Examining the Resumes of Motivational Speakers

In his 1961 book, The Image, Daniel J. Boorstin noted, "The celebrity is the person who is known for his well-knownness."

Nearly half a century later, the ever-expanding phenomenon of self-created, self-publicized "expertainers" contains a paradoxical niche profession known as Motivational Speakers—people who are mostly successful at selling books and giving lectures about success. A sort of meta-success.

Let's take a look at a few examples:

Suze Orman

Suze Orman, Financial Guru with her own show (The Suze Orman Show) on CNBC, was not always a brilliant financial advisor. She started out as a waitress, serving up pastries, cakes, cookies, brownies at the Buttercup Bakery in Berkeley, California. At age 29, she received a business loan of $50,000 to open her own restaurant, and she decided to invest the money in the stock market. Within 4 months, she lost the money to a swindling stock broker at Merrill Lynch. (No problem: to pay back the loan, she, herself, became a stockbroker at Merrill Lynch, and eventually the vice-president of Prudential Bache Securities.) In her 28 years since leaving the bakery, she has gone on to earn $32 million by authoring seven pop-culture financial advice books and hanging out with Oprah all the time. Still no restaurant of her own, though.

Tony Robbins

tony-robbins.jpgAt age 18, having already read over 700 motivational books, Tony Robbins was, "alone, overweight, broke and sad in a bachelor apartment in Venice, California," but "within one year he turned his whole life around." He became known as, "the 19 year old kid that became a millionaire in less than one year by transforming his whole life." Of course, that mysterious million dollars earned in one year is $2,739 a day, and you certainly can't make that much selling BluBlockers on Venice Beach.

So how did he do it? The man with the malfunctioning pituitary gland (who was thrown out of his parents' house at age 17 for being "too intense") allegedly discovered he had a mutant power for selling tickets to Jim Rohn seminars. 30 years later, everyone's favorite Neuro-Linguistic Programmer and Fire-walker is selling front row tickets to his very own "Unleash The Power Within" performances for a mere $2595.

Dr. Phil

dr-phil.jpgIn Germany and Scandinavia, a "Dr. Phil" is the name of a doctoral degree. In the US however, Dr. Phil signifies something completely different; it's the celebrity moniker for Phillip Calvin McGraw. Another TV personality who hangs out with Oprah a lot, he met her when his own company, Courtroom Services, Inc., was hired to prepare her for a 3-year lawsuit called the Amarillo Texas Beef Trial. Oprah was so impressed with his work that she invited him to appear on her show regularly as a "Relationship and Life Strategy Expert." 13 books (and an appearance on The Simpsons) later, Dr. Phil's entertainment career is as strategic as ever. Not bad for a guy who isn't even a licensed psychologist!

* * * * *
There are numerous other examples of these meta-successful beings: Born Eben W. Pagan, "Double Your Dating" creator David DeAngelo claims to have been a rock guitarist in a former life (but no evidence of this can be found, unfortunately). Deepak Chopra won the 1998 Ig Nobel Prize in physics for "his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness." Zig Ziglar's real first name is Hilary. And of course, Matt Foley never actually existed outside of the set of Saturday Night Live.

Un-credilble pasts aside, these expertainers have all proven in their own ways that success actually works.

Carl King is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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iStock
A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
iStock
iStock

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

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