Michael Anthony, an Iraq War veteran, attended the Landmark Forum personal development course. Was it worth it?
Anyone who’s heard of Landmark Education knows they’re an organization clouded in controversy. There have been rumors of everything from it being the best personal development program ever, to it being a cult. I read all the reviews of the program and even watched a documentary about the original founder of Landmark (EST) Werner Erhard. And after it was all said and done, I was too skeptical about Landmark to do the program. Werner Erhard just seemed like a bad dude. He was a used car salesman, had left his wife and kids, changed his name, and then started Landmark Forum. It seemed to have all the makings for a scam. Then, Time Magazine and BusinessWeek (within a few weeks of one another) had reviews about Landmark and what a great program it was—both articles praised it as a great program for business people. At that point, I decided to give it a go—after all, Werner was no longer associated with the program. I figured, best case scenario, I’d spend three days and it would be the best personal development program ever, worst case scenario, I could infiltrate a cult and write a story about it.
Day one can be summarized as: What Happens VS Perception: The Stories We Tell Ourselves.
Certain events happen in a person’s life and they attach a story to these events. The facts of the situation are what happened, and the story about why what happened, happened, is our perception. The main point to note is that perception isn’t fact, it’s perception.
You’re on your way to work and your car breaks down. You arrive to work five minutes late and your boss starts yelling at you, “You’re late. You’re always late. You’re a horrible employee.”
This upsets you and you start telling yourself what a jerk your boss is, and you tell yourself that he must hate you.
The story that we tell ourselves is “He’s a jerk. He hates me,” but those aren’t facts, they’re perceptions, they’re stories that we tell ourselves. We only say “He’s a jerk” because he did or said something that made us associate him as a jerk. Is it a fact that he’s a jerk? NO, it’s not a fact. But the story that we tell ourselves is that he’s a jerk and we accept it as a fact. We then go around and complain to anyone who will listen and say, “My boss is a jerk.” And of course telling yourself that your boss is a jerk, and treating him like he’s one, and complaining all day and convincing yourself that he is in fact a jerk is only going to put you in a pretty crummy mood.
So when something happens just ask yourself why you’re telling yourself the story that you’re telling yourself—and ask yourself if it’s a fact or a story.
After day one I became convinced that anyone who thinks Landmark Education is a cult is an idiot; it’s a personal development program,and that’s all. But there is still a lot that rubbed me the wrong way. There was a lot of pressure for people to agree with everything the instructor said and he often talked in philosophical loops. He also used techniques to get us in certain emotional “states” and then during the breaks he would recommend that we call our friends and families and talk about Landmark Forum—this would later turn into trying to convince them to come to the Forum.
So, there was a lot of good stuff, some bad and shady stuff, but nothing that would keep me from going to day two.
Day two started off with people talking about the breakthroughs they’d had since day one. (A LOT of people actually had a LOT of breakthroughs in that twenty-four hour period.) The first few hours of day two were a combination of people talking about their breakthroughs and the Landmark instructor pushing its other seminars. At this point, Landmark started feeling not like a cult, not like a personal development program, but like a business. They started hitting it hard that people should pay to do their other programs (combined with convincing friends and families to do the program too). The hard sell was expected, but it was only day two, and I still hadn’t had a breakthrough yet, so it was annoying.
After Landmark finished selling its other programs and after everyone shared their breakthroughs, they started talking about responsibility: Personal Responsibility.
If someone’s an alcoholic, they’ll often say to themselves, “It’s not my fault. I only drink because my dad drank…or my dad beat me. If he never beat me, I wouldn’t be an alcoholic.”
A lot of people in the crowd were having problems with day two. They didn’t like the idea of having to stop blaming other people, and start taking responsibility for themselves. No one’s father made them become an alcoholic. A lot of people couldn’t grasp the idea of personal responsibility.
It reminds me of the old story of twin brothers. These twin brothers had a very abusive, alcoholic father. Their dad used to beat them, neglect them, etc. Both of the boys grew up. One of them became a very successful businessman who used his riches to help other people in abusive relationships. The other grew up to become an alcoholic. When the first twin (the successful one) was asked what motivated him to work so hard to succeed and then give back to charity, he responded, “Well, growing up with an alcoholic father who beat me, how could I not work hard to leave home and become successful, and then use my money to help others?” When the other brother was interviewed (the alcoholic) and was asked why he became an alcoholic, he responded, “Well, growing up with an alcoholic father who beat me, how could I not become an alcoholic.”
Same situation, different stories they told themselves. One brother used his upbringing to drive him to succeed and the other brother used his upbringing as an excuse to blame his father for all his shortcomings and problems.
Day three started off with a LOT more selling of other Landmark programs. Day three was also the day that was supposed to bring the previous two days together. After all the promoting of Landmark’s other programs, the beginning of day three was, again, about people talking about the breakthroughs that they’d had in the past 48 hours—there were a lot of breakthroughs, a lot of crying.
I can’t go into detail about all the breakthroughs that people had (because we all agreed to keep things confidential) but people had breakthroughs in every walk of life, from people going through divorces, to being abused as children, to losing their jobs, to those who hadn’t talked to a family member in twenty years. There was a little bit of everything and they all seemed to benefit.
Day three was about living a life where we’re aware of the stories that we tell ourselves, and it was about living a life where we all take personal responsibility for our actions, emotions and feelings. Imagine a world where people didn’t fret about the “stories” that we tell ourselves and instead only dealt with the facts of a situation? Imagine a world where people took personal responsibility for their actions? Day three was all about perpetuating this in our lives.
The Positive: Landmark gave people an opportunity to look at their issues from a different point of view, to see whether the stories they’re telling themselves are true or are just “stories.” It gave people an opportunity to take responsibility of their lives—for the good stuff and the bad. A vast majority of the people who went to Landmark seemed to, at various levels, get something out of the training.
The negative: If you have a serious issue in your life that you need to get worked out, Landmark might be the company for you. If you’ve got a drinking or drug problem, Landmark might be for you. If you have an issue with your mother or father, or a brother or sister, Landmark might be for you. If you’re going through a divorce, Landmark might be for you. If someone important in your life passed away, Landmark might be for you. But if you don’t have any serious issues: Landmark might not be for you. Yeah, you’ll get something from the program, everyone does, but if you don’t have any serious issues or problems, Landmark might come across as a waste of time and money. I went and enjoyed myself but I didn’t have any big “ah ha” moments that seemed worthy of the five hundred bucks and three days of my life. I wouldn’t do it again, but it did seem to change a lot of people’s lives for the better in just a few days.
From my experience, Landmark isn’t a cult. It’s just a program to help people (and yes it’s a business, too); however, with that said, I have a friend who did a two-year program with Landmark Forum and THAT program definitely sounds like a cult. After doing the program he cut off ties with a lot of people and he seems unable to make a decision without consulting one of his coaches at Landmark. But that’s for another blog post…
–Photo: IAEA Imagebank/Flickr