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Quacks, cowboys and snake oil sellers in the personal development industry

I'm becoming increasingly concerned about the proliferation of so-called "personal development" gurus offering "fix your life" programs via a range of slick marketing approaches including glitzy websites, social media advertising and advertorial in self-help and wellness industry magazines. These folks offer many and various approaches to personal development, which loosely speaking is the business of waking people up to themselves, setting them free from past trauma and conditioning, and setting them on the path to self-actualisation. On the face of it, it all sounds very laudable and even something that we ourselves might aspire to do one day.

Most of us in the coaching and mentoring profession are motivated by a genuine desire to help people. We remember our own struggles in our lives and we understand the real benefits of having a good coach or mentor to assist, support and encourage those who are going through their own struggles. We know the value of connection to a supportive community of people who are on that same journey. We have studied, both at the University of Life and in traditional places of learning, to acquire the knowledge and skills appropriate to our profession. We readily offer our help to those following behind us and we just as readily accept help from those who are ahead of us. We know that together it's much easier to face the challenges of becoming our authentic selves and of living our best life.

As coaches we well understand how vulnerable our clients can be, particularly when they first come to us and gain their first insights into their life situation, becoming aware of how wretched they currently feel. A person who is confonting the stark reality that their life sucks but they don't know what to do about it might be willing to reach out for help to almost anyone who offers a sliver of hope that things could be different. That's where all that slick marketing starts to get results. It offers exactly what those vulnerable people are looking for: a way out of their depressing situation and into something more positive. In short, it offers hope.

Some of the high-profile gurus out there are no doubt motivated by a genuine desire to help others, and they have real expertise in their approach to doing that. You might know some of them, by reputation if not through personal experience. By and large these people know that their role is to serve others, and they approach that by always putting their clients' needs first. They're not concerned with attracting a posse of star-struck followers nor amassing personal wealth and status. That's not to say that they don't achieve those things, just that those things are not their primary motivation.

There are some out there whose motivation is not quite so altruistic. They appear to be driven by their own ambition and their desire to achieve fame and fortune. Their most basic desire is not to help vulnerable people but to exploit them and thereby to enrich themselves. They put themselves up on a stage, often literally, where they throw out a few crumbs of pop-psychology and strut around loudly proclaiming their credentials as the saviours of the world, exhorting us to attend their workshops, subscribe to their podcasts, join their communities, buy their books and hero-worship them. Their greatest abilities are in self promotion and in separating vulnerable, gullible people from their hard-earned money.

They have learned the age-old truth of politics and marketing that the secret of success is sincerity, and that when you can fake that, you've got it made.

But why, you might ask, do those who have been hoodwinked not speak out about how they have been exploited? The gurus' success in sucking people in is impressive. There must be thousands of people around the world who have signed up for their programs and other offerings. Why hasn't there been an outcry?

I think there are a few reasons for that.

First, the gurus really do offer programs that can genuinely help people. Many who join such programs do get value from them and go on to make significant, positive changes in their lives. Let's face it, if you have spent a large sum of money to get access to a program, you're going to make sure you put in the effort to get the most value from it, aren't you. But do you really get your money's worth? Clearly, some would say that they do.

Next, cognitive bias comes into play. "I spent all that money and I don't want others to think I'm a fool for investing in snake oil. I must have got some value in return for my cash, and if I didn't then the problem must lie with me. Look at all those other people who say they got tremendous value out of it!"

Thirdly, it's not uncommon for these gurus to sue people who publicly say bad things about them. No one wants to be dragged into court, regardless of whether what was said was true. A court case pitting impecunious nobody Jane Doe against wealthy and influential Guru X isn't likely to end well for Ms Doe.

An unhappy customer, then, is quite likely to suffer in silence rather than to speak out. If they're desperate enough they might, incredibly though it may seem, even go and find another guru and repeat the whole experience all over again.

These unscrupulous gurus get genuine helping practitioners a bad name. They are the reason why, in many parts of the world, the coaching profession is regarded with suspicion and disdain. The quacks, the cowboys and the snake-oil sellers unfortunately have a high-profile and this is the image of coaching that the rest of world sees; it's a triumph of slick marketing over genuine service.

As coaches we're not immune to the activities of those seeking to exploit us. There are quite a number of individuals and so-called coaching academies out there purporting to teach us all we need in order to rake in a six-figure income in our first year. That claim alone is enough to start alarm bells ringing and to alert our sensitive nostrils to the delicate aroma of BS. As with any other get-rich-quick scheme, the only one who's going to get rich any time soon is the person behind the scheme. It's one step away from being a scam.

How do you figure out whether a guru is genuine about wanting to help others or is a cynical exploiter of the lost and vulnerable? Here are a few suggestions:

Caveat emptor! If it seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is.

Observe the guru interacting with other people. Do you see any humility there, or is it, "stick with me, kiddo, I have all the answers?"

Can you get some time with the guru, one-on-one or in a small group where you can have some personal interaction with them? Or are you going to be just another anonymous punter?

Look at what the guru is offering. Ask yourself, does it make sense? Does it look like something you'd want to get involved in? How are the programs structured? Does the content seem appropriate and ethical? If the guru is very secretive, as many of them are, be very careful. A guru who genuinely wants to help will be transparent about their programs and processes, including their fees and what their customers can expect from working with them.

Is their content full of upselling, buy-one-get-one-free, limited time discounts and other marketing gimmicks? Marketing is an honourable profession but in the wrong hands it can be deceptive if not downright dishonest.

Read the guru's published works. Is it wisdom or pop-psychology? Is there substance or just empty rhetoric? No published works? Hmm...

Do your research. Find out what others are saying about this guru. Don't limit your inquiries to the guru's own followers or the testimonials on their website. If this guru has feet of clay, someone somewhere will have pointed it out. Dig a little, and check the credibility of what you discover.

Look at the guru's lifestyle. If he or she lives in a palace and owns a fleet of Rolls Royces you might want to think carefully about whether to contribute your money towards their next lavish acquisition.

Find out what support the guru offers to those who have participated in their programs. Do they take your money and then, after you've completed the program, do they leave you to your own devices? Do they offer genuine support or is what they're offering just another way to extract even more money from you?

Here's one that might be difficult to answer, but it's worth considering: If this guru was a nobody and you met him socially, would you instinctively like him and want to get to know him? In other words, can you relate to him on a personal level?

Regardless of the adulation a particular guru receives, if your research indicates that something is a bit off, it probably is. Don't part with your money until your head, your heart and your gut all agree that this guru is someone you can trust.

In summary, there is nothing wrong per se with being a high-profile guru in the field of personal development. There are plenty out there who are doing genuinely good work to help people, and who are making a positive impact in the world at large. Unfortunately, there are plenty of others who aren't quite so ethical and whose fame and fortune is based on their cynical exploitation of the desperate and vulnerable.

As I said, caveat emptor.

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