The Secret Behind the Secret

When I was a kid, no older than seven, my dad was friendly with a guy named Earl Nightingale. What I remember about Mr. Nightingale, besides his interesting last name and the deepest voice I’d ever heard, is that he gave my dad a series of LPs (vinyl albums for you young ‘uns) entitled “The Strangest Secret,” which I listened to religiously for many months. Nightingale, as it turned out, became the wildly successful predecessor to today’s self-help gurus, a bridge between Napoleon Hill (“Think and Grow Rich”) and Dr. Wayne Dyer (“Your Erroneous Zones”). His primary theme was that thoughts are things, and we become what we think  about. Sound familiar? It was commandeered years later by the creators of “The Secret,” right down to the rip-off title.

I say this not to give you a brief history of today’s self-improvement movement, but to establish my credentials as a qualified commentator. Over the ensuing decades, I’ve dipped my toes, if not both feet, into the visualization waters repeatedly. Know what I’ve figured out? It doesn’t work.

Let me rephrase that. It doesn’t work consistently, any more than would be predicted by random chance. So how do we account for all the success stories documented in the scores of books, CDs and DVDs that have flooded the market? Simple. We only hear from the winners. A certain percentage of people visualize an outcome and it comes true for them. The “Secret” works! How about the rest? They don’t get interviewed for the book. It’s no different than the distasteful email chains that promise untold riches to those who will forward to eight or 12 or 20 of their closest friends. Don’t ask what happens to the unfortunate souls who break the chain. In all likelihood, they’re already dead and burning in hell for all eternity.

Recently, I helped ghost write a memoir for an extremely wealthy old man. When I asked him the secrets of his success, he said without hesitation, “Luck and connections. “ Later, he added “positive attitude” and “hard work.” But luck came first.

I’ve arrived at a similar conclusion. You can take two equally talented writers with identical attributes, tangible and intangible. One lives on the best seller list, the other toils away in obscurity. The only difference is luck. One caught a break; the other didn’t. Happens every second of every day. Luck rules our lives from the moment of conception to our final slip on the banana peel. My hat is off to  the individuals who keep punching, who keep swinging for the fences, no matter how many times they get knocked down or whiff at strike three. It takes a rare person indeed who gets off the mat and comes back for more. And so, to the list above, I add “persistence.” Because the only way to have a shot is to stay in the game. Or, in the words of the unknown carnival barker, “You cannot win if you   do not play.”

That’s the real secret.