Be Extraordinary: The Story of Landmark Education

How your two-day education for “life” comes second to making a profit.

Sanne Van Hemert-Bergh
20 min readJan 9, 2017


At 6:30 AM, the Laguna Room waits for its participants. Every one of the 141 chairs is placed in aisles at equal, precise lengths apart. The room has wafts of Lysol air freshener. Every tissue box, water cooler, table and poster has been precisely placed according to the Production Manager’s handbook. Among other check boxes in the handbook, the carpets have been vacuumed three times, twice more to keep busy. A young woman in heels and a pencil skirt had gotten down, not once, but twice, on her knees and crawled through the aisles setting black ball-point pens underneath each chair. Only when a staff member realized that the chairs were positioned incorrectly, did he scatter all the chairs and pens asking her to get down to the floor once again.

On the building tucked away in an office park on McDurmott Avenue behind Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, a sign reads “Landmark Education.” Before an unknowing soul may wander in, not one staff member, participant or volunteer will let them say they don’t belong there. Of those who walk into the Laguna Room at Landmark, many will feel that they were destined to be there, that they were intended to be at a place so accepting, so expressive, and so therapeutic. Some graduates say that Landmark changed their lives, that Landmark is the reason for their happiness and for their “breakthroughs” in life.

These unknowing participants will be compelled to look so closely at their own life — but only as closely as the man with the loud voice on stage will tell them to. Yet, no one is in Laguna Room “on accident” though. Getting into that room is a planned event. Those who enter will feel pressured and awkward if they try to leave, but they will not leave as often as they come in hoping something virtuous to occur. Change is the point of this whole weekend. If one is going to pay for a weekend of “transformation,” the least they could do is give it a shot, to let someone else wipe the slate clean. Landmark will give them that re-do.

Laguna is the only room with a name. Letters of the alphabet identify the rest. This room is where the magic will ensue, where the transformation will take place. Forest green chalkboards feature words such as breakthrough and possibility scripted in neat, yellow and white lettering. Four billboards hanging from the ceiling beside the chalkboards display Landmark’s theology and curriculum:

· Transformation: the genesis of a new realm of possibility

· In the Landmark Forum, you will bring forth the presence of a new realm of Possibility for yourself and your life.

· Inside this realm: The constraints of the past imposed on your view of life disappear.

· New possibilities for being call you powerfully into being.

· New openings for action call you powerfully into action.

· The experience of being alive transforms.

While the hallways feature abstract paintings hanging on blue and yellow walls, the Laguna Room has no paintings and no windows, and the only color is mustard yellow in the back, which all the chairs face away from. Two large parlor palms stand in the corners of the room next to the small stage, the ends of their leaves browning. The blue carpet features a grey linear design.

Walking into the building, stairs lead up to an office where staff collates handouts, pamphlets, brochures, information packets and forms. In six cubicles, volunteers call graduates of the Forum to inform them of upcoming seminars, workshops and opportunities to excel at Landmark. On the wall in the hallway, a poster of a smiling young woman with bright white teeth reads “Create Possibility- The Advanced Course.” Those who have gone to Landmark Education are allowed to sign up for the Advanced course, and those who have taken it say that the Advanced Course is one of the best courses that Landmark offers, “that when you walk outside the “reds are redder, the colors are brighter. Every voice inside my head disappeared. I was simply being.Take the Advanced Course. There are other posters on the hallways as well, promoting the Young Person’s Forum and the Teen’s Forum. “Take your kids and let them create their own possibility. There is no greater gift to give to your children than possibility. They are the only ones who will sign themselves up, though; it is their choice.”


By 7AM, the staff begins to arrive. Some congregate by the front of the stage.

“What is it that you want to get out of assisting for Landmark?”

“Excellence,” one offers.

“Perfection,” another adds.

This weekend’s Landmark Education course supervisor, Ryan, nods and scans the group checking off boxes on a list in his three-inch binder. His shirt, unbuttoned at the collar, exposes sparse chest hairs. His eyes are blank; he shows no emotion. At age 36, he hunches over at 5’5”, his small protruding belly gives him the shape of an oversized pear. His thinning dark blonde hair leaves a bald spot at the top. Like most of the male staff members at Landmark, he has a soul patch beneath his lower lip. Outside of Landmark, Ryan is a research assistant for a holistic medicine company based out of Tustin. This weekend, however, he is the boss. The assistants are the Forum’s security guards, there to pounce if someone tries to leave, take notes, bring in food or drinks, or if they decide to cause any disturbance by arriving late. The assistants as Ryan tell them. Precision is expected.

“It’s important to get this place running smoothly,” he tells the group. “Our job is incredibly important. We are creating a clearing for creating a TRANSFORMATION. It’s bigger than us. I’ve been doing this for 13 years, and I’ve supervised many, many courses.” He blinks rapidly, looks down at his binder again, and checks off a box. “Demonstrate integrity in showing up on time,” he says. “Be authentic in the way that you handle yourself.” The group nods and stares intently at Ryan. Despite how early it is, no one drifts or yawns. “You guys excited?!”

One assistant clenches his two fists and raises them into the air. “YES.”


At 8:30 nervous looking participants gather to collect their pale green plastic nametags, and staff tell them to place their personal items in Salon B; only sealed water is allowed inside Laguna. No notebooks, no coffee, no nothing. You don’t need to take notes when you’re learning how to swim or how to ride a bike. Balance doesn’t take memorization. Zachary arrives with two of his friends, Shane and Sam, who registered only the day before. They all signed a form stating that Landmark would take no responsibility for psychological or emotional damage. They were agreeing to be a part of the roller coaster, one they aren’t meant to exit. If they did exit, they wouldn’t get the full ride. Zachary’s shaved head has a large tattoo reading “OUTLAW” in green and blue letters. His dirty red flannel jacket reeks of stale cigarette smoke. His forehead has a faded tattoo with illegible script, a tattoo he is in the process of removing. Now at age twenty-seven, the tattoo proclaims a lifestyle that was once important to him, but now, the faded and blue ink only scares others away. Zach, like most of those who entered Laguna, was asked to come by a loved one. He had gotten the tearful phone call from someone in Landmark to “say what they need to say.” One of the famous exercises the Landmark Forum asks of its participants is to have them call loved ones over the breaks to express compelling thoughts and breakthroughs. According to Zach, his mother spouted the usual nonsense that anyone would say to someone with a tattoo on their forehead and a past of drinking, crime and bad decisions. I love you, but you need to change your life around. Zach doesn’t want to be here. His mother had driven him here. He’s not happy about it.

Here he comes, here comes the famous Roger Smith. Roger Smith, who has been doing what he’s doing for more than 30 years. He led the Erner Werhard Seminar in the 1970s, before Landmark purchased the curriculum in 1991. He is the best, legendary and according to a Times article written about Landmark was referred to as, “remarkably insightful.” A former Air Force pilot, he has a handle on how he presents himself, on what he says. He knows what he’s doing and he’s damn good at it. With his toothy smile and strong presence, Roger Smith is what makes the Forum, the Forum. He’s the leader who trains the leader. He leads participants to transformation. Over 60 years old, he looks to be in his late 70s. He carries his Landmark leader’s manual with him everywhere he goes. He has an assistant whose sole duty is to get him whatever he needs throughout the weekend. Usually it’s just cough drops, coffee and water, but he would drive to Olive Garden and pay out of pocket for Smith’s meal if he asked.


By ten past 9AM, all participants are in their lightly cushioned, slightly uncomfortable chairs. That’s where they’ll remain until approximately 10:15PM, counting out 30-minute breaks every three hours. Zach fidgets, moving his foot up and down rapidly, wasting the caffeinated energy still in his system. The caffeine will only last until about 11:30AM. Roger begins. “Like a roller coaster, you can’t get off until the end! Your participation is expected if you intend to get anything out of the Forum!” He pauses. “You have the choice to leave and get a full refund.” He pauses again. “It’s the power of choosing and I’m giving you that choice. Anyone? Anyone?” He waits half a minute, “OK! Chance is over!” No one gets up. Zach fidgets again. Shit, it hasn’t even started yet?

“Ground rules,” Roger says, “are that everyone must remain in their seat, that no drugs or alcohol or mind-numbing substances be used, unless it has been prescribed by a doctor. Will everyone make the commitment to refraining themselves from drugs and alcohol during the Forum?” Zach raises his hand, acknowledging that he will make that commitment. Not so easy. Not so easy at all. He lowers his head and bends his elbow slightly, hiding behind the large woman in front of him. He sits in the second to last row, knowing that he is only observing. Graduates say you can’t trust the spectators sitting in the back. Roger stands up front. His shoulders disappear into his old body. His long neck cranes to and fro each time he speaks.

A man named Bryan stands up and says, “What is this place? I have to take this as a requirement for work.” Roger laughs at the idea that this type of thing could possibly be a requirement. Yet, Landmark does offer transcripts as evidence of attendance and in certain instances can be used for life experience credits at some colleges. Some employers ask that their employees take the Landmark Forum so they can practice what they have learned and apply it to the work place. Some employers even require it. Wernher Erhard, the founder of Landmark, had worked together with Harvard Business School to create a seminar that considers the principles of integrity in the business world. “Seems kinda like therapy, like very personal” Bryan speculates at the microphone on stage. Whoever has a question, they must get up and stand at the front of the large room, speaking out to the 150 participants.

It’s been two and a half hours since Roger began. In the last two and half hours, he makes promises, tells the room what the Landmark Forum will offer and how it’s worth every penny spent. It’s felt like so long, the room is gyrating, moving, restless. The perfectly placed chairs are now askew, people moving farther from nearby, avoiding strangers. A woman sitting on the aisle moves about a foot away from Zach, smelling the stale smoke on his jacket. Zach can smell her fear. He is agitated, he is annoyed. What am I doing here? Sitting, listening, he reaches his hand over the back of Sam’s shoulders and shakes them, placing his head on Sam’s left shoulder. Sam understands, he shakes his head and looks down at the ground. Ten and a half more hours of this. “I’d fidget too if I was sitting in a chair for 13 hours,” a volunteer says. Sam and Shane are smaller in size than Zach who stands tall at 6’2”. They are more patient with Roger’s lectures and sit and stare with their arms crossed. Zach, however, closes his eyes and hangs his head back over the edge of the chair.

Roger is on the “What Happened” and “Story” bit. He holds his hands out in front of him. “This is what happened,” he jerks his hands to the right, “and this is your interpretation.” There are no problems, only what happened. A woman decides to stand up on stage and discuss her condition, about how she was arrested for accidentally shoplifting, and now fears not finding a job because of how they might run a background check on her. A kindergarten teacher, she doesn’t want the reputation as a criminal. Zach rolls his eyes. Only a year prior, he was arrested for theft of personal property and convicted of a misdemeanor. Roger moves up to the microphone across the stage from her, looking into her eyes. He asks her “what happened?”

“I stole,” she responds, “and I got punished for it.”

“What does that mean? What is the story you’re making up?” He asks.

“That I made a bad decision.” She puts her hand over her arm, squeezing it. “What happened,” he says, “ is that you created a story in your head, that you don’t have the possibility of creating opportunities for yourself because you’re restricting yourself by this story. Don’t you see?” The woman stares blankly at Roger. “The story is the interpretation,” he continues. “The story is the interpretation.” He pauses and stares out at the audience waiting for a response. “Well?” They stare back. The air is stiff. He sends the woman back to her seat and then continues to lecture. He draws a circle and writes “What happened” with an arrow leading to another circle with “Story/Interpretation” inscribed inside.

Zach fidgets more violently, moving up and down, putting his elbows between his knees. She continues and he gets up and leaves the room. That woman’s story irked him. He didn’t care. There are babies who have more relevant problems than this woman. Shane follows him out, and they stay out of the room until Roger releases them for break. No assistants follow them out like they’re supposed to, for they are afraid. They know that sometimes people slip through the cracks, and that no one gets the chance they deserve. “It takes a certain [patient] type of person,” a volunteer says.

By 6PM, when the crowd breaks into groups for dinner, Zach and his friends linger in the B Salon. An assistant approaches him and cheerfully offers a restaurant map, displaying local places to eat. Zach rips it out of her hand, and she appears more frightened. He crumples the paper into a ball and tosses it into the nearest wastebasket. He signals for his friends to follow them, and they head out. They don’t come back and they don’t get their $550 back, they don’t even ask for it.


By 9PM, the crowd is drained. They aren’t looking at the clock, just Roger’s wrinkled and animated face. He offers a plastered smile, with the corners of his mouth peeled to the back of his ears. As the crowd fidgets, he discusses “rackets,” or “constant complaints.” Everyone has complaints, so why not acknowledge and eliminate them?

Two young men stand outside Laguna with Ryan.

“I just don’t feel like I’m getting anything out it,” one of them says. An assistant responds, “You get out of it what you put into it. You need to be committed to see any outcome. At least stay for the racket conversation.” Ah, yes, rackets, the constant complaints that people have about their state of being, a response to a threat that they perceive to be harmful, the persistent complaints causing people to stay in a fixed way of being. The rackets are what drag people down, what keeps people from creating possibility. The 20 year old holds a cell phone in his hand laughs and pretends to answer a text message. “Everybody hates us! I don’t understand any of this!” He’s cornered.

“We don’t hate you!” the assistant says. “It’s just a story, a complaint, that you’re telling yourself.”

He looks at the ground. Later, during Roger’s racket conversation, he and his friend grab their jackets and sneak out of Laguna, through the hallways, down the stairs and out of the grey building.


The second day is not like the first day. It moves quicker, people discuss their issues more fluently. The first day is all recognizing what the Forum is, the second is 25% of the work, and the third day? Oh, man. That’s the Forum right there. The morning of the second day begins with more what “happened’s” and “stories.” People go on stage and they move into their problems, analyzing them, pausing, struggling while Roger tells them it’s their own damn fault, that they are at cause, that they are the reason for all of their own problems. People are no longer slumped in their chairs. They are awake, they are engaged, it isn’t so boring anymore. Then the “Possibility of Being” exercise begins.

Sherri, a 40-year old woman with deep creases at the corners of her eyes holds onto her knees, gyrating back and forth. “Imagine you are completely afraid,” Roger says, “So afraid that the people sitting beside you are out to get you. Imagine the worst possible thing has happened to you.” People’s eyes are closed tight, listening to his commands. Sherri clasps her knees so hard, her knuckles turn white. The worst thing that has happened to her, no one in this room would understand. She tried to get them to understand when she went up on stage yesterday, when Roger pummeled her with the fact that her mother’s abandonment was simply a story. She was only ten years old when she decided to go live with her father, leaving her younger brother with her unstable, addicted mother. She carries the guilt with her everyday. “You are just a child,” Roger chants. Sherri loses herself and starts crying loud enough for her neighbors to hear. “Now that you have submitted yourself to your worst fear, you are now DEAD. Experience that DEADNESS,” Roger proclaims. Sherri moves back and forth again and puts her head between her knees and soon her hysterical sobs echo through the room. A few people open up their eyes to peek at her, but slumped over, she covers her head with her hands. “Now that you are dead,” Roger continues, “that deadness, that nothingness, is what you get out the Landmark. What a gift.” Sherri still has tears running down her face, memories of her childhood still flash. She remembers her brother, she remembers her mother, her father. She came here for them, for herself, to make it all better.


Roger stands up on stage after one of the breaks. He laughs, “If people weren’t so obsessed with trying to self-improve, we’d be out of business!” He uses a piece of yellow chalk to draw a line across the board. “Look at me, I’m trying to find spiritual guidance.” He draws another violently across the board. “I’m a Reiki master, look at me I’m going to Burning man, I’m doing this, I’m doing that, I’m going to therapy, oh that doesn’t work, maybe I should try this!” He continues scribbling over the board filling it with yellow chalk and dust. “Ok now, Roger, now fix it!” he laughs. The crowd stares. “At the Forum, this is what we do,” and he erases the scribbles on the board. The crowd “ahhs” in amazement. Nothingness. Erase everything. Now I have room to recreate.

Sherri goes up to Roger during a short break and tells him how she thinks that by reducing life histories to a simple story is undermining, and that it’s hurtful. “Can’t you see that’s a story you’re telling yourself?” Roger asks.

“I.. don’t like you,” Sherri says.


One of the homework assignments is to bring a loved one on Tuesday night or a graduate on Sunday night. Roger encourages them to “enroll others of their possibility and having gotten.” Incorporating others is what gives the possibility of creation and tangibility. “Bring 3–5 people,” he says. The Advanced Course flyer has already been passed out; participants are given a discount for it at a low $560, but only if they pay in full by Sunday, the third day of the Forum. If they wait until Tuesday, it will be $670. A seminar series is included in the ‘tuition’ of the Forum, which will help them strengthen this new “flabby muscle” that they have developed. A new way of living takes practice, and the seminar series is so participants “won’t forget.”

When the assistants hand out the pamphlets, some automatically sign up for the upcoming seminar over the summer, but some hesitantly hold on to the form. Roger says, “Even if you know you can’t make it, sign up! Be unreasonable with yourself! Sign up!” They obey, reaching underneath their chairs using the pens to commit themselves for ten seminar sessions.

By the time all the participants have gone home at 11:30PM that night, an assistant organizing returned nametags tells another of how she is doing the Tony Robbins seminar for $2,500 and about how excited she is. “Don’t waste your money,” a volunteer says, “it’s a temporary fix, you’ll only be better when he’s in the room. In real life, it’s completely different.”

The Seminar

The florescent ceiling light flickers, and Karl fidgets his foot. His rough, callused and scraped hands are clasped tight at his lap. He adjusts his dirty silver skull ring on his index finger. The room, with about thirty people, all sit and stare intently as Cynthia preaches the essence of every single relationship, and how important they are to the functionality of the human condition. “Our lives are made up of relationships,” she insists.

Cynthia asks everyone in the crowded room, “What does love mean to you?”

“It hurts,” Karl shouts as his lisp hushes the ‘s’ sound.

Karl crosses his hairy blonde arms and looks onto the crowd. “Can’t trust the people who sit in the back,” he whispers to himself. At the beginning of the seminar, Cynthia asks what it is that everyone wishes to have a breakthrough in. Karl turns to the girl next to him and searches his thoughts.

“To have a relationship with someone else..” he pauses, “I need to have a relationship with myself.” His intensity is uncanny, but the Seminar leader insists that participation in this seminar is absolutely required. All in, or nothing will be achieved. On an attendance document, it’s noted that Karl first took the Advanced Forum in 1998. Karl has been a transformed man for 15 years. 15 years since he has come to the full consciousness of whom he believes and wishes to be. Karl has participated in over 20 seminars over the years, which range from $125 to $225 a course. Karl is telemarketer and doesn’t earn much, but life coaching and a transformation don’t come cheap — it’s an investment.

It’s hour two of three. The room is alive. All are scribbling in their notebooks, switching glances back and forth between Cynthia’s lecture and their notes. In the seminar series, people are allowed to take notes. Eyes focus in on the leader, who wears a bright green shirt. “I had a breakthrough when I decided to wear this shirt,” she reports. “I had issues with my body and I’d hide behind dark colors. This is a breakthrough for me!” She moves up and down the aisles of the room and her eyebrows pop up and down as she chastises the room. “Why is everyone in the room sluggishly listening?” she asks. Everyone moves to the edge of their seats, sit up straight and squint at Cynthia. “Did you notice how everyone in this room has only been giving me 30% of their attention?”

“This education,” she says, “is integral to your participation in life. How we are in here, is how we are in life.” Handfuls of people nod and make agreeing soft sighs. The lights flicker again. One woman stares down at the ground. Cynthia’s voice is the only sound in the room, besides the low hum of the air conditioning.

Karl’s white and blonde hair is worn slicked back, and an untamed beard shoots out orange and white scruff. His flannel shirt and jeans are slightly dirty, but he wears cologne. “What is life anyway,” he asks the girl next to him. He leans in closely with their faces inches apart. His voice is raspy, yet soft and loud enough to be heard. He mutters out only his dislike for his work schedule and how little time he spends for himself, but only in the allotted time given before Cynthia cuts everybody off to speak. His attention quickly returns back.

Karl’s job is unfulfilling, dull and lasts about 14 to 16 hours a day. His social calendar is usually empty, and is un-stimulating. He can manipulate others when on the job, and he can sell. Man, can he sell, but struggles over his words in this room, and his sentences are imprecise. The room has become a beast, a place where people come to transform, and a place where self-indulgence is neither chastised nor ridiculed. A safe haven, but also a vicious chamber that picks the scabs of buried emotions that were perhaps never intended to be unburied. He first came to Landmark on his own accord years ago at the advice of a close friend. It was a tough time, he was in his late twenties and life wasn’t going anywhere. “It was like putting gas in the tank,” he says.

“This is a ten-session course, there will be no breaks. We must be alert.” Cynthia notes.

Karl arrived late, and usually does. In the course, arriving late is considered “inauthentic.” To give one’s word and to keep that word is authentic. He never gave his word though, he says.

At the beginning of the course, Cynthia had people greet every single person in the room without saying one word to another, a relationship exercise. Karl would firmly shake the hands of others and make eye contact, knowing very well that he would be the first to break it. Some people in the room would stare for longer periods of time, or hold both hands gently like a grandmother would. Some hugged, patted each other’s backs, but all made eye contact.

How we are in this education is how we are in life.

Cynthia scans the room, the extraordinarily powerful exercises that they participate call for the absolute undivided attention of every participant. One must put their arms around the exercise, be present and alert — and absorbent.

How we are in this education is how we are in life.


Irvine Landmark Office,

18231 W. McDurmott, Ste 200

Irvine, CA 92614

The Landmark Forum, Observed:

May 16: ~5PM-10:30PM

May 17: ~7AM-11PM

May 18: ~7:30AM-11:30PM

May 19: ~7:30AM-3PM (left early)

Tried to enter into the “Advanced Course” at the LA office. Got turned away, 35-minute ordeal.

The Relationship Seminar: The Basics of Love, Romance and Partnership

Session#1: April 29, 2013, ~7PM-10PM

Session #2: May 13, 2013, ~7PM-10PM

(Paid $125, then cancelled and got a refund once I realized I could go to under 4 sessions for $10 each.)

Session #2: May 6, 2013, ~7–10PM at the LA office.

June 3–4?, followed up with Zach. More research on Roger Smith.



John Malek- Assisting Course Supervisor, sporadic dialogue may 17–19

Charles Daff- Course Supervisor In Training, Assisting Program, sporadic dialogue May 17–19

Roger Smith, dialogue at the Forum, observed/talked to briefly May 17–19

Karl D. — Relationships Seminar, past graduate of the LMF, interview after session. Observed seminar sessions #1+#2

Sibel — Assisting Program, observed/talked to may 17–19

Jetta V. — past graduate of LMF interview 40min skype

Kristenpast graduate of the LMF, Interview by skype 20–25 min? Lives in Berkeley.

Tim L.- Assisting Program director, Talked for an hour about the assisting program. Saw him in May17–19 sporadically.

Ryan B. Course Supervisor, observed may 17+18, dialogue, etc.

Crystal W. — Relationships Seminar Leader in Irvine, observed at session #1+#2

Zachary S.- participant only on first day, Observed on May 17. I found his criminal record through Riverside county’s court records. Small interview/dialogue 20min?

Jeanne S. — past graduate of the LMF. Interview/dialogue 30min

Final Self-Appraisal.

I killed a lot of babies and then nurtured them back to health, and then killed them again. I’m actually pretty happy with my final draft. I’m never 100% confident with my writing. I spent more time reporting the story than writing it and I think it might show. When I was line-editing my story, it was a little embarrassing how many mistakes I made. I knew that would happen though, because if every time I write a draft I worried too much about word-choice, I wouldn’t get anything done. I sometimes curse the ‘delete’ button.

I’m so happy Barry had us to do a draft so early on, because if I hadn’t forced myself to spurt something out at that point, I can’t say I would’ve written something of very good quality. It also gave me time to wrestle with my words, material and notes. I finally feel like I’m telling the reader something that is real, and I don’t think I’m slamming my fist on the table, (that hard) but my voice is definitely in there. I couldn’t help it.

Also, I don’t want to pat myself on the back about getting into Landmark’s Assisting program but as a young reporter, I’m secretly jumping up and down because I’m so proud of the end-product. It took a lot out of me both emotionally and physically (I don’t usually work for free 7AM-10PM), but I’m so glad I did it. It was a crazy ride. I got so annoyed with these people my notes would sometimes say things like, “does this guy have a life?” or “everyone must be as bored as I am.”


I got rid of a lot of the italic expressions that I inserted in my first draft. I also added ages and details. I got ahold of Zach’s email and got in touch with him and got some more facts that I didn’t have before. I have a pile of notes, so I also went through those to add more details. Too bad I’m not very organized so that took forever. Also, line-editing and word choices and “tightening.”



Sanne Van Hemert-Bergh

Writer, yogi, returned Peace Corps volunteer. MFA Creative Nonfiction ’22 student.