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The Boston Phoenix Sales Job

Nine thousand people, 200 platitudes, one Henry Kissinger. Examining the motivations of Peter Lowe's Success Seminar.

By Jason Gay

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  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, "Awesome, baaaaaaaaaby."

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.

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' Match.

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 World?"

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 crowd.

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.

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 stub).

  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: 16.

Jason Gay can be reached at jgay@phx.com.

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