First, a confession: Some 25 years ago a friend talked me into spending a load of money and considerable time to attend an Erhard Sensitivity Training seminar; est, as it was called — with lower case letters — was like a rip-off of Scientology, Zen Buddhism, and numerous feel-good philosophies, cobbled together into an upwardly mobile way of thinking and talking that was part of the “human potential movement.”

You probably don’t remember that, either. It went the way of disco and mood rings, but for a few years it was hailed as the breakthrough of the ages, allowing human beings to transcend themselves, attain happiness, fulfillment, prosperity, and peace with all people: est ultimately disappeared in a welter of litigation, acrimony, and IRS claims.

I guess I was too thick or slow or stupid, but I never got on board with est. I never did “get it!” That was the catch phrase that est “trainers” liked to use in their marathon indoctrination sessions, which typically took place in hotel ballrooms, where hundreds of people sat in straight-back, hard-ass chairs and forswore bathroom breaks.

What I did learn from the experience was that there are always people willing to take our money to make us happy and rich, popular and admired. All we have to do is present a major credit card and believe any dream can come true.

That game is still on, as anyone who saw the recent full-page ads for the Get Motivated seminar in The Post and Courier would understand. This dog-and-pony show comes to Charleston every two or three years with its motivational speakers, its get-rich-quick pitchmen, its god-and-country hoopla. The business model is simple: bring in the crowds with massive publicity, keep the admission low — $4.95 for this show — promise the sky and sell loads of books, software, and seminars at the back of the room.

Get Motivated boasts a stable of prominent speakers, including Colin Powell, Rudy Giuliani, Bill Cosby, Goldie Hawn, Suze Orman, Robert Shuler and — as the barkers like to say — more, more, more! And, of course, all Get Motivated shows feature that ageless guru of motivational hokum, Zig Ziglar. (The big names did not make it to Charleston last week, but Zig and Suze were here.)

A friend dared me to go to this event — not for the enlightenment, but for the material. After all, I need to write a column every week, and this sounded like good stuff! So I ordered my ticket, sharpened my pencils and did my internet homework. This is how The St. Petersburg Times described a 2003 Get Motivated seminar: “A daylong program infused with Christianity, patriotism, and pumping music suitable for aerobics. Many among the roster of speakers urged the audience of about 25,000 to find their inner power — and to sign up for more seminars and books.”

With a couple thousand others I showed up for the eight-hour seminar at North Charleston Coliseum on March 27. What I saw was a real-life infomercial, replete with flags and fireworks, inspirational songs, and a game show atmosphere. Women shrieked and squealed as the emcee announced the prizes for the drawings. Various preachers and motivators denounced evolution and took jabs at Jimmy Carter and Hillary Clinton. Others reminded us that “America is the greatest nation on earth” and that god “sent his son Jesus Christ to die on the cross.” And it was all laced with shameless promotions to get rich in real estate and equities. It felt a little bit like a Republican National Convention.

Of all the snake oil salesmen, the sleaziest was Phil Town, investment guru and author of the best-selling book Rule #1. From my internet research I had been warned what to expect, and Town didn’t disappoint. Less than two minutes after being introduced as a former Vietnam Green Beret, he related the story of stepping off the plane from Nam and having some bum spit on him. It seems to be the standard warm-up to his Get Motivated pitch, though what it has to do with trading stocks is not clear. However, it is clear that he is an ass to keep repeating this long-debunked urban legend year after year.

Self-improvement is a part of the American mythos. The Rev. Norman Vincent Peale sold millions of books and lead millions in seminars to make their lives better through the “power of positive thinking.” We are entitled to prosperity and wealth and all the good things of life, even if we must remake ourselves until they are ours. Self-improvement is a huge industry in this country and Get Motivated is only a small part of it. But isn’t something to be said for learning to like ourselves as we are and fitting into the world through the day-to-day process of learning and compromise?

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