February 8, 2019   

How to Respond to Landmark “Graduates” When They Try to Recruit You

A few nights ago, someone I hadn’t spoken to in years called me and asked me how I was doing. I was happy to hear from him but felt curious about his motive. After we informed each other of what we have been up to, he told me that he has been involved with this organization called Landmark and that it made a profound impact on his life. As an example, he told me about the life-changing conversation he had with his mother. I’ve always felt sad for people who grew up in families that discouraged open communication. Many people I know are unable to tell their own parents what they are really thinking and feeling. Personally, I’m shocked by that. If you cannot speak your mind with your own family, obviously, you would not have anyone with whom you can speak your mind, unless, of course, you pay a lot of money to psychotherapists. That is depressing.

After our conversation, I did some research on Landmark. It’s an offshoot and variation of Est. Landmark has “Forum” where they teach their students how to erase whatever preconceptions they have about themselves and others, and to reengage them anew. This by itself is a good thing, and can indeed open many new possibilities in life. And, this is not unique to Landmark; I’ve personally participated in a few that have a similar framework. But where Landmark gets insidious is that it is a for-profit business and that they’ve incorporated a social marketing scheme into this very practice of engaging others.

These Landmark graduates are not financially compensated for recruiting their friends, but it would be disingenuous to say they receive nothing as they claim. Interactions between two people can be unfair even if no money is involved. We, humans, have many different motivations: fame, power, status, happiness, respect, etc., and in many cases of non-financial interactions, there is unfairness that makes us legitimately feel taken advantage of and therefore resentful. My conversation with my friend indeed left a bad taste in my mouth.

It is often said that the most valuable commodity today is attention. Selfish people often do not understand this. For instance, many email spammers would argue that our resentment towards them is overblown because all we have to do is to delete them. But if we are getting many of them every day, they add up to become a significant cognitive overhead. Some email marketers would also argue that their products or services would genuinely benefit us if only we would read them and try them. They feel they are doing us favors by letting us know about their great products and services. The reality of the matter is that some of them would indeed be beneficial for us. The issue, however, is that most of them are not; so if we read every spam we receive, we would be wasting many hours every day. This is partly why attention is the most valuable commodity today; we all have to prioritize the things we pay attention to. If we paid attention to everyone who requested our attention, we won’t be able to survive.

Imagine if we were bombarded with ten different representatives from organizations like Landmark and Jehovah’s Witness every day. If we sincerely paid attention to all of them, we won’t be able to survive. It’s the same problem with the homeless people in New York City. As badly as we might feel, it’s simply not possible to go up to every one of them and ask if we can help them. Doing so will make us homeless.

Landmark “graduates” are even more problematic than Jehovah’s Witnesses in that they exploit our friendship to demand our attention in order to achieve their own personal goals. The fact that some of their friends do end up appreciating the invitation does not make their sense of entitlement fair or ethical. It is exploitative, and the fact that our “friends” would do such a thing can hurt on the receiving end.

Just to be clear, there is nothing wrong with the techniques Landmark uses to allow its members to achieve their psychological breakthroughs. Having heart-to-heart conversations with families, friends, and colleagues can be a cathartic experience for many people. By all means, you should embrace talking sincerely, directly, and honestly with everyone around you by erasing whatever preconceptions you have about them.

But, this is a separate issue from how Landmark markets its services. We need to make a clear distinction here. It is not necessary to understand what Landmark offers. The value of their services is a separate issue from how they market them. For any services/products, even if they are highly valuable to some people, it does not mean that you can market them by any way you want. We all still need to respect the fact that our attention is the most valuable commodity today.

Landmark embedded their social marketing scheme so shrewdly into their very framework of self-help that most people cannot differentiate these two aspects. After all, even Landmark Graduates have only 24 hours in a day. Their attention is limited. Because Landmark’s framework ties the effectiveness of recruitment to the fulfillment of their personal goals, they are incentivized to prioritize friends who are more likely to become recruits.

So, here is my suggestion for dealing with Landmark Graduates: You tell them that you will never accept their invitations, not because you don’t believe in psychological breakthroughs, but because you do not want the achievement of their personal goals to be the condition for your friendship. It does not matter how valuable the Landmark Forum is, because friendship is more important to you. After that, wait and see if they would still call you and offer their attention.