Self-help guru Tony Robbins: ‘Everyone needs to find a way to have meaning or significance’

Edwin Smith

Tony Robbins 300x225 Self help guru Tony Robbins: Everyone needs to find a way to have meaning or significanceMotivational speaking, life coaching, business consultancy, seminars complete with group firewalking stunts, a business empire that reputedly puts his net worth in the region of half a billion dollars and even the dubious honour of standing in for Piers Morgan as host of the former Mirror editor’s US talk show – there are many strings to Tony Robbins’ bow. “But if you want to bring it down to just one thing,” he says in a voice that reverberates around his 6′7” frame, “ I’m a peak performance coach – I love to create breakthroughs for people in both their professional and personal lives.”

His website is teeming with videos and testimonials that extol the benefits of his work. They’re often from normal people who have paid hundreds of dollars to attend one of his seminars but dozens of celebrities are among the four million people that he reckons to have “reached” over the course of his 30-year career. Hugh Jackman, Eva Longoria, Andre Agassi, Serena Williams, Donna Karan and Quincy Jones are among the rich and famous who are happy to offer up a benediction to describe his impact on their lives. Stories range from business people who credit him with boosting their companies’ fortunes, to the tale of a man who with Robbins’ help turned his life around after an accident suffered on his honeymoon that had left him paraplegic.

Robbins, 52, explains that much of his work focuses on what he calls “flow”. “We all know that there are times in your life when you do something and you go: ‘That was amazing!’ You don’t know how you did it, you get in the flow; the flow just happens,” he says. “Great athletes and great business people know how to turn that on. But turning that on is not just mental, it’s quite physical. I give people tools to turn on that psychological state.”

But he stresses there’s more to his work than a Pavlovian ability to get people into the zone. One of his favourite success stories is a working relationship he has with someone he describes as “one of the top ten financial traders in the history of the world”.  For 20 years they have exchanged daily emails, meeting up in person four times a year for “immersion”. Robbins claims that he also helps the mystery trader with strategy by employing a model that he has developed by studying a number of successful investors, including George Soros. From this client alone, Robbins receives “a seven-figure income, plus a piece of the upside.”

As he explains his method – opting mostly for generalisations that would bear close comparison with the basic principles of almost any investor – he gallops along at a terrific lick. There are other times during our conversation when I notice he is regurgitating, almost verbatim, speeches and presentations that I’ve already heard during my research. Nevertheless, his charisma is undeniable.

Even so his manner, the relentless positivity of his message and the fact that financial gain is so openly one of the main items on the agendas of his clients makes for a very American formula. I wonder whether his appearance at a conference in London at the end of this week, at which Donald Trump and Seb Coe will also speak, will prompt him to alter his style?

A little affronted, he points out that over the course of his career, he has already worked with people from more than 100 different countries. Anyway, he says, “there are human values and human need structures that just don’t change. Everyone needs to find a way to have meaning or significance, everyone needs to find certainty. Everyone’s looking to connect or experience love, everyone is looking to create variety or surprises. Everyone’s looking to grow.”

The deluge of sound bites and truisms can be off-putting, but Robbins still seems to win fans wherever he goes. After a discussion about policy and the future of America, Barack Obama, for one, was sufficiently impressed to invite him to the White House for another chat ahead of November’s presidential election. “I asked him some very direct questions,” says Robbins. “I’m frustrated with the President. But I voted for him [in 2008] and I believe in the President’s heart. I think the President is going to win.”

He has met the challenger as well. Although he says – very convincingly – that he thinks Mitt Romney is a good man, he believes his shortcomings as a communicator will ultimately cost him victory. Robbins’ says the Governor of Massachusetts has a habit of speaking too rapidly which can sometimes mean that things come out “in a certain way.”

“It’s been more [a problem of] style than substance with Romney,” he says. “Unfortunately, in the world we live in today, if you don’t have the right style, people never hear your substance.“

Mixing with the great and the good is nothing new to Robbins. Whether Bill Clinton falls into either of those categories is up for debate but the 42nd president did call Robbins to ask for advice on the eve of his impeachment in 1998. Before that, one of the people who consulted him was Princess Diana.

“I got a chance to spend quite a bit of time with her,” he says. “She was a friend. I had lots of communication with her over multiple years, but I don’t like to talk about what I do with people unless I get permission. She said that she felt like a bird in a gilded cage and it’s no secret that that environment did not help her to prosper. She needed help taking a tough decision – which became quite obvious in public later on – and I was part of that process of helping her sort that out. But other than that, I don’t want to talk about it. One of the reasons that people come to me is because I keep their privacy even when I don’t have to.”

Indeed, an unhappy marriage is a predicament that Robbins can identify with personally. His first lasted too long he says now, but he and his second wife, whom he married 11 years ago, “worship one another”. However, such domestic bliss is a far cry from what he experienced as a child when, aged 17, he was kicked out of the family home on Christmas Eve by a mother who suffered from alcoholism and “substance issues”.

He admits it was difficult but he also allows that it gave him the hunger to go out and achieve. “When you are tested as a youth – or even as a child – it tends to give you one of two things; you either become really messed up or you become really strong. Fortunately, in my case, I became strong and I was able to pass on those things to other people.”

Robbins only decided to speak out about the true nature of his childhood recently, when addressing a group of kids who had suffered similar problems. “I shared what I had been through only for the purpose of them understanding that your life isn’t controlled by your biography,” he says before adding: “Your background doesn’t have to determine your future.” It’s a remark, much like the man himself, that seems to resound with the values of the American Dream.

Tony Robbins is appearing alongside Donald Trump and Seb Coe at the National Achievers’ Congress in London this weekend.

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  • The Sperglord of Doom

    Absurd? Ha! Nowhere near as absurd as taking one incompetent banker and extrapolating from his tedious musings that a culture of positivity was the cause of the whole banking disaster!

    I’ve read there was a bit more to the banking crisis than that.

    But I must admit yours is a charmingly simplistic explanation, one I can imagine being used by dope smoking teenagers.

  • Pescadorean
  • Pescadorean

    If Robbins thinks Donald Trump is a National Achiever, he ought to think again. Trump also has an uncanny knack for sending businesses bankrupt, and has a penchant for getting into debt via high risk junk bonds. Along with Coe, perhaps they would be more at home in a ‘National Ar§ehøle Congress’.

  • JDSixsmith

    not one banker – an entire business culture, I used Lehman’s as the example because that was the first domino, remember? But yes, if you think the example of Shackleton better exemplfies the business culture of “positivity” that’s so obviously grown up in the western business world over the past few decades, I think it shows a great deal about the absurdity of your perception, Sperglord… but maybe you’ve been brainwashed or something?

    & if my musings are so “tedious”, why do you feel such an urge to respond? Your job or calling?

    I guess that you imagine my “charmingly simplistic” explanation as coming from a drug user because you have been trained to associate any criticism of Tony’s teachings with something that society agrees to revile…. ooh maybe you have been brainwashed.

  • The Sperglord of Doom

    Oh dear JD, reading comprehension is not your forte.

    I didn’t say your musings were tedious.

    The reason why I defend Tony Robbins (and similar) is that I grew up in the shadow of older siblings full of negativity and abandon-all-hope-all-ye-who-enter-here-life’s-hard-then-ya-die-you’re-shit-and-everything-ya-do-is-shit-and-there’s-nothing-you-can-do-about-it miserabalists who wielded the tall-poppy-syndrome scythe with no-fun protestant-witchfinder-general zeal.

    Probably because inside they are very frightened little people to whom all possibility, the possibility of hope, of change is a terrifying prospect.

    Of course I’m projecting all this onto you. You, who probably just want people to deal with reality as it is and just be a little more pragmatic. Weill I apologise for that.

    But ya know that hopey changey stuff is very potent and ya know what? It actually works – sometimes. And people can turn their lives around, get that dream job, get A job, get the dream relationship, get A relationship. I’ve seen good things happen to other people, and good things have happened to me – because I made them happen.

    But the first step is believing change is possible and having a little optimism – is that such a terrible thing?

  • JDSixsmith

    I never said optimism was terrible. I said positivity to the exclusion of anything else robs a person of balance & perspective.

    Come on Sperg, you have to be aware of the ideas of “can-do” business culture & how a forced culture of positivity has been taken on board by many corporations over the past few decades – to the exclusion of any criticism (as exemplified by what happened at Lehmans & arguably the entire financial community). It’s attitudes like this that people like Robbins sell.

    This uber-positive attitude had enormous ramifications for what they were doing because they simply refused to acknowledge the risks they were taking with the entire world economy because they were all making so much money… because acknowledging it would be negative. They made it happen because they lacked a perspective of what would happen if it all went wrong – they didn’t see the negative or applying critical thinking – they ignored “Dr Doom” Roubini who was proved to be correct.

    Their exclusively positive attitude on what they were doing impacted on… everybody… in an extremely negative way. That’s what I meant by saying it can be, & proved to be, dangerous.

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