It was 2007, and the big boss, my boss’s boss, was excited to take us all to see Tony Robbins speak for his “The Power Within” seminar. Everyone seemed excited, but not me. I told my boss I wouldn’t go, which prompted the warning about potential consequences from on high.
I didn’t want to go, because I knew some things about Tony.
A decade earlier, I was about to start an MBA. I knew it was going to be a brutal undertaking and figured some motivational secrets could set me on the right path before classes commenced. Not knowing any better, I sought the help of Mr. Robbins via his mega bestselling book Awaken the Giant Within.
I’d already accomplished a few things I considered impressive. I’d transformed my physique after a lifetime of inactivity and completed one master’s degree that 60% of my classmates had dropped out of. But the MBA was the next big step, and I imagined Tony could set me upon the proper path to a lifetime of success and achievement.
What a bunch of mindless, unscientific drivel.
I remember the book began with talk of “The power of decision.” Like, when you decide to do something, it happens, because you decided.
I kept reading, wondering how to unlock this wonderful power, but enlightenment was elusive. It was kind of like this:
Me: Tony, I’m not following you here. How is it that deciding to do something makes it happen?
Tony: Because you decided.
Me: But there are things I would like to do, behaviors I want to change, and just “deciding” doesn’t seem like that’s enough.
Tony: It is enough, because The Power of Decision.
Me: I don’t think you’re hearing me. I’ve decided to change these things before, many times, and it didn’t take. Where was this magical power then?
Tony: You didn’t actual decide, because if you did, you would have changed, because The Power of Decision. Decisions are all powerful. Feel the power …
Me: How? How do I feel this power, Tony? What science of behavior change do I use to make my decisions powerful enough to follow through on them?
Tony: You just decide.
Me: Oh, fuck off.
I tossed that shit aside, and even managed to finish my MBA four months early, despite being a new father, with a 3.8 out of 4.0 GPA. So there.
Years later I was collecting research to prepare to dip my toe in the health and fitness writing field. More than anything else, motivation to change fascinated me. There is greater variety of methods for losing weight and getting in shape than there are beers in a Munich autumn, but what matters more than anything is one’s passion for adherence to a new way of living. You can have an science-based, healthy diet plan, and an appropriate and challenging exercise regimen, but if you can’t be inspired to follow them, it’s all for naught.
And in researching cognitive behavior change, I recalled Tony Robbins and delved deeper into his dumbfuckery, learning just how unscientific and unethical he is. That’s why I told my boss I wouldn’t be attending The Power Within.
“Look,” he told me. “I get it. But consider it another way. You like studying motivation, so wouldn’t it be good to understand the bullshit side as well, to help people avoid it? A kind of ‘Know your enemy’ approach?”
Did I mention he was a really good boss?
And so, I went. Barf.
My eyes rolled so hard I saw my cerebral cortex. But some people dig this shit. Tony got the crowd whipped up into a frenzy, and people in my company talked about how “transformative” and “life-changing” the experience was. I was at that company for another three years. I didn’t witness much follow through on that life change Tony allegedly inspired in them.
Tony is in the news right now for being a douche. I’ll do a quick recap of said douchebaggery, then explain why he’s always been a douche.
It’s been a few weeks since the incident, but in the last few days the story has gotten legs. It was during one of Tony’s seminars to an adoring crowd of 12,000 people in San Jose. He characterized the #MeToo movement negatively because some women use it feel more significant, saying it’s about attacking others and playing the role of victim.
Nanine McCool stood up to Tony in the crowd and said, “I think you misunderstand the me too movement,” then she was promptly interrupted by Robbins (video). He uses the crowd to support his position and shut down McCool. He brings in Jesus, saying “You shouldn’t throw a stone if you live in a fucking glass house.”
By that logic, a woman who has had X number of sexual partners or dressed a certain way can’t complain about being raped, because … glass house?
Told you he was a douche.
Then, when McCool doesn’t back down, he uses physical intimidation against her. Watch the video.
McCool was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. I’ve interviewed the physician who discovered the link between adverse childhood experiences and the long-ranging negative physical and mental health effects from it. Such abuse is incredibly common, and I was overwhelmed with responses when seeking people to speak with for the piece. Like that time I sought stories about how men feel entitled to women’s bodies and received over 400 stories. Warning: this is a tough read. #MeToo isn’t a “witch hunt” or throwing stones. It’s about creating positive change for the future.
But Robbins isn’t supportive or understanding. He blames victims for being victims and wanting to feel significant and now men can’t hire attractive women because men might want to fuck those hot women then problems.
Tarana Burke, the originator of #MeToo, commented on Twitter:
But Tony apologized, didn’t he? It strikes me as PR damage control; when the video first surfaced it quickly disappeared for “legal reasons.” Sounds like suppression to me; Tony has a multi-million dollar-empire to protect.
An empire built on douchebaggery.
There is a book by Steve Salerno titled SHAM: How the Self Help Movement Made America Helpless. Salerno coined SHAM as an acronym for “Self Help Actualization Movement.”
Tony Robbins gets a lot of coverage in the book.
I have often said, “Tony Robbins will motivate you down to your last dollar.” Salerno agrees, writing, “he uses the dozens of seminars he puts on each year as extended sales pitches for his books, other products, and further seminars” (p. 77). In the seminar I attended in 2008, I noticed how he segued discussion of nutrition into a sales pitch for his brand of supplements, something my friend Dr. Yoni Freedhoff wrote about today. Tony sells “BioEnergy Greens” and “Energy Now” and “Vital Energy” and “Pure Body Cleanse” and promises in large font you can “Hit your weight loss goal in just 14 days—and keep it off for good.”
The event I attended was a single day, but there were pitches for the much more expensive weekend retreat. And if you’re really fucked up, you can do his weeklong “Life & Wealth Mastery” course in tropical Fiji later this month. Day 1 has five hours booked off for colonics, because it’s not Tony who’s full of shit, it’s you, and Tony needs to irrigate your ass before he can transform your mind, or something.
And it’s not just Tony doing the constant upsell. When I tweeted about Robbins one woman replied to me, “A company I worked for brought in a Robbins lackey for a motivational talk turned sales pitch for a ‘conference’ that cost thousands of dollars. It was high pressure garbage. The guy went around the room one by one asking us if we cared enough about our jobs to sign up.”
I remember a booth outside the event I attended promoted the “QLink Pendant.” Salerno writes that Robbins says the QLink, “enhances a person’s resistance to ambient radiation of the kind that comes from cell phones” (p. 79). Salerno explains that the quacktacular Deepak Chopra is also a fan of the QLink, and yet there is zero quality evidence to show its efficacy.
Salerno also discussed how Tony would bring an audience member up on stage and easily lift him up (Tony is a big man). “Then he’ll order his subject to ‘feel centered and grounded. Imagine you are connected firmly to the earth!’” (p. 82). Lo and behold, behemoth Robbins then lacked the strength to lift this man, because of the Power of Decision to Enhance Gravity, I guess.
At the event I attended, Tony brought a sucker on stage and had them hold out their arm and think negative thoughts. Tony easily pushed their arm down. Then he had the mark think happy thoughts, and suddenly, Tony couldn’t push their arm down. The happy thoughts made him strong. It’s a miracle!
Nah. It’s bullshit. The fraudster changes the physics of the way they push to make it appear as though the mark has become stronger. He uses similar trickery with his “fire walk experience,” which professional debunker James Randi refers to as “a crock.” Robbins convinced his marks they could do it by repeating the words “cool moss” as they walk across the coals, but the phrase is irrelevant. Randi told Salerno, “Fire walking works, but not for any reasons related to spiritualism or metaphysics. It’s the physics of the thing, having to do with heat conduction and transfer” (pp. 80-81). Feet are poor conductors of heat, and you’re walking (quickly) over coals covered in ashes. There isn’t enough time for the coals to burn you.
But does Tony at least give good advice? I mean, President Clinton brought him to Camp David for a chat, “and his one-on-one clients included Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterand, Princess Diana, and Mother Teresa” (p. 76).
Guys like Tony are the worst kind of “guru,” in that they’re only half full of shit. Also known as telling half-truths and packaging stuff that is logical in a mystical aura of rainbows and puppy hugs and para-psychological nonsense with scientific-sounding names. But it’s all just a way to suck money out of your wallet by merging legitimacy with the miraculous. As I said, these people will motivate you down to your last dollar. They tell you how you’re broken, then sell you the “fix.”
Tony bases his “therapy” on Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP), which is about how language, eye, and body movement allegedly affect neurology. NLP has been debunked by the psychological community as pseudoscientific hokum. Actual legitimate neuroscience researcher Michael Corballis wrote in the 1999 book Mind Myths that “NLP is a thoroughly fake title, designed to give the impression of scientific respectability.” Further, Scott Lilienfeld, Editor in Chief of the Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice wrote in that journal in 2002 that NLP is a “New Age” form of psychotherapy that had not been subject to rigorous empirical validation. Regarding lack of empirical validity, in 2010, psychologist and skeptic Tomasz Witkowski conducted a meta-analysis of decades worth of research and proclaimed NLP “an unstable house built on the sand rather than an edifice founded on the empirical rock.” NLP was also discredited in the 2015 book Science and Pseudoscience in Social Work Practice.
Does this mean all work in the field of motivation is bogus? Hardly. It means don’t get it from a guy pushing pseudoscience whose greatest accomplishment is convincing millions he is great at accomplishing things.
Tony gives self-improvement a bad name. But there is plenty of legitimate behavior change science people can use for the betterment of their lives, and I’ve written about a lot of it over the years, interviewing respected experts with real PhDs from real universities. I’m personally fond of self-determination theory and self-efficacy theory. I also find value in the theory of planned behavior.
Alas, it’s sensationalism that sells. If you desire self-improvement, avoid that which is popular or sexy, and seek out the real science. It won’t keep trying to upsell you or blast anything up your ass as you walk on fire while wearing a bullshit pendant made from a few bucks worth of cheap materials.
I’ll close with the words of James Randi (Salerno, p. 86) regarding the pseudoscientific self-help industry: “this is an industry that survives on repeat business. If you could go to every seminar or every bookstore, you’d see the same faces over and over and over again.”
UPDATE MAY 17, 2019: BuzzFeed News just published a detailed piece on Robbins after a year-long investigation. From the article: “Robbins has berated abuse victims and subjected his followers to unorthodox and potentially dangerous techniques. And former female fans and staffers have accused him of inappropriate sexual advances.” Read the article here to learn more.
James S. Fell, MBA, writes for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, AskMen, the Guardian, TIME Magazine and many other fine publications. His first book was published by Random House Canada in 2014. He is currently working on his next book, which is about life-changing moments.
By Randy Stewart – https://www.flickr.com/photos/stewtopia/3948482669, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16169479