A Review and Summary of the Landmark Forumpost by reviewer · 2021-05-27T18:22:15.363Z · LW · GW · 9 comments
What happened and the stories we tell ourselves Clearing narratives No Excuses Social Aspects Other aspects of the course Conclusion Appendix: The Original EST Course None 9 comments
(This post is from a long-time member of the rationalist community - I may or may not be an active poster on Less Wrong. I’ve messaged a moderator and asked if they would be willing to make a comment to confirm that this is the case.
Landmark has copyright on their course content and they have trademarked terms like Always/Already Listening and Rackets, which is important to understand for legal reasons.
I’m also going to attach a spoiler alert as understanding the techniques might make them less effective. But that said, my recommendation is that if you are considering the forum then you should understand exactly what you are signing up for)
After attending the Landmark Forum, I was completely shell-shocked at having encountered some powerful psycho-social technology unlike anything I’d ever seen before. They seemed to have a powerful ability to change how people viewed the world. At the same time, I felt troubled by some of the methods they used to persuade us to invite our friends and family to do the forum. Ironically, if they hadn’t tried so hard, I would have recommended the forum in a heartbeat. But given that they did, I would strongly recommend that anyone who is considering going do their research before signing up and ensure they are appropriately mentally prepared. I've tried to make the main body of the analysis as objective as possible, but there were some points at which I felt the need to comment.
What happened and the stories we tell ourselves
The core idea of Landmark is that we are trapped within and held back by the stories that we tell ourselves. For the most part, we aren’t even aware that we are operating from within these narratives, but they serve as excuses and determine many of our choices.
For example, imagine Derek had a rough childhood and was frequently beaten up by other kids until he started working out and training in martial arts. Years later, Derek is married and has trouble sharing openly with his wife, which pushes them to the verge of divorce.
A Landmark forum leader would ask Derek what he told himself back when he was being kicked into the ground. After some back and forth, Derek might eventually say that he told himself "I was weak and needed to become strong to survive". The forum leader might suggest that this is why he is unable to share: sharing makes Derek feel weak and he has a story that he has to be strong. Even though it is years later and Derek is in a completely different context, he is still stuck within that narrative.
The forum leader may hammer this point home by drawing two circles: what happened and the story he told himself. Suppose the forum leader asks what belongs in the what happened circle and Derek says he was bullied. The forum leader would object: “bullied” is still an interpretation. Even “beaten up” involves an element of subjectivity - what one person might consider being beaten up might not be anything significant for another. Ideally Derek would say something like, “On about 10 occasions, I was punched and kicked” (some people may note the similarity to non-violent communication).
They are also very suspicious of words like “always”, “never” and “every time” as they tend to be exaggerations - always typically means most of the time. Even if you had caught up with someone five times and each of those times they were late, they would suggest you say “five out of five” times instead of "always late". You might wonder how using the word “always” here could be part of the story, or how this could be significant, but the fact that they were late in the past doesn’t guarantee they’ll be late in the future, and laxity about this use of language makes a difference for the stories being lived out in your mind. And even if they say, “you’ve been late every time” which is an objectively true fact, there’s still an element of narrative here - using the word “every” suggests a pattern (perhaps deliberate, vindictive, malicious) rather than happenstance. One of my key takeaways was just how impactful these subtle narratives can be.
Next, the forum leader would ask what belongs in the circle representing the story he told himself. Suppose, Derek says, “Well if you’ve been beaten up you’re naturally going to feel weak”. The forum leader would encourage Derek to restate it using the word “I” instead, as talking about events in the third-person can be used to avoid emotions. For the same reason, the forum leader would also discourage the use of abstract language - it would be much better to say that “I had to be strong to survive” rather than saying “I felt compelled to carry out traditional masculine behaviours”.
Landmark calls this being in the arena vs. being in the stands. When you’re in the arena, you’re actually putting yourself out there, being vulnerable and opening yourself up for growth. Another way they try to encourage this is by telling you not to take notes as it takes you out of the experience. Instead they provide you with notes afterwards.
Landmark would name “being strong” as one of Derek’s "Winning Formulas". We can imagine it helping Derek stand up to bullies, survive his first breakup and then work his way through college. However, when Derek gets married, his "Winning Formula" is no longer helping him to succeed and indeed it is the very thing causing him to fail.
So why doesn’t Derek let go of his “Winning formula” automatically? One reason might be that Derek doesn’t realise that he’s still acting out this narrative or the full extent of it. Narratives constructed in the heat of a traumatic moment may not seem optional, or also may not be remembered as having been constructed. Landmark suggests that these unknown unknowns may actually be the most important thing to understand in life.
However, even when this situation is pointed out to him, Derek may still be reluctant to change, despite knowing full-well that it might cost him his marriage. Derek may even say that he wants to change - maybe even change temporarily - but then always revert back. Why might this be? Well, the most likely explanation is that there’s some kind of payoff for acting in that way. Maybe “being strong” allows Derek to pretend that he’ll never get hurt again or to hide the fact that he still feels weak. Landmark calls this a Racket, which they define as “Anything that is Unwanted and yet Persists”. I’ve personally found this to be a useful conceptual handle as it combines the idea of it being a narrative with the idea of it having some kind of payoff.
Extending on the previous point, Derek may go through life always trying to become stronger. Maybe he gains a blackbelt and when his dog dies he refuses to shed a single tear. A forum leader would suggest that Derek is not acting in this way because he feels strong; instead he is running away from an underlying sense of weakness that he’s had ever since he was bullied. And what a performance - no-one who knows him would ever call him weak!
Another way that we form these narratives is by having assumptions about how someone will react which shaped how we perceive our actions. For example, if you think your partner is mean and they happen to be late, you may assume it is because they are punishing you. Landmark calls this concept Always/Already listening.
I’ll note that a large part of the way that Landmark convinces you to drop narratives is by very strongly insisting that they are narratives. The forum leader would often cut off participants. This allowed them to maintain control over the situation, however they would likely explain it as necessary to prevent participants from jumping back into their standard narratives.
They were also very effective in using humor to make what someone said sound absurd. I often found myself laughing, even when I thought the participant was actually making a reasonable point. This was effective at creating social proof of their claims.
One potential issue with this style of engagement is that people may end up believing stories about themselves that aren’t actually true. After all, really figuring out the cause of issues, to the extent that this is possible, would likely require a long conversation and asking a large number of questions. However, it could be argued that at the end of the day that the actual true story is mostly irrelevant. For example, if someone was really lacking in confidence because they do not have many friends, but they end up believing that it was due to childhood bullying and then they end up regaining that confidence due to them believing that they’ve finally addressed this bullying, then they may believe a falsehood, but they’ still regained confidence. And some people would say that this is what really matters?
So what should Derek do once he realises that he’s trapped in a narrative and he’s decided that it no longer serves him. According to Landmark, the answer is simple, you just do (“all this time you thought you were trapped inside, but the door wasn’t even locked”). They illustrate this with the story of monkeys being trapped by putting a banana in a cage just big enough for them to put their hands through. As it goes, when the monkey tries to grab the banana, it finds its hand trapped as the hole isn’t big enough to pull it out. The monkey could escape, but it’s unwilling to let go of the banana. However, we could also interpret them as operating under the theory that if the understanding and realisation is strong enough and lands deep enough then it creates a shift automatically.
I think there’s a deep wisdom in this. How do you decide to change your life? Well, there’s a sense in which you just do. However, this isn’t quite the whole story as they have a trick up their hands. If someone is stuck and doesn’t quite feel able to let go, the forum leader might move onto someone else. Usually after hearing someone else discover they are trapped in a narrative and perhaps even let go of it the first person would feel ready to let go as well.
One thing to be careful about is escaping one narrative only to end up trapped in another. Suppose that when you were younger you were a member of a particular political party. Eventually you decide that you can no longer support the party because of some of their policies and you feel like you wasted years of your life. It would be very easy to adopt a narrative that “party X is terrible” and “only party Y is good”. But this is a narrative in and of itself and it could very easily result in you irrationally defending all the actions of a group that is bad in many the same ways.
Landmark tells us that we are meaning-making machines. We can clear out our narratives, but we will always be replacing them with new ones. They consider this unavoidable, however we can learn to clear them faster and create new ones that serve us better.
The goal of the Landmark Forum is to create a clearing or blank space in which you will subsequently be able create your future. We may not be able to inhabit this space permanently, but we may be able to achieve it long enough to make a breakthrough. We were told that the advanced course would teach us how to envision a future.
The philosopher Sartre famously wrote about a student torn between going to war to serve his country and staying home to look after his mother. The way I’ve our facilitator handled an analogous situation was to tell the student that both of those are narratives and that it is only by stepping outside of both those narratives that we can open up a clearing so that we can decide without feeling burdened. We might choose to go to war, we might choose to stay with our mother or - now being unburdened by our narratives - we might discover a third option which we previously lacked the headspace to notice.
Landmark is very much in the No Excuses school of thought. Suppose you are training for a marathon and you decided to go for a run every day to prepare, but one day it rains. This is an excellent reason not to go for a run, but they would tell you that an excellent excuse is still an excuse. When you are attempting something truly at the limits of your capabilities, allowing yourself to accept a reasonable excuse is a sure-fire way to fail. Landmark reinforces this No Excuses attitude by repeated emphasis on the importance of arriving on time. This is a simple, but effective way of setting standards.
Or here’s another one. Suppose you’re shy. Again, there’s a sense in which this is objectively true. But there’s also a sense in which thinking of yourself as shy can limit the way that you act and this can reinforce your shyness. Maybe if you stopped thinking of yourself as shy you’d actually act less shy. Similarly, there’s an objective sense in which you may feel tired or in pain. But beyond this, there’s also the narrative of being tired or feeling pain which can limit you or cause you additional suffering and anxiety.
When I said Landmark is very much in the No Excuses school of thought, this is something of an understatement. If someone says that they can't do X due to trauma, the response would likely be that an excellent excuse is still an excuse. A surprising amount of the time this is exactly what people need to hear as people are stronger than you think, but I have worries that when it goes wrong it might go horribly wrong and retraumatise someone.
Personally, I found their tough love approach helpful, although I have to admit that I didn't make myself fully vulnerable. The Western focus on individuality and autonomy can be limiting as often a push is exactly what we need. This may explain part of why they were able to achieve what seemed like remarkable results - psychologists are limited by ethics in a way in which Landmark is not.
Landmark relies heavily on social components. A key aspect of this course is about calling people and admitting where you haven’t been taking responsibility or where you’ve been stuck in a narrative in order to “get complete” with them. I was persuaded by the course to have a few conversations during the breaks which I found helpful. I imagine that most people have at least some difficult conversations which they’ve avoided or have done things they are yet to take responsibility for. They push you to do this during the breaks, which might make some people uncomfortable, but makes sense from the perspective of these often being conversations that people are reluctant to have and which it’ll be easy for people to never get around to after the course.
Landmark using the term Enrol to mean sharing with someone in a way that touches or inspires or motivates them. This definition could be interpreted as something of a dark arts [LW · GW] trick to make people more favourably disposed towards signing up their friends for the course. After all, if you’re talking about enrolling your friends and family all the time, then you’re naturally going to think about enrolling them in the course. Although some people might consider this interpretation uncharitable.
This brings me to another point. Landmark really wants you to enroll your friends and family in the course. As much as people say that it is just for the money, they really do seem to be true believers in the course. My forum leader suggested that if everyone did the forum it could lead to world peace, and they seemed to honestly believe this. Only the forum leaders and a minimal office staff are paid, much of their operations are run by volunteers. Forum leaders seem to be paid reasonably well, but I’ve been told that these leaders need to go through years of training and volunteering before achieving the position. So it doesn’t appear nearly as lucrative as you might think, but I am also conscious that I haven't been able to verify this information as much as I'd like.
Suppose someone shares that they have had issues with their parents in a very vulnerable manner. Based on what I've seen, I would expect a forum leader to suggest that they should try to persuade their parents to do the course in order to get complete with them. And as much as I would like to make the main body of this post as objective as possible, I feel obligated to mention that I see this as quite manipulative.
If someone said this in the forum, the facilitator would probably answer that it’s just their narrative: that the forum leader merely suggested that their parents might benefit and that they constructed the narrative that they were being pressured, instead of taking responsibility for their own decisions. And even though there might be an element of truth in that we could have simply chosen to ignore them, I don't find this explanation satisfactory.
Our Landmark coach justified the pressure to share along the following lines: First, they said that if you thought that it helped you and it could help others, then you’d naturally want to share it with others. Then they suggested that the same difficulty that lay at the root of people’s hesitancy to share often also laid at the root of their inability to make sales or to ask someone out. And well, they actually seem pretty good at teaching people how to sell the Landmark Forum and I don’t doubt that you could apply the same lessons elsewhere. However, this all feels just a little bit too convenient.
It’s important to understand the extent of this pressure since, according to comments on the Internet, some people have alienated friends by pushing too hard for them to do the forum or by constantly talking about Landmark. From what I’ve read, the greatest pressure to recruit people increases dramatically if you do their leadership training.
Testimonies are also a key aspect of this course. When people were demonstrating that they had applied the techniques and shared their successes, it naturally makes you feel like you’re slacking off if you didn’t do what they told you and inspires you to achieve your own successes. Many of the successes people achieved were truly inspiring, but obviously there’s a selection effect where people who had the greatest successes will be most keen to share. At the same time, if a cognitive bias makes you feel inspired, you will be much more likely to achieve your own successes than if you had a more realistic appraisal.
Other aspects of the course
The Landmark course has long hours - starting early, finishing later, with two smaller breaks and one bigger meal break during the day. This means that each of the sessions is a couple of hours - which is the complete opposite of how I’ve generally seen conferences run - which is with breaks as people tend to drift off during longer sessions. Beyond this, you are assigned homework in-between the days and often told to make calls during the break. If you decide to do the course, I’d encourage you to try to set it up as much as possible to ensure that you don’t have other tasks so that they don’t interfere with the homework assignments. I suspect that the long days break down some of your usual defences. It makes their techniques more effective, but you may not want to provide them with this power over you.
Another aspect of Landmark is that it is effectively a closed system. They want you to do things their way and this is a significant part of what they call Coachability. The way the forum leader explained was by saying “Don’t coach your coach” and that they followed their coach’s instructions when they were being coached themselves. Combined with some of the techniques they use for persuasion, this creates a substantial risk of some students ending up adopting Landmark teachings as an ideology.
At the same time, I can also see why they would want people to just follow the process. I once attempted to tutor a student in maths who insisted on doing everything their way. While I’m totally in favour of innovation, in this case they were mostly just messing up as they hadn’t mastered the basics.
Landmark also likes to talk about decisions vs. choices. A decision is something you do for a reason whilst a choice is something that you do choose because you choose it. This seems somewhat paradoxical, you might say that anything you do would be for a reason and that if you did things without reasons you’d make bad choices. The best way I can explain this is as some kind of psychological hack. After you’ve committed to choice if you can commit to it on the basis that you’ve committed to it and not on any other basis, you’ll likely have less doubts and your mood will be less dependent on outcomes. They also use this to embrace life situations - ie. “I choose to have experienced suffering because I choose to have experienced suffering”. When used in this way, it’s essentially the standard Buddhist acceptance principle.
The value of Landmark is mostly in the practise, rather than the theory. If you’re just interested in the theory, you probably wouldn’t gain that much by going to the first-level forum. Sure, there’s a lot of details I haven’t covered, but they don’t add that much. Reading about a thing is not the thing itself and the value of the forum lies in the environment that it creates.
Regardless of any judgements I might have made, I couldn’t help but admire how all the components of the forum work together to form a finely crafted machine for delivering people a meaningful experience that changes their patterns of behaviour and convinces them to evangelize it to their friends. And if there’s one key limitation of this post, I feel that it’s that I’ve only described the components and not how they fit together and essentially left that for the reader to work out on their own.
In conclusion, Landmark seems to have some rather effective techniques, but there are also some significant red flags. I believe that attending the first-level forum would be net-beneficial for most people, but there is the risk of it going very badly for people with trauma. And even if I only recommended it to people who were well-suited for it, there’s a risk that they might recommend it to people for whom it wouldn’t be the right fit. I also can’t comment on further courses and the risks involved in them. That said, I would love to see more members of the rationality engage with Landmark and share what they learn with the community. There are risks and downsides, but I believe that they can be managed with appropriate precautions.
Appendix: The Original EST Course
I thought it would be worthwhile sharing a bit of information about the original EST course this was based on. Landmark was founded by former students of Werner Erhard who attended his Erhard Seminars Training (EST) and bought the intellectual property off him after he fled the country. EST has been associated with the Human Potential Movement and is heavily based upon Zen.
Eliezer Sobel described it as follows:
“I considered the training to be a brilliantly conceived Zen koan, effectively tricking the mind into seeing itself, and in thus seeing, to be simultaneously aware of who was doing the seeing, a transcendent level of consciousness, a place spacious and undefined, distinct from the tired old story that our minds continuously tell us about who we are, and with which we ordinarily identify.”
I agree with him. I believe that they’ve done an excellent job of adapting Zen in order to make it palatable to a Western audience.
Here’s another quote from the article:
One of the main arguments that opponents voiced against Werner's work was that "you can't package and sell enlightenment in a few days, because people spend years and years doing austere spiritual practices, and often still fail to 'get it.'" Erhard’s response to this was, "No, people spend years and years not getting enlightened — when they finally get it, it happens in a flash, it takes no time at all, it happens outside of time."
And some quotes it attributes to the course:
“What is, is; and what isn't isn't”
"Rocks are hard, water is wet, and you're feeling sad”
"What you resist, persists”
“Choose what you got, choose what you got, choose what you got”
"If you're not sharing it, then you never got it."
"At all times, and in all places, and in any situation, you have the power to transform the quality of your life; stop waiting for it to 'turn out,' because this is how it turned out."
Apparently the EST course was much stricter than Landmark. Instead of running to a schedule, the EST course went until the instructor felt the lesson had been delivered and participants weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom during the sessions.
I’ll note that Ernhard seems to have had a remarkable talent for coining phrases - my forum leader’s speech wasn’t nearly so elegant.
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