About a year ago, as I was searching for appropriate artwork and posters for my classroom, I came across this poster or ‘The Four Agreements.’ I didn’t know anything about Don Miguel Ruiz, the credited author, but figured he must be a motivational speaker type, and I loved his message. It seemed perfect for setting up the kind of expectations and norms that I instill in my high school students. The school year had already started, and our routines were already in place, so it wasn’t the right time to launch something new. However, I immediately saved it to be included with my start of the school year materials next year.
In the meantime, I began hearing about ‘The Four Agreements’ on two of the podcasts I listen to. Both are focused on self awareness and living your best life and both sets of hosts absolutely raved about ‘The Four Agreements’ not as a poster or motivational message they had heard, but as a book they’d read. Obviously I had to investigate, and at just $5 on Amazon, with over 5000 positive, 5 star reviews, it was a no brainer purchase, arriving two days later. I was stoked to dive in, and, as the book was just over 100 pages, figured I’d fly through the whole thing in a single sitting.
I was wrong, not because the book was that hard to read (parts sound like they were written by a teenager) but rather because Josh and I turned it into a joke to read one agreement, while laughing our way through it, each night.
Unpopular Opinion: The Four Agreements is a much better poster than a book!
Which is saying something of a book that hit #1 on the NYT Best Seller list!
That’s not to say that the book strays that far from the posters central ideas. The four agreements are exactly as laid out:
- Be impeccable with your word.
- Don’t take anything personally.
- Don’t make assumptions.
- Always do your best.
And despite my experience with the book, I still believe these are EXCELLENT tenets to live by. In fact, these are principles I’ve been exposed to dozens of times in my life, if not as succinctly on a poster, in the writing and teachings of Max Lucado, C.S. Lewis, even Dr. Seuss. The problem with this book came in the explanation of each agreement, because where the poster summarizes the essence of each of the agreements and how we should practically live out that agreement with those around us, and the aforementioned authors eloquently discuss the nuances of life and the importance of living it well, this book muddied each agreement into repetitive, mystic, semi-spiritual mush that often amounted to some variation of “life is a dream” or “hell is a dream” or “we are light; God is light; therefore, we are God.”
The author would perhaps have you believe that this “mush” is ancient Toltec wisdom. His parents were healers in rural Mexico where he was born, and he speaks often about his grandfather in the book, who, it might come as little surprise, also appears to him and teaches his in dreams. Turns out, all the world is a dream, and most of our actions and motivations are rooted in, according to the book, white magic or black magic, which honestly seemed unnecessary given the larger audience that the book targets. While the wording of the books agreements matched the poster in principle, a better description of the agreements in book form would be along the lines of: don’t send out poisonous words that put spells on people, don’t let others poison you with their spells, don’t have any expectations of the world or others, and…always try your best!
Strewn throughout the book are examples of these principles in action, which is honestly what I thought I’d like about the book, the fact that it’d add some depth to the summations on the poster. Alas, this was not meant to be as the explanations provided such insight as:
I see a friend and give him an opinion that just popped into my mind. I say, “Hmmm! I see the kind of color in your face in people who are going to get cancer.” If he listens to the word, and if he agrees, he will have cancer in less than one year.
Imagine hypochondriacs everywhere reading these words and immediately giving in to all their imaginary ailments!
Or this doozy:
“Whatever people do, feel, think, or say, DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. If they tell you how wonderful you are, they are not saying that because of you. You know you are wonderful. It is not necessary to believe other people who tell you that you are wonderful. Don’t take ANYTHING personally. Even if someone got a gun and shot you in the head, it was nothing personal.
I mean…yes don’t take things personally. But if someone is about to shoot you in the head because of the person you are…well, that’s maybe a little personal!
What’s more the book struggles to separate itself from Christianity while also discussing many of the principles that Christian authors have been writing about since the gospels. You can take the teachings of Jesus, reword them, and pretend they’re “new age,” but you’ll create a complicated relationship with your audience who has any insight into Christian teachings when they easily pick out the overlap. The irony here is that the way the agreements were phrased on the poster wasn’t particularly spiritual in any nature. Not that you still couldn’t have picked out a Christian undercurrent should you wish to apply it that way. But they could stand as secular ideas if the author so wished them to without needing to inherently draw attention to separating them from parallel Christian teachings.
In the end, it occurred to me that I liked the poster and its central ideas not because they were new and earth shattering, but because it was succinct and combined four truths that I already believed to be central to happiness into one big picture. The book, on the other, attempts to present these ideas as new and earth shattering, and in the process becomes bogged down, losing sight of the big picture for bloated examples, mysticism, and self indulgent writing.
I will still use the poster in my classroom; I just won’t recommend the book to my students.
And at the end of the day, I won’t worry to much about it because I was impeccable with my word in my criticism, and the author won’t take it personally.