The Secret

A friend recently asked me what I thought about the book “The Secret” (Rhonda Byrne, Atria Books, 2006, New York) because it was all the rage with his friends. It turns out that the eponymous secret is that we all transmit our thoughts into the universe, where they attract similar thoughts and the whole lot come back to you like a well-flighted boomerang. What follows is that whatever you think you get back, which includes all those negative thoughts as well. So think positive and positive things will happen to you and think negative and well go figure…
This notion is not new and was known to the ancients. For instance Frankie Howerd’s character Dr Francis Bigger opens the movie Carry on Doctor (Gerald Thomas, Talbot Rothwell, 1967) addressing an audience on the power of positive thinking with the Secretesque line “What is mind, no matter, what is matter, never mind. If you believe nothing will happen to you, believe me, nothing will!” After delivering this line, Dr Bigger promptly falls off stage landing on his coccyx…
What is being said here is hardly new, but how useful is it for career development? Like so much of what becomes popular it panders to our strong desire to simplify complex things, indeed to over-simplify the complexity that constitutes our working life. To illustrate, let me give you the recipe for financial success.
First take one idea (two is too complex) that has some plausible grounding in “science”. For instance, there is plenty of evidence that changing a client’s thinking about a situation can lead to improved mental health and better habits. Now lets take this one idea, present some evidence for it, and then illustrate its effectiveness with a range of compelling case studies that will bring to life the potency of the idea. Next let us assert that we have found the answer to all our problems, and all we need to do is simply to change our thinking to solve every conceivable problem we confront.
Better still, we get a win – win because in any situation where things turn out well, we can assert it was because we changed our thinking, and of course if things didn’t turn out so well, it is due to a failure to think properly. It is totally comprehensive, totally unfalsifiable, and totally successful in tapping into our desire for simplicity. Totally laughing all the way to the bank.
What always fascinates me about such gross over-simplifications is that despite the message always being mind-bogglingly simple, only a relative few are apparently aware of the “power” and capable of putting it into practice. How come it doesn’t work like jokes which once told anywhere on the planet are on the lips of all office wags precisely one pico-second later? How come if the ideas are so simple that we can all learn them, that according to CapGemini and Merryl Lynch published in the World Wealth Report (2006) that only 0.13% of the world’s population are US dollar millionaires? It seems that those living in Africa are particularly susceptible to negative thinking, because they only have 0.0015% of the world’s millionaires.
I wonder what happens if two people in a company want to get promoted to the same position, do they both get positive stuff happening to them? Do they end up job sharing the coveted position? What if two people wanted to have exactly the opposite event occur – you want to keep your job and the boss wants to sack you? Do you get sacked and reinstated or what?
Acting and thinking positively is no bad thing (actually I should express that positively as “a good thing”). However some humility about the limits of our ability to control or even predict outcomes would also be a good thing. It was Einstein who said on the 10th June 1933 in a lecture at Oxford “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”. Well actually he really said “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience” which is essentially the same. I just simplified it. See how hard it is to resist simplification?