My lost weekend with the trademark happy, bathroom-break hating, slightly spooky inheritors of est.
AFTER NEARLY 40 HOURS inside the basement of Landmark Education's world headquarters, I have not Transformed. Nor have I "popped" like microwave popcorn, as the Forum Leader striding back and forth at the front of the windowless gray room has promised. In fact, by the time he starts yelling and stabbing the board with a piece of chalk around hour 36, it's become clear that I'll be the hard kernel left at the bottom of this three-and-a-half-day Landmark Forum. I have, however, Invented the Possibility of a Future in which I get a big, fat raise, a Future I'll Choose to Powerfully Enroll my bosses in, now that I am open to Miracles Around Money.
My reluctance to achieve Breakthrough Results is clearly not shared by many of my fellow Forum attendees. Even on day one, most seem positively elated to have plunked down 500 bucks for a more efficient, passionate, powerful life. "Hey, it's cheaper than therapy," a therapist-turned-real estate agent tells me. He ponders how to persuade one of his employees to pony up for the Forum. She's going through a rough patch, he explainsthe recession, her marriage.
Not that being broke or brokenhearted would make her a minority in this room; several attendees talk about being between jobs, and one woman says she's on welfare. In the scribbled shorthand of my furtive notes, PW stands for "incidents of public weeping." I lose track after the PW count hits 65.
Landmark Education, a for-profit "employee-owned" private company, took in $89 million last year offering leadership and development seminars (and cruises, and dating services, and courses for kids and teens). It claims that more than 1 million seekers have sat through its basic training, which is offered in seven languages in 20 countries. Its consulting firm, the Vanto Group, has coached employees from Apple, ExxonMobil, JPMorgan Chase, and the Pentagon.
Though it's hardly a secret, Landmark does not advertise that it is the buttoned-down reincarnation of the ultimate '70s self-actualization philosophy, est. Erhard Seminars Training was founded by Werner Erhard, a former used car salesman who'd changed his name from Jack Rosenberg, moved to Northern California, and dabbled in Dale Carnegie, Zen, and Scientology before seizing upon the idea that you, and only you, are responsible for your own happiness or unhappiness, success or failure. Est's marathon Transformation sessions were legendary for their confrontational tactics (Erhard calling his students "assholes"), inscrutable platitudes ("What is, is, and what ain't, ain't"), and the pressure put on participants to bring in new recruits for the next cycle of seminars.