Over a decade ago, Rhonda Byrne captured the nation’s attention with The Secret. My wife introduced me to Byrne’s book, video and “the law of abundance.” This law states that we are deserving of everything that we want and that there is an unlimited source of abundance for everyone.
It was not a new idea. Countless other self-help gurus had been peddling this idea. Some, like Napoleon Hill, did so in compelling prose. Others, like Esther Hicks, claimed to be possessed by the secret in the form of Abraham, sharing it like an oracle with the masses. With savvy marketing, a bevy of spiritual guides and a smattering of luck, Byrne burst into our lives. She let us all in on a secret previously known only to a cabal of great thinkers and achievers from Ben Franklin to Albert Einstein.
Adopt a mindset that you can have anything you wish for and — Boo Wah! Boo Waaah! — The horn of plenty will sound its music for you. Abundance will be laid at your feet. Despite some obvious spiritual gobbledygook, there was something very alluring at the heart of The Secret. I’m not religious, yet it piqued my curiosity. Questing for abundance was even endorsed in the Bible! “For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them” (Matthew 25:29).
So my wife and I took our $2.5 million retirement goal and multiplied it by ten. That was easy! I printed “$25,000,000” on a piece of paper and taped it to the ceiling above our bed. We got to work with a vague notion that the spirits of Aristotle, Ben Franklin and Andrew Carnegie — historical titans who rode The Secret to success — would infuse us. Riches would pour down on our bodies like smelted steel.
Recently, self-help real estate mogul and author, Grant Cardone, coined the now-omnipresent “10x Rule.” He’s just the next person in line to assume the abundance mentality mantle. This new not-so-secret idea states that since goal achievement requires tremendous effort, why not set goals that are massive, 10x greater than the goals we are currently setting.
Cardone suggests that we shouldn’t worry about time management or balance. Probably because he doesn’t have a book for that. Instead, he urges us to focus on abundance. Don’t think either/or. Instead, think all/everything.
The problem with certain pop psychology, self-help approaches like The Secret and The 10X Rule, is that they suffer from survivorship bias. Cardone trots out examples, including himself, of folks who have ridden the wave of abundance to success. Byrne did the same. But there’s no discussion of folks who adhered to the same philosophy on the way to much less success.
Looking back, I remember creating a comic book as a high school junior. In it, I visualized my future. My talisman of achievement was the red BMW sedan. I’d bought into the post-war American myth — happiness grew from things — despite the apparent evidence to the contrary. I grew up in an upper-middle-class New Jersey neighborhood just as divorce rates spiked. Despite a fair amount of red BMWs dotting driveways.
Perhaps my own parents’ divorce seeded my materialism at the time. I became more things-focused. I was primed to become bewitched by the abundance mentality.
Which brings us back to that weightless paper — that sword of Damocles — hanging over our heads. When my stepfather stayed in our room for the night, he winked at me the next morning.
“How’s that goal coming?”
I dismissed his sarcasm. He clearly didn’t possess the secret.
Though the $25 million spigot never opened up, I created a successful youth financial education brand, produced an award-winning video and authored three children’s books. Writing a children’s book satisfied a goal I’d held since middle school and gave me the confidence to write my first book for adults — to help parents raise money-smart kids (and somewhat ironically classified as self-help).
Perhaps I was motivated by the success of a different sort. I’m partial to how the author, journalist and educator, Esther Wojcicki, defines it, “One is successful when they believe in their dreams, they have support to achieve those dreams and they feel pretty good about themselves.”
I now appreciate that I’ve had at least some small success. Defining success and understanding what motivates me has helped me put the lack of major monetary success (relative to our “secret” goal) in perspective.
Money, it turns out, is not the motivator many claim it is. Harvard researcher Dan Gilbert provides some perspective in Stumbling on Happiness, “We don’t care about money or promotions or beach vacations per se; we care about the goodness or pleasure that these forms of wealth may (or may not) induce.”
The Enemy (of Appreciation)
We live a block south of the main gate of Paramount Studios, the massive movie-making conglomerate. My morning jog takes me a few blocks south to the immense wealth of Los Angeles’ Hancock Park area. This well-known study from Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton tells me that income may perhaps provide them/us with greater life-satisfaction, I also know that they’re/we’re no happier on a day-to-day basis.
In Happy Money, researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton tell us, “Around the world, wealthier individuals are more likely to say they felt stressed on the previous day.” noting that this may be due to time poverty. “Greater material affluence may fail to yield more happiness in part because of the diminished time affluence it often brings.”
Dunn notes, “knowing we have access to wonderful things undermines our happiness by reducing our tendency to appreciate life’s small joys.” A focus on abundance pulls us out of the present. Adds Dunn, “If abundance is the enemy of appreciation, scarcity may be our best ally.”
As anyone who has cultivated any sort of meditation routine knows, there is great power in awareness and the difficulty of maintaining that state. Author and Waking Up meditation app creator Sam Harris notes, “The reality of your life is always now. And to realize this, we will see, is liberating. In fact, I think there is nothing more important to understand if you want to be happy in this world.”
As I was writing The Art of Allowance, my friend and writer, Sylvia Jaunzarins, suggested I look through Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, to inspire my own guide. I successfully worked my way through the first half of the KonMari method, winnowing my wardrobe down to less than fifty items.
I splurge in small areas — fewer shirts, but higher in quality ones in some cases. Quality pens for drawing. I do not deny myself wants. I just prioritize them. I am reducing choice to appreciate what I’ve chosen. I’m following Adam Grant’s advice from Give and Take that “Voluntary simplifiers are happier. Profound self-deniers may not be so much.”
Whatever you might think of Ms. Kondo’s “spark joy” filter, what seems superficial and maybe silly is a surprisingly good filter for life’s stuff. And there is tremendous value in cutting out the non-essentials because they act as a kind of mental weight — a bit like that paper hanging over us.
Perhaps the secret is not to focus on abundance. Maybe the secret is to do as the Dalai Lama suggests:
“Want what we have.”