Werner Erhard

I saw a documentary film last night entitled, “Transformation: The Life and Legacy of Werner Erhard”. I had heard a lot about it from many friends who shared some of the ‘heady’ experience of working with him in the 70s and 80s. The film was a very well done tribute to his work and to the man I knew.

I had expected that the film’s purpose was to restore his reputation after his departure from the USA following a controversial ‘character assassination’ piece on CBS’s 60 Minutes. I was pleased that its focus was more on his work and the broad contribution that he has made in so many areas of contemporary culture.

I took the est Training in 1975. As a young partner in a Big 8 accounting firm, I had succeeded beyond my dreams and was arrogant, full of myself and afraid that people would find out that I was way over my head career-wise. Mostly I was trying to maintain the appearance of being okay, while at the same time feeling increasingly unsatisfied. A young woman in my office ‘enrolled’ me in the idea that the Training was the ‘in thing’ to do if a person wanted to know themselves better. My wife and I took the training together in July of that year.

The stated purpose of the Training was to “transform our experience of living so that the problems or situations that we were trying to solve or were putting up with would clear up just in the process of life itself.” It worked. I did experience a transformation. Specifically, I realized that much of my life had been either a lie or a cover-up for a host of fears and doubts about myself. My success was mostly compensating for my insecurity. The years that followed allowed me to grow individually and to expand my focus toward helping and empowering others. In a sense, I grew up after having the experience. What was it that I ‘got’ from the training? In a word, I got “myself”.

Since then, my career has been about transformation. In 1980, Werner and Fernando Flores created a partnership and the est training evolved into a program called The Landmark Forum. Fernando brought to the work a much more rigorous philosophical discipline and an insight into the nature of organizations and paradigms that had previously been missing in est’s more ‘experiential’ focus. I integrated this with my own experience as a management consultant and have been working with clients to transform their organizational cultures and develop transformational leaders for the last 25 years.

As I watched the film’s old clips from the 70s and 80s, I was proud and happy to have been a part of something that has given birth to so much possibility and that has positively impacted so many lives. I was also sad that Werner’s contribution has been buried in so much controversy. As he said, however, he must ultimately be responsible for how his story and his work is perceived and remembered.

My vision of ‘Eldering’ began in those years in an event Werner led at the Cow Palace in San Francisco about transforming relationships and the possibility of creating a “you AND me” context in which together we could make a difference. I saw that age, while obviously a universal aspect of everyone’s life, was also something that divided us, and that our families and communities were becoming age-based political constituents fighting for scarce resources. I saw the possibility of age as something that could unite us and that we could have “young AND old” contribute equally to creating the kind of world we all want.

Werner and his organization supported this vision, and along with a number of Elders, we produced three or four workshops to engage a few hundred people in a conversation for what would be possible if we had a choice about how we age and could transcend the generational divides. The initiative lost momentum after a while. I, and the people who had co-created the vision, moved on to other interests. It has only been in the past couple of years that many of our earlier dreams and ideas have come into vogue.

While I don’t know where The Eldering Institute, this blog or our Eldering Manifesto will lead, I thank Werner Erhard and the thousands of people I got to know while working with him for the inspiration to still have a vision of transformation and making a difference after all these years.

© 2008 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.