Interesting Times, no. 2: Calling Out «Motivational Speakers»

Or, How AI understands the importance of Gardeners

As a classical music conductor, teacher, and occasional speaker, I want to talk about « the greatest motivational speakers ».  Which is ironic, since that’s what they do to us, and make an incredibly good living doing it.  So I want to turn the tables on them, and analyze who they are, what they are saying, and what kind of message they are pumping out into the world and our minds today.

And then I’ll ask you if these self-proclaimed gurus of motivation are on the right track – or if there is another path to follow.

“There is always Music amongst the trees in the Garden,

but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it.”

– Minnie Aumonier

Eric Thomas, Nick Vujicic, Brian Tracy, Robin Sharma, Wayne Dyer, Zig Ziglar, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Jim Rohn, Les Brown, Tony Robbins round out a top 10 list of « motivational speakers ».  A few initial observations: 1 disabled person, 1 person of color, otherwise all men, all the time.  Their message is uniformly peppered with attack words like focus, power, master, conquer, ambition

They also prey on the audience’s weaknesses and insecurities.  Think you’re « the little guy » with no one looking out for you?  You bet you are:

« If you don’t design your own life plan,

chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan.

And guess what they have planned for you?

Not much.”

– Jim Rohn

In other words, let me beat you down and confirm your worst fears – that you are small, weak, alone, like a sitting duck for predators.  Then, after I’ve rendered you completely vulnerable and anxious, I’ll give you my secret to invincibility.  Which involves a lot of testosterone, violence, aggression, and healthy doses of mistrust and ruthlessness to boot.  Hey, it’s eat or be eaten, right?  You’re either a winner or a loser – can’t be both.  Do you want to come out on top, or be crushed at the bottom?  If you want it bad enough, sacrifice enough, don’t care enough, be driven enough, you will get what you deserve – or what you think you deserve but are too insecure to claim for yourself, you pathetic wimp.

Bullying others into success.  What an upstanding, winning formula. (Irony alert.) I’ve seen it in classical music my entire life.  This is an age-old tactic to make sure your methods, your way, your message is ingurgitated, foie gras-style, by your clients – I mean, students.  Here’s how it works.

Step 1: Accept the student into your class.  It is a privilege, an honor.  Your reputation as being famous/producing winners/making careers precedes you.  Use that to the hilt to intimidate your new recruit into submission.

Step 2:  Proceed to demolish the student.  Their sense of certainty, competence, value, and originality must be destroyed.  They know nothing, cannot play, are stupid, a disappointment.  Humiliate, yell at, make fun of in order to break them down, and threaten expulsion if they do not fully comply.

Step 3: If the student survives Step 2 and remains with you, they are now a clean, broken slate onto which you may freely write.  The student listens, integrates, duplicates.  You cultivate a « studio sound », a « studio technique », so that your faithful adepts are branded with your trademark and can be easily identified.

Step 4: The cloning process is complete.  Your student will successfully bare your musical DNA that has been mercilessly tattooed on them like a cow being seared.  You give them their first job/competition win/assistant position, which is within your controlled realm.  They will now be eternally beholden – er, grateful – to you.

Your kingdom has expanded once again.

And if, by some bad stroke, you have a rogue – an unruly student, one who questions you, and your methods, and the greater purpose of it all… they become a grave threat to your kingdom.  They must be stopped.  And silenced.  And forgotten.

Sound familiar ?  Which one are you – the « good » student ?  the « bad » student ?  The teacher ?

I once had a revered, white-haired « maestro » respond to a question of mine by looking me right in the eyes, pointing his finger in my face, and hurling: « Fuck you ».  It was a Tuesday lesson, we were learning Strauss’ fiendishly difficult tone poem, Til Eulenspiegel

At least it was an authentic response.

He later shared with us his own teacher’s « teaching method », which was to play a piece once, say « now come back and play it like that », and if the student failed to do so the next time received a music score missile landing squarely in the face and was told to get out.

I remind you that this was a music lesson by one of the living legends of classical music at arguably the world’s best conservatory.  And this was, and still is, excessively common in the classical music world.

I have always found this primitive, abusive, perverted style of transmission to be completely unacceptable.  Yet I have endured it, in many forms and guises, in order to gain access to other valuable knowledge, or to earn a diploma, or because it was accepted as part of the norm to be expected in my métier.  But I hated it, I was often too stubborn, proud (self-loving?) to accept it, and was therefore often considered a difficult, unruly student.  Furthermore, I was a woman in an overwhelmingly man’s world (women still make up 4 % of conductors in performance careers today), and I stuck out like a sore thumb. I did not fit in, could not conform and follow blindly.  Was I doomed ?

In my craft, in my primal language of music, I felt an overwhelming need to understand, to create, to find my voice and make it strong.  Wasn’t this the ultimate goal of education?  I was compelled, and I was educated, in this way. In the words of Madeline Sophie Barat, founder of the Convent of the Sacred Heart :

“Your example, even more than your words,

will be an eloquent lesson to the world.”

“Give only good example to the children; never correct them when out of humor or impatient. We must win them by an appeal to their piety and to their hearts. Soften your reprimands with kind words; encourage and reward them. That is, in short, our way of educating.”

Armed with this enlightenment, I resisted the barbaric ways of educating through rage and fear.  And as I became older and had acquired some knowledge and experience to share, I wanted to teach.  I felt a vocation to transmit, but this was only the beginning: I wanted to share with others, to have honest dialogues, to ask questions with no answers in order to incite deep reflection.  I wanted this so that my younger musical brothers and sisters could be encouraged to find their voices not by fear and violence, but through sharing, challenging, listening, and rewarding. 

By teaching through love, we nurture the student’s soul the way a gardener cares for a young shoot.  The potential of the plant is not up to the Gardener, but is innate within the plant itself and comes to total fruition by both the nature of the plant and the nurture it receives. This is why the great Romanian writer Eminescu said « the great oak tree only grows in good soil. »

But in a culture of eat-or-be-eaten, winner takes all, be a clone or be nobody, and wanting « it » (career, success, fame) more than anything else, how can you find the strength – and safety – to become a peaceful, loving Gardener and cultivate good soil for future oaks?

How do we break the cycle?  Do we have the power to do so, without suffering debilitating consequences for our own career?  To denounce a perpetrator, you have to first be assured safety and immunity.  We have never been numerous enough, and in such a position of safety, in order to confront the situation with impunity. But it is this era in which we find ourselves, filled with fists pumping, flags flying, and voices clamoring for  blacklivesmatter/pussyriots/CaitlinJenner/metoo movements, more protected and heard than ever before.  Whatever your personal political stance is, one thing is clear: people are clamoring for inclusivity.  And this is an invitation to rewrite the rule-books, including two of society’s most vital aspects: leadership and education.

Some of the brightest minds today are hiving around an area of creativity that marries imagination and profitability: the AI sector.  Here is a quote from an AI guru:

In order to avoid making the same systemic management mistakes, I have become convinced that it’s super important to understand our history (how we got here), namely that value is an organizational force that resulted in the creation of our existing management systems, and yet we must learn from our emerging future which is driven by the discovery of new value (where we are going), lest we are doomed to amble around in our ignorance.

— Gene Bond

Another quote from the same author highlights with unapologetic clarity the same mysterious conundrum that the classical music industry has agonized over for the past 50+ years :

We also know that companies that do not have an effective creative system either die over time, or they are tied to another entity that is doing the creative work.

Well then, let me ask you this, Maestro Sadisto: if you brutalize your industry’s future creative leaders and turn them into raging, ruthlessly ambitious lunatics, how do you expect that the classical music industry will survive ?

And now let me ask you this, O’ Top 10 Money-making – excuse me, Motivational – speakers: if you brutalize your industry’s future creative leaders and turn them into raging, ruthlessly ambitious lunatics, how do you expect that society will survive?

The answer is simple: it will not.  And the inevitable follow-up: What will that failure do to our collective humanity ?  Extinguish it.

In the absurdity of the year 2020, with all of its disease, disinformation, and disturbance, we collectively recognize some truths: we must do better to protect and preserve the environment ; we must take care to consider others and not to exclude, even involuntarily ; we must fight on behalf of others, because « united we stand, divided we fall. » 

What we haven’t yet collectively realized, however, is that we must also actively protect, preserve, take care, and fight for the GARDENERS in our lives.  The gardeners are the ones who take time to listen, to understand, to help, to share.  It is a humble job, as noble as it is largely unnoticed.  Protecting and validating the existence and importance of our gardeners is as essential to our humanity as air is to our bodies. 

Whether you are a Gardener, a Protector, or a young oak tree today, I challenge you to throw off the oppressive psycho-abuse shackles of the Top 10 Motivational Speakers, and to honor those people who nurture others as their vocation, instead of manipulating others for profit.  Honor the Gardeners in your life, and you will reap the benefits of your Oak trees’ shade, strength, and air for years to come.

I grow plants for many reasons: to please my eye or to please my soul,

to challenge the elements or to challenge my patience,

for novelty or for nostalgia, but mostly for the joy

in seeing them grow.

– David Hobson

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