The Sydney Entertainment Centre is filled with a roaring crowd. We are on our feet, stamping, clapping and cheering. Coloured lights flash on stage as an announcement comes over the loudspeaker. The smell of sweat and anticipation emanates from every body. It’s the final session of the National Achievers Congress, and Donald Trump is about to take the stage.
He gets a rock-star welcome. His is a strange charisma. Within the first two minutes of his presentation he’s told us that one of the main reasons for entrepreneurs to get rich and stay rich is so ‘their wives won’t leave them when they can’t afford silk panties’. Yes, he uses the word ‘panties’. ‘The Donald’ gives a lot of cause to cringe. But he performs his role with aplomb. He encourages us to do what we love, focus on the positives and never, ever give up. He tells odd, entertaining stories, and praises Australian hairspray. And then he is gone.
My partner, Ross, was on a mailing list that offered us cheap tickets to the National Achievers Congress in early 2011. We both work in creative fields and occasionally use our skills in the corporate and business arenas, which means we sign up to a range of permission marketing lists from business gurus. We’re not ‘ra-ra’ types: we’re cynical, well-educated people who don’t like bullshit. Although, in the spirit of honesty, I must admit to a predilection for self-help books in my early twenties; I was a troubled soul. And Ross owns a Tony Robbins CD.
What made this particular offer stand out was the very low price and, to be frank, the huge drawcard of Donald Trump. We had watched both of Trump’s shows, The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice, and have a fascination for his larger-than-life persona. The congress itself would run for three days, and the other big names appearing were Robert Kiyosaki (author of Rich Dad Poor Dad), and Tony Robbins. From a total of 15 speakers only two were women (one being Kiyosaki’s wife).
After a coy conversation with each other (‘Really? You really think we should do it?’), Ross and I decided to take the plunge. A small investment, a big curiosity factor, and the chance to ascertain once and for all what Donald Trump’s hair was made from.
Attending the National Achievers Congress was like living for three days inside an arena-sized infomercial. I was expecting a workshop environment, with informative speeches and (the somewhat dreaded) group work – although with 10,000 people in attendance that was going to require a lot of rooms. By the end of the first presentation, the penny dropped.
These people were not going to give us useful information. They were going to tease us with their millions and tell us how easy it can be to achieve their kind of financial freedom … but only if we follow their methodology, which is highly specialised and practically impossible to master alone. Then they were going to thrill us with a special, one-off price for tuition and wait as we rushed to register. I could have clocked up at least $50,000 in workshops and offers by the end of the three days. $4995 seemed to be the going price for most deals, although Tony Robbins topped the list at $9995.
Monday morning began with a deafening remix of ‘Everybody Dance Now’ playing over the PA. Out bounced Gene McNaughton, our MC for the congress, a cross between Tom Cruise and Ned Flanders. He announced that we were people who wanted more. He told a story about the inspirational preacher at his church, which fell flat among the largely secular Australian audience. We were congratulated for being there. When Gene left the stage, ‘Thunderstruck’ blared about the auditorium. Then out ran Tony Robbins.
It was clear that many attendees had seen Tony before. They knew when to do the trademark arm move (you hold your arms above your head in a vibrating slingshot pose), and when he asked us to get up and dance – man, they really got up and danced. I envied their wide-eyed, shouting enthusiasm. Ross and I grimaced at each other and leapt around a bit.
Tony had a lot of positive messages, although he stressed that he is not one of those ‘positive thinking’ quacks. It was hard to dislike Tony and his infectious overenthusiasm for the potential lying inside each of us. Over the three days we were told by every speaker that we deserved a better life and more money (which was synonymous, apparently). This was followed by a more insidious message: If you don’t have what you want out of life, you have only one person to blame – yes, take a look at that man in the mirror. Structural poverty, discrimination and inequitable systems of wealth distribution were kept out of the picture.
Daniel Kertcher tried to inspire us to make monthly income from buying options on the stock market. I learned what ‘calls’ and ‘puts’ were. But we didn’t learn his technique – for that we would have to enrol in his course.
Adam Ginsberg explained that there are millions to be made from trading domain names. The future is here: where the buying and selling of website domains (i.e. invisible places that don’t yet exist) is a multi-million dollar industry.
I must confess to the occasional ripple of curiosity. Yes, I would like to work just a few hours a week from home and earn enough to give myself financial freedom. Yes, I do think I would be able to follow a step-by-step course and log on to the internet once a day to track my options. Why not?
Then there was Steve Clements, talking about how easy it is to make money purchasing tax liens in America. Investing in tax liens is a process whereby I purchase the tax lien to cover ‘Bob’ who is late on his property tax payment. When he pays, I get my money back (plus up to 36 per cent interest!) so it’s a great way to make a profit out of small investments. If he doesn’t pay, the bank forecloses on his loan and, according to an arcane American tax law, I – as the first lien owner – get clear and free title to the property. That’s right, I own Bob’s house. Sound like predatory opportunism that takes advantage of strangers’ economic difficulties? Yes. But who cares? Steve does it and he has a great life.
In one of his many affable anecdotes he recalled that when asked if he’d like to be the President of the United States, he replied: ‘Why would I want to be President? I’d have to live in a smaller house and take a pay cut!’
Remember the mantra: we all deserve to be rich. The only difference between rich people and poor people is that rich people have realised that they deserve to be rich. T. Harv Eker was at the highly motivational end of the spectrum. He told us that we all had an internal financial blueprint that determined how much money we thought we deserved. He guaranteed that every one of us would be capable of changing that blueprint – from ‘pauper’ to ‘millionaire’. He had us on our feet about every 15 minutes, high-fiving our neighbour and shouting ‘You’ve got the millionaire mind!’
There was a consistent theme among the speakers of early lives as misfits and losers. Nearly all had a story about not fitting in at school or having difficulty holding down a job. The sentiment of ‘sticking it to the man’ permeated their narratives. They were all vociferously anti-corporate, seeing themselves as hard-working business people who had figured out how to buck the system. The Occupy Wall Street movement was just beginning, and I was curious to find out where these speakers stood on the issue. I imagined they might identify with the rebellious spirit but I couldn’t see any of them wielding a placard for the greater good – their drive appeared to be more self-serving.
None more so than the truly bizarre Robert Kiyosaki, whom every speaker revered in the highest terms, but who seemed to me the epitome of right-wing individualism gone crazy. He told us the story behind his famous book, Rich Dad Poor Dad. When he was a boy he noticed that although his own father was a nice guy and ‘kind of smart’ (he had a PhD), he was basically a loser who knew nothing about money. His friend’s dad, however, was a rich, inspiring guy whom Robert liked a lot more.
Kiyosaki went on to explain how those who earn a wage or are self-employed are greedy and selfish because they are living off other people’s money and not giving anything back to society. Only entrepreneurs and investors are generous because they make money from money, creating employment for the greedy wage earners. He offered such gems as, ‘Only lazy people use their own money’ and, on getting a school education, ‘That bullshit they tell you about going to school is bullshit.’
He pushed every one of my lefty buttons. I wondered if his modus operandi was to provoke – if so, it definitely worked with me. ‘What about when you need a doctor, huh, Kiyosaki? What then?’ I wanted to shout down to the stage. ‘You might respect education and wage earning a little bit more when you’re lying on an operating table waiting for a heart bypass!’
I collected quotes and phrases throughout the three days, writing assiduously in my workbook. From the dozens of scribbles, I put together my own Top Ten of most unexpected lines intended to inspire.
1. The real risk of domain trading is not to do it.
2. If you’re very good, people throw money at you; if you’re very bad, money stays away from you.
3. Tax is a series of stimulus incentives for entrepreneurs and investors.
4. Stand naked in front of a mirror and ask, ‘Is this still the most magnificent machine on earth?’
5. I’d rather be hokey and rich than cool and poor.
6. It’s a recession – that means celebrate, everything’s on sale!
7. Aim to be the last to starve.
8. You make your own luck, but some people are more lucky.
9. Rich people don’t like other rich people. [This was my favourite – from Trump, who confessed to liking losers for friends so he always feels better than them.]
10. Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back ten times as hard. [Also, unsurprisingly, Trump.]
Over the three days I spent long periods looking around the auditorium. I felt sure I didn’t belong there – for me, it was a ‘fish out of water’ exercise. But who did belong? Who was there? And why had they come? Down on the floor was the VIP section. I could spy from our nosebleed vantage point a number of shoulder-padded, stiletto-wearing women and sharp-haired men, with zeal in their eyes and fake tan on their skin. My guess was that these were the ‘true believers’, serious about becoming millionaires. Or, at the very least, rubbing shoulders with as many entrepreneurial superstars as they could.
But up in the stands, around us, I was surprised at how ‘ordinary’ most people looked and acted. There weren’t any formal networking sessions as part of the proceedings. No doubt the ‘floor people’ were busy schmoozing away on breaks, swapping business cards and iPhone apps. Ross and I took the ‘softly softly’ approach and started gentle conversations with people while we queued for coffees at the food court next door (which we’d figured out was a much cheaper place to eat than the Entertainment Centre).
We met a couple who owned a child-care centre in rural New South Wales. They had skipped many of the sessions about investing and tax, just hoping for a bit of inspiration from Tony Robbins and T. Harv Eker. I spoke to musicians with dreadlocks seeking business tips, and a few older couples looking for extra income during retirement. In the ladies’ bathroom I overheard heated debates about the ethics of Steve Clements’s tax lien strategy.
There was a healthy vibe in the auditorium. People were enthusiastic and positive without being zealous. We all got excited for the handful of participants who won random prizes each day. There was great group cohesion as we collectively groaned at the endless and clumsy ‘closing’ pitch of Australian business coach Mal Emery (whose ‘set of steak knives’ routine ran for as long as his presentation).
At the close of the congress Ross and I shared a taxi to the airport with a friendly Estonian engineer who had just started his own company in Brisbane. He was an incredibly intelligent, candid person with a clear amount of business savvy. For him, some of the business tips and talks were useful, while others had no relevance.
This was an apt summary of the three days. We were a pretty smart crowd. We didn’t really believe our lives would change overnight by attending, but we were hoping for at least something to shift. While I felt alienated from the obsession with wealth that the speakers held so dear, I could identify with their more personal stories of following through with ideas, overcoming failures and sticking with what you want to do – no matter what. Those are basic skills you need to survive as any business owner or freelancer, creative artist or writer.
Have I got the millionaire mind? I doubt it. I don’t want that kind of wealth fiercely enough. I’m a person who likes the grey, who lives with a lot of doubt and many questions. And besides, T. Harv Eker quite rightly pointed out that I have an internal blueprint about money that may stop me from ever making much more than I do now.
The last thing we were offered at the congress was the opportunity to reprogram this blueprint – for free. Eker was willing to give everyone a complimentary ticket to his Millionaire Mind workshop.
The prospect was alluring. But once we landed home and embraced the cold Melbourne air, the shiny promise grew dim. Eker wasn’t really going to give us that secret for free. Surely it would just be an extended introduction geared at selling us the real workshop at a heavily discounted thousand-dollar price tag.
But if we learned nothing else from the congress, it was the old maxim: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. And so, perhaps wiser – and with a new batch of inspirational quotes to stick up close to our computers – Ross and I soon slipped into our old ways, getting back to the ordinary business of our real and humble lives. And there hasn’t been a pair of silk panties in sight.