When did businesspeople become such hippies?
At Frankie Sheahan’s summit in Dublin, thousands of people in suits pay hundreds of euro to empower themselves
When did businesspeople become such hippies? I’m at Pendulum, the “world’s leading business and self-empowerment summit”, run by the former Ireland rugby star Frankie Sheahan (tagline: “Unleash Your Warrior Mindset”). When I called about getting a ticket the answering machine told me to “have an empowered day”.
At the Convention Centre in Dublin – the event took place on Wednesday and Thursday – people get coffee as a saxophonist plays soulfully alongside a happy house DJ, and a big screen projects slogans: “Disrupt and you’ll be saved”; “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible”; “Experience, fail, learn, succeed”.
It’s the fourth year of the summit, which this year features six high-profile American motivational speakers, who promise new-age self-development and old-school wealth maximisation via PowerPoint slides and radio microphones.
“Where’s My Billion?” is the headline of one talk. “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you know why,” reads the tagline for another.
Six and a half thousand people will attend the summit over its two days, Sheahan says, “and 90 per cent of them are senior leaders within their organisations”. He is a big grinning presence who greets people at the entrance and seems to know all 6,500 of them.
“Thanks for the discount,” a man says later. “Don’t be telling people that!” Sheahan replies, chuckling. Tickets are €400 a day.
In the lobby a guitarist plays Another Day in Paradise. Daniel O’Ceallaigh, a young Kerry lawyer turned consultant, tells me that he’s here to network and because he “wants to make the world a better place”.
A Nama employee – “I’m not giving my name” – tells me that events such as this give him “an edge: if you’re willing to go with it, it rewires your brain”.
Marc, from Amsterdam, who writes self-help books, is glad the two days cost €800. “At free events you get a lot of . . .” He pauses. “Gold seekers, who are just interested in money . . . I might learn something for business, but it might be about relationships or health. The reason I’m here isn’t the reason I think I’m here.”
That sounds a bit metaphysical, I say. “Businesspeople are getting more open about spirituality and things like this now,” Marc says.
In the auditorium, after a cheesy trailer asks us to join a “crusade of like-minded changemakers”, Gráinne Seoige, our diamond-wearing compere – she has a range of jewellery – encourages us to leave our comfort zones. She quotes a line that she says is from James Joyce, and that she read on the outside wall of the Bachelor Inn: “A man’s failures are his portals of discovery.”
“Ladies and gentlemen – or should I say ‘warriors’? – are you up to the challenge?” she says.
“Yay!” proclaim those punters who are ready to commit to audience participation.
There will be much audience participation. The first speaker, Keith Ferrazzi, who is at the event to talk about embracing “RAP” – “relationship action planning” – regularly asks for a show of hands.
“How many of you have a jackass working with you?” he wants to know. “How many of you have children under the age of three?”
He says things such as “work is nothing but workflows aligned to relationships” but also tells moving stories about his working-class father. He recalls caddying at country clubs and tells anecdotes that conclude with toffs admiring his moxie and giving him jobs and money.
Podcast: Patrick Freyne at Pendulum
He advises us to walk up to strangers to ask: “How can I help?” He gets us to say together: “How can I help?”
Creepy crowd work?
Robin Sharma, author of The Monk Who Sold H is Ferrari, does a lot of crowd work: “Look at the person next to you and say, ‘You look even better than you do on your Facebook profile.’ ”
(I don’t obey such commands, because the person next to me seems young enough to be my child, and this seems creepy.)
Sharma tells us tales from the sacred boyhood of Steve Jobs. He recalls visiting Nelson Mandela’s prison cell. He shows footage of an inspirational janitor he met who “leads without a title”, but he also says: “I work with a lot of billionaires.”
He lists Mark Zuckerberg alongside Picasso and Rembrandt. He gets us to hold hands and chant: “No idea will work unless I do the work.”
He ends by playing a montage that includes pictures of and quotes from Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and Steve Jobs, as well as an image from Tiananmen Square featuring a quote from himself.
During lunch I see well-known chief executives and four current and former dragons from Dragons’ Den, including the one-time presidential hopeful Seán Gallagher. Bill Cullen shows me a picture of himself with Jack Canfield, the author of Chicken Soup for the Soul.
“It’s all about positivity,” Cullen says. “Maybe it doesn’t work for the lad who stays in bed until 10, but I get up at four.”
Does he have time for the more spiritual side of the self-help movement?
“Why not? I’m going to heaven when I’m 102 . . . What age are you?”
“Forty-one,” I say.
“Can you do this?” he says. He reaches down and touches his toes. I explain that I have a bad back. He skips off to sit with Canfield.
I see a man called Joe Robbins tell Robin Sharma: “You changed my life.”
I ask Robbins about it. In 2008 his company was struggling, but Sharma’s book altered his outlook.
“I can confirm that,” his business partner Ken Murphy says. “He was a pain in the arse before.”
After lunch the comedian Barry Murphy runs a fake raffle with invisible tickets and a nonexistent tombola. I think it’s a sly comment on the nature of capitalism.
Keith Cunningham, a besuited Texan, tells us what it feels like to lose $100 million (“shitty”). This is the best humblebrag I’ve ever heard, even if the moral of the story is that he’s rich again.
He talks about his “five core beliefs” and about wooing his wife. What did he want from life, she asked. “I want to create spectacular,” he said. (His wife didn’t tell him that “spectacular” is an adjective.)
Cunningham also says: “I think the people with the best lives have the best choices and the people with the crappiest lives have the crappiest choices.”
This sounds like class politics until he adds the proviso that people can create their own choices.
At this point I see a similarity to the messages. All the speakers are folksy charismatics who, to be fair, encourage altruism (although personal wealth is always part of the package). But there’s a cult-like religiosity about it. Their personal stories and tales from the lives of the oligarchs are sprinkled with science (“neuroplasticity” is popular) and mystical woo (the law of attraction).
They get us to recite things: Sharma has “five devotions”, Canfield has “25 principles of success”. Everyone has a rags-to-riches story. Failure is always presented in the context of later success. Everyone hates “mediocrity” and wants “excellence”, and all denounce victimhood.
There is a political assumption underlying all this, that “success” is self-motivated and has little to do with societal structures. Such thinking is useful for entrepreneurs, but it blinds privileged people to obstacles faced by others. I leave craving a unified theory of positive psychology and political realism.
After Cunningham’s talk I meet Lisa Nichols, a star of The Secret and the day’s closing speaker. She’s charming and is, she says, using me as a warm-up. “I get energy from other people,” she says.
She has experienced real poverty, so I ask how self-empowerment fits into a world of political inequality. She says that her techniques can be used by anybody and that she only wants people to get rich if they use their money to do good. She knows, she says, that outside this building “some people are just fighting for their oxygen”.
“I look up there,” she says, pointing at a banner, “and I see five white men and one African-American woman . . . I can barely talk about it now without tearing up, but the woman I was in 1994 would never have signed up for that. I would be too afraid of judgment . . . The grace I was allowed to grow into her is the same grace that I extend to others.”
Back in the auditorium Jack Canfield encourages the cream of Ireland’s business world to chant “success is a team sport”. He talks about the benefits of visualisation and the time he sketched a $1 million royalty cheque in anticipation of the real thing. Then he shows us a picture of a real cheque he received for $6 million. He shows us a picture of his house in Maui. He shows us a picture of a standing ovation.
He tells us to stand and move our right arm as far to the left as we possibly can and look at what we can see at the end of our arm. Then he tells us to put our arms down and to picture one metre farther left in our minds.
When we do the exercise again people gasp, because they find that they can move their arms farther. Except me, because I have, as I said, a bad back and, possibly, a closed mind.
“Was that valuable?” Canfield says at the end.
“Yes,” chant the audience, now accustomed to such callbacks. Around half of them give him a standing ovation.