Self Help U.S.A.

After all the build-up, the calendar has flipped and life moves on. But what kind of life will it be? Good? Excellent? Outstanding? Will this be a year for tapping your true potential? No less than the pope has declared 2000 to be a time for taking stock. In any given new year, half the population makes resolutions—and in 2000, experts say, many will go beyond simple promises to lose weight. Says University of Scranton psychologist John Norcross: "Any momentous occasion, whether it's turning 40, having your first child or a new millennium prompts people to be thinking about who they want to be, what values they want to actualize, what their legacy will be." Adds self-improvement author Stephen Covey: "It's an extremely rare psychological window that forces people to ask the largest question: what are their lives about?"

It's a tough task—but an industry manned by gurus like Covey stands ready to help. Since Colonial times, Americans have devoured "success literature," those pragmatic guides to a better life from authors including Ben Franklin, Dale Carnegie and Covey. Today they're called self-help books, and they constitute a $563 million-a-year publishing juggernaut. Books are just one avenue to a brand-new you. From seminars to CDs to "personal coaching," the self-improvement industry rakes in $2.48 billion a year, according to the research firm Marketdata Enterprises, which predicts double-digit annual growth through 2003.

An opportunist band of self-help celebrities is riding that wave, building empires based on the proposition that its approach can change lives. With slick marketing and growing acceptance by mainstream Americans, authors like Covey, Anthony Robbins and John Gray are amassing fortunes that rival those of Hollywood moguls.

Their rising popularity raises two essential questions: who buys this stuff, and does it really work? Researchers say female baby boomers are the biggest customers, but self-help seminars are populated by all races, ages and professions. Many adherents are well educated, hold good jobs and lead lives that appear pretty fulfilling. But something's missing. Gurus and followers alike cite the same forces. The simpler world of yesteryear—lasting marriages, clear-cut career paths and rock-solid religious beliefs—has been replaced by stress, dysfunction and doubt. That's leading many people to seek a new compass. "People used to go to priests and their faith for guidance," says Andrea McCulloch, a Toronto actress and self-help fan. But many religions don't feel quite as relevant today. Isaiah never discussed balancing work and family; how can ancient Scriptures compete with breezy reads like "Chicken Soup for the Soul"?

Self-help has long been ridiculed as overly simplistic psychobabble, but each day brings more testimonials; even psychotherapists offer measured endorsements. And as more people adopt these teachings as quasi religions, some adherents say their belief systems are no less valid than those based on that older collection of maxims, the Ten Commandments.

This much is clear: if success is the goal, the gurus have found it. Anthony Robbins leads the pack. Of all the gurus, he's most focused on the Net. Last summer Robbins took control of a publicly traded shell company whose stock cost just pennies a share and announced plans to build a self-improvement Web site, Dreamlife.com. The site still isn't operational, but investors don't seem to mind. Last week its stock stood at $16 a share, putting Robbins's stake at more than $300 million.

Robbins rose to prominence in the '80s as a motivational speaker who taught people to walk across hot coals. He penned two best sellers (he's currently considering a multimillion-dollar deal from Simon & Schuster to write four more), but gained real fame in the early '90s on late-night television. At 6 feet 7, with a drill sergeant's jaw line and a smile bigger than Jimmy Carter's, Robbins is strangely handsome. But his infomercials—cheesy classics of the get-rich-quick genre—made him a walking punch line. "With infomercials, you're in the midst of spray-on hair and kitchen mops," he says, grimacing. "But the benefits outweighed the downsides." Soon he was consulting with pro athletes like Andre Agassi and the LA Kings. Then, in 1994, he visited Camp David to pump up President Clinton. Earlier this fall, he and Clinton chatted briefly about Al Gore's then faltering campaign, though Robbins declines to reveal his advice.

But the podium is his true calling. At a "mega-event" in Hartford, Conn., last month, Robbins's act was, as always, part church revival, part rock show, all centered on his core message: train your mind to achieve "outstanding performance," the same way athletes tone muscles to hit home runs. At times the audience listens quietly. A few times each hour the music rises and Robbins roams the stage, jumping and pumping his fists while speakers blast upbeat rock like Tina Turner's "Simply the Best." Ten thousand fans (admission: $49) leap, Rocky-style, arms in the air. "This isn't about jumping around looking like an idiot," Robbins says during a calmer moment. "It's about training your body to go into an exalted state." After three hours the lights dim. Ten thousand hands raise as the throng repeats Robbins's pledge dozens of times. "I am the voice. I will lead, not follow... Defy the odds. Step up! Step up! Step up! I am the voice..."

It's a scene that's easy to mock. Like pro wrestlers or televangelists, the self-help celebrities are polarizing. People believe their message or think they're totally bogus. "They're not about improving your life as much as recalibrating your brain to look at misery in a more positive light," says stand-up comic Gary Greenberg, coauthor of the recent parody book "Self-Helpless." Even in the book world, where self-help is a cash cow, there's contempt. "It's the Rodney Dangerfield of publishing—it's popular, but it gets no respect," says Scott Manning, a book publicist.

Fans face this peril, too. Many suffer endless jokes about their self-help jones. To avoid that, some stay in the closet. "Somehow these books seem like an admission of weakness," says a Duke University professor who follows Robbins's and Covey's teachings but insists on anonymity. "It's not pornography, but it has some of the same social stigma." Most believers say the kid- ding is a fair trade-off for the payoff the concepts can bring. When 12-year-old Sara Allen told friends she'd walked on hot coals at a Robbins seminar last summer, "they kind of rolled their eyeballs," she says. "They think I'm nuts." But Sara, who's been listening to Robbins's tapes since she was 9, says they've helped her run faster in gym and do better in school.

To create more unabashed fans like Sara, the gurus aim for mainstream acceptance. It's a goal best achieved by Stephen Covey. In "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," he urges people to "Be Proactive" and "Think Win/Win." That message has won him a huge following throughout corporate America. He attributes it to his system's effectiveness, but it's also due to his credentials (a Harvard M.B.A., years as a business professor), his consultant-like focus on fixing corporate cultures and the testimonials he garners. At Hard Rock Cafe, where every manager is put through Covey's regimen, turnover is half the industry average. At Intel, the Habits help noncommunicative techies speak a common language.

Folks who think this is so much blather would be surprised by how many mainstream followers Covey attracts. Consider the number of uniforms at a Covey symposium in October. More than 470 attendees are military officers or government workers, their $700 admission and travel paid for with tax dollars. Among them: 18 staffers from the Clark City, Ohio, Department of Human Services, where they're spending $60,000 in an attempt to teach the "7 Habits" to troubled families and welfare recipients. Taxpayers may object, says the Clark City program's coordinator, Kerry Pedraza, but "we're being fiscally responsible, trying to prevent problems, teaching families to be families."

For up-and-coming gurus, entrenched stars like Robbins and Covey can make this a tough industry to enter. Some respond by staying focused on small niches. Suze Orman, a former stockbroker who's rocketed up best-seller lists with books that combine advice on IRAs and prenups with discussion of people's deep emotional connections to money, says she'd never consider expanding into, say, relationship advice. That might dilute her brand. But there's a downside. "How many new things can you say about money?" she says.

That restraint is noble, but gurus who diversify build bigger empires. Consider John Gray, the former Hindu monk who wrote "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus," a book on how the genders communicate differently. Today he pontificates on everything from sex to parenting to all-round success. On a recent Saturday at his "Personal Success" seminar, the synergies are apparent. Nearly 300 fans crowd a Virginia hotel ballroom (admission: $199). Much of the session consists of Gray's recycling tales from his books. Later in the afternoon Gray dims the lights and orders participants to pair up, hold hands and pretend to speak to their fathers. They weep over childhood slights as assistants pass out tissues. During breaks, participants crowd tables to buy books and tapes.

Those book sales are just one source of Gray's $10 million-a-year income stream. He charges $50,000 per speech (in 1999 he gave 12). He's trained 350 Mars and Venus "facilitators," who pay him for "certification" and distribute his books at 500 smaller workshops each month. This year he'll launch a "Men are from Mars..." syndicated talk show. He's planning an expanded Web site offering "romantic accessories," from candles and aromatherapy to flowers and lingerie. "I'm actually thinking of buying some flower farms in Ecuador" to help supply it, he says. (He's also exploring an IPO later this year.) To promote new ventures, he keeps a database of 600,000 followers.

Helping couples is a nice niche, but lately spiritual self-help has become the industry's real growth segment. That genre's rising star, Iyanla Vanzant, explains why: "People have lost faith in each other," she says. The world is full of "people who hurt in their heart... who cry alone at night." The good news is they're buying her books like mad (current best seller: "Yesterday, I Cried"). Vanzant's rise is remarkable: an abused child who was raped at 9, pregnant at 16 and had two failed marriages by 25, she earned a law degree, has written nine books and founded a "spiritual empowerment" ministry.

Despite booming business, there will always be nonbelievers. Unlike pharmaceuticals, gurus have no laboratory test offering definitive proof of their effectiveness. But some mental-health professionals are surprisingly upbeat about their usefulness. In "The Authoritative Guide to Self-Help Resources in Mental Health" (Guilford Publications. Summer 2000), 2,500 psychologists rated a mountain of change-your-life material. Their conclusion: roughly two thirds of titles are beneficial. They give high marks to Covey, but give down arrows to others, including titles by Gray and Deepak Chopra. "There's a lot of crap out there," says psychologist Norcross, one of six coauthors. But in a world with drugs, hijackings and school shootings, how much damage can advice about time management or relationships really do?

For good or ill, more people seem destined to give these ideas a try. Historians describe how 18th- and 19th-century self-improvement focused on character virtues—thrift, industriousness—and became wildly popular. In the mid-20th century, they say, the movement took a turn that reduced its popularity. "It became more therapeutic, less concerned with education," says University of Virginia historian Joseph Kett. "Therapeutic" implies that devotees had a problem that needed fixing, creating a stigma. Today some trend watchers—including the gurus themselves—detect a subtle shift back toward an era in which self-improvement becomes less like therapy and more like physical training: stigma-free, beneficial for anyone. "It's a lifestyle now," says Robbins. "It's gone from being the thing somebody did when they have a problem to the thing you do if you're a peak performer." And there's no time like the new millennium to pump up your life. So act now. The gurus are standing by.

Big Moments in Self-Improvement

Fropm the nations's top minds to the makers of popculture, the quest for betterment has long captivated the American imagination.

1732:  Benjamin Franklin's 'Poor Richard's Almanack' and later 'Autobiograpny' tout frugality, virtue and success

1838:  The Rev. William Channing's 'Self Culture' captures the improvement ideals of Unitarianism and Transcendentalism

1936:  Former traveling salesman Dale Carnegie writes best-selling 'How to Win Friends and Influence People'

1952:  Norman Vincent Peale's 'The Power of Positive Thinking' becomes one of history's biggest-selling spiritual books

1962:  The Esalen Institute is founded in California, soon becoming a focal point of the 'human potential' movement

1994:  President Clinton invites self-help stars Covey and Robbins to Camp David after the GOP wins control of Congress

1999:  In the film 'Magnolia' Tom Cruise plays a ponytailed guru preaching the mantra 'seduce and destroy'

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