Nine thousand people, 200 platitudes, one Henry Kissinger. Examining the
motivations of Peter Lowe's Success Seminar.
by Jason Gay
Eight-fifteen in the morning is too early for a lot of things. It is
definitely too early for Dick Vitale. I'm sitting in Loge
Section 22, Row 7, Seat 17 of the FleetCenter, where the latest
incarnation of Peter Lowe's fabulously popular "Success" series of motivational
seminars has just begun. Vitale, the motormouthed commentator for ESPN's
college basketball telecasts, is the seminar's opening speaker, and it's clear
he's supposed to serve as some kind of human alarm clock. Entering the arena to
Snap's "I've Got the Power," Vitale scampers around the stage like his loafers
are on fire, whooping up the local crowd by praising the likes of Larry Bird
and Nomar Garciaparra, and more than once invoking his trademark Vital-ism,
Between sips of $1.50 FleetCenter coffee, the audience also learns a bit about
the life of Dick Vitale. We learn that he grew up poor but proud, the son of
blue-collar parents who never finished high school. We learn that Vitale's
parents instilled in their son a virtually limitless work ethic, which allowed
him to overcome childhood trauma (he lost an eye) and various other
intellectual and physical shortcomings to become a college basketball coach,
then the coach of the NBA Detroit Pistons, and then a famous television
commentator making crazy Benjamins.
Indeed, we learn that it's pretty fabulous to be Dick Vitale. Because, as he
reminds us on his way off stage, while the rest of us going to be trapped in
the FleetCenter for the next nine hours, he's off to catch a plane to Florida,
where he's got a "two o'clock tee time in Sarasota, baaaaaaaaaby."
By now I am not only wide awake, I am also extremely jealous. Over the course
of the day, I will listen to some of the finest motivational speakers in
America, people with memorable names like Zig Ziglar and Faith Popcorn. I will
watch as Henry Kissinger -- Henry Kissinger -- delivers an ominous
forecast for the world economy. I will also witness moments with the actor
Christopher Reeve and the quarterback Drew Bledsoe. But right now, I am
thinking only of Dick Vitale playing golf in 90-degree weather. I worry how I
can possibly be motivated while feeling such envy.
The next nine hours will cure this worry, however. By the time Peter Lowe's
Success Seminar is over, I will have listened to rich and famous people talk
about being rich and famous so many times that I will be wondering if the only
way to achieve true happiness to become -- yes -- rich and famous, just like
them. By the end of the afternoon, I will suspect that motivation and envy may
actually be the same thing.
Peter Lowe, the mastermind behind the Success Seminars, is a gangly 40-year-old
whose buggy eyes and thick, fire-engine-red hair make him look like the kid
brother of Danny Elfman, the lead singer of the late-'80s band Oingo Boingo.
Before the seminar, leafing through Peter Lowe's Success Yearbook
($19.95 US, $27.95 Canada, free with seminar ticket stub), I learn the
following things about Lowe: he was born in Lahore, Pakistan, the son of
missionary parents; he is a Canadian citizen; he and his wife, Tamara, were
married on a riverboat on the Mississippi; and he enjoys (in this order)
skiing, skydiving, bungee jumping, hiking, and boating.
Lowe was 21 years old and selling computers when he began hosting
sales-training seminars for businesspeople. In 1988 (fresh from his riverboat
wedding), Lowe hooked up with Zig Ziglar and held his first Success Seminar in
New Orleans; the event also featured Norman Vincent Peale, the late author of
The Power of Positive Thinking. Today, more than a quarter of a million
people attend roughly 25 Success Seminars annually, making these the biggest
motivational events in the world. More than 9000 people are here today in the
FleetCenter -- and with a minimum ticket price of $49, that's a lot of skiing
and skydiving adventures for Peter Lowe.
A Success Seminar, it should be pointed out, is not a business seminar. You
won't learn the finer points of, say, the capital gains tax for your 49 bucks.
The vast majority of people who attend Success Seminars work in sales of some
sort, and they range from the corporate to the self-employed to the chronically
jobless. They don't come here looking for nitty-gritty advice. They come
looking for motivation.
Four fun facts about a Peter Lowe Success seminar, courtesy of Peter
Lowe's Success Yearbook ($19.95 US, $27.95 Canada, free with seminar ticket
1. It takes three semi-trailers carrying 120,000 pounds of equipment to
haul in the sound and lighting equipment at a Peter Lowe Success Seminar.
2. Over 60 pounds of explosive powder is used during a year's worth of
Peter Lowe's Success Seminars.
3. The average adult laughs 52 times during the course of a Peter Lowe
Success Seminar (average laughs-per-day of people not at seminar: 7).
4. Average number of standing ovations at a Peter Lowe Success Seminar:
And as Peter Lowe knows, nothing motivates today's Americans more than
celebrities. Success Seminars are famous for assembling odd collections of
famous motivational speakers, heads of state, media types, film stars,
athletes, and other assorted luminaries. Previous events have featured former
president George Bush, Johnny Cash, Barbara Walters, Alex Trebek, Alan
Dershowitz, Oliver North, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Willard
Scott, not to mention professional motivators such as the aforementioned
Ziglar, Peale, Dr. Robert Schuller, and Rabbi Harold Kushner.
Lowe, who emcees today, is certifiably starstruck. In addition to grabbing
celebs to speak at the Success Seminars, he also sells a monthly series of
"Success Talk" audiocassettes, which have included "exclusive celebrity
interviews" with the likes of Carl Lewis, Mother Teresa, Cal Ripken, former
British prime minister John Major, and Gerald Ford. The cover of Peter
Lowe's Success Yearbook boasts "22 celebrity articles," including "Building
a Bridge to Success," by Naomi Judd; "Getting Your Life Back on Track," by
Deborah Norville; and "Living Beyond Your Comfort Zone," by Mary Lou Retton.
There is also a piece by Peter and Tamara Lowe called "16 Ways to Spice Up Your
Marriage." (Tip No. 7: "Make up a cute nickname to call your spouse, i.e.
Pookie, Stud Muffin, Honey Bunny.")
In terms of star wattage, the FleetCenter lineup does not disappoint. There's
Vitale, Ziglar, and Popcorn; Reeve, Bledsoe, and Kissinger; motivators Brian
Tracy and Dan Kennedy; nutritionist Dr. Jack Groppel; and ice-cream kingpins
Ben & Jerry. "One of the greatest collections of leaders and experts ever
to gather for a business seminar in Boston!" a booming voice announces over a
loudspeaker at the seminar's outset, which is less impressive than it sounds at
first (ever to gather for a business seminar?).
In reality, the seminar's quirky roster makes it look like a combination of an
infomercial and Hollywood Squares.
But as Peter Lowe will remind us ad nauseam, all of these people are
famous. Whether they can motivate us, however, remains to be seen.
After enduring all that celebrity hype, we learn that the stars (Kissinger,
Reeve, and Bledsoe) are scheduled for later in the afternoon -- carrots, it
seems, dangled to keep us in our seats through a full morning of motivational
speakers. So after Vitale's 8:15 a.m. rant, we head straight into the lima
beans: a three-hour stretch of Ziglar, Popcorn, and Tracy.
Each motivational speaker has a distinctive style and shtick. Ziglar is the
evangelist -- a lean, strong-throated Texan who makes no attempt to disguise
his strongly religious tilt (one of his top-selling tapes series is called
"Christian Motivation for Daily Living"). To make an important point, he drops
to one knee like a preacher. Faith Popcorn, a "futurist" who predicts business
trends in a newsletter called the Popcorn Report (her latest forecast:
"Eve-olution," a surge of female buyers), is the nudgy insider, the kind of
person who sits next to you on a plane and tells you what she thinks about
everything. The handsome, silver-haired Tracy is a squeaky-clean motivator who
looks like a senator from a Rocky Mountain state, and who begins his
presentation by telling us that this is "the best time in human history to be
alive," which I presume to mean he didn't have to listen to Dick Vitale.
There is a basic formula for a motivational speech. The speaker makes a tepid
joke (Zig Ziglar: "You know why Webster wrote the dictionary? Because his wife
kept asking him, `What does that mean?' "), followed by a few
self-deprecating remarks (Faith Popcorn, a/k/a Faith Plotkin, cracks about her
stage name), a brief summary of past life struggles (many Success speakers, it
turns out, have been flat broke), an inventory of events and inspirations that
pulled the speaker through (number-one inspiration: God. Number two: Mom and
Dad), a stern admonition or two (Popcorn: "Be careful of what you tell
reporters, and don't believe what you read"), a few motivational platitudes,
and, finally, an extended sales pitch for the speaker's motivational tape
series. Every motivational speaker has a tape series.
Though they may differ in style, Lowe's motivational speakers all share a
basic business philosophy and view of the world. The principal tenet of this
philosophy is that the free-enterprise system is very, very good for everyone.
The speakers are extremely pro-employer (Ziglar instructs us to wake up every
morning and say to ourselves, "I love my job because they pay me for working
there!" -- a proclamation that may be tough to embrace if you're pulling
minimum wage at the local Taco Bell). The speakers are also generally
conservative, Christian, and morally upstanding; the specific theme of the
Boston Success Seminar, in fact, is "Success with Integrity." (Later, I observe
several hundred seminar attendees discussing Success with Integrity over lunch
at the neighborhood Hooters. I also notice that I paid $103 for my loge seat at
the seminar, but my ticket stub prominently says $225, a disparity that gives
the shrewd businessperson 122 reasons to reconsider the importance of Success
with Integrity when submitting an expense report.)
The speeches, it turns out, are actually little more than commercials for the
speakers themselves. Presentations climax with breathless pitches for books and
audiocassettes, making it annoyingly clear that the speech you just spent 45
minutes listening to was essentially a sneak preview for another product, where
the real motivational wisdom is allegedly dispensed. These sales pitches
invariably come with a Ginsu-esque limited-time price break: Brian Tracy, for
example, has slashed the price of his six audiocassettes, the "Psychology of
Success" series, to $65, a price at which he says he doesn't make any money. I
find this remarkably hard to believe about six cassettes in a box.
But people buy this stuff. At the end of each speech, members of the audience
scurry into the hallways of the FleetCenter, where the cassettes are sold, and
the tapes are really moving. (Motivational speakers may be single-handedly
keeping the audiocassette industry alive.) The mother of all motivational
packages is Zig Ziglar's "Whole Shootin' Match," a collection of all his
motivational sermons. For just $1595 (slashed from $2396), you get 17 volumes
of Ziglar programs, includin' "Developing the Qualities of Success" (six
tapes), "Changing the Picture" (six tapes), "Christian Motivation" (six tapes),
"Raising Positive Kids in a Negative World" (six tapes), "Courtship After
Marriage" (six tapes), the "Courtship After Marriage" video, and "Ziggets,"
Ziglar's tape series for small businesses. I estimate that it would take four
and a half years, without sleep or meals, to listen to the Whole Shootin'
I'm envious, however. These motivators are getting rich off this stuff. They
are happy, well-scrubbed, well-liked, and extremely optimistic. And so is the
Success Seminar, which, I'm discovering, is a real Celestine
Prophecy/Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of event, with no room for
negativity or cynicism. Midway through Tracy's speech, in fact, it dawns on me
that Peter Lowe's Success Seminar may be the most uncynical, upbeat event I
have ever attended.
Leave it to Henry Kissinger to burst that bubble.
We get Kissinger right around noon. Immediately, Nixon's former secretary of
state sets his own agenda. Where every speaker to this point has bounced around
the FleetCenter stage strapped to a mobile microphone, he stands firmly behind
a podium. After the three motivational speakers, Kissinger -- with his Nobel
Peace Prize, his lifetime of global foreign-policy influence, and his thick
German accent -- brings to mind the old Sesame Street song "One of These
Things Is Not Like the Others."
Now in his 80s but looking remarkably well preserved, Kissinger delivers a
stern, eloquent speech on the role of the United States in the world economy.
It's a pretty troubling situation we're facing -- chaos in Russia and Asia,
recent plunges on Wall Street -- and not even Kissinger claims to know how the
dice are going to roll. This country is still a baby, and its economic trends
are difficult to predict. "The biggest problem," he says, "is that the US has
had a history different than that of any other foreign nation."
When Kissinger finishes, Peter Lowe bounds out on the stage, clapping his
hands. "Henry Kissinger!" he cries. "Now who wants to win a trip to Disney
This kind of weird dichotomy is what the Success Seminars are all about.
Ultra-serious world leader gives ultra-serious speech, and is followed by
amusement-park raffle. But that's exactly the point of having so many
celebrities at the Success Seminars. It's not that they're going to say
anything the audience finds particularly prescient or life-changing. It's just
that they are here.
Because when you get right down to it, the main message behind a Success
Seminar isn't any business principle or hidden sales trend -- it's the basic
truth that people everywhere covet and aspire to fame. People want to get as
close to the stars as possible, as if their greatness will somehow rub off.
Later in the day, we are presented with Christopher Reeve, who is described as
"one of the country's most inspiring people." The moment produces an odd
feeling. It is difficult not to be moved by Reeve's brave struggle to move on
with his life following a paralyzing accident, but, as with Kissinger, it's a
little hard to figure out what he's doing here.
In this spirit, we are finally confronted by the true star of the Boston
Success Seminar: Drew Bledsoe, the fresh-faced, six-foot-five quarterback of
the New England Patriots. Bledsoe, whose hair is still wet from a post-practice
shower, has come to the FleetCenter in a helicopter from Foxboro Stadium, and
when he walks on-stage, he zips a pair of autographed footballs into the
Bledsoe is interviewed by Lowe, who, to his credit, almost immediately gives
up trying to squeeze a business message out of the quarterback and turns the
session into a gigantic pep rally. Lowe asks Bledsoe about his team. He asks
him about his upcoming game against Kansas City. Bledsoe, an affable fellow,
feeds the fandom by confiding that he obsesses about football ("My dreams are
about football, which really sucks," he says) and telling us that the
helicopter ride from practice was pretty damn cool. The audience eats it up.
Men in the balcony shout, "DREEEEEWWWWWW!"
This I can understand. Athlete worship is as old as athletics themselves, so
it's no mystery why the Success Seminar crowd applauds vigorously after every
Bledsoe utterance. We like Drew. We want to be him, young and rich, riding
helicopters and playing on Sundays.
But sometimes just wanting something isn't enough. You won't learn this
dispiriting fact at a motivational seminar. Motivation-through-envy can allow
you to achieve certain things, but the natural laws of the universe dictate
that some goals will always elude you. That's the pitfall of star-worship, and
the fine print of Peter Lowe's Success Seminar. Just because you like Drew
Bledsoe doesn't mean that you can be him. Motivation alone, after all, can't
make you six-foot-five.
Jason Gay can be reached at email@example.com.