free of fear, when life is going well for you. But we never graduate from vulnerability.

Dr. Stephen Marmer said on Dennis Prager’s radio show Feb. 21, 2010: “We work and rework all of the main challenges of development. Every time we do it, we can add to our happiness and reduce our unhappiness because we get another shot at working at a problem that has come up in the past and will come up again in the future. No problem is ever solved 100%.

“Imagine you are climbing a spiral staircase in the tower and at each vista, there’s a window. You get to see the fields from a different angle.

“There are four basic developmental challenges — dependency, mastery, grandiosity and feeling small in a big world.

“You will face these challenges over and over again.

“We will experience these windows one way in childhood, another way in adolescence, another way in early adulthood…and another way in the geriatric phase.

“When you’re feeling dependent, remember when you had mastery. When you’re feeling grandiose, remember when you were feeling small in a big world.”

“It’s a recipe for balance and for not feeling overwhelmed by any of these four stages because each one of them modifies the other.”

New Yorker:

Blakely told me, “As his wife, I would like to have conversations about feelings with Jesse. For years, I’d say, ‘How do you feel?’ and he would say, ‘I don’t know,’ and I’d get mad. And one day I realized, He doesn’t know. I gradually discovered that he could write his deeper feelings to me, or talk about them if we went on a walk together—he’s so much better in motion. I’ve thought about this issue a lot, having been with him for sixteen years, and I feel like he’s just happy.”

Different people are born with different baseline levels of happiness. We didn’t evolve to be happy. We evolved to survive.

But Itzler quieted the applause to show a video of him in the I.C.U., not long before his father died, putting his phone to his father’s ear and playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a favorite of his. “Time is going to take everything away from you,” he said. “But—I mean this wholeheartedly—it can’t take away what’s in your soul.” Onscreen, Dan Itzler smiled and began tapping his foot, a light flickering on in a nearly abandoned house. Dee Wiz cut the hymn, but the audience kept singing: “His truth is marching on. . . .”

Most people have the ability to get on the same page with others, though it is easier to do this if you have things in common. When we connect, we create energy. If we just march with people, or pray with people, or work with people, we’ll likely bond with them and start to care for them. It’s a good way to live.

If Jesse Itzler wants to reform his profession, he should send out an email saying “Do not buy my products.” Then he should explain that some people are likely to be better off not buying his stuff just as there are some people who are likely to be better off buying his stuff. For example, losers should probably overcome their addictions and get their lives together via almost free methods such as 12-step programs, pay off their debts, and from a secure base of a flourishing life they can then make better decisions whether or not to spend money to up their motivation. If you have disabling problem with credit cards or alcohol or sex, you can find nearly-free help through programs such as AA and SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous) and DA (Debtors Anonymous). Get sober before you start spending on my stuff, Jesse should say. He should outline the type of person who likely benefits from his programs — a high performer who wants to get even higher, a six-figure sales guy who wants more, a successful entrepreneur who has dreams.

Tony Robbins should do something like this too. Any self-respecting success-selling sales guy should have the integrity to point out that many people should not buy what they’re selling. “Don’t subscribe to my emails if you don’t already earn six figures!” would be a good start. “Some people are better off not subscribing to me!” would be an important message. Just as some people can’t handle one drink or one bite of ice cream without triggering a craving, some people should not open themselves up to the temptation of buying hope and success. Just as betting ads contain prominent messaging about how to get help for your gambling addiction, success salesmen should promote responsible messaging about getting help for your buying addiction.

I’ve read over 200 self-help books in my life. I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of Tony Robbins talks and other self-help material. Until I got sober in various 12-step programs for emotional addiction, self-help did me little good.

In 2008 and 2009, as I was sinking deeper into credit card debt, I spent over $12,000 on success programs. Some things I learned in these programs were essential for a gig I got over the next five years that earned me about $75,000 for modest effort. Two years ago, I spent $500 for an online program about health. I don’t know if it was worth it.

Over the last 13 years, I’ve spent less than $100 on success programs. In fact, I can only recall one $7 purchase.

Some people are better off not watching my live streams. You can be a good guy and not be good for everyone. Jesse Itzler types should let the world know that many people are better off without them. Some intense people are not a good fit for other people. They can overwhelm them.

For some people, I’m poison and for other people I’m a pleasant addition.

The Gurometer has relevant insights about secular gurus:

* Galaxy-brainness is an ironic descriptor of someone who presents ideas that appear to be too profound for an average mind to comprehend, but are in truth reasonably trivial if not nonsensical. Gurus often present themselves as fonts of wisdom, and it is an all-encompassing kind of knowledge that tends to span multiple disciplines and topics. Their arguments often link together disparate concepts, such as quantum mechanics, logic, and the nature of consciousness. A guru will often present themselves as a polymath, who can offer novel insights with reference to many different fields.

* Being a guru is a social role: a guru is only a guru if there are people who regard them as such! How gurus interact with their followers and critics, their in-group and out-group, is often quite revealing. Gurus are not usually bonafide cult-leaders. However, the social groups they cultivate — often with themselves positioned as intellectual leaders — can have some elements reminiscent of cultish dynamics. A key characteristic of cults is the establishment of clear in-group and out-group identities, primarily between the cult-members/admirers and outsiders. However, there will often be internal discriminations made within the cult, such as between an inner-circle of favoured members, the broader normal members, and problematic or troublesome members (who may need to be reprimanded, temporarily excluded, or exorcised). In general, cultish behaviour is characterized by emotional manipulation and control.
We’ve noticed that gurus tend to act in a manipulative fashion with their followers and potential allies. This often takes the form of excessive flattery, such as intimations that their followers are more perceptive, more morally worthy, and more interested in the pursuit of truth than outsiders. A guru will often put some effort into signalling a close and personal relationship with their followers — essentially encouraging the development of parasocial ideation. Praise and regard for the guru is usually reciprocated, whilst disagreement or criticism is usually dismissed as coming from an unworthy person who does not truly understand the significance of the guru’s ideas.

* A cult will generally have more than a few bones to pick with supposedly nefarious forces in the outside world. Likewise, fascist organisations will derive much energy from narratives of grievance focused on specific out-groups. Feelings of frustration and oppression, being excluded and disregarded, and deprived of one’s manifest rights and recognitions, represent a potent set of negative emotions. Gurus too, will sometimes rely on narratives of grievance pertaining to themselves and their potential followers in order to drive engagement. After all, a worldview in which all is essentially fair and just is not one that will encourage people to search for alternative ways in which to view the world.

Gurus sometimes also engage in personal grievance narratives. These are especially convenient, in that they not only encourage emotional connection and sympathy for the guru, but they provide a convenient explanation for why someone of their unique talents has not been well-supported or given the recognition they deserve by the outside world. They also relate to conspiratorial ideation (discussed more below), in explaining why the special ideas and perspectives shared with followers have not been recognised and accepted by the outside world. It is because their ideas have been suppressed by malevolent and powerful actors for selfish reasons.

* It is almost impossible to be a guru without having a sense of grandiosity and inflated idea of one’s self-importance. The role of being a guru involves cultivating praise and attention, and demands a certain level of charisma and charm. Another trait of narcissists is a belief in one’s uniqueness, and that only special people can appreciate them. It is therefore not surprising that one tends to see other narcissistic traits in gurus, such as having a very thin skin when it comes to criticism, or expecting that the world should be recognising one’s talents far more than it does. Our tentative hypothesis is that narcissism is the key personality trait of gurus. People without at least some degree of over-confidence and attention-seeking will find the role of guru very uncomfortable and eschew it, even if it is thrust upon them. People who are not narcissistic, but with genuine expertise and insight in a given domain, may find the spotlight an unwelcome distraction. People ‘on the spectrum’ of narcissism, however, will find any attention and regard highly satisfying, and this is the motivating factor for engaging in going beyond whatever talents they may have, to engage in the pseudo-profound bullshitting techniques described here. The lack of self-awareness common among narcissists also seems to explain why gurus seem to ‘believe their own bullshit’. Just as a narcissist loves themselves, they are in love with their own ideas, and may be incapable of seeing the degree to which they are bullshit.

* Connected with their narcissism and worthiness of being a guru, they are greatly attracted to claiming that they have developed game-changing and paradigm-shifting intellectual products. This is, in a sense, the credentials and the resume of a guru.

* Gurus perhaps desire respect and admiration above all else, but they also tend to feel that more worldly and tangible recognition of their talents is appropriate. Accordingly, gurus may be surprisingly willing to undertake activities such as shilling health supplements, that would otherwise be a little surprising in an intellectual of their calibre. Note that it is natural and reasonable for any intellectual worker or content creator to be compensated for their effort. Thus, book royalties, YouTube advertising royalties, or the insertion of standard advertising in a podcast does not usually or necessarily indicate grifting. However, gurus tend to go somewhat further in an effort to monetise their following, while avoiding the appearance of such – which would detract from their guru status.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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