Note: The views expressed on this blog are my personal views and are not the views of Landmark.
In September of 2016 I completed a weekend seminar called the Landmark Forum in San Francisco.
It took three close friends, recommending it to me in three separate conversations, to get me there. I was very skeptical that a self-help seminar had anything to teach me, but decided it couldn’t hurt to check out one of the most popular training programs in the world. I have a training business, and I figured I could write it off as competitive research, if nothing else.
My first experiences with Landmark were off-putting, to put it charitably. The people who greeted me the first morning were suspiciously happy. The marketing was comically corny, models in stock photos smiling back from shiny brochures.
Walking into a room of about 150 people, I was greeted with the following statements written on a big poster:
In the forum, you will bring forth the presence of a New Realm of Possibility for yourself and your life.
Inside this New Realm of Possibility:
— The constraints the past imposes on your view of life disappear. A new view of life emerges
— New possibilities for being call you powerfully into being
— New openings for action call you powerfully into action
— The experience of being alive transforms
I was confused. I’d never encountered so many words with so little concrete meaning. I wrote them in my notebook to decipher later. Despite the initial worrying signs, I decided I would go along for the ride for three days and an evening.
The first “distinction” (or lesson) we learned was “stories.” It’s a familiar concept — that we create narratives to explain our life experiences. And then we forget that we were the ones that created those interpretations, and we live as if they are real.
These stories become the lenses through which we see, hear, and feel. Anything that confirms the story we latch on to as confirming evidence, and anything that doesn’t, we often dismiss. This pattern of seeing what we want to see and hearing what we want to hear is called having “blindspots.” What we miss because of our blindspots makes us suffer, holds us back from what we want in life, and suppresses our freedom, power, self-expression, and peace of mind (the four benefits that graduates of the program voted were the most impactful on their lives).
As I said, it’s a very familiar concept. In fact, everything I heard in the Forum was familiar. I can’t think of a single thing that I hadn’t heard before in a book, a course, or a talk of some kind.
But here is where Landmark is different — the conceptual lesson is just a starting point, not the main event. It is distilled down to the absolute minimum required to take action, instead of endlessly elaborated on. The Forum is designed to bring these concepts from “the stands,” where we sit passively as observers, and onto “the court” of our lives, where they become real.
The facilitator invited participants to go up to the mic with questions, comments, and challenges, and the stories started flowing. I was struck by how easy it was for me to see the stories of others, and how apparently difficult it was for them to see their own.
One woman had a story that her parents had abandoned her, working late every night at the convenience store they owned. After just a few gentle questions from the facilitator, she uncovered another perspective: that her parents had worked so hard for so many years only to provide for her and her sisters, who they loved more than anything else in the world.
Committed to her own interpretation, she’d resented them for years. Besides the distance in their relationship, there was a clear impact on her: every time she was on the verge of a promotion as a corporate executive in the pharmaceutical industry, she pulled back, because “committing too much” to her work raised the specter of “abandoning” her own kids.
Again and again, people revealed the powerful filters they had placed on their experience of life. One young woman sobbed as she recalled her father accusing her of shoplifting a small item at a grocery store when she was 9 years old. This one incident, burned in her memory as a child, outweighed years and years of her father’s care in her mind, informing her view of him as unloving and uncaring.
In paired sharing, I talked to a young man my own age who had been the youngest of 9 children, and the only one who hadn’t been physically abused. His story was that of the survivor — that he didn’t deserve to be spared, and was somehow culpable for what had happened to his siblings. Even after a brilliant career at some of Silicon Valley’s most prestigious companies, that story weighed on him. He was still living out the self-sacrificial script of a martyr, trying to make up for an imaginary debt he thought he owed.
We live our lives looking for evidence that our stories are true. We want to be right more than we want to be free. More than we want close and intimate relationships. If the story is “I’m not good enough,” then we’ll either try a bunch of things, all the while looking for evidence that the story is true; or we’ll try nothing, assuming it’s true. In either case, the story is confirmed.
By the end of day one, I was beginning to suspect I might have some stories of my own.
This period of my life was a hard time. After three years of hard work on Forte Labs, I had the business of my dreams. And the business of my dreams was failing.
I had turned away from online courses after my second course, the first one I’d created with original content, hadn’t met sales expectations. The “story” I had made up to interpret that experience was that “online teaching simply isn’t profitable.” And that it especially isn’t profitable for me.
I began to pursue a series of other projects, taking on whatever I could to survive. The money was actually pretty good, and the clients prestigious, but it was missing what I loved the most — working directly with people on real challenges in their lives, especially people that couldn’t afford high-priced consulting and training.
I began to sink slowly into depression, using work to forget and to distract myself. I withdrew from my communities, from my friends, and even from my family, racing faster and faster toward goals I was sure would provide the satisfaction I was seeking. My health deteriorated, but I couldn’t find the motivation to change my lifestyle. I withdrew further, telling myself that I would return to my social life once things got better.
I remember one day walking to a local coffee shop when the cabin fever of working at home got unbearable. Walking up to the cashier to order my drink, I felt an intense wave of social anxiety, something I had never experienced before. I had become afraid of people. I had become afraid that someone would see how dysfunctional my life had become. I feared that they would point out what I deeply suspected — that I was a hypocrite, selling visions of professional success while my own life fell to pieces.
So I worked harder. I did more research, put in more hours, polished every nook and cranny of my online presence to a bright gloss. As bad as it was, I couldn’t face the alternative: that the business of my dreams had failed. It felt like if that happened, that I would have no future. Turning away from what was supposed to be the pinnacle of success, the only option I could see for myself was work that was less fulfilling, less interesting, and less rewarding.
As you can probably tell, this was all a big story. Not the lived experience, which was as real as anything. But the drama, the stark tradeoffs, the black-and-white thinking. It is when life becomes dull, restrictive, and threatening that you know you’re living in a story, not reality.
I sat in the Forum looking for a breakthrough that would help me bring my business back to life. And instead, I got my father, front and center in my mind. I kept trying to push the thought aside. My relationship with my father was fine.
And slowly, as we talked and shared, the layers peeled back. I had a story that I was uniquely messed up, because of how my father had raised me. He had been too harsh, too judgmental, had failed to listen and to support me growing up. Because of that, my story went, I couldn’t have the self-confidence, self-acceptance, and happiness I craved.
This was, we soon learned, a “racket.” We blame others for things that happened in the past, making our case look as plausible and sympathetic as possible. We maintain lists of all the things our parents, our ex-’s, our former friends, and our ex-bosses did so, so wrong. We collect mountains of evidence supporting these judgments. But we are always innocent in our stories, victims of their inexcusable behavior.
The second distinction, of rackets, is that this blaming is often a pretense. It’s a way of concealing what’s really going on behind the scenes: we are getting a payoff. We get to be right (or make them wrong). We get to dominate them (or avoid their domination). We get to justify our behavior (or invalidate their behavior). We get to win (or make them lose). The ultimate purpose of a racket is to avoid responsibility.
A man blames his ex-wife for the failure of their marriage. But it is a pretense to justify his own less-than-stellar behavior in the relationship. A woman blames her lack of decisiveness for her business troubles, but it’s a pretense to protect her from ever having to take a real risk, to put something on the line (yes, you can have a racket against yourself). A recent college graduate blames the job market for not offering opportunities, but it’s just a distraction from the lack of preparation he hasn’t taken responsibility for (rackets don’t have to be against specific people). By selectively inflating the wrongdoing of others, our own responsibility is diminished in comparison.
The way out of the racket, with its sweet, juicy payoff, is to clearly see the cost. There is always a cost — love or affinity, vitality or wellbeing, satisfaction or self-expression. The cost ultimately boils down to the experience of aliveness. Over time, the payoff gets less and less enticing, and the cost grows steadily worse. Eventually we become like drug addicts, giving away much of what makes life worth living to buy even the tiniest amounts of self-justification.
I called my father, and followed the step-by-step format that we were coached through. I told him what I had been pretending: that he had “messed me up” and therefore my problems in life were his fault. I told him what that façade had been designed to conceal: that I had not taken responsibility for many areas of my own life, including my relationship to him as a son and a friend.
I told him the impact this had had on me: hiding things in my life that I didn’t think he’d approve of, silently judging him because I didn’t think he could handle what I had to say, avoiding rooms he was in because I couldn’t feel at ease with him around. The impact was that I had nothing more than a “cordial” relationship with the most important and influential man in my life.
I told my father that I loved him, with complete sincerity for perhaps the first time in my life. I told him that he had done a good job raising me into a man. And I thanked him for being the source of my life.
Saying these words was incredibly difficult. I had to choke them out through tears. As I said what I had to say, I had a vivid image in my mind of handing over my most precious treasure chest. My resentments and justifications stored inside like prized jewels. As I pushed it over, the chest opened, and there was nothing but trash inside.
Saying what I had to say, it felt like a thousand pound weight being lifted off my chest. I understood at that moment the saying, “Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” You don’t stop resenting for their sake. You stop it for your own sake.
I’m not going to give away what happens on Day 3. I’ve tried, and it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever without having lived it. The Forum is a personal discovery, unique to each person, not a concept to be dissected and analyzed.
By day three, you have the foundation and the language as a group to move at a breathtaking pace. The paradigm-shifting moments I had looked forward to having every year or two with my own efforts happened about every hour.
I got clear that what was getting in my way was my constant desire to change. Trying to fix myself and everyone around me, I was blinded to how perfect we already are. Here and now, not someday or eventually.
I got clear that the only constraints I face are the ones in my stories. And I am the one telling them. I am the source of the language that shapes my experience, which means I can change it. I get to say how my life goes, and what kind of life is available to me.
Walking out of that conference room, I felt unleashed.
I walked away from the Landmark Forum with a whole new relationship with my father as my biggest breakthrough.
It’s been almost a year and a half, and it’s only gotten better since then. He’s no longer a threat to me, no longer an angry and closed-minded curmudgeon I have to contain and avoid. He’s a friend and a partner in life. We can tell each other anything, even on topics where we don’t agree.
That would have been a pretty good result from a weekend, but what happened next took me by surprise.
I went back to my business, and everything started going differently. Meetings I’d dreaded started turning into meaningful conversations. Conversations that I hadn’t known how to navigate started turning into opportunities. Opportunities that I hadn’t been able to see before started turning into projects.
The lens I’d held up for my father had also been skewing my view of everyone else. I no longer sat down with an executive or a training manager already on the defensive, already expecting them not to like what I had to say. I actually started getting curious about what was going on over there, with them, instead of circling around my own head. I was able to see people simply as people, no better or worse than me, but with a need I could help with.
Over the next few months, I rebuilt my life. I opened myself up to my communities, which had been waiting there all along. I expressed what I was going through to my girlfriend, my friends, and my family, who in retrospect, had always been listening. I looked at my business with clearer eyes, letting go of projects that I’d taken on to reinforce my ego or avoid failure.
Landmark offers a whole curriculum of courses, on everything from communication to integrity to money to leadership. You get to choose your own adventure. A couple months later I took the Advanced Course, the followup to the Forum. While the Forum is about freeing you from your past, the Advanced Course has you design a new future.
The day after I finished the Advanced Course, on Monday morning at 8am, I walked into a Whole Foods cafe in Oakland and wrote out this note. This was the future I had designed in the seminar. It was to be a new online course, on note-taking and personal knowledge management, that I’d been thinking about for several years but had never been able to get started on.
I could see now the story that had been running in the background: that my success depended on me doing everything perfectly. This story had me endlessly revising and polishing my writing and my products, never convinced that they were quite good enough. It had me doing every last little thing myself, not asking for and sometimes even refusing offers of help (“They won’t do it right”). I had the experience of working harder and harder to try and “catch up” to an impossible standard I’d set for myself, but feeling like I was falling further and further behind. The piling debt and unpaid taxes weren’t the worst consequence of my unyielding perfectionism — it was the experience of myself as constantly stressed, anxious, self-critical, and resigned that it would ever change.
I decided to write a new story for myself: that I could work closely with others, with all the vulnerability, risk, and messiness that entails. I decided that people would no longer be threats to me, but rather the most precious opportunities in my business and my life.
I got to work on my new course that day, but in a completely different way than I had before — holing up for weeks and weeks of solitary work confined in my apartment. The first thing I did was ask 10 of my followers to work with me to develop it, meeting with me for 1 hour every week for 6 weeks. Each week I would concentrate on producing just one unit of material, and showing it to them for feedback. The perfectionism that had kept content development clenched tightly in my iron fist was, simply, gone. Those six weeks included some of the most gratifying, collaborative conversations of my career.
Even after 6 weeks, I only got to about 50% completion. There were too many unknowns to be able to make all the decisions upfront, and I needed to call on another group for help. I decided to start selling the course before it was finished, and at a price ten times the usual one: $500 instead of $50. I remember sitting at my computer as sales began, terrified that no one would even visit the page, much less pay me that much money for an incomplete product.
But 50 people took a bet on me. With their help, I completed the course, finalizing each week’s content based on their real-time feedback. I was open and transparent about what was missing and where I wasn’t sure. And not only did I not die from revealing something imperfect — my customers unanimously agreed that “seeing how the sausage was made” taught them as much as the course itself.
I’d discovered a new “way of being” — connected, vulnerable, fearless, generous. And that is far more valuable than any habit, tactic, or framework.
That new future has become my present. I did three more cohorts of the course, making huge improvements each time. I hired a course manager and later, coaches, making it into a world-class training for a new way of working. In 2017 I nearly quadrupled the previous year’s income, while having far more fun, making many new friends and collaborators, and staying connected to my body, my communities, and my purpose in the world.
One year later, Building a Second Brain has become a movement. We launched a self-paced version, which will allow many times the number of people to learn the material. I have an editor, a lawyer, and a group of reviewers supporting me as I turn it into a book. I work with a decentralized, remote team of 4 outstanding people, driving toward our goal of transforming how people work.
How can I explain how all this happened? I had all the content, all the skills, all the tools, all the contacts, and all the knowledge I needed. There was no fundamental insight I had to have, or new framework with step-by-step instructions. The Forum isn’t about giving you something new — it’s about taking away what’s in the way.
I’ve become a passionate advocate of the work that Landmark is doing. I know of nothing that comes remotely close in its ability to change lives in so short a time. About a dozen of my friends and family have taken it since then. Every one has come back to thank me for sharing with them one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives (especially the skeptical ones).
The people I’ve met there have become some of my closest friends, and more recently, collaborators. I’ve seen personal miracles time and time again, from nothing more than having conversations about our lives and what’s important to us. I’ve had to question everything I thought I knew about humans, and how much can change in how short a timeframe. That questioning has been challenging at times, but it has left me with a vastly expanded sense of what is possible.
I’ve waited a long time to write about my experiences at Landmark. The ones I’ve included here are just a drop in the bucket. I waited to tell this story because I wanted to see if the results would last. I wanted to be sure it wasn’t just a temporary emotional high, before putting my reputation behind it.
At this point, I am absolutely convinced that it works, that it lasts, and that this is some of the most important education going on in the world today. I recommend the Forum above my own courses and programs. The ability to see past your own interpretations and take full responsibility for your experience are absolutely fundamental to changing how you work, but go far beyond productivity. The work that Landmark does enables so many kinds of learning, growth, and change, my own work included.
There are a lot of personal growth experiences I’ve benefited from, as I’ve written about before on this blog. But making a real impact on this world is going to require something different. Most people can’t take 10 days off for a silent meditation retreat, or spend thousands of dollars for a week at Burning Man. Most will not go on Ayahuasca excursions in Peru or float in sensory deprivation immersion tanks. Those are priceless experiences, but we need something more integrated into daily life. Something that happens in normal, everyday conversations and relationships, and that we can participate in after work and on weekends. And that is the Landmark Forum.
The best way to see what the Forum is about is to attend a 3-hour introduction. Visit this page for more information and to find local times and addresses.
I especially recommend attending a “Special Evening,” a larger introduction led by a Forum Leader periodically in major cities. These sessions are facilitated by the people who actually lead the Forum, and use many of the same formats and distinctions, so you can get a sense of what it’s like.
Note: The views expressed on this blog are my personal views and are not the views of Landmark.
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