Rhonda Byrne’s magnum opus, The Secret, made quite a splash in self-help circles after its publication in 2006. All of a sudden, everyone was talking about the Law of Attraction, and debating its plausibility or absurdity. Thanks in part to a hard sell from America’s self-appointed high-priestess, Oprah Winfrey, Byrne made a lot of money telling other people how to make money. And in this whirlwind of commercial success, the complexity and subtlety of human creativity was left far, far behind.
In no particular order, let’s review some of the problems with The Secret.
- The Secret was not original. Why is that a problem, you might ask, since the stated purpose of the book was to expose hitherto secret information that had been kept from us (for some unexplained reason), meaning that it obviously dealt with existing ideas? It’s a problem because other authors and researchers in the self-help field had already explored these topics, written about them beautifully and thoughtfully, but never received the media acclaim or financial rewards that accrued to this Johnny-come-lately. And I’m not referring to any of the other self-promoters involved in this particular project. I mean people like Shakti Gawain, whose classic book Creative Visualization came out over 25 years before The Secret and dealt with the subject matter in a far more intelligent and sensitive way. Important as it was – in my life and for many others – Gawain realized that the book was not perfect, and developed her ideas further in later works, reflecting a humility that is conspicuously lacking from Byrne’s business. And if you really want to discover the ultimate source of wisdom, there is nothing comparable to the Seth Books by Jane Roberts, particularly The Nature of Personal Reality. The Seth books are not easy reading, and are at the other end of the scale, in every sense, from Byrne’s mass-market fare.
- The Secret was largely the work of other people. I don’t know what sort of revenue-sharing arrangement Ms. Byrne had in place with contributors like Bob Proctor and Joe Vitale, but all the best content in the book came from them. Ms. Byrne was a film producer who saw an opportunity, and ran with it for all it was worth (which turned out to be rather a lot). She had only one year’s experience with these concepts, and yet considered herself qualified to tell the whole world how life works. That level of hubris still floors me, but not as much as the willingness of the marketplace to overlook her credibility deficit.
- Constant quotes from famous historical figures, like Winston Churchill or Albert Einstein, were used shamelessly to attempt to convince readers that many of the world’s greatest people had achieved their success because they knew The Secret. How they found out about it, or why they never wrote about in the way that Byrne did, was never explained. Churchill for example, was one of the best writers the English language has ever seen, and made most of his money from selling books that he knew would be popular. Did he not want everyone else to know? Was there a Mason-like conspiracy to hide this information? This ridiculous over-reaching undermined the seriousness it sought to advance.
- Worst of all, The Secret over-simplifies in a child-like manner. If you want a new BMW in your driveway, then you are told to look at pictures of that car and think about having it, then trust The Universe to deliver it to you. Apart from the fact that there is no meaningful examination of what it is that you really want, or why you want it – an important exercise to engage in before attempting to create a new reality – the process simply doesn’t work that way. While there may be a few isolated incidents in which you will get exactly what you picture in your mind, more often than not the outcome is not exactly what you expected. Sometimes nothing happens, and a cause needs to be found, possibly in conflicting beliefs. (The fact that nothing appeared to happen doesn’t mean that you don’t create your own reality; it means the process can be difficult, confusing, and take time. And it may also mean that you aren’t even perceiving all the details of your life correctly, failing to see changes at the margin and connecting them to inner changes you have made.) Frequently, there is an equivalency problem and you get something that comes across as the closest thing you’re going to get in the circumstances, but which doesn’t fully satisfy you. At other times, you get something completely unexpected, which can be a very good thing, for there might be something out there that was outside your previous experience and could never have been imagined by you, but which will fit the bill nicely. How can you know, for example, what your ideal life-partner will look like – or talk like, or sound like – if you’ve never met them? All you can do is try to grab hold of the general concept of what you would like to manifest. The details are far less important than the quality of the experience. As you try to embody this quality, you may use different details at various times, so long as they make you feel the way you want to feel in the desired situation. There is much more to be said here, but I think the point has been made: creativity is not like picking a new toy off the shelf in the store. Failure to address these complexities will lead many readers of the book to see failure instead of success, and not know how to even recognize the difference between them.
- The Secret was a grotesquely commercial, multi-media marketing exercise. It was as if we took a religion, patented a certain strand thereof (in much the same way as the Supreme Court has allowed agri-business corporations to patent the DNA of food crops) and proceeded to charge everyone royalties for practicing something that had always been intensely personal and private. Perhaps this money-spinning venture would have been more acceptable if it led to a general enlightenment of the population. But, when all the dust settles, most people will return to their old habits of thinking and acting. It is immensely difficult to effect genuine change in the way other human beings think, precisely because our beliefs have a life of their own, akin to self-sustaining organisms that gather around themselves corroborating facts and experiences. People change when they are ready to change, not when someone else sells them a shiny new belief system.
Release of The Secret was the first time that the mainstream media had been exposed to the proposition that our inner thoughts and feelings have an effect on our outer reality. These reviewers had never experimented with these concepts themselves – a process which takes years of careful introspection to assess correctly – yet summarily dismissed the book as utter nonsense or worse. (One of the more thoughtful reviews, with a particular emphasis on Oprah’s involvement, was on Salon.com.) Byrne may have imagined herself catalyzing a Great Awakening of the human spirit, but she was the wrong person and employed the wrong methods to have any chance of succeeding in that monumental endeavor. In fact, by provoking such strong negative reactions – many of which were deserved – she has actually made that task even more difficult than it was before. We who believe that we do, in fact, create our own reality – however difficult that concept may be to fully explain or fully implement – have all been tarred by Rhonda Byrne’s tacky brush. We would have been better off if The Secret had remained just that – a secret.