x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Mr Motivator leaves a Dubai audience with more questions than answers

We check out one of Joesph McClendon's self-help seminars, and leave with more questions than answers.

The motivational speaker Joseph McClendon speaks at a seminar in Dubai’s Knowledge Village.
The motivational speaker Joseph McClendon speaks at a seminar in Dubai’s Knowledge Village.

For a billion-dollar industry that prides itself in giving people answers, self-help seminars sure know how to pile on the questions.

The posters promoting the arrival of the "Number 1 Performance Specialist" Joseph McClendon III to Dubai's Knowledge Village Auditorium last week, in an event hosted by the personal development events company Middle East Leaders, was riddled with them: "Are you tired of living among the mediocre, and ready to thrive among the ultra-successful? Would you enjoy healthier relationships and a more fulfilling job? Can you imagine a better life for yourself? Do you want more?"

It turned out that hundreds of people, a mix of the obviously successful and those aspiring to be, had no problem answering "yes" and parting with three hours of their time and at least Dh500 of their hard-earned cash.

Pre-show McClendon stands at the window of a nearby lounge, gazing mournfully at the growing traffic cramming the Knowledge Village's narrow roads. Then he turns around with a grin large enough to light up the room.

He is trim, clad in a navy blue suit with a white shirt, casually unbuttoned at the top.

The 58-year-old McClendon, as can be seen from his YouTube videos, is a non-stop ball of energy. Prowling the stage, mixing anecdotes and lecturing with the deftness of a boxer, he also has a large repertoire of vocal tones that includes high-pitched shrieking to illicit excitement and a more forceful version, resembling an indignant lecturer.

"I don't take it for granted that when I get on stage the magic will happen," he says. "There is a ritual that I go through before I walk on stage and because I do that I am what I am."

In addition to researching the backgrounds of some of those in the audience, McClendon also does breathing exercises and some stretching to prepare.

"My outcome is I don't care who they are, I am going to get across something that will help them. They can hate my guts or love me, but I will give them something of value."

According to his bio, McClendon's path to self-actualisation began after he was raised in a stable family in Lancaster, California. The downward spiral of anger and depression only began when he was the victim of a racially motivated attack. It was almost 40 years ago that he crashed his prized Harley Davidson, prompting a mechanic to offer to repair the damaged bike if the cash-strapped Mclendon would read Napoleon Hill's classic Think and Grow Rich.

Reading the book, which McClendon claims changed his life, prompted him to become a life coach. In 1986 he teamed up with the guru of self-help, Tony Robbins. They wrote the best-selling book Unlimited Power: A Black Choice, based on Robbins's successful self-help book but adapted to an African American audience. McClendon now serves as the head trainer and instructor at Robbin's Leadership programme, Mastery University, which has a faculty that includes the American general Norman Schwarzkof and the financial whiz Peter Lynch.

When McClendon enters the near-full auditorium, it is to a rock-star welcome. And he is all show business, peppering his performance with academic references - according to his biography he holds a PhD in the neurosciences - as well as those from the world of hip-hop.

McClendon promises he will "tear the roof off" the auditorium, repeatedly issuing Michael Jackson-style whoops of excitement.

In three hours he gleefully trashes common perceptions of personal development.

"It is not have-do-be," he insists. "Instead it is be-do-have... that is why we are not called 'human having' or 'human doing' - it is 'human being'!" Cue gasps of acknowledgement from the crowd. Showmanship aside, however, the day did impart some insight.

Change requires rehearsal, he explains. It is only through sheer repetition that new and better habits can lodge itself into our nervous systems, becoming a permanent - rather than fleeting - addition.

The seminar had its share of cringeworthy, touchy-feely moments: at separate intervals the audience members were exhorted both to pat themselves on the back and to execute a "personal high five" (a move that resembles a tennis serve).

However, there were also some real moments that would give pause to even the biggest cynics. At one point a young Dubai mother tearfully confessed her obsession with the fear that her six-year-old son may not live long enough to be an adult.

Bringing her on stage, McClendon put her through a series of mental exercises designed to disrupt her negative mental patterns - prompting her at the end to say they were "taking a longer time to come back now". He then instructed her to repeat the exercises 10 times daily - guaranteeing her fears would dissolve.

Would she achieve lasting change? After just one afternoon, of course, it was too soon to tell - leaving one more question hanging in the air.