Is it possible that a hugely popular 2007 “New Age” inspirational film is costing you job applicants in 2011? If stories I have heard from more than one unemployed job-hunter are any indication, there are job seekers out there who seriously believe that “manifesting” (attempting to get something by imagining getting it) and the “law of attraction” (positive thoughts and “vibes” attract desired responses and events) are valid—if not superior—job-search techniques, tools and resources.
While she was telling me, about a week ago, that she is unemployed, on the verge of eviction, saddled with unmanageable debt, barely able to feed herself and her daughter, forced into a final garage sale of virtually what was left of their few possessions and collecting bottles for cash, Hope (a pseudonym I’ve given her) somehow managed to express and radiate a positive, even joyful outlook.
Reveling in the summery late-afternoon charms of swans, ducks, geese, raccoons, lagoon and trees at the spot in the park where I was sitting with a book and where we met, Hope, a divorced mom in her 40s, spoke first, alerting her daughter and me, then a stranger, to a troop of baby raccoons clambering up a nearby tree.
600 Resumes and Not Counting
Articulate and a self-described former CEO of a cosmetics company (whose existence and her role in which I have verified) she said was wrested from her by maneuvering associates, Hope seems undaunted by the stunning silence and rejections that have followed each of the 600 resumes she says she has submitted since October 2010. That is because she is sure that at least she has access to something just as good or even better than any recruiter and job board: access to the universe and its “Law of Attraction”—the notion that “positive like attracts positive like”, a cosmic, intergalactic version of Dale Carnegie’s more down-to-earth “power of positive thinking”.
Symptomatic of her break with bad “karma” is her account of the process of having destroyed most of the documentation of her past work—creative, as well as professional and personal, including what she described as various business plans, product proposals, cosmetic formulas, product designs and legal documents (such as divorce documentation).
In fact, her faith in the “Law of Attraction” is so strong that not only is applying for jobs apparently useless for now, it is, she believes, also not absolutely necessary, in part because the conventional job search process is also less “aligned” with her positive wants and purposes and is a reflection of negative thinking about lack and worry, viz., “I don’t have a job”—as opposed to the more positive “I can feel the joy of having a job and attract one, by imagining I do have one.”
What is the secret of her confidence and of however many others like her who espouse a similar, if not identical “New Age” philosophy of “wanting means getting” (more accurately: “imagining you already have it means getting it”)?
The Secret of “The Secret”
It’s no secret: It’s the 2007 New Age documentary, “The Secret” and its doctrine of the “Law of Attraction”.Hope and each of the four people I’ve told her story to in the past week immediately and without coaching from me mentioned that film and its relevance to Hope’s psychology or prospects.
The “Law of Attraction” as articulated in “The Secret” has, in the minds of some of the unemployed, like Hope, made you, other recruiters, resumes and job postings less dependable than the Law is, to the degree that you or they have been unable to help and deliver.
Like many New Age concepts, the “Law of Attraction”, as presented in “The Secret” is a loose, superficial and selectively edited interpretation of various laws of physics and psychology, most conspicuously, the laws of magnetic attraction, electromagnetic/acoustic resonance, gravitation and motivation, embellished with equally superficial interpretations of arcane subjects like“q-u-a-n-t-u-m m-e-c-h-a-n-i-c-s” (which, New Agers seem to believe, if spelled and pronounced properly, is therefore apparently and automatically well-understood).
To streamline an exposition of the “Law of Attraction” and the core ideas of “The Secret”, a sampling of quotations from the film should suffice, proffered by the film’s New Age narrators such as Esther Hicks—a self-professed conduit for a kind of diffuse cosmic consciousness called “Abraham” and Jack Canfield, author of the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul, among a number of others:
- “The law of attraction says we will give you whatever you say or focus on.” (Jack Canfield, author Chicken Soup for the Soul)
- “So when you are looking at the thing you want and say ‘yes’ to it, you are attracting it…and the Law of Attraction is responding to that thought, and bringing you things that match” (Esther Hicks)
- “Everything that’s around you in your life, including the things that you’ve been complaining about, you’ve attracted.”(Presumably including tsunamis and muggings.)
- “Like attracts like.”
- “Thoughts are sending out that magnetic signal that is drawing the parallel back to you. See yourself living in abundance and you will attract it. It always works. It works every time, with every person.” (Dr. Joe Vitale, metaphysician)
- “Everything that happens to you is being attracted by your thoughts.”
- “The law of attraction is responding to your thought.”
- “Whatever we think about and thank about, we bring about.” (Dr. John F. Demartini)
- “Don’t make it happen; allow it to happen.”
- “Don’t act; feel.”
- “Your wish is my command.” (Quoting Aladdin’s genie and, in the film, imputed to the universe as super-genie devoted to you).
The “Law of Attraction” is only one of several of the film’s alleged mechanisms of success—including
- a principle of “allowing”things to happen instead of making or forcing them happen (as if allowing a cure for cancer is just as good, or better than finding one).
- a notion that “feeling good” right now is proof you are on the right track for a rendezvous with your best goals (which must be totally reassuring to the average crack addict whose teeth and life have rotted away).
- the idea that “negative” emotions, thoughts and feelings always “attract” what is hated, feared, etc., and never create positive results (presumably even if pain and worry were to make a crack-head rush to a dentist to save what’s left of his infected and inflamed teeth. Instead, should he merely have happy thoughts about any teeth that are not aching or imagine the rest not aching?)
- the belief that visualizing successful outcomes (as an extension of the genuinely useful technique of visualizing your successful performance) will create them (e.g., by visualizing getting a parking space in a crowded car park and, as a result, succeeding “95% of the time”—a claim effusively made by David Schirmer, an investment coach, in one of the film’s many cameo appearances by apostles of the Attraction creed).
- the principle that “gratitude” gets you more: “Whatever we think about and thank about, we bring about.” (Dr. John F. Demartini, in “The Secret”.Good for grateful jackpot winners, bad for casinos—if it were true or if there were more grateful gamblers.)
- the belief that the universe is your personal shopping “catalog”. All you have to do is place your order and consume, rather than produce: “Your job is to declare how much you want from the catalog of the universe.” (Dr. Joe Vitale, suggesting a metaphysical alternative to a real job.)
Sympathetic Cave Magic
However, the “Law of Attraction” is the most prominent of all. Indeed, it is, in the film, eventually identified as “The Secret”—a concept not unlike primitive cave-based beliefs in sympathetic magic: “Gorg, paint wooly mammoths on the wall and they will come to the hunt”.(Forget the “Field of Dreams”’s “build it and they will come”—just imagine or paint it.)
Just in case you are inclined to use the “Law of Attraction” to adopt a less proactive approach to recruiting, it behooves me to point out some of its snags. The problems with it are not limited to proving it, but also include, as a preliminary, figuring out what it is supposed to mean in the first place and whether it is to be conceptualized as working for everyone, every time, or whether it is only occasionally manifested—like solar flares, sunspots and casino wins.
As an example of the latter issue, I can cite my own experience: the only time in my life I was both unemployed and broke—after a wanderlust-impelled trans-continental move into a West Coast luxury high-rise that cost all I had for the rent, the security deposit plus basics. Down to my last dollars, I mysteriously found cash four times in as many days—on a busy nightclub floor (twice in one night!) where, until then, I brooded, holding a cheap club soda; outside the entrance to my new apartment building; and once in transit: $50, $10 and $70, respectively.
That was the first and last time I needed to find cash, and the last time I ever did. So, does my once-in-a-lifetime experience prove that the “Law of Attraction” works occasionally, only when really needed, only when consciously “manifested” or does it prove nothing at all?
The Problem of Meaning and Interpretation
The problem with interpreting the “Law of Attraction” is frequently replicated when a New Age philosophy attempts to apply a concept from mainstream physics, psychology or other science: Either the original scientific principle does not support the new interpretation (and may even contradict it) or the physics principle is distorted and stretched to fit the uplifting purposes of the wildly over-extrapolating philosophy,to the point at which nothing remains of the original principle but the name and some superficial, misleading, misconceived and feel-good analogies.
Similarly, to the extent that the physics is being correctly applied, the application is either trivially and obviously true or is otherwise false, e.g., “we are all connected”—Yes, clearly and literally, by gravitation, ecology and even possibly by ESP “remote viewing” (for which I was once invited for testing by CSICOP—the U.S. Committee for Scientific Investigations of the Paranormal); but not so clearly in some moral, financial, “spiritual” or telekinetic way for and with everyone and everything in the universe or everything we want, e.g., future outcomes and circumstances.
Unlike “Like Attracts Like”
Consider the “Law of Attraction”, as explained in “The Secret” as “like attracts like” and as an analogue of magnetism. Well, if magnetism is the illustrative principle, the analogous New Age law should be “like attracts unlike”, since a positive magnetic pole attracts only a negative one, while repelling its true “like”, another positive pole.
Applied in a spiritual way, the principle of magnetism should suggest that positive thoughts attract negative results and circumstances, e.g., betting the family savings at a Las Vegas roulette table because you are “positive” and visualizing that you will win and, of course, almost always losing. That’s magnetism, even if the roulette wheel is not rigged with magnets.
So, what about Newton’s law of gravitation, as a second well-known form of cosmic attraction? If that’s the underlying principle, nothing positive whatsoever about “like attracts like” and “success” can be inferred from it, since it is highly unlikely that any of us will like the prospect of an errant asteroid being gravitationally attracted to and colliding with the earth, even though, in virtue of possessing substantial mass, the earth and the asteroid are clearly two “likes”.Ditto for biological principles, e.g., “Warm-blooded people attract mosquitoes”.
Bottom line: “Attraction” does not mean “attractive” (or “unattractive”)—in the emotional or moral sense. Likewise, “repulsion” does not mean “repulsive”, e.g., mosquito repellent is quite an attractive product.Switching the chemical mix to a cologne, using too much of yours, you may in fact repel someone who is quite attractive. Anyway, how does your attracting mosquitoes suggest “like attracts like”?—in virtue of a shared need for blood? The confusion is as boundless as the universe and the human imagination desperate to fathom it.
Over-Extrapolation from the Obvious
What is obviously true and used for over-extrapolation is the idea that sometimes negative ideas attract negative consequences, e.g., an applicant expects to be rejected and thereby attracts rejection as a result of a lack of confidence, distracting nervousness or self-effacement during an interview, etc.The over-extrapolation, of the kind explicitly advanced in “The Secret” is that replacing such clearly self-defeating attitudes with positive ones will change much more than your own behaviors and the reactions of others.For example, the film showcases a victimized gay employee who develops some pride, immediately after which all of those who previously bullied him are inexplicably transferred or otherwise leave the company, perhaps for better jobs—with the strong suggestion that the employee had through positive thinking alone magically transformed the regional or national job market, the professional aspirations and opportunities of his bullies, and company personnel requirements.
Yes, negative(and positive) emotions and thoughts can “attract” more of the same and catalyze the processes that reinforce them, in a (non)vicious cycle, but in entirely commonsensical, non-mysterious ways—through inhibition of one’s own actions or excitation of others.
Likewise, positive emotions and thoughts can work as motivators—in oneself and in others, but not in interactions with things that cannot be motivated, e.g., luck, money, the cosmos. Some things will happen and others will not, regardless of how or whether you think or feel about them. (Hope actually maintains that she could safely walk through an East L.A. drive-by crossfire if she were to “intend” safety.)
While it is true that, as “The Secret” suggests, it can be motivationally healthier and better to focus on what you want than on what you don’t want and to frame your goals positively, rather than negatively, e.g., be “pro-peace” rather than “anti-war”, to visualize “building assets” instead of “getting out of debt”,to find the right job candidate rather than to reject the wrong ones, that does not demonstrate the total ineffectiveness of negative emotions and thoughts or prove that they will always “attract” negative outcomes. After all, which is more likely to work for you: letting your negative fear get you out of a shark-infested stretch of the Barrier Reef after you’ve cut your foot on a rock, or allowing positive images of bonding with those sharks to keep you there?
To imagine we have the omnipotence of God confuses faith in motivation with faith in magic and leads to extrapolating from the successes and failures of motivation to alleged guarantees of magic. It also obliterates the distinction between psychological interaction and gravitational/magnetic, and physical and psychological action at a distance. What you think about an asteroid is not likely to alter its “attraction” to you. When you wish upon a star, you’ve taken the first, but not the only step required to get there, since it is, unlike the asteroid, not going to come to you.
In the same way, any recruiter who is still in business knows he or she has to create, rather than just “allow”, “manifest” or only visualize a client base—something the more enlightened among the New Agers will recognize as a positive and catalyzing first step, but not the only step to take.
It is one thing to acknowledge the well-known and well-understood impact of positive (and negative) thinking and emotions on motivation—your own and that of others; it is altogether another to go far beyond that and argue for an impact of thoughts and emotions on systems and things that cannot perceive or cannot be motivated by these, such as asteroids, mosquitoes and recruiters posting jobs for which the wishful applicant is totally unqualified.
It is also one thing to recognize that positive or negative thoughts and emotions will stimulate more of the same, but quite another to deny that they can ever inhibit or prevent more of the same as well, as a toothache that propels you to your dentist obviously will. The New Age attraction paradigm assumes that negative emotions, sensations, perceptions and thoughts inhibit rather than catalyze positive action. Obviously, these people are not dentists, their patients or manufacturers of mosquito repellent.
The Ultimate Truth
At one point in “The Secret”, a Ph.D. explaining gravitational attraction says, without fully realizing the implication of what he is saying, “It doesn’t matter whether you are a good person or a bad person: You are going to hit the ground”—exactly: There is no guarantee that attraction is benevolent or that a positive thought while falling will attract a positive result.
That’s the truth.
And it’s not a secret.