"Five Unreasonable Requests" and Other Career Coaching Homework Assignments I Failed At

On "The Vow," the Human Potential Movement, and the limits of shameless self-advancement for writers.

Watching The Vow, a nine-part documentary on HBO, reminded me of all the people I knew in the 90s and the aughts who got sucked in by self-improvement scams — myself included, fortunately in small ways. It also made me recognize a connection between the shameless self-advancement encouraged by the Human Potential Movement, and the ways some writers have been taught to approach freelancing.

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“Sari! I’d love to tell you about a wonderful education I’m receiving!”

I’ve lost count of how many of those artificially upbeat calls I fielded from friends and loose acquaintances over the years. The calls were placed at pay phone banks in conference center hallways, during brief breaks from grueling weekend workshops offered by one self-improvement organization in particular. (I’m not going to mention their name because they threatened to sue me when I wrote critically about them in 2004 for Time Out NY. Hence forth they shall be identified as “The Organization.”)

Like NXIVM — the ‘executive-success-program’-turned-abusive-sex-cult featured in The Vow — The Organization combined self-improvement with multi-level-marketing, and thus pressured workshop participants to constantly recruit friends and family.

In 2006, my husband Brian and I finally relented and attended an introductory presentation offered by a local chapter of The Organization. We’d each been pushed by the career coaches we worked with that year (oy), who were adherents. One fall evening we drove to a local catering hall where their meetings were held and listened long enough to endless platitudes about Being Your Best to confirm our hunch it wasn’t for us.

We tried to sneak out just after the perfectly underwhelming featured lecture, touted ahead of time to be mind-blowing. The gist: “There’s what you know. There’s what you don’t know. And then…wait for it…there’s…what you DON’T KNOW YOU DON’T KNOW,” followed by gasps of wonderment. Brian and I gave each other a look that said, “Okay, we’re done here,” and grabbed our coats. The lecturer ran ahead of us and stopped us at the door.

“Why are you leaving?” he asked. We politely explained that we’d seen enough to know we weren’t interested. “I wonder,” he said, “why won’t you give this to yourselves? Do you have any idea why you won’t give this to yourselves? What could that be about?” It was the beginning of a twenty-minute full-on manipulation session in which he responded to every one of our answers with wide-ranging, vaguely probing questions. It was meant to keep us on our toes and make us doubt our instincts. But it backfired, leaving us even more resolute. There was no fucking way we were staying longer, or ever going back.

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As I wrote in an installment of this newsletter about a year ago, that 2006 foray as a career coaching client wasn’t my first. Before that, in the early 90s, a writing teacher/mentor (an adherent of The Organization) persuaded me to enlist the services of another coach, named David (whom she’d met through The Organization, of course). It was one of the most bonkers things I’ve ever taken part in — and I’ve taken part in some bonkers shit in my life.

First, there was the Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) aspect. As I wrote last October:

Each week I’d hop the subway to David’s Theater District office and admit I hadn’t done most of my coaching homework — because I didn’t have time, but also because the assignments were weird. They were based in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), through which, David explained, he was going to “re-language” me. For instance, I was only allowed to use the word “no” in limited contexts (I can’t remember which). I was not allowed to use the word “but” ever; in its place, I had to use “and.”

A common Neuro-Linguistic Programming exercise, for example, was writing down negative beliefs I held, then reframing them using only the most positive wording possible.

It was eye-opening to learn on The Vow that Nancy Salzman, who co-founded NXIVM with Keith Raniere, was a hypnotist specializing in NLP, and it was a foundation of the NXIVM philosophy. NLP has now been labeled pseudoscience.

Another weird coaching requirement I wrote about last year:

Each day, I had to call in to a number he had set up with an answering machine, and declare my (positive!) word for the day. I had to recite a particular line declaring that I was my word.

“This is Sari Botton, and I am my word. Today is October 21st, and my word today is “focus.” Today I will be focused!”

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Here’s the coaching assignment that made me the most uncomfortable:

Each week, I had to come to my session with a list of five people I knew — even just tangentially — who could help me advance my career, along with one “unreasonable request” I could pose to each of them. (Bonus points if I referred one or more of them to the coach.) In the days following each session, I was supposed to make those asks.

Week after week I failed at this homework assignment. The idea of a being pushy, imposing on people in that way, made me cringe. The thinking was: It can’t hurt to ask. They can always say no. What do you have to lose? Another notion, I suppose, was that people would be so disarmed by your audacity, so put-on-the-spot, that they’d say yes just to make the uncomfortable interaction end.

This aggressive approach was not terribly unlike what I was being taught in workshops and conferences I attended on how to succeed as a freelance writer. I’d learned of some of these from my mentor — who would later go on to start a business called “Get Known Now” aimed at helping writers quickly build platform and establish themselves as experts so they could sell articles and books. (Eventually she would come around to renouncing that enterprise dedicated to hatching illegitimate experts.)

At those workshops and conferences, writers were encouraged to do whatever it took to land an assignment, or even just connect with an editor so you could build a relationship for the future. We were encouraged to be beyond bold, to keep pushing past “no” until you got to “yes.”

This was hard for me to take in, and harder to put into practice. Since then, and throughout my career, I’ve struggled to know just how aggressive to be in pursuing work, and also how much to promote myself. I push myself to do the latter more and more these days, but it is always uncomfortable for me. This struggle is in part informed by my gender; our culture is brutal toward ambitious women. But how do you succeed if you don’t push? Especially if, like me, you didn’t come from money, didn’t go to the right schools, and therefore didn’t have the right connections?

Does being pushy even work? Only once or twice I’ve braced myself, held my nose, and taken the “unreasonable request” route, and it did not serve me well. Maybe I didn’t fully own it. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. I’m fairly certain I am black-balled by one editor I tried it with, years ago.

I did take one mantra away from all those workshops and conferences, a salve against discouragement that comes from the world of sales, which I still bear in mind: “‘No’ means ‘not right now.’” But instead of considering it encouragement to keep hammering editors who’ve rejected me, I’ve used it to help myself slow down, to play the long game — possibly the longest game, as I find myself only first reaching certain of my goals in my mid-50s.

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As I watched The Vow, I came to see a connection between the struggling, mostly unsuccessful actors who joined NXIVM, and struggling, largely unsuccessful younger me, attending all those freelancing workshops and conferences, going to career coaches, eventually replacing the first coach with a set of Tony Robbins tapes (oy, oy, oy).

I also came to see a connection to some of the more brazen writers emailing me with unsolicited long-form essays and leaving-New-York essays, who ungraciously push me for feedback on their 9,000-word essays, plus connections to other editors, after I politely try to turn them away. This happens a lot, and it astonishes me every time. It makes me wonder, Who is recommending to them that they make “unreasonable requests” of people they tangentially know, or just know of?

Is there some new shameless self-advancement organization masquerading as a “self-improvement” concern, and preying on aspiring writers? (That is the very bait-and-switch perpetrated by The Organization, NXIVM, and similar programs.) Or are the philosophy and ethos of those kinds of groups now fully ingrained in the prevailing wisdom regarding how to succeed?

I’m not saying reaching out to me or other editors — with an essay or an email about your essay — is in and of itself wrong. No, I’m often happy to get these essays and emails. I’m happy to meet new writers and become acquainted with their work this way, so that I might be able to acquire their work in the future.

It’s how some people are approaching me that’s the problem. They’re approaching me aggressively, as if I’m nothing more than a means to an end, and as if I owe them.

Let me be clear: I love helping writers, especially those who have not had many advantages. I help writers all the time, giving them my time and attention, feedback, and tips. But there are limits to what I can give, and editing and teaching are how I earn a living.

And if you treat me like a public utility who is supposed to work for you for free, a) that’s really shitty, and b) I’m not going to want to work with you — either at the places where I freelance now, or where I land in the future. Think about that before you respond to my email about how I can’t make use of your essay with, “Well, how about some feedback?”

Here’s my feedback: I know writing and publishing are difficult. This field is filled with many aspirants, and fewer and fewer outlets to publish in. I’m struggling right along with you, as a writer myself. But anyone selling you an overly aggressive approach to making it in this field just wants your money, and the opportunity to use examples of your success to get other people’s money. (One particular instructor comes to mind.)

What I’m saying is, there’s a line between a reasonable request and an unreasonable one, and in your heart, it’s not that hard to find.

Photo at top by Chris Henderson via Flickr Commons.

P.S….

Speaking of the 90s (I was at one point speaking of the 90s!), remember “P”? The workaholic Paparazzo I wrote about? His real name is Steve Eichner (I called him P for “Psychner,” his nickname) and he has a book out this week, called IN THE LIMELIGHT, featuring photos he took at Limelight, Tunnel, Club USA and other nightclubs in the 90s. It’s a great time capsule, with lots of compelling images. Check it out.