These smiling people may be graduates of a personal development program whose website this photograph adorns. Or they may be professional models.
I don't really care.
Jm, a friend of more than 45 years, is two thirds of his way through the program. It involves a considerable investment of time and (not surprisingly) money. It begins with thirty hours over one extended weekend spent in a classroom situation followed by three hour seminars per week for the following eleven weeks. Oh, and there is also a weekly hour long telephone conference with a group of fellow development 'undergraduates' during those eleven weeks.
Jm's three adult children and his wife have all undertaken the course at different times; indeed his wife is embarking on a second tier program of similar duration and (apparently) structure.
The program's advertised aim is to bring about positive, permanent shifts in the quality of (a participant's) life. 'Create power, freedom, full self expression, and peace of mind for your future' the program's website advertises. 'Peace of mind' is even marked as a registered trademark although it seems to me to be a very common saying.
The structure of the program has an in built strategy for identifying potential future
Jm invited me to be his guest and in a moment when friendship trumped intention, I accepted his invitation.
It was pretty well what I expected. Toothy, smiling, advocates of the program enthusiastically welcomed me to the gathering with the zeal and creepiness I associate with Hillsong and similar religions all the while invading my personal space with a leery manner.
There were about forty participants and their guests present for the evening. Current participants were called on to state their 'breakthrough moments' on the program to date; each dutifully confirming the life changing effects. Participants and guests alike were then taken through a series of exercises to identify and address one aspect of our lives that was 'not working' and that we would seek to change. The two session leaders both delivered personal revelations and as I expected one had a teary, heartwarming situation to relate to the group.
I found it curious that the evening served the dual role of being seminar seven for the existing participants and an information, preview session of the total program for the guests. Surely, I thought, the participants, by then effectively sixty-six hours into the program, would expect something more developed for their time and money invested.
Eventually the 'soft sell' of guest registration into a future program was introduced. Twice. 'Lift the burden from your shoulders by signing up tonight' was the leverage. It is true that this was delivered without pressure. Twice. However, when it was clear, after the second invitation, that I was not rushing to register, a 'graduated' person appeared by my side with the hard sell. This man had the appearance and build of Pacific Islander. He looks much like many of the bouncers we see around Sydney's troublesome night spots. He pressed for a while but then disappeared from my side when he realised I was firm in making no commitment that night.
The exercises we participated in on the night were quite useful as examples of applying organised thought to personal issues. The undergraduates I spoke to all appeared genuine about having benefitted from their participation.
I tend to approach these development programs with a cynical mind. Mostly, they are not for me. I know I have my faults. I also know that I have successfully addressed many of them from life experiences over the years; sometimes by painful learning from repeated mistakes.
Good luck to those who are enthused by this type of program. It is not my style.