Robert Todd Carroll
est and Werner Erhard
"In life, understanding is the booby prize." -- Werner Erhard
Werner Erhard's est [Erhard Seminar Training and Latin for "it is"] was one of the more successful entrants in the human potential movement. est is an example of what psychologists call a large group awareness training program.
The first est seminar was held in October, 1971, at the Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco with nearly 1,000 in attendance. Erhard and est were known for training people to get "It", a concept taken from author, teacher and expert communicator Alan Watts. At the time Erhard arrived in the Bay Area, Watts was teaching his version of Zen to small groups on his houseboat in Sausalito. Erhard, like Watts, would teach people to "Get It." Watts, however, did most of his teaching through books. His seminars were small. Erhard and his trainers would not teach through books, but in large hotel ballrooms and auditoriums to hundreds at a time.
(Writing about a program that no longer exists and that was taken by hundreds of thousands of people is risky, to say the least. Clearly, the experiences of those who took the program varied greatly. Whatever I say that resonates with one group of participants will seem false to another group. What follows is an attempt to reflect the background and the experience of est, but the reader should realize that whatever I say will be inadequate, perhaps even false, for some participants.)
est adopted, in part, the Zen master approach, which was often abusive, profane, demeaning, and authoritarian. (One of my favorite Zen stories is of the master who asks his disciple a series of questions. No matter what the disciple answers, the master hits him with a stick. Even contradictory answers are met with the stick. The result is not resentment but enlightenment. If you stick around long enough, life will teach you this lesson for free: no matter what you do, it hits you with its stick!) While many participants did not perceive the training as particularly abusive, some were not used to the discipline requested of them. Some have claimed that one typically abusive approach was the requirement of extraordinary bladder control in est training. Participants were advised not to leave the room, even to go to the toilet, during training. According to one est participant, however, "bathroom breaks were scheduled at regular and reasonable intervals....Two or three rows at the back of the room were reserved for those who required more frequent bathroom breaks (and I think either some sort of documentation or personal insistence were required to qualify). No one was ever physically required to stay in the room at any time" (personal correspondence). (This aspect of est training was humorously ridiculed in the movie "Semi-Tough" (1978) with Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristoferson.) In any case, one should expect some sort of discipline and required order for this kind of training. Having people come and go as they please is distracting and not conducive to the concentration necessary for such a program.
Erhard and Scientology
In the late 1960s, Erhard studied Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard became a significant influence. Scientologists to this day accuse Erhard of having stolen his main ideas for est from Hubbard. We do know that when Erhard set up est he considered making it a non-profit, as Hubbard had done with dianetics and the Church of Scientology. But Erhard decided to incorporate as an educational firm for profit in a broad market.
Erhard and his supporters accuse Scientology of being behind various attempts to discredit Erhard, including hounding by the IRS and accusations of incest by his children. Erhard won a lawsuit against the IRS and the incest accusations were recanted. Erhard has claimed he has good evidence that Scientologists made a strong and concerted effort to destroy him.
est is not dianetics
est bears little resemblance to Dianetics or Scientology, however. est is a hodgepodge of philosophical bits and pieces seemingly culled from the carcasses of existential philosophy, motivational psychology, Maxwell Maltz's Psycho-cybernetics, Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts, Freud, Abraham Maslow, L. Ron Hubbard, Hinduism, Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, P. T. Barnum, and apparently anything else that Erhard's intuition told him would work in the burgeoning human potential market. (I'm not saying that such eclecticism is a bad thing or that Erhard consciously constructed est out of just these sources. I employ bits and pieces from many of the same sources in my teaching. In fact, after a Socratic performance on the first day of an Introduction to Philosophy course, a student once blurted out: "This is just like est!")
What did Erhard promise those who would shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars for his programs? He promised he would "blow their minds"* and "empower" them "to produce effective action." He would enable them "to produce new ways of working." He would transform the basis of their communication. They would be able "to cause life instead of just living it." "Werner Erhard held out the tantalizing promise of transformation, a word and a concept never precisely defined in the fuzzy syntax-twisted jargon of est" (Pressman 1993).
Where did Erhard get his training? Mostly, he is self-taught. His study was undirected and accidental. In 1960 he was John Rosenberg, a 25-year-old married with children. Apparently dissatisfied with his life but with no Large Group Awareness Training available to him, he did what many unhappy men have done: he abandoned his family. He left Philadelphia and went to St. Louis, changed his name and sold cars. Some might find it interesting that a Christianized Jew (his parents had him baptized in the Episcopal church) would come to identify himself with a German name. Of more interest to his transformation, however, are the books he read and was influenced by. William Warren Bartley III (Werner Erhard: the Transformation of a Man) tells us that Erhard was "profoundly dissatisfied with the competitive and meaningless status quo" and was deeply affected by Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich.
Hill also advised visualizing objectives and selecting similar-minded friends. Hill gives good advice, but it is very vague and is not very systematic. It doesn't offer much to people who haven't got a clue what their objectives are or should be. Some of his ideas can be harmful, if not properly applied. For example, some people are taught that they should always talk positive, even if this means lying. Even if you haven't made a sale in two years, you must put on a positive front and tell everyone that business couldn't be better. Even if you know nothing about the product you are selling, you must praise it beyond belief. Even if you are experiencing one failure after another, you must lie to yourself and tell yourself that you are doing great. You must never blame the product for not selling. You must try harder, have more faith, be more positive. The est training was not, however, a prelude to, say, The Secret, where the message is an extension of Hill's think it and it will become so philosophy. est was not just more Norman Vincent Peale.
Another significant influence on Erhard was Maxwell Maltz's Psycho-cybernetics. As a young man, Erhard apparently had a lot of negatives in his self-image and was deeply affected by Maltz who emphasized, among other things, self-hypnosis.
Erhard put his new ideas and new self to work as a traveling salesman for a correspondence school. The basic idea he came to espouse is that we've developed debilitating habits and beliefs. The point is to get rid of them and replace them. As one participant said, his est trainer told them that
Another participant describes what he got out his est training this way:
For Sobel, the training was something like one might expect in a Zen Buddhist retreat:
This is the sound of one hand clapping for itself, I guess.
By the time Erhard arrived in San Francisco, he'd had jobs selling and managing salespersons for Great Books and Parent's magazine. He became part of the self-help movement after hiring Robert Hardgrove, who introduced Erhard to the work of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Maslow and Rogers were unique in psychology at the time, for they emphasized not the disturbed or ill person, but the healthy, happy, satisfied, accomplishing person. The human potential movement was just getting started and Erhard would be in on the ground floor.
It is estimated that some 700,000 people did the training before the seminars were halted in 1991, when Erhard packed up and left the country [Faltermayer]. There must have been a lot of satisfied customers to rack up that kind of participation over twenty years. He sold the est "technology" to some followers who established Landmark Forum. Erhard's brother, Harry Rosenberg, heads Landmark Education Corp. (LEC), which does some $50 million a year in business and has attracted some 300,000 participants. LEC is headquartered in San Francisco, as was est, and has 42 offices in 11 countries. Apparently, however, Erhard is not involved in the operation of LEC.
Barry, Dave. "Altered States" in The Miami Herald, April 13, 1997. (Humorist Dave Barry takes Peter Lowe's SUCCESS 1997 12-hour success seminar featuring Anthony Robbins, Elizabeth Dole, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Brian Tracy, Lou Holtz, Jim Morris, Peter Lowe, Pat Riley, Dr. Ted Broer, George Bush, and Dan Kennedy.)
Robert Todd Carroll
|Last updated 12/03/07|