Landmark Education/Abd/Criticism of Landmark/Pyramid scheme

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From w:Pyramid scheme[1]:

A pyramid scheme is an unsustainable business model that involves promising participants payment or services, primarily for enrolling other people into the scheme, rather than supplying any real investment or sale of products or services to the public.[1][2]

Landmark is not a pyramid scheme, in short, because

  • It does not promise participants payment or services "for enrolling other people." Participants who bring guests or who cause course registrations are not given any payments or services, there is no reward system beyond possible acknowledgment, and receive no discounts on registration fees.
  • Landmark supplies training, a service. Some pyramid schemes offer a token product to avoid laws about payments for nothing, such as simple chain-letter devices. So the payment induced in the chain letter may be titled a payment for a report on something. The training in Landmark has a high cost to provide, the Forum is probably run close to break-even (it is actually cheaper than similar courses provided by non-profits).

So why is Landmark called a "pyramid scheme"?

  • Some people, criticizing Landmark, are looking for some perjorative word to use.
  • Landmark resembles a pyramid scheme in one way.

Participants are encouraged to bring guests and to encourage friends and family to enroll in the Forum. That's a fact. It is, in fact, the only significant marketing done by Landmark.

Examples of the criticism[edit]

The number one hit when I googled "Landmark pyramid scheme" was

The account is fascinating, though perhaps more for what it reveals about the participant than what actually happens in the Forum.

Unlike what he claims, though, the Forum can apparently vary greatly. He refers to the "bible" followed. That would be the Format, which is what makes the Forum relatively uniform from place to place. It's a script, but somewhat like a script for an improv. It's an outline that the Leader may deviate from, as long as the topics are covered. (This participant may not be aware of it, but there is a Course Supervisor who may pass notes to the Leader. The Course Supervisor is not a Forum Leader. (I've seen an Advanced Course where two leaders were in training, and that was supervised by a Forum Leader, as a separate accountability from that of the Course Supervisor, who was still there in an elevated chair in the back, functioning as usual. The Forum is a community effort, but it is obviously also features the personality of the Leader, which has not been erased by the training. For better or worse.

In any case, for our topic here, this is the "pyramid scheme" section of this blog post:

At this point, i.e. at 11PM on the second day’, I told the coach that I cannot do the second assignment of enrolling people. I was called to the stage and asked questions like ‘What is enrollment?, ‘Are you coachable?’. He kept shouting at me about my arrogance, ego and shameless behavior and called me a jerk and an idiot with an analytical mind etc. I replied that I am coachable and agree to most of the content but not an unreasonable assignment. My thought was that, if I am benefited from LF content and course, I would anyhow ask people to join LF but why even before seeing any benefit at all?
He then pronounced that due to my arrogant behavior my wife and kids are struggling for years. He pronounced that even people like w:Rahul Dravid who attended the Landmark forum was very humble and felt that I do not seem to be coachable unless I agree to all rules. I said, I still have my conviction and analytical brain working even after two days of the forum and until I am convinced, I am not going to enroll people or do that part of the assignment.

I added the wikilink for Rahul Dravid. I winced on seeing this. I know exactly what happened to that Forum Leader: been there, done that. Facing something "wrong," I pulled out all the stops and forgot about my own integrity. Landmark does not, supposedly, reveal who has taken the courses, and certainly not in the Forum. There are famous people who come out and say they have done the program, that's up to them. Clear sign that the Forum leader has gone off would be that he argued with the participant. See what I link below for what I'll call a "strong" response to disagreement in the San Quentin est training. A Forum Leader who was himself "flat," not triggered, would not argue at all, there might have been one or two sentences of explanation leaving it up to the participant to choose their course of action. No upset, no make-wrong. Do the assignment or don't. And definitely no abuse of what the Forum leader can see, because of high experience: the issues of the participant, the raw edges, where the participant might be vulnerable, except with skill, which requires complete detachment. Of course, I wasn't there, and we are seeing this through the eyes of a very triggered and aroused participant. Yet the Forum leader did apologize (which is what I'd expect, and I've seen that from a Leader, usually much more quickly!)

After about 10 minutes of argument, he asked me to get out by taking money instead of spoiling the spirit of the forum. Obviously, a few more hands had risen in my support and he felt the threat of sabotaging the cause. I obliged stating that I am not convinced about their unreasonable marketing strategy and hence quitting. I was really boiling, I wanted to call him all that he had called me in the name of ‘coaching’ me but I thought that would affect a fraction of the people who were seemingly satisfied and benefitted having attended the forum.
(The leader called me up the next day, apologized for his rude behavior and asked me to come back. May be that was part of the strategy so that they don’t get sued for emotional abuse despite taking a lot of signed agreement from the participants. He said he’s keeping his ‘word’ of refunding the money. I said I don’t care about the money but your unethical marketing practices. And my Landmark Forum ended there after two whole stressful days!).

Reading this again, before saving it, I noticed his idea that the call was to avoid getting sued. No, no way. The Leader was straight, he'd been rude, and he apologized for it. Missing here is the participant realizing that he'd made up a story of "unethical behavior." I could say that the Leader may not have communicated that, but the conditions might be difficult and the Leader may have been trying to avoid justifying his own rudeness. (that's a "mixed apology," one that is more or less along the lines of "I was rude, but I had a good reason.")

The essential failing that I see was not communicating the purpose and function of having enrollment conversations, and that they never would involve any misrepresentation. If the participant is not inspired, then inviting people would be unethical for him. The assignment really was not for him, it was for those who were inspired, what is next?

("Share it!" That's how you keep it!) -- then, my original comment:

Forum Leaders are human beings. This one got angry. I've seen this only transiently with Forum Leaders here, it was recognized and dropped within seconds. The participant was also angry, "boiling," he says. The Forum Leader recognized his error, and called the participant, who flat-out did not recognize what had happened. There is a high probability, from my own experience and from watching that of others, that this incident could have been part of the breakthrough of this participant. I'd urge the reading of a report from early est, of a training at San Quentin State Prison, in an environment where conflict did not just simmer in the background, as it does for most people, it was immediately out and in-your-face. And the training resolved it, for most. They lost participants in that particular training, but apparently fewer compared to other prison trainings.[2]

It's remarkable that someone will walk out of a prison educational program, because it is, after all, a "captive audience." That is, it's likely to be much more exciting than the normal prison day! (I was a chaplain at San Quentin for some years.) The Forum confronts our standard expectations and our identity. It is no wonder that some walk out. And that's fine. If people are not ready to let go of their idea of who they are, they are not ready for the Forum, and it is likely to be perceived as an assault, it will trigger basic survival responses.

That confrontation was, here, created by the participant, it is clear -- unless there was something very unusual about that Forum. He volunteered that the "assignment" was "unreasonable." He wasn't asked if it was reasonable or not, and "reasonable" is actually something heavily confronted in the Forum. He had agreed to be "coachable," and he very clearly wasn't. "Coachable" doesn't mean that one does the impossible, how could it? It means that one will take on an assignment and attempt to do it.

I hated the Forum assignments. So what? I did attempt to do them, fairly weakly, and the result I got from my weak attempt was gratifying. The assignments definitely seemed "unreasonable" to me! Ridiculous, they were, just not something I would do. Which is exactly what is being confronted.

In fact, doing that assignment, as he understood it, would have been a Bad Idea for this participant, and that the Forum Leader didn't get that immediately and respond from that recognition, was part of the breakdown that happened. The Forum Leader may have taken it personally, perhaps running his own survival racket. Human beings do that. Very different from how the San Quentin est leader handled disagreement.

This participant did not attend Day Three, yet he continues to write a great deal more about the Forum, essentially speculating. For example:

Essentially after three days of stressful attending and a few phone calls you will be somehow convinced that life is meaningless and you have the power to make choices, deal with situations etc.

For this participant, attending was "stressful." For others, there may be no stress at all, or transient stress, but much more relief and an opening into freedom. He refers to this with "life is meaningless."

The actual distinction is "Life is empty and meaningless and it is empty and meaningless that life is empty and meaningless." The second part is crucial, because it avoids the harm of taking only the first part, which is what has somehow impressed itself on this participant.

He's not alone, a claim that Landmark is advocating meaninglessness is common.) What the "meaningless" distinction is actually doing is separating us from all the "meanings" that we have created, and connecting us with an underlying reality, "what happened" as distinct from "what we made it mean."

"Empty and meaningless" is not some grand philosophical statement, it is merely a tool, and a powerful one.

I would say that my own Forum was not stressful, but, then again, I did not "pop" in the Forum. What I did was to recognize what Landmark was doing, I connected it with a great deal of other work, including some of the material from which Erhard created the training. I also saw that it worked with many people, who were getting, in three days, what can take many years with other approaches.

I was still concerned about whether or not this would "stick," or be more like drug-induced "enlightenment," which can be transient. But I saw enough to know that I wanted to do the Curriculum. It was in the Advanced Course that I popped. And, yes, for a few hours, it was totally stressful. I was obsessed, ready to proclaim Landmark a cult, running on groupthink. However, I knew enough to see what was happening with me. I was essentially disabled, unable to communicate, convinced that everyone else was wrong, and that I was going to be odd man out, just like what had always happened to me. That was probably what did it. If this is always happening to me, maybe it's me!

w:Buckaroo Banzai says, "Wherever you go, there you are!" It is said in the Forum that there is one factor common in all your experience: you.

And then I could see how I created the situation. It was actually obvious, once I looked again at how conflict arose, who I was being when I strode to the microphone with my insight.

The participant here had an insight, and he took a stand, but how did he take a stand? He took a stand by fighting for it, by arguing that he was right and others were wrong. It's highly ineffective, in adult life, and, my guess, the Forum leader had cause for what he said. He then pronounced that due to my arrogant behavior my wife and kids are struggling for years.

The participant was unwilling to consider that his behavior might be "arrogant." Yet it was obviously arrogant. The participant (with perhaps some others in that Forum) was not able to distinguish between his stand (which was not wrong) and his behavior, "who he was being," asserting and defending his stand (which was unskillful, but probably so well-practiced that it threw a Forum Leader off his track, which isn't easy. Did the participant intend to get tossed out?)

The Forum Leader apologized. The participant did not, and carried his belief in his rightness, apparently still.

Many people don't invite family and friends during the Forum. Many do. Some do it well, some unskillfully. From my point of view, an area for the training to improve would be in how invitations are handled, because unskillful attempts are common, and cause damage.

Nobody is shamed for not inviting people, but this participant actually confronted the assignment as "unreasonable," and, more than that, as "unethical."

Nobody was asked to do anything unethical, nobody was asked to lie about their experience. He made that up. By this time in the training, many have "popped," they actually have something to convey. He hadn't, that's all. As I mentioned, I never popped in the Forum.

I did invite a guest, but he was actually a graduate of the est Forum from the 1980s. To even find that out took breaking through my assumptions about myself and about life, and to create his appearance at that Forum Tuesday completion session took totally unreasonable behavior on my part. So that part of the assignment ("Be unreasonable" may have been mentioned!) I did.

We all have stories about what we can and cannot do. We invented them.

Back to our topic here, he goes on:

They don’t do MLM or pyramid scheme in a sense that whoever signs up new people are not actually getting monetarily benefited. But in reality, it’s nothing but a very successful Viral marketing strategy that they have smartly invented.

It is a viral marketing strategy, that's a reasonable description. "Nothing but" is obviously false. There is something being marketed, that could be marketed in different ways. Landmark uses participant testimony to friends and family, probably because it keeps them relatively honest. If they are not successful in inspiring participants, "sales" will decline. There is another aspect to it: an ability to communicate is part of what is promised, and thus the "sales" is also a fundamental part of the training, it is not merely how the programs are sold. If we cannot "sell" ourselves or what is important to us, we are heavily disempowered.

So the "sales training" gets much more intense in the Self-Expression and Leadership Program, where it is applied to "selling" the community project one creates in that program. In that program, the things we do to sabotage our own ability to sell are confronted.

This happens even more intensely in the Introduction Leader Program, which can be ridiculously "stressful," and which is highly effective. In that program, the temptation to drop out because of the "stress" is high, and many do drop out, maybe a third?, and yet, having completed the program, I'll say that the stress was entirely my invention.

I created it by whatever level of uncoachability I was manifesting. In the end, the task of completing the Introduction Leader Program is simply a matter of showing up, being there, in the face of all the conditions that could conspire to prevent it, and being willing to listen to coaching and maybe sometimes even following it!

It's the same with the Forum. What would be so difficult about sitting in a room for three days? The Indian Forum described is a bit longer than the U.S. Forum, which could be a factor, though he doesn't really mention length as a problem. No, the stress was coming from the participant's identity.

I have difficulty, sometimes, listening to someone say something I think is "wrong." It's really a kind of obsession, and that obsession has damaged my life in many ways. This participant wasn't able to set aside his habits and just be present.

A goal of the training would be an ability to do that, to listen. So this Forum failed him, which would be why the Leader apologized, and I assume his registration fee was refunded, which would be proper under the circumstances.

He confuses possible "error" or "lack of skill" with "unethical," which, of course, is Bad and Wrong.

The comments on the blog are interesting.

(name omitted) 29. Jan, 2014 at 6:06 am #
Thanks Ajith.You have enlightened me. your experience and observations come from a person with deep conviction of his own point of view.i totally agree that coercive marketing , if i can say so and use the expression, will not go far. a more humane and participative approach is desired for even better and universally applicable results. do you agree. let us take this forward. i invite you to join hands and let us bring out an alternative to this forum. this will help more people without any pressure to enroll etc.

Notice the concept that the Forum helps people, that the "problem" is "coercive marketing" and "pressure." There is an active and ongoing conversation within Landmark about "pressure," it is very common for graduates to report high personal success with themselves but then dissatisfaction with "pressure."

What is missed by the naive is that "coercion/pressure" is one side of a spectrum that has, on the other side, "weak stand for others/indifference." In taking a stand for others, we may be experienced as "pressuring" them. Yet if we don't take a stand for others, we may see them in unnecessary pain and suffering, do we care?

So the training involves finding the sweet spot, and, in training, we may err in either direction. Further, an approach that works with someone who is ready for it, may not work, or even fail spectacularly, with someone else, so another part of the training is becoming exquisitely sensitive to others, fast to respond to error, not attached to "being right."

(name omitted) 24. Mar, 2014 at 12:22 pm #
Are there leaders and coaches paid by Landmark Forum?

The blogger replies:

26. Mar, 2014 at 8:15 pm #
I think they are heavily paid.

This is what we do with our stories: we make up facts to support them, and think those are true.

Forum Leaders are paid, yes. However, most Leaders in Landmark are not paid. The large bulk of the work involved in putting on the Forum is volunteer. Are the Leaders "heavily paid"? Forum Leaders work full-time, typically with a grueling schedule. They are on-the-spot, for three days and an evening, one might forget that for those hours considered long, they are there, often standing and moving around, very actively leading. Much easier to sit in the seat! I watched Charlene Afremow lead the Advanced Course. In her seventies, I believe, vigorous, strong and clear.

(Charlene Afremow trained Werner Erhard in Mind Dynamics, immediately before he went out on his own.)

Landmark claims that executives are paid at the industry median, which would not be "heavily." The number of Forum Leaders has been relatively constant, in spite of new trainees, and Landmark bleeds Forum Leaders. Why? Because they can make much more money in regular industry, and as business consultants. One of my participants in the SELP had a business coach, a former Forum Leader. $500 per hour, and he was happy to pay it.

(name omitted) 01. Apr, 2014 at 5:54 pm #
I wonder why nobody who has attended the Forum says anything bad about it . All praise it like anything but no one could explain or convince me what actually will happen there. this is good info. finally. thanks

Unfortunate. Of course, it's not true that nobody who has attended it says anything bad. There are something on the order of two million people who have taken the Forum. There are plenty of "bad stories." However, it's also obvious that most people who attend the Forum have a positive experience. (Landmark claims well over ninety percent. From my experience, that's possible, and the "negatives" that are reported are often combined with positive, i.e., I loved it, but hated the "pressure to invite.")

It looks like this person commenting wanted to find something bad to have an excuse to decline. I'd tell the person they don't need an excuse. Just say no. No reason is needed. I highly advise against taking the Forum without an actual consent to be there, and I think even "I'm curious" may not be enough. A Forum Leader, however, told us in the Introduction Leader Program, asked by one of us what it was like to be in the room, Friday that Half the people are there to prove I'm wrong, and the other half are distracted or asleep. (not an exact quote, but the substance.)

What I know is that people who attend the Forum because they are highly motivated to get something for themselves, get something for themselves, it's like clockwork. People who go with other motives will often get what they want. Indeed, understanding that we create outcomes by what we "want" is an aspect of the training. (It may not seem like what we want, but it's something we declared, maybe many years earlier, and have never questioned.)

this comment from a successful participant is worth reading.

this comment as well.

this comment might be like my early reaction to Landmark, it was written two months after participation. I got more irritated about "sales" later, until my coach in the Self Expression and Leadership Program, a literally grizzled veteran, explained it to me. Basically, we are all in training, and much of what we do is missing something. Often, "skill." And what does it take to develop skill? Good intentions? Sure, but that's not enough. It takes practice and it takes making mistakes!

this comment is another positive one from a participant.

These comments don't make the blogger wrong, they don't attack him. They do explain what happened to him.

(name removed) Jul, 2014 at 5:39 pm #
Would you know if the “friends” are paid for getting their friends enrolled into the Forum?

The blogger replied:

11. Jul, 2014 at 7:19 pm #
I am not sure about that part. However, everyone that gets signed up is always via a friend or well wisher.

It's strange that he doesn't know. He did state the matter correctly in the blog itself.

If this were some multi-level marketing plan, the participants would have been offered compensation for getting people to come. He'd have known about it. There is no compensation at all, other than the satisfaction that can come from having a friend complete the Forum (which, I'll testify, can be enormous). There are also no discounts offered for signing anyone up.

Anyone in the Introduction Leader Program gets a discount on certain courses, while enrolled, it was $100 when I was in that program. (No seminar discount.) That's not dependent on any "measures," i.e., registrations, it is purely from being in the training. Candidated Introduction Leaders have met measures, which, for simplicity I'll say involves two truly personal registrations. (15 total registrations, but I had 13, of which 12 were "table registrations," you get them by having your name on the registration card as the person who assisted the guest. To "meet measures," I needed one more personal registration, and a "guest card call" registration, people who have not registered at some introduction but left a guest card, they get a follow-up call. (Basically one actual conversation, and no more than two messages left if the guest hasn't answered, the cards are shredded after that.) No money or discount is ever given to anyone for registrations or bringing guests.

Introduction Leaders are volunteers and work hard for only the satisfaction of introducing people to the Forum. Introduction Leaders are expected to take the Forum periodically (I think it's once every two years) and that's free. People in the Assisting Program, of course, see programs for free, and sometimes people may assist at programs they have not themselves taken. I'd be at the Boston Center frequently, if I didn't live two hours away. I find it both entertaining and inspiring to see people going through personal transformation. (For the same reason, years ago, I used to attend open Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, maybe once a week, even though I wasn't an alcoholic. I've even been the speaker at one -- which is very unusual, but there was a reason for it. I had fun.)

One commenter, responding to the question about compensation, has it that Landmark operated in India for a long time as a "Section 25" company. That would be a nonprofit. Many grads think that Landmark should operate in the U.S. as a nonprofit. The corporate goal is not to make money, it is to "listen for and deliver that which makes a real difference in the lives of people as to what they care about and what really matters to them." Landmark Worldwide is owned by an ESOP, i.e., the Staff owns it, through a stock option plan. It's never declared a dividend, apparently, so profits are plowed back into operations. Landmark, in actual practice, exists to continue and further develop the training.

The blogger was courteous with those who responded to him explaining Landmark. He seems thoughtful, even though I'll stick with what I wrote above: he was obsessed about being right. I know it all too well, the story of my life.

Some commenters said it was necessary to "surrender to the coach." That's a primitive understanding of "being coachable." Being coachable is being willing to listen to what the coach suggests, and try it out. If one doesn't trust a coach enough to do that, obviously, waste of time, get a different coach! or decide you don't need coaching, as one commenter said, he was fine with his life, just the way it already is. However, is he being honest? That is really a question for him, my training is to respect such declarations, and not assume they are wrong, but also to continue the conversation if there is an opening for that.

In the standard Introduction, the guest is asked to list areas of their life where things are "not going well," or "not going as well as you would like them to." The Introduction Leader is trained to not identify these as "problems," though participants often will. The Landmark technology pulls the rug out from under the entire concept of good and bad, right and wrong, and returns us to some more basic, our actual experience of life. Something is "missing, the presence of which would make a difference." Nothing is "wrong," unless, of course, we make it so by declaring it.

There is no insistence on "surrender" in Landmark, but there is something called "letting go." That could be called "surrender," but it is never presented as a command. It is a suggestion, and I've seen it implemented with a Kleenex box. See below.

It really means dropping attachment, thus fitting in with many forms of "spiritual training," which many commenters mentioned. I remember one seminar where it was asked how many clergy were in the room, which had maybe fifty people in it. There were about five ordained ministers. I'm not counting myself, I'm not ordained, even though I've been a prison chaplain. (I was a Muslim chaplain, and while there are programs that train and educate in Islam, there is no formal requirement to serve as an imam, i.e., to lead the prayer or even to deliver the Friday sermon, as I've done on some occasions and in different places.)

It's common for religious people or those with experience in this or that spiritual tradition to say that the Landmark training helped them to understand and practice their own religion.

The Kleenex box exercise is done with a box of tissues, there are always such present at a Landmark program, because it's fairly common for people to become tearful. (Not every session sees this, the concept, sometimes asserted, of a roomful of breakdowns is a drastic exaggeration.) So a participant is saying:

I'm trying to let go of my upset, and it's so hard.

And the leader hands the participant a Kleenex box and says,

Drop the box.

And the participant drops the box. The Leader hands it back.

Now, try to drop the box.

I've never seen if fail: the participant goes through contortions, but the box doesn't drop.

Now, let go of the box.

The box falls.

The Leader says:

That's how hard it is to let go of your upset.

Suddenly, in one incident, the participant really needed the tissues, because she was now crying profusely. She dropped the upset over the death of her child (it was a tragic story, indeed), right there, immediately. "Tears of joy" would probably be oversimplification, because her loss was still her loss. So it would include tears of grief, but, bottom line, it no longer dominated her. I can see her face, still. Lit up, radiant. Empowered.