Prophet of Self-Esteem

John Taylor Canfield '66 dished up his first bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit in 1993...

Three years after publication of Chicken Soup for the Soul, Canfield's publicist was saying that someone in America bought a copy of it every six seconds. Sequels (33 so far) and books outside the series have followed.

John Taylor Canfield '66 dished up his first bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit in 1993. A native of Fort Worth and a graduate of the Linsly Military Institute in West Virginia, he concentrated in Chinese history at Harvard and wrote in his fifth-reunion class report that his formal education seemed to have nothing to do with his subsequent life except that he ate brown rice, practised yoga, and played a lot of Ping-Pong.

 

He had been radicalized by the Black Power movement, he says today, and had been teaching African-American history to African-American students in an inner-city high school in Chicago. Then he went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for graduate work in education. He founded a "growth center," conducted encounter groups, and published a curriculum entitled About Me. He and his colleagues were trying to figure out, he says, "what would be a scientific way to study oneself." He married, had two children, got divorced, and remarried a year later. This was a good time in his life, he testifies. "There was a freedom and a deep sense of spiritual love that pervaded all of my life."

Canfield went on, he later reported, "to pioneer in Gestalt Therapy, psychosynthesis, transactional analysis, and transpersonal psychology." He moved to California to join a large transformational training company similar to est, but with a more spiritual bias. He started his own firm, Self-Esteem Seminars, and wrote in his twentieth-anniversary report in 1988, "I'm not yet a millionaire and would still like to be. We shall see."

Chicken Soup for the Soul--compiled and in small part written by Canfield and inspirational speaker Mark Victor Hansen--is an anthology of short, simple, feel-good stories of the sort that transformational trainers tell at the start of their sessions and then expound upon to show how the story correctly interpreted can lead us out of chaos and confusion into happiness and increased productivity.

The main ingredient of Canfield and Hansen's chicken soup is love--love of oneself, love of one's neighbor, love of one's product line. The creators quote Teilhard de Chardin: "The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire." Dawn Steel, former president of Columbia Pictures, provides a testimonial for the very first Chicken Soup. "It's warm and it's soothing," she writes. "I plan on using it whenever I need a little love."

Since the first volume in the Chicken Soup series appeared, 33 sequels have followed. Now pillars of the self-esteem industry, Canfield and Hansen, sometimes aided by other co-compilers, have made chicken soup for the souls of teenagers, parents, Christians, sports fans, pet lovers, and so on, and have sold 55,000,000 servings of it in the United States alone. They've had their soup translated into 33 languages, from Icelandic to Hebrew. And in 2001 they're bringing us soup for the souls of fathers, mothers (for the second time), Jews, the grieving, and gardeners. According to a spokeswoman at their publisher, Health Communications, in Florida, there will be no end to it.

Canfield is now president of the Canfield Training Group in Santa Barbara. He writes (not always under the Chicken Soup banner), speaks, runs "self-esteem and peak-performance seminars," and is a consultant to many Fortune 500 companies, including Campbell Soup. Recently he established the Foundation for Self-Esteem in Culver City, California, to help raise it in at-risk populations such as prisoners and welfare mothers.

He now says his study of Chinese history has reverberated through his life and affected his approach to spirituality. In fact, he notes with a laugh, he has just had a feng shui consultant do his house: to craft

his environment in a way likely to promote Canfield harmony and prosperity.

His approach in his work blends hard-driving Western goal setting with Buddhist and Taoist ideas about accepting and being one with what is, instead of being upset by reality. "We have a goal in my company, for example, to sell one billion Chicken Soup books by 2020 so as to raise a hundred million dollars for charity," he says. "We have set the goal not for financial reasons, but as a personal-growth concept." The company has already contributed $6 million to improving the lot of others. Canfield came of age in the Sixties and says he hasn't yet given up on the idealism of that time.

"I am working strongly for world peace and I am dedicated to the transformation of all of our institutions--primarily education," he wrote in his twentieth-anniversary report. Would he like to see Harvard transformed? What should be on the agenda of Harvard's next president?

Canfield has "affectionate" regard for Harvard and looks forward eagerly to his thirty-fifth reunion in June to see firsthand its possible need for reform. But he thinks educational institutions in general make one mistake. "They focus on the academic and intellectual development of students, but not on their emotional and spiritual development. Young people learn how to make a lot of money or how to become tenured professors," he believes, "but they don't confront ethics or explore value structures, and so they are disconnected from themselves and from society."

Read more articles by: Christopher Reed

You might also like

Steven Pinker on Apple’s Vision Pro

Professor of psychology on the science and history behind the Vision Pro.

The State of Black America

Harvard African American scholars take stock of a difficult moment. 

Threats Foreign and Domestic

Joseph Nye discusses geopolitics and Harvard’s challenges.

Most popular

Murphy Time

Harvard’s greatest football coach—and one of the best anywhere

Harvard Files Amicus Brief in Graduate Student Unionization Case

The University argues that the relationship between graduate students and universities should remain academic, not managerial, and student labor unions would “damage private sector graduate education.”

Labor Litigator

Attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan takes on the app economy.

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults