I have had three recent experiences where I was dealing with friends who had decided on non-traditional solutions to traditional life problems. That’s really a very nice way of saying they were trying to get me to join their cult, to drink their Kool-Aid.
Side Bar: Unless you are of a certain age, you may not know the origin of the term ‘Drinking the Kool-Aid’. It refers to a November 1978 mass suicide by members of the Peoples Temple, a cult lead by Jim Jones. Mr. Jones was quite simply a highly charismatic and paranoid lunatic. At his instruction, The members of the temple he has recruited over several years killed themselves by drinking Kool-Aid and Flavor Aid laced with several poisons. Today when you use the phrase it’s really describing a dogmatic loyalty to a questionable idea.
The first instance was as classic as classic can be. I have a friend who tried to convince me of the limitless wealth and success I would have if I just considered the amazing opportunities presented by Amway. Yes, the famed and vilified multi-level marketing company that’s been around since the late 1950’s. The name is a short for the American Way Association. Clearly if the company has been around for nearly 60 years then there is some money to be had, but I know multi-level marketing. You have to be really really good at recruiting to make money. I’ve seen the pitch personally a couple of times and I’ve seen the people who get recruited into it. The pitch is amazing but the failure rate is insanely high.
The second pitch was for a magical remedy for my physical ailments. I’ve talked about my bad back on occasion in my writing and on my podcast. There is a solution but it would cost thousands of dollars out of pocket for an operation. While discussing the pain and my medical options, my friend promised that a couple of drops of their magic oil extract on my tongue would make all my pain go away. It did for them they said. I don’t know if the fervor for the product was because they were a distributor and wanted another customer or because the line was another multi-level pitch. It may have been because they really believed it could help, but I ended that conversation when I was told it was $40 for the first bottle. Again I have seen this picture many times over the years. The magic of Mona Vie will cure all your ailments and make you independently wealthy! You know what, if it’s so magical, give me six months of free product and let me try it. I figure if these products do what they promise then I’ll be a customer for life so six months is a tiny investment on the part of the manufacturer. Funny how no distributor of a miracle product ever took me up on that offer, but how the pharma industry built billion-dollar businesses on giving away tons of product to prove it’s worth to a skeptical and well educated distributor channel known as doctors.
The third instance of these more recent recruiting pitches was much more benign. I had a friend who was absolutely enthralled with the teachings of Abraham-Hicks, which, at first, I mistakenly thought was an actual individual named Abraham. Turns out it’s actually originated from a couple, Jerry and Esther Hicks. Jerry is gone but Esther is apparently still going strong. I have to admit, I haven’t really gotten to deep into the teachings. My friend, a good friend, spent hours and hours trying to describe the principles to me. I like to consider myself a fairly intelligent guy but I have to admit I didn’t catch the majority of it. I think I didn’t because it’s so alien to my way of thinking. I went to the associated website to try and get a better understanding of the philosophy. Some of the quotes on the conceptual foundations included: “You are here in this Body because you chose to be here”, “The Universe adores you for it knows your broadest Intentions” and “Anything you can imagine is yours to Be, Do, or Have”. There were several others.
The important point is that the philosophy came up again and again. When we talked about the struggles of being married, the solution was Abraham-Hicks. Same with kids, careers, money, etc.. There pretty much was no area of the human existence that my friend didn’t find the solution in the teachings of the surviving Ms. Esther Hicks.
Why do People join the cults?
Although more personified by my friend who was an ardent follower of the teachings of Abraham-Hicks, the reason people join cults can be seen in Amway, Hemp Oil, and nearly any philosophy or organization that’s followed so ardently. The organization is filling an unmet need. Sometimes the need is financial. We live in a capitalist society. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing as anyone can see the benefits in terms of quality of life. I’m just saying that someone who purposefully chooses to live in a 40-year-old rusted out mobile home on Oak Island, NC, works part time in a coffee shop, all so they can spend more time surf fishing and enjoying other aspects of the beach life isn’t celebrated by the mainstream culture. Interestingly I believe many of us would privately look at that person and think they made the right decision. I know I have that thought every time one of my kids has a tantrum or I get another fire drill at work. Unfortunately, in our world the news stories are more about the business person or sports star who pulled in millions. Television shows like the uncounted variants of House Hunters on HGTV celebrate high dollar and exotic lifestyles. Those stories enhance the culture of wealth but the whole system is really designed to pay as little as possible to get as much as possible. That is not a recipe for getting everyone to have a higher quality of life. The net result is that many people struggle to make a living. This isn’t some rant about the poor working person, it’s saying that there is real financial needs and lifestyle desires compared to many’s abilities to fulfill their culturally inspired wants. After a while the promise of building a multi-level network that will create tremendous income becomes seductive. They hear and start to accept lines like It’s always hard at first, but if you really believe it’ll happen, It will! and All your dreams are met! Funny, I’ve only met a single person who made a bundle on multi-level. In a classic move of manipulating the sale channel to maximize growth the company took the distributorship away from them. So much for self-determination and building a lifetime of wealth. So people drink the Kool-Aid, they buy in to a solution because they have tried other ways to meet the financial need and have run into systemic roadblocks again and again.
It’s the same basic concept but much more benign for the non-financial cults. I pointed out Abraham-Hicks, but it could be any church or spiritual belief system. Shamans, Reiki healing, or some other nontraditional spiritual discipline are just the start of an endless list. In these instances, the oddball solution is more about eliminating the pain in one’s life. Humans are tremendously complicated beings. Things that happened to us at two years of age still cause pain and impact our decision making when we are 52 years old. Add in interacting with the rest of humanity through the lense of our own dysfunctions and psychological challenges and things get really complicated really quickly. Is it any wonder that the packaged spiritual cure-all will be adopted rather quickly by the person who has a long term unmet need?
The Good and Bad
In nearly all cases the cult provides hope. For people whose world is dark, who struggle every day to achieve a financial lifestyle that’s beyond them or who can’t quite find the emotional fortitude to get through the next life challenge the cultish organization offers a solution. Sometimes the solutions are real. There are multi-level marketers who make money or Amway wouldn’t have been around for half a century. Remember, christianity was a weird little cult a few thousand years ago and the teachings of Jesus provide emotional respite to billions. So no they aren’t always bad, at least not for the people who are hurting and have found a solution that works for them.
Things start to go south when the person who is involved with the cult tries to share what they perceive is so amazing. In some cases, specifically the multi-level marketing organizations, they believe the downline sharing is a great deal for everyone who gets involved. From their perspective it’s a win-win. They aren’t trying to screw over their buddies, they are trying to bring them into the fold, to have the buddy enjoy the benefits of the system. Of course the multi-level zombie gets a bit more by being higher on the chain, but hey, their friend/co-worker/family member will build their own network and ultimately get all their financial desires met as well!
The perception of the win-win coupled with the incentive to build the network with multi levels is why they are so annoying. They are constantly trying to bring the ‘benefits’ of the organization to everyone they come in contact with. Remember the core tennant they are sold on, that they have to keep at it and all the rewards will come. The good life is just around the corner! They can be relentless.
How Do You Handle Them?
In some instances you have to be firm. Again this works well with the mult-levels. No Thanks! It’s not my style! I have zero desire to do that!. My personal favorite is: I’ll join when your a multi-millionaire and have the three houses that the guy who recruited you has. For the record, if you haven’t heard the pitch, there is always some guy trotted out at every recruiting session who is three levels up and is making tens of thousands of dollars a month without doing anything. I always tell the person who is trying to recruit me, when you make it to that level, then i’ll consider it. Otherwise you do your thing and I’ll do mine. The reason why this works is that part of the training of the multi-level is usually to teach the newbies to realize a lost cause and move on quickly. This works out for everyone.
I think the ones who are having their emotional pain met through some non-traditional belief are a bit more challenging. These people aren’t trying to make a buck off of you, they genuinely want to share the joy that they have experienced through their solution. For them it’s a revelation. Typically they have tried several different things over several years to make the pain go away. When they find their thing they are so euphoric that they are just bursting at the seams to share it. It’s really more based in joy than it is anything else. They also, by the default of their years of searching, have logically come to the conclusion that their particular solution works above all others. If you are experiencing some of the same challenges that they have they will be relentless to try and get you to understand the benefits of their solution. The solution to how to handle them is the opposite of the way to handle the multi-level zombies. It’s right there in the part of their experience. They have probably had many ‘that didn’t work for me’ moments during their own search for a solution. Consequently they understand that sometimes things that work for others don’t work for them. So the solution with these folks is to try it, even if you know it’s bupkis. The buy in is usually something like reading a book, going for a couple of sessions with the solution provider, etc.. There are two benefits to this approach. The first is that when you get out of it you can honestly tell them it didn’t work for you. The second benefit is more important. Since you know a bit more about the experience of your friend you can discuss their solution with greater insight. It helps you get closer.
The human condition is challenging to say the least. There are struggles in life that range from the physical and financial to the mental and emotional. For the most part the big and well known solutions to all of these issues, things like the doctor’s office, the education system and the local church/affinity groups do a pretty good job of meeting these needs. Unfortunately there are always going to be outliers for whom education didn’t help them make money, the doctor’s office can’t make the physical pain go away and the church or club just doesn’t help them feel fulfilled. These folks are always going to be on a search to try and make their particular struggle in life go away. This is the opening for drinking the Kool-Aid and joining the cult of whatever works and boy do they want to share! Yes, you can always break off the relationship with the wacky Amway zealot. I personally don’t think that’s wise if you can avoid it, I think managing the relationship maybe even using some of the techniques mentioned here would help keep that connection strong. I know one thing, connections generally do provide solutions to life problems. We are often better off finding solutions when we get to really understand how others handle their own unique challenges. The solution to money issues may not be Amway, but there are things to learn watching someone grind their way through trying to build a multi-level Network. Adhering to the Abraham-Hicks belief tenants may not get someone to the outcome they want but I’m sure there are some lessons about focus and positive thought that can be pulled from someone who is committed to that belief system. I guess what I’m saying is don’t drink the Kool-Aid, let others do it. You should pay attention because it may lead you to another drink, a safe one that can help when you hit your own dry spell in life.
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