2013-05-02

Gurus

During my third year of college, I met a fellow student who always wore a suit, or at least a nice dress shirt and a pair of slacks, to class. He was a friendly guy with a good sense of humor, so we became fast friends. Truth be told, his guy had the gift of gab and a naturally approachable personality, so he likely became fast friends with pretty much everyone.

One day, we got to talking and I discovered the astonishing revelation that he had made some a comfortable middle class income during his three months of summer vacation, and that he had done so every year he had been at college. I asked him how he did it. He told me that he had joined up with a home security company, selling home security systems, that the money was easy, and that he'd be happy to recommend me for the position. I expressed interest, and we made an appointment to discuss things further one evening, at the library.

When I got there that night, I discovered that I was one of dozens of students who he had spoken with. We all filed into a conference room, were given some refreshments, and then my friend turned on a projector and showed us all the firm's promotional video. The business model was as follows: Salesmen would wear suits, pair up, and walk door-to-door in a well-to-do California neighborhood. We would be trained to deliver the sales pitch and would earn a certain level of commission for each sale. I was surprised that my friend's business was door-to-door sales, but I kept watching. As it happened, the sales force earned one set of commissions, the district manager earned a slightly larger commission on the same set of sales, and so on up the chain. You can't really call this sort of thing a "pyramid scheme," because it did not require initial investment on my part. Nevertheless, it certainly invoked a pyramid-type hierarchical structure. Actually, the whole arrangement reminded me of the Mormon missionaries. Not surprisingly, the company was started by former Mormon missionaries.

At the end of the video, I quietly left the session while others were signing up for the upcoming season's jobs.

***

Many years earlier, in elementary school, I had been exposed to a similar scheme. As some sort of puzzling fund-raising campaign, my school had contracted with a candy company of some kind (or was it a magazine company?). Every year, the company would gather all the students together and fill their heads full of tales of selling candy. They had a reward scheme in which students could win prizes by selling a certain number of units. I remember one prize being a color television. The students were all very excited by this, but of course you can predict the actual outcome of the arrangement.

No student in their right mind could ever hope to sell enough units to win any of the really good prizes. The lower-level prizes were mostly garbage: plastic toys, cereal box prize sorts of things. At best, this was all a student had to look forward to. In some rare cases, a helicopter mother would undertake to sell her child's products and help the child win a bigger prize by taking orders with her co-workers or church group. No one else ever won any of the prizes. The company was making sales on the margin. It always bothered me that they were allowed to use the school to gain a captive audience for their business. I hope my school benefited handsomely from this, but I doubt that it really did.

***

This early childhood experience saved me from making the mistake of selling those security systems. It also saved me from taking a job at The Investors Group and similar companies. I don't mean to imply that those organizations are scams, but it should go without saying that the only people who do well in such situations are people who know a lot of people and who don't mind selling a lot of products to those same friends. Not everyone has the personality to maintain a wide social circle, but more importantly, not everyone is so unscrupulous as to sell a large package of mediocre investments, or a mediocre home security system, or candy, to their friends.

It's one thing if you really are passionate about the product you're selling. In all other cases, though, most of us would draw an ethical line. Most of us would happily sell something of value to people we think would benefit from it, but few of us would pump our friends for cash, offering little actual value in return.

It takes a certain kind of person to do that. It takes a guru.

***

The advent of free blogging has precipitated an explosion of internet gurus. I recently discovered a particularly good example of a guru when I came across a website called IWillTeachYouToBeRich.com. Sound great already, doesn't it?

The general idea of that website is personal finance and career advice. There, you can find such pearls of wisdom as "Be careful who you listen to." Part of that post has this highly elucidating bit of text:

But always ask yourself: Is this person in the position I want to be? Am I getting relationship advice from my girl friend who can’t hold down a relationship more than 3 months? Am I buying a “Make a million dollars” course from some info-product joker who, if I Googled around for 5 minutes, I’d discover he has severe credit-card debt and cashflow issues? 
Or am I working on mastering my own psychology, recognizing negative feedback (not simply trying to ignore it), and improving my response to it? 
This is why I don’t even bother selling stuff from my blog. If you don’t like what I see, leave. If you do, at some point you’ll join my newsletter, where you can see the 8+ master courses I’ve created over the last few years.
What your mind should be focusing-in on as you read that is the author's claim that he doesn't "even both selling stuff from" his blog. This should come as a major surprise to anyone actually browsing his blog, staring the advertisements for his book in the face.

The question is, how stupid does he think his readers are? The answer is, very stupid. How else can you explain someone who makes millions of dollars dispensing advice on how to get more benefits out of your credit card and how to negotiate a better salary by using "competence triggers?"

Set aside the fact that much of his advice sounds like a how-to guide for turning yourself into a sociopath by constantly assessing to what extent you can monetarily benefit from every interaction you have with other human beings. Focus instead on the fact that he is making millions by telling people how they can squeeze a few hundred bucks out of situations they might encounter once every three years.

It takes a certain kind of person to sell someone on the idea that you will make them rich while you pump them for money in exchange for knowledge that most people gain through life experience.

***

Religion has long since relied on guruism. Of course, one religion actually originated the term, but the idea is common across many cultures. The idea is that you, the hapless fool struggling to make sense of the universe, require a medium (spiritual or otherwise) through which to obtain whatever truth will take you where you want to go.

The appeal of guruism, therefore, is very straight-forward. We human beings are rational animals and as such we endeavor to lead successful lives via the power of reason. In order to use that power, we must first collect some information. We look at the information, we develop an a priori theory, predict where that theory might take us, and then test it. The outcome of the test produces knowledge that we use to make our lives better. Of course, we can bypass much of this process by drawing on the existing body of human knowledge. For example, there is no need to first derive the Pythagorean Theorem in order to use the Theorem. Thus, education.

The fact that education works well for us is precisely what drives us to gurus. Why fight for hard-won knowledge if someone else already has? Solving a triangle can be hard work if you don't know anything about trigonometry. Solving life's moral dilemmas can be hard work if you don't know anything about philosophy (and even then, it's no cakewalk). So we are naturally inclined to seek the advice of people who are good at solving the kinds of problems we need solved. If you want to solve a triangle, you can usually get good advice from anyone with a degree in math, engineering, surveying, etc.

If you want to solve a moral dilemma, you can also hunt down an accredited philosopher; but how many of them do you know? Compare that to the number of spiritual leaders you know (pastors, priests, yogis, psychics, and so on). Most of us know several spiritual leaders, often spanning a wide variety of religious traditions. We are rife with opportunities to seek advice from people claiming spiritual expertise.

The interesting thing about this is that there are just as many gurus per capita in rural, isolated communities (such as Indian villages) as there are in any modern metropolis. (Obviously that's not a scientific measurement, and we shouldn't take that claim too literally. The point is that gurus simply aren't hard to come by, no matter where you live.) On the other hand, you gain greater access to mathematicians the more developed your community is. This suggests to me that gurus do not possess a particularly rare talent.

***

We've all heard the story of that horse that was reputed to be able to answer any yes or no question it was asked. If you haven't heard the story (and it is true), then let me quickly break it down for you: A travelling entertainer had a horse who he claimed understood the English language and could answer any yes-or-no question by tapping its hoof once for yes and twice for no. (Or maybe vice-versa, but that's not important here.) Turns out, the horse was reading the non-verbal cues the audience was giving off. The horse wanted sugar cubes, which it earned whenever it correctly answered a question. So it learned to tap its foot once in all cases, then look at the audience to see whether a second tap of the hoof would result in a sugar cube. The audience members would raise their eyebrows or smile or start conversing among themselves, and this would give away whether they wanted him to tap his foot a second time.

Funny, right? Well, it's funny when it's a horse. It is deeply profound and spiritually important when it's a shyster with a costume, clammy hands, and a sacred book of poems.

You see where I'm going with this, right? The thing of it is, there is no unique knowledge held by most spiritual leaders. Most typically, they are people with a knack for memorizing the nicest-sounding parts of their books, and also a knack for being able to say totally vague things that only sound profound.

What happens next is where the real magic happens. When you hear these supposedly profound things, your mind automatically reacts to make sense of them. You have in-depth knowledge of your own thoughts and experiences, so you are moved to apply the vague statement to your specific situation. You come up with the meaning of the statement yourself. When the guru says it, it doesn't mean anything at all. When you hear it, though, you give it meaning.

Why am I making such a big deal of this? Because the truth of the matter is that people who seek spiritual guidance already have the answer to their questions inside themselves. All the guru does is say a lot of flowery crap that doesn't mean anything. In your desire to give it meaning, you stumble upon the real answers to your questions yourself.

The guru is unnecessary and beside the point. You can replicate the same experience using a process called stichomancy. Stichomancy is when you think of a deeply profound question that is weighing heavily on your heart; then, walk into a library, walk to a random shelf, pick up a random book, open to a random page, and read a random sentence. The sentence will contain the answer to your question.

Stichomancy is a real thing. Some psychics actually believe in it (or claim to believe in it, anyway). But if a random passage from a random book holds the answer to your question, then what do you need a spiritual guide for?

You might be thinking, "That's stupid, Ryan. Stichomancy is a load of crap; but my priest really knows what he's talking about." If you really think you can verify this in a meaningful way, I am all ears.

***

Let's get back to the topic at hand. I started this blog post describing a sleazy door-to-door sales company that tried to recruit me for a no-win situation, and I have meandered all the way over to an obscure act of medieval mysticism, all the while criticizing your priest along the way. What gives?

What gives is that, all around us, we are being pummeled by the garbage emanating from an ever-growing number of gurus. These people claim to have the secrets to weight loss, financial success, marketing par excellence, healthy eating, and so on and so on...

One guru wants to teach you how to get out of credit card debt via his free blog... Well, it's free except for the special paid features that contain all of the actual information. His blog really just advertises those other features. The next guru wants to teach you how to retire from your dead-end job and earn millions of dollars in the exciting world of one of the following: real estate, day trading, selling stuff online, or going to cocktail parties and tricking a drunk executive into making you a middle manager at some firm downtown.

The sooner you realize how much crap it all is, the better off you'll be. These people make millions of dollars per year tricking you into thinking you need them. You don't. Like the horse's audience or the psychic's customer, you have had the answer inside you all along. You don't need a medium to draw it out of you, you just need a little time for self-reflection.

Sure, it's appealing to believe that you can sign up for somebody's seminar and learn how you can drop 120 pounds in just twelve weeks. Wouldn't it be great if all you needed to do to become a millionaire or a famous painter is just read somebody's book about how to be a millionaire or a famous painter and POOF!

But deep down inside, you know it doesn't really work that way. Deep down inside, you know that success comes from good old fashioned hard work, and maybe a little good luck. So, please, I beg you, stop running to the gurus.

If you want to lose weight, eat clean and work out hard.

If you want to become a millionaire, put in long hours and invest your money in sound and fruitful investments.

If you want to solve your philosophical problems, study logic and philosophy.

There never really was a magic bullet that would solve these problems for anyone. If there were, we'd all be famous artists with excellent spiritual and mental health, making millions of dollars with a perfect beach-ready physique. The reason we aren't all perfect is because this stuff is hard, the answers are complex, and it takes a lot of effort to achieve the things that mean the most to you in life.

***

But the modus operandi of a guru is to hide this from you. The goal of a guru is to extract some money from you by selling you vagaries that appear meaningful enough to make you a return customer, but never specific enough to leave you fully satisfied.

Guruism is perhaps the most despicable form of politics. It is the act of preying on people who have too little confidence in their own decisions to effectively stand behind their own instincts. It is the act of leading people on with no real objective other than to extract a little money from their spiritual vulnerability.

And in today's world, it's happening in religion, politics, business, fitness, and so on. We have to learn to avoid these gurus. They are toxic.