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July 24, 2019 News » Cover Story

Landmark Worldwide, the arts community and the big, bizarre business of personal development 

Self improvement

click to enlarge Senior Program Leader David Cunningham speaks with participants in a course. - COURTESY LANDMARK WORLDWIDE
  • Courtesy Landmark Worldwide
  • Senior Program Leader David Cunningham speaks with participants in a course.

Two months ago, a friend sent me a Facebook invite to an event called “Introduction to the Landmark Forum for the LGBTQ Community.”

In your mid-30s, half of the invitations from friends are some kind of multi-level marketing gimmick, like Metabolife or Mary Kay or Pampered Chef, or some other entrepreneurial side-gig like yoga classes or tarot readings. The other half are from friends who, like myself, are still trying to make their art, music or poetry careers happen. 

During the lead-up to the annual marketing event that is “Pride Month,” these events and e-vites reach a fever pitch for members of the queer community, and in a perfect world I would love to go and support each and every one of the beautiful people in my community trying to make their dreams happen. Like most people though, I generally end up clicking “interested” and hoping they aren’t too bummed that I missed it.

When my friend — a member of the local arts scene — called a week before the Landmark function and left an earnest voicemail, I understood that this event could not easily be shrugged off without hurt feelings. I mean, when have you ever gotten a voicemail from a millennial? 

This was serious. 

I resigned myself to go, sit politely through the sales pitch and then politely decline. The Facebook event was pretty upfront about the purpose of the event: “We’ll share about how the Landmark Forum works and there will be an opportunity to register for the Forum. The Landmark Forum is $645 and the next course is in May.” 

click to enlarge BREAKTHRU PUB
  • Breakthru Pub

As much as I wanted to support my friend, I certainly didn’t have an extra $645 lying around, nor did I know too many who did.

Still, on the day in question, I went to the nondescript co-working space in downtown Denver, a gray cube-shaped building nestled amongst other cube-shaped buildings, built on the razed bones of once-vibrant neighborhoods, and attended what in Landmark’s vernacular is called an Introduction Session. It was unlike any sales pitch I had ever witnessed. 

I worked briefly as a recruiter in the Army, and one of the first steps in any sales process is to identify a need, deficiency or problem, then show potential clients how your product or service can fix it. When you attend an Introduction Session, it becomes apparent the problem or deficiency Landmark is identifying is you. And that can be an unsettling or unpleasant realization.

During the session, three other potential clients and I were matched with a recent graduate of the Landmark Forum, and we completed a worksheet in a pamphlet that aimed to help us identify an area of our life that wasn’t going particularly well. 

We then each came up with a “probably almost certain future” for that area. As someone who struggles with generalized anxiety disorder, I was reminded of “catastrophizing,” a kind of cognitive distortion. Cognitive distortions, as defined by pioneering psychiatrist Aaron Beck, are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns

Next, the session leader showed us how we were really responsible for the areas of our lives that were going poorly, and how the Landmark Forum could help us create new possibilities. 

The whole thing made me really uncomfortable. Sharing insecurities about my life with strangers. Catastrophizing a “probable, almost certain future.” Accepting sole responsibility for problems (another thing my therapist has warned me about). All seemed at odds with what I’ve been trying to teach myself during the past three years of therapy sessions. 

I fled, abruptly and ignominiously, at the first break in the session, and texted my friend a hasty apology. When I got home that night, I began checking out Landmark Worldwide and its connection to the Colorado Springs arts community.

Thus began the research that led to this story, the exploration of an international organization that has had a huge impact on more than 2.4 million people’s lives.

click to enlarge ST MARTINS PR
  • St Martins Pr

According to the press kit, Landmark Worldwide is “widely recognized as the industry leader for personal training and development,” and “delivers programs and training that make a significant difference in those aspects of people’s lives that they care about the most.”

Landmark, founded in 1991, has since trained  millions worldwide. It’s a for-profit company that surpassed $100 million in revenue in 2018, though it says it never has paid dividends to stockholders — instead reinvesting any surpluses into the company. Its product is a series of personal development courses and seminars, topped by its flagship course, “The Landmark Forum.” The latter costs $645 locally, or about half the median rent for a two-bedroom in Colorado Springs.

The story of Landmark starts with John Rosenberg, who in 1960 left his home in rural Pennsylvania, changed his name, Gatsby-like, to Werner Erhard, and began studying the burgeoning “human potential movement,” which included trends like Gestalt therapy and philosophers like Alan Watts and L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology.

In 1971 Erhard emerged as the leader of “est” or Erhard Seminars Training. The seminars offered by Erhard grew in popularity throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Erhard and est were lampooned in the 1977 Burt Reynolds film, Semi-Tough, and est trainings were a part of the plot of the FX series The Americans. Despite est’s wide popularity, the company dissolved in the late ’80s amid an IRS investigation of tax fraud and sexual assault accusations from Erhard’s daughter. Despite both incidents being fabricated — the IRS would later pay Erhard a settlement of $200,000, and his daughter recanted her testimony — Erhard Seminars Training ceased operations. 

In the aftermath, rumors swirled that the bad press and investigations that led to Erhard fleeing the country were part of an elaborate smear campaign led by the Church of Scientology, which felt that Erhard had plagiarized their own “technology.” Indeed, a 1991 Los Angeles Times article supports that claim, describing how the church hired three private investigators to get dirt on Erhard, whom the church labeled a “suppressive person,” and feed it to the news media.

Conspiracies aside, Erhard left the country and sold his intellectual property to a group made up of former employees, including his younger brother, Harry Rosenberg, who became the founding CEO of Landmark Education, the company that seemingly picked up where est left off. Since 1991, Landmark has spread across the United States and around the world, operating in more than 125 locations internationally.

If you’ve heard of Landmark before reading this article, you probably heard about it from a friend. You’re not likely to see a Landmark ad in a magazine, or catch a Landmark infomercial on late-night TV. A study of Landmark’s recruitment practices was published in the May 2010 issue of the journal Nova Religio, which noted that much like myself, “All the interviewees of this study were recruited to The Forum through social networks. They were invited to the introductory session by relatives or friends, and, apart from their positive impressions of the introductory meeting, their decisions to participate in The Forum were influenced by these recommendations.”

This kind of a marketing strategy can be disarming for many, since it seems to come out of nowhere and is almost universally, overwhelmingly positive. A few days after fleeing my Introduction Session, my friend texted me and asked if I was “interested in taking the Forum as a course that would alter your life and free you up with more power, freedom, self expression and peace of mind?” 

I mean, what do you even say to that?

It can be disconcerting when your friends start making wild claims about an organization, uttering intense streams of adjectives and adverbs with the sudden conviction of Paul the Apostle. 

“When you’re transformed through this work, it really markets itself,” explains Lou Valencia, a recent graduate of the Advanced Course, the second course in Landmark’s “Curriculum for Living,” which consists of The Forum, The Advanced Course and the Self Expression Leadership Program. “You’re just so enthralled you can’t help but share it out of love for the people in your life.” 

For Valencia, the price of the Landmark Forum is well worth it. “Of course I was extremely hesitant about $650 — that was rent and then some. After I did the Forum I completely undervalued that price. It’s a steal. I can’t put a price on the connections I’ve been able to form with my family and friends because of Landmark. I can’t put a price on that.” 

It is this rapid, often uncontextualized sea-change that friends and family see in Forum graduates that has led some to call Landmark a cult, a claim which Landmark has vigorously disputed in numerous libel cases against magazines like Self, Elle and Now, among others. 

click to enlarge SCREEN MEDIA
  • Screen Media

On this point, at least, I agree with Landmark. Having thoroughly researched the company over the past month I have come to the conclusion that they definitely aren’t a cult, despite the weird conversations you tend to have with Landmark advocates.

For starters, they are a secular organization. And while Erhard gets his dues as the founder, he’s not involved in Landmark’s operations, thus it seems a stretch to think of him as the company’s leader or guru. And there are other points.

“It’s so hard to talk about eloquently,” says Lauren Ciborowski, owner of a Colorado Springs art gallery, the Modbo. She graduated from the Landmark Forum in 2003. 

“You’ll talk to a lot of people who are super gung-ho and want everyone in their life to do it,” says Ciborowski, who added the Forum was “totally life-changing for me. Me at 21 was a very different person. I felt constantly left out and excluded. I didn’t have any friends. I was worried about the fact that I wasn’t popular. I walked out of the course with a sense of ‘Oh wait, I could create the parties. I could be the person who does the things.’ I went from ‘Woe is me’ to ‘I can create whatever I want.’”

The Forum itself is uniquely designed to bring about this feeling of transformation in participants, and it is the Forum’s unique structure and methodology that have also brought criticism and accusations of the “c” word. The Forum is a 42ish-hour course delivered over three days and an evening session. Usually it occurs on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday with a graduation ceremony the following Tuesday evening. The days are long, usually lasting from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., and regulated, although Landmark’s public relations representative assured me that (unlike some of the mocking depictions of the courses) “it’s a classroom-style environment. If you wanna go to the bathroom, go to the bathroom.” 

click to enlarge feature1-7.jpg

The sessions are apparently very similar to what you experience in the Introduction Session: sharing your insecurities, taking responsibility for them, and completing “assignments” that require you to call friends and loved ones to share the work and to take responsibility for the distance you’ve created in your relationships. “If they follow the curriculum and are honest with themselves and with the space and the group, and they share and follow through with the assignments, I really don’t see why anybody can’t have their life transformed with this work,“ says Valencia.

“One of the things I love most about the Forum is how difficult it was,” says Ciborowski, “It’s really not very pleasant. It’s like boot camp. I really appreciate that. We live in this world of platitudes and self-care, and that was three and a half days of hard work. It’s not for everyone.”

After three days in this environment, participants are supposed to emerge from the course transformed, and hopefully willing to continue their Landmark education. Approximately half of Landmark’s customers purchase an additional course after completing the Forum, and many go on to participate in Landmark’s “Assisting Program,” which Ciborowski, who participated briefly in the Assisting Program, describes as “just volunteering.”

“I was checking bathroom stalls to make sure they had toilet paper and calling people to remind them of upcoming courses,” she says. “Some seminars they hand out pens and paper and stuff.” 

Valencia describes the assistants as people who “handle logistical stuff.” 

But, according to Landmark, “The Assisting Program is a structured program offering advanced ‘on the court’ training and development to graduates of The Landmark Forum who are interested in developing their skills and abilities in the areas of communication, leadership, management, and effectiveness. It is an opportunity for graduates who are interested in being coached in the distinctions of Landmark’s programs in real time. People who assist use the skills they develop with Landmark’s distinctions to elevate their performance and quality of life in their businesses, professions, families, relationships and other aspects of their lives.”

It seems odd that people would “assist” a for-profit company, especially one as lucrative and successful as Landmark. A lot of people love Walmart, but they don’t show up to stores on their days off and help stock shelves. 

“Where the Walmart analogy doesn’t work,” says Ciborowski, “is that this is a course that people get a lot out of. It’s a chance to be a part of something and help people get what you got out of it. There’s no compulsory air around assisting.” 

Landmark’s lawyer, Maurice Mitts — who answered the bulk of the questions I posed to the company due to “the (possible) insinuations implied” — notes, “No one is required to participate in the Assisting Program. As with all of Landmark’s programs, people’s participation is a function of what interests them.”

click to enlarge CLARKSON POTTER
  • Clarkson Potter

Nevertheless, Landmark’s use of assistants has prompted three separate Department of Labor investigations: in Colorado in 1996, California in 2004, and Texas in 2006. The Department of Labor expressed concern over the fact assistants “displace regular employees that would have to be hired. The employer could not operate with the 2-3 full time employees per site.” 

Asked about that, Mitts states, “There was nothing unusual in the fact that there was a labor audit, particularly given the size of Landmark’s business. Such audits are routinely conducted by the Department of Labor. 

“The Department of Labor concluded that no action needed to be taken regarding the Assisting Program. Landmark has been and remains in compliance with Fair Labor Standards Act.”

Furthermore, Mitts states, “There are dozens of full-time employees that support the Colorado Center” — Landmark’s Colorado office, located in Highlands Ranch — “including both local and remote employees, as well as the leaders who travel to Colorado to present our courses. In addition, while the number changes based on what programs people want to register into, there are dozens of people who participate in the Assisting Program, the majority of them for between 3-5 hours a week.”

The tangible benefits of Landmark’s courses may seem hard to pin down.

“Customers do not participate in our programs for a degree or certificate,” states Mitts. “Rather, they participate for the specific benefits that people report they receive in their performance, effectiveness, enhanced personal and professional relationships, and overall improvement in their quality of life.” 

A number of studies conducted over the years by various groups, including Harris Interactive and the Talent Foundation have all given Landmark glowing reviews. Ninety-four percent of respondents in the Harris study found that “Landmark’s programs are professionally conducted and provide great value.” 

One thing is certain: Landmark is a program that is incredibly successful at making people feel good about Landmark. 

And there is, at least, one tangible outcome of the program: The company has been involved, albeit indirectly, in a large number of community projects, because Landmark’s Self Expression Leadership Program (SELP), the final step in their “Curriculum for Living,” requires participants to create one. These projects run the gamut from environmental activist Gashaw Tahir planting, literally, a million trees in his native Ethiopia to Matthew Shurka starting “Born Perfect,” a campaign to help end conversion therapy.

Here in Colorado Springs these projects have formed the backbone of the arts community as we know it today. Ciborowski describes her SELP project: “In 2004 I decided we needed to have a comprehensive arts yellow pages for Colorado Springs. I was graduating from Colorado College and I was trying to form connections with all these people who were in the arts. It was when I really first started to learn about our arts community and be a part of it on any major level. What that became, eventually, is the Peak Radar pages,” an annually published directory of arts- and culture-focused businesses and organizations.

The Modbo is an art gallery now owned by Ciborowski but was started in 2009 by her then-husband Brett Andrus. It’s hosted countless art-shows, poetry readings, rock shows and open mics in the past 10 years, and came to fruition here due to the work of Landmark Worldwide.

“The Modbo and SPQR, the art galleries and the impact we’ve had has come directly out of this work,” explains Andrus. “It’s been directly a result of the Self Expression Leadership Program.” 

Andrus took the Forum in 2009 while he and Ciborowski were married. “I was in my early 30s, I just came out of my second divorce, and at the time I was a mortgage broker. I moved to Colorado Springs and stopped making art. I was looking to find a way to restart a little bit.”

By all accounts, Landmark seems to have given Andrus the impetus he needed. “The life I have now is unrecognizable from the life I had 11 years ago,” he explains. “I’m a partner in a mortgage company, I manage a 60-hour work week, I own an art gallery, I teach seven classes a week, I teach for the college, I’m still a professional artist, and all of it has come out of this work.”

Andrus explains that the goal of the SELP is “to create something out of nothing. Take something you never thought would be possible, throw your pants over the fence, and figure out a way to get your pants back. In the SELP, the work and the curriculum was very much about creating a life that’s bigger than the life you have. Looking at what are the reasons that stop you and just getting rid of them, and just doing it. It teaches bravery and integrity; planning your work and working your plan.”

Andrus is still very much involved in Landmark, and is part of the Assisting Program as a coach for the SELP. He meets regularly with participants to “help them with their project, help them see ways to get into the community and wrangle support, how to think big. Just kinda be a) a sounding board for their concerns and problems and b) help them walk their way through it. 

“It’s my favorite thing. Every time I coach, I get to watch five to six people create this amazing thing for the world and then put it into the world.”

Andrus is the owner of SPQR, a gallery the couple opened together that’s next door to the Modbo, and Ciborowski owns the Modbo; a result of agreements reached after their 2016 divorce, which Landmark seems to have also influenced positively.

“One of the things you talk about a lot in the Forum,” explains Ciborowski, “is this concept about what happens in life and then what we make it mean. So much of what doesn’t work in life lives over here in the ‘what we make it mean’ world, that becomes the source of a lot of conflict and angst. 

“If you’re going through something difficult like a divorce, I could be really angry at him for something, but there’s all these layers of meaning I attach to it. That type of concept applied to a hugely conflicted situation like a divorce can be really helpful. The fact that we had both done so many Landmark programs was pretty instrumental in how we were able to comport ourselves divorce-wise. We’re better friends now than when we were married.”

That distinction between meaning and interpretation is something I’ve been pondering a lot during the writing of this article. It’s not a new concept; variations of subjective reality and moral relativism have been the meat and potatoes of philosophy since the beginning of philosophy as a discipline. Landmark is itself a victim of this “two-sides-to-every-story” school of thought. Their word-of-mouth marketing strategy is a tool that cuts both ways.

Recent graduates of their courses, like Valencia, will earnestly recite lines like: “In New Zealand they have the highest suicide rate per-capita, and they use the teen Forum to prevent suicide and depression in New Zealand. There’s plenty of work in New Zealand being done.” 

Lithuania actually has the highest per-capita suicide rate in the world, as of 2018. Also, the New Zealand National Health Service seems to be spearheading all suicide prevention efforts in that country. 

Valencia also told me, “There’s also a country where one out of 29 citizens has done the Forum and their economy is in a whole different stratosphere, compared to before they started doing the Forum.” 

Honestly, that’s the kind of statement I would expect to hear from the Juche-indoctrinated people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but maybe not from 20-something business professionals in Colorado. 

Whether you’re a Landmark fan or not, there’s no arguing that the conviction and the zeal that you see and hear from Landmark graduates make them perfect marketing vectors. They can say whatever they want, and Landmark is free from any kind of liability from claims of false advertising. Although where Valencia got such dubious facts is certainly an interesting question. (Of course, it’s possible he simply recalled the teachings incorrectly.)

Mitts notes that “for almost 30 years, Landmark has provided tens of thousands of full and partial scholarships to a range of people, including law enforcement, firefighters, students, senior citizens, and others.” Mitts also claims that when you compare Landmark to its peers in the self-help industry, “[W]e are one of the most affordable programs in the marketplace, coming in well under other weekend courses that cost $1,500 to $5,000 or even more. For example, Dale Carnegie charges $1,995 for a 3-day program and another $1,995 for an 8-session seminar; Tony Robbins has entry level courses that can range from $2,500-$5,000.”

It’s interesting that Landmark’s lawyer would mention Robbins, who was recently the subject of a Buzzfeed exposé that alleged sexual misconduct and abusive practices in his seminars. Clearly, people should be cautious of any organization that is charging money for some kind of intangible “transformation.” Recent documentaries about the followers of Scientology or Indian guru Osho illustrate the potential for harm that these kinds of groups can have.

Landmark has an incredibly extensive legal waiver that participants are required to sign before taking part in the Forum. It warns: “If you have any history of mental illness or emotional problems personally or in your immediate family, whether temporary, occasional or intermittent, and whether treated or not, or have concerns about your ability to handle stress, OUR ADVISORS STRONGLY RECOMMEND THAT YOU DO NOT PARTICIPATE in the Program.” 

It further warns: “In less than 1/1000 of 1% of participants, there have been reports of unexplained suicide or other destructive behavior. While we know of no independent studies to suggest that people who are physically, emotionally and mentally healthy are at risk in the Program, certain persons have claimed that the Program has caused or triggered in them a psychosis or psychotic event.” 

“I have honestly never seen a waiver quite like this,” says Hayden Meyers, a counselor with Arrow Insight Counseling. “It seems quite in-depth and highly disqualifying for most individuals.”

These aren’t idle warnings. If you do the math, 1/1000 of 1 percent of Landmark’s purported 2.4 million participants is 24. When asked about their disclaimer and some specific cases wherein people have disappeared, committed crimes or perished after attending the Forum, Mitts responded, “The facts show no connection between these various events and the people’s participation in The Landmark Forum. Further, while tragic, the number of these events is far, far below any national averages. Finally, we understand that people want to find answers in the face of these tragic events and we are sympathetic, however Landmark is simply not connected to these events and has never been found to be.”

It should be noted that my research has found that claim to be true — police have never blamed or connected these incidents with Landmark.

Additionally, the Landmark Forum has been reviewed by a number of top mental health experts from around the world, like the late Dr. Raymond Fowler, former CEO of the American Psychological Foundation, who appraised Landmark, in a statement provided by Mitts, thus: “I did not experience any personal sense of harm, danger, or threat of intimidation at any time, and I saw no evidence that anyone else did. In my opinion, there was nothing in The Landmark Forum program that I attended, either in its content or the way in which it was conducted, that could be considered as harmful to participants.” 

Honestly, I’m not sure what to think about Landmark. Overwhelmingly, the people I spoke with had a high opinion of its programs, even those who are no longer actively participating. The results of the Self Expression Leadership Program speak for themselves.

Sure, the marketing strategy, Assisting Program, and lengthy waiver seem vaguely sinister. But, upon review, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of malfeasance on Landmark’s part. And there’s the argument too that whatever the inherent value of the program, the outcomes are irrefutable. Many people have found solace, insight, purpose, direction and community through Landmark’s “technology.” And a lot of them have gone on to do great things in the world. So Landmark is definitely weird (to me, at least), but if it works, it works. 

I also feel obligated to point out that there are bigger problems in the world than a self-help program that initially gave me the willies. (Kids stuffed in cages at the border and the president calling white supremacists “very fine people” come to mind.) We live in a time of hard choices, gray areas and more moral ambiguity than we grew up thinking was possible. Sometimes, paying money to get “answers” is a lot easier than figuring them out on your own. And it’s not like any of us are immune to this tendency. We all have those things we swear by: essential oils, cannabis, crystals, astrology. 

If there is something out there that has the ability to make the average human existence even a small degree more bearable or understandable you can guarantee that someone out there has already built a business model around it. As with anything else in our rapidly decaying, post-capitalist hellscape, caveat emptor.

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to show that Werner Erhard sold his intellectual property to a group of former employees that included his younger brother, Harry Rosenberg.

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