Joe Brolly: Unless he's a surgeon, don't let him take a tin opener to your brain
Published 30/10/2016 | 17:00
In Kieran Donaghy's autobiography What Do You Think of That? (aren't some words missing?), he credits me as the driving force behind his epic 2014 season. His life coach. His motivational guru. In the book, he describes his "fury" at a column I wrote (Headlined: 'Catch a falling Star') and how this was his constant inspiration in his return to the top.
He describes how he cut out the article and pinned it to the wall of his home gym. "Many's the time that summer it was that article that got me up in the morning and I'd be there gritting my teeth, thinking, 'Joe Brolly, you f***ing bollox, I'll show you if it's the last thing I do'."
He adds: "Brolly made it personal, about how I was a two-year wonder, how soft I'd become and believing my own hype and no longer had the right to be called 'Star'."
My remarks were true, if robust. The truth often is. I was sincerely disappointed to see what had become of him since those extraordinary seasons of 2006 and 2007. At the start of the 2014 season, he was an also-ran, shining the bench with his substantial arse. By its end, he was once again the undisputed star of Gaelic football, leading Kerry to an All-Ireland with victory over Mayo after a replay in the semi-final, and then Donegal. My invoice is in the post.
You won't find this in the manuals or DVDs of any of the motivational gurus. There is no money to be made from realism. Wishful thinking has swept the planet in the last 20 years, bringing a delusional and unhealthy message of self-transformation and self-obsession to the masses.
Sports psychologists, life coaches, motivational gurus and leaders of mega-churches have flooded into this business opportunity. They have no concrete skills to offer. The simple, unprovable message is that a change of attitude is a guarantee of success. As Enda McNulty is fond of putting it: "We need to take a tin opener to the top of our minds." It is magic, not science.
The only obstacle to a life of great sporting or material success is. . . ourselves. Your circumstances are irrelevant. Poverty results from a negative attitude, which you can transform by attending the Pendulum Summit in Dublin, buying Deepak Chopra's DVDs, going to a Tony Robbins seminar ($4,995 a pop) or, if you're too poor to afford any of these, a decent tin opener.
Positive thinking, you see, peddles the nonsensical but attractive idea that all your problems are internal and therefore only you can solve them. Everything depends on you, the individual, transforming your mind.
As Enda (pictured above) tweeted recently (@Enda_McNulty): "Going to college and getting a degree will enable you to make a decent living. But if you develop yourself every day, you will make a fortune." This applies whether you are "a single mother with three kids", (Enda again) or "a binman struggling to make ends meet". Doesn't it sound uncannily like those get-rich-quick ads on the internet? "This single mother with one leg was homeless, now she earns €10,000 a week."
On the Pat Kenny radio show recently, I happened to hear Enda being interviewed. It was endlessly earnest and polite and upbeat. Pat asked him what use this was to ordinary people and Enda, after having told Pat he was "glad you asked me that question", told a confusing anecdote about meeting a binman as he was going into the gym for a session. The binman, he said, had asked exactly the question Pat had asked.
"I said to him, 'Let's grab a quick coffee'. We did that and chatted for a while."
There wasn't any particular conclusion to the tale, although I assume the binman is now a multi-millionaire living in a marbled home on the Riviera.
This optimism training is all very mystical. Checking Enda's tweets again today I see one that has a picture of a forest glade, with the caption: 'No matter how far I travel, I love to get back to the same track as mythology tells us Cuchulainn ran and trained and played'. Another figment of the imagination.
This denial of reality, ironically, is an easy sell. You can have anything, if you just focus on it. Basically, it is up to you to harness the world to your desires and we can teach you (in a vague way) how to do that. If you can't manage it, then it's your fault, not ours. It is a no-lose situation. The coaching industry has no interest in social activism or the plight of our fellow man.
The opposite, in fact. It is a highly commercial enterprise, targeting the wealthy. So on any self-respecting coach's website you will see self-eulogising tributes as to how they have worked with Apple, Google, Vodafone, Amazon, etc. Every major tax avoider on the planet is on their resumés, but never a word of criticism. One does not, after all, bite the hand that feeds. If Amazon's CEO earned $28 billion last year (that is not a misprint) and his company paid effectively zero tax, then hooray for him. Boy can he handle a paintball gun! If the CEO of Dell has a yacht with a full-size basketball court on it, with a boat coming behind to retrieve basketballs from the sea, who gives a damn about foodbanks or homelessness?
We should all be millionaires by now. Why aren't we? Maybe because positive thinking is as delusional as the Lotto. A day of paintballing, press-ups, chanting 'I am a tiger and my enemies are little white rabbits' with Amazon or Google can fetch a high-profiled guru up to €25,000, but it doesn't have any long-term benign effect. It is merely a fun diversion. Like a school trip. But the dark side of positive thinking is that it allows employers to keep their employees under control. Negativity, a wrong attitude, is exactly why you got fired. It's why you're on low wages. You didn't transform yourself. Poor you, boo hoo. Now get out that bloody tin opener and use it, or you'll never be a millionaire.
Take a motivational coach who goes to a workplace, say Goldman Sachs. The coach will know nothing about banking or investment or corporate law. He or she may have a degree in sports psychology or no degree at all. He or she cannot teach these experts in their chosen field anything concrete. Instead, they go through the positive thinking playbook, putting on a show. They tell you anecdotes about themselves and how they became super-successful through the power of their minds. They use new-age gobbledegook and platitudes.
As Jeremy Hardy tweeted this week: "If you can learn the motto on a fridge magnet and recite it so slowly it takes 15 minutes, you've got a TED talk."
Woe betide the employee who tells the boss it's a load of crap. In Barbara Ehrenreich's extraordinary work Smile or Die she describes how big corporations use motivation and positive thinking as a means of mind control over the workforce. She gives one example of how AT&T sent its entire San Francisco staff to a state-of-the-art motivational event on the same day they announced 15,000 job losses. If everything that happens to you is because of your mindset, then external circumstances are irrelevant. You're on low wages and can't make ends meet? Dry your eyes. You've four kids and you are struggling to spend time with them because of long working hours? Boo hoo. Develop your mind, you loser! It is a brutal, cruel philosophy perfectly attuned to modern capitalism.
The industry exploits our emotions and insecurities. Billionaire ex-janitor Tony Robbins (pictured above) is the idol of motivational coaches. He is a very big guy, with the looks of an enormous brick-jawed villain from a superhero movie and an awesome, gravelly speaking voice like Jack Palance. I watched his Netflix documentary Unleash the Power Within with a mixture of admiration and horror. Behind the scenes before a big event, he is seen discussing the format with his production team and assistants. It is exactly like a meeting of cast and crew before a theatre production. He says: "We need to do something on suicide. There are usually a dozen or so people at risk of suicide in the audience, let's pick out one of those and transform him in this environment."
His aides choose well. Once on stage, Tony says: " I'd like to bring someone up who is suicidal - now we've a chance to deal with that today so you don't have to ever deal with it again." A beautiful young woman stands and tells a shocking story of serial sexual abuse. She was born into a cult called The Children of God who believe that you worship God by having sex. So the children were raped on a daily basis. The girl weeps as she tells her story.
Tony goes to her and hugs her, wrapping her in his enormous arms. He doesn't say a word. Just hugs her tenderly. The crowd is weeping and teary-eyed now. The moment is incomparably dramatic. After a minute or so, he places his face close to hers and says: "You are a miracle to everyone in this room. This stops with you today and real love begins. You want to know what love is? It's called you. You are incredible. I love you. I don't want you (I kid you not, he actually says that) - I love you." She sags and is helped back to her seat.
Showing all the immodesty and boastfulness that is a characteristic of all these bullshitters ('I worked with such and such and it changed his life, etc') he turns to the awe-stricken crowd and booms out: "I can reach anyone and I can lift people to the highest places. I have that gift, and that gift is going to be born in you today. Right now, today, you regain the power of your minds." The crowd are on their feet now, cheering. Tony punches the air and makes his exit. His chauffeur-driven car whisks him back to his palatial home on the ocean.
Those motivational events are uncannily like the 'services' at big-money Evangelical churches. Music booms out. People warm the crowd up. They dance and sway to the beat. The message is exactly the same as that of the motivational gurus. In fact, it is more a religion than a secular message. Basically, you and I are all-powerful, we can achieve anything, if only we can take control over our minds and visualise a glowing future. In an increasingly secular society, these motivators have replaced God. Deepak Chopra has become a billionaire, telling people, among other things, that they can cure their own cancer. In line with the theme of positive thinking, if you have cancer it's your own fault. You haven't transformed your inner-self, whatever that means.
So, one cancer patient wrote to Chopra: "Even though I follow the treatments, have come a long way in unburdening myself of toxic feelings, have forgiven everyone, changed my lifestyle to include meditation, prayer, proper diet, exercise and supplements, the cancer is back. Am I missing a lesson here that it keeps reoccurring? I am positive that I will beat it, yet it gets harder with each diagnosis to keep a positive attitude."
America has become a seriously dysfunctional society, where critical thinking is discouraged and positive self-transformation is the default setting. As poverty reaches crisis levels, the rich get richer and don't pay their taxes, and the bonds of society are breaking down, the positive thinkers are making fortunes. It is starting to happen here.
The Pendulum Summit sells out in hours. We have a Minister for Finance who doesn't want €13 billion in unpaid taxes from Apple, even when homelessness has become an epidemic, our hospitals are at breaking point and people are toiling like dogs to scrape a living. It is perverse and entirely unjust, but we accept it.
The whole point of being human is to think critically. To collaborate. To show concern for our neighbour. To speak out against injustice. To complain. To hold people to account. To deal realistically with our problems. To say, if you believe it, that Kieran Donaghy was acting like an ass for four years. Magical thinking turns us into a self-obsessed bunch of sheep, pretending to be happy, powerless as the world unfolds.
Don't take a tin opener to your brain. Unless a highly qualified brain surgeon is wielding it.
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