Wednesday, August 18, 2010
The Secret to (her) success
The author who found The Secret to success with a best-selling self-help book is about to unleash a new tome on having it all.
(I wrote this for last Saturday's Review section in the Irish Independent - The Power was published yesterday)
The key to success is apparently now one of the world's worst-kept secrets. When self-help manual The Secret was published in 2006, it claimed to contain a formula to personal fulfillment that had been jealously guarded by some of history's finest minds down through the centuries. Four years later, The Secret has been imparted to around 16 million people who have bought the book.
Not content with sparking one global pop cultural phenomenon, The Secret's Australian author Rhonda Byrne is launching a follow-up, The Power, next Tuesday. Her publishers say it is set to reveal everything Byrne has learnt and attracted to herself since the release of her first book.
The basic premise of The Secret was that if you focus hard enough on what you want most from life, the universe will deliver it. It's a simple credo that certainly seems to have worked for Byrne. The slim tome became an instant hit, championed by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres. It went to No 1 in Ireland on its publication here in 2007. It has remained on the hardback bestsellers' list for so long that the publishing industry hasn't been this geared up for a sequel since the release of the second Harry Potter book.
Byrne herself has somewhat retreated from the public eye since the 2006 launch of The Secret. Time magazine named her one of the world's most influential people in 2007 but she hasn't given any major interview in the past two years. She doesn't need to: the global spread of The Secret has taken on a self-promoting life on blogs, TV chat shows and by sheer word-of-mouth.
Back in the early 1990s, Byrne was a prominent reality TV producer in her native Melbourne. Even then she showed a knack for having a finger on the pulse of popular culture: she specialised in programmes about UFOs and near-death experiences. Her Prime Time production company created the much-syndicated World's Greatest Commercials series and Sensing Murder, which had 'psychic detectives' tackle famous unsolved murders. Former colleagues recalled that she was ambitious and hard-working.
By 2004 however, Byrne experienced a plunge in her personal fortunes. She was divorced and a single mum to two children, she had fallen out with her business partner and her father had just died. It was at this low point that her daughter handed her a copy of The Science of Getting Rich, a get-rich-quick classic published in 1910. Byrne began to devour other self-help manuals and realised that they had a key message in common: the power of positive thinking.
Doing what came naturally to her, Byrne decided to make a TV documentary based on the teachings of several self-help gurus and motivational speakers. These "transformational experts" as she calls them included already established names in the genre like Jack Canfield, author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Byrne managed to source funding from Australian and US sources but she also mortgaged her own house to make the film.
The risk paid off. (Although The Secret would say that there is no risk involved: if you just focus hard enough on your heart's desire, the universe's Law of Attraction will bring it to you.) A trailer for the DVD became a viral success on the internet, and linked to where the film could be streamed -- for a price. The film is reported to have grossed nearly $20m in its first eight months online and Byrne wrote the book to go with it.
The core message of the book doesn't seem that revolutionary. The power of positive thinking has been a mainstream pop psychology subject since Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People was published in the Great Depression in 1936. Byrne's readers are exhorted to "Ask, Believe, Receive" -- a theory of 'prosperity consciousness' that goes back to Christian Scientists in the 1800s.
The Secret, and Byrne, have their critics. Some question the materialism of the success being sold and the ease with which readers and viewers are told they can achieve it. In the movie, dramatisations show a little boy dream of owning a shiny red bicycle. In the next frame, one appears outside his door. A woman gazes longingly at a necklace in a shop window -- and suddenly, it is around her neck.
More serious criticism has been aimed at messages like the one where readers are told that to avoid getting fat, they should not look at people who are overweight in case the negative image is catching. "If you see people who are overweight, do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect body and feel it," says the book.
Byrne writes: "Imperfect thoughts are the cause of all humanity's ills, including disease, poverty, and unhappiness." When asked by one interviewer if this meant that the Jewish people were responsible for the Holocaust, she replied that "many factors" cause millions to die in tragedies such as the Holocaust, but "if their dominant thoughts and feelings were in alignment with the energy of fear, separation, powerlessness and having no control over outside circumstances, then that is what they attracted".
Nonetheless, the simplicity of The Secret is also its power. Wish the dream and then live the dream. Byrne herself claims that she got rid of her reading glasses in three days flat by thinking correct thoughts about her eyesight. Its universally accepted repeat rule that positive thoughts are good; negative thoughts are bad is easy to sell. Oprah Winfrey thought so -- she devoted two shows to The Secret in 2007, exposing it to her audience of 23 million people and leading to a huge sales boost.
The American Spectator has called the initial internet campaign to launch The Secret, "the greatest success story in the annals of viral marketing". It used tease advertising and personal recommendations on blogs to pass information along in a word-of-mouth way that seemed authentic and intimate.
Even the name, The Secret, is genius. It layers up on the persuasive argument of the book that there is just one overarching powerful secret to success that has been known to the best and brightest in history -- and now it was available to you and me. Plato, Shakespeare, Da Vinci, Beethoven, Einstein are all name-checked as 'keepers' of The Secret.
Donavin Bennes, a buyer for major US book chain Borders Books said: "We all want to be in on a secret. But to present it as the secret, that was brilliant."
The now instantly recognisable cover of the book was made to look like a reproduction of a medieval scroll, complete with scarlet wax seal. It's the Da Vinci Code of self-help: seductively suggesting that this is tapping into a vein of ancient wisdom.
"The Secret reveals the most powerful law in the universe," reads The Secret's official website. "The knowledge of this law has run like a golden thread through the lives and the teachings of all the prophets, seers, sages and saviours in the world's history, and through the lives of all truly great men and women."
The Secret also harnessed an immediate fanbase from the already-popular spiritual and self-help experts who contributed to the initial film, such as Jack Canfield and Esther and Jerry Hicks who had already published best-selling books around the laws of attraction. The Hicks declined to appear in a second version of The Secret film.
Now that Byrne has passed on The Secret to the world, it might seem her work here is done. However, her publishers at Atria say that she was inspired to write The Power as a response to the thousands of letters written to her by readers of the earlier book. Of the sequel, her publishers will only say that "Now with The Power, Rhonda reveals the single greatest force in our universe." This air of mystique has understandably sent fans flocking to book advance copies.
As for Byrne, the 59-year-old has become the best advertisement for The Secret she can be. She ended up buying a prestigious gated home in California, just down the road from her celebrity fan Oprah Winfrey.
FIRST PUBLISHED HERE: http://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/shes-got-the-power-2297040.html