Understanding Tony Robbins and other Self Help Gurus

I’ve always been hyper critical and hyper cynical.

Self help “gurus” always struck me as people who just repeated common sense knowledge and then sold a bunch of books that basically said a mixture of

  1. your expectations are unrealistic; adjust them
  2. discover and confront the fears that are holding you back
  3. make goals and an action plan
  4. take action

I’ve rolled many an eye at a self help guru.

Recently, I was recommended looking in to Tony Robbins and filed his name away in my memory until I saw his documentary on Netflix. I am not your guru wasn’t produced by Robbins himself, but it follows him and his staff for his six-day seminar “Date with Destiny”.

It costs just under $5,000USD to attend, is held at a resort in Florida, and 2,500 people attended at the time of the documentary. That’s $12.5 million in just six days. Of course, he’s got a pretty big staff and the venue rental for six days is probably pretty high, but that’s a very substantial amount of money. Some people interviewed in the documentary even said they sold their furniture and personal belongings to be able to afford to attend.

I couldn’t imagine why someone would be so desperate to see a self help guru. I’m sure $5,000 spent on one-on-one therapy would be equally valuable and probably more sustainable since sessions would be spread over months, not six days.

But, it’s easy to get caught up in his fist pumping and repeated swearing thanks to mob mentality. With 2,500 people present, he uses a number of tricks to build an infectious atmosphere. Attendees already think he’s worth $5,000 and loyally hang off his every word so it’s not too difficult for him to get them riled up.

The main tactic he uses is to connect with individuals throughout the six days, getting them to stand up and tell the whole room what their personal problems are and why they attend. If you want the chance to speak with Tony one-on-one you’ll do whatever you think will make you stand out more than others, and this often means being extremely obedient — if Tony says jump, you try to jump the highest and the furthest.

The first girl to stand up in the documentary says she attended because she wants to fix her diet. What?! You paid $5,000 because your diet isn’t just right? My first reaction was “that’s so dumb”. This girl from outward appearance looked healthy, did not say she had an eating disorder, and pretty much said her diet was “ok” but not quite where she wanted it.

The way Tony reacted to her is why she paid $5,000.

He didn’t tell her she was dumb, he didn’t roll his eyes at her and he didn’t tell her to get over it. These are all things I, and I think most people, would have done.

In fact, he pretty much didn’t say anything at all about her diet.

Instead, he asked her what at first seemed like completely unrelated questions. He started with what does life mean to you. The whole reason people come to this conference is to discover their purpose or have epiphanies, so he basically re-asked her why she came.

He knew her first answer was total bullshit, so he reworded and tried again. This time, she said she believed the purpose of life is to find love and be happy. So Tony followed up with what do you have to do to be loved.

Going back to my common sense list, he’s telling her to assess her expectations. Her answers are a little surface level, and he repeatedly asks until he can get to something he can work with. She says in order to be loved you have to respect yourself and eventually we come full circle with her diet, where she reveals she doesn’t respect herself and when she feels sad/disappointed/low self esteem, she comfort eats.

Now he’s dealing with a self esteem issue, which is much easier to address issue than “sometimes I eat a whole packet of Oreos when I know I shouldn’t”.

He did this quickly, without degrading or insulting her, and at the end of their conversation she also had a goal and an action plan he expected her to act on and report back about.

That’s four ticks on my common sense list.

How you can use this tactic

Whether you’re in a relationship, dealing with a melodramatic teenager, or you’re a manager at work, we can all learn from Tony’s reaction to something that seemed really superficial.

Rather than reacting with “get over it”, “just push through until the problem goes away” or other methods of belittling the issue, find the root of the cause. Just because something seems insignificant to you from an outside perspective does not mean it’s insignificant to the person experiencing it. We often don’t tell the full story, or confuse what’s relevant and important to communicate with what appears irrelevant, so don’t expect someone coming to you with an issue to be efficient in conveying what’s going on. They’re experiencing something that’s causing them enough difficulty that they feel compelled to tell someone else about it, so they’re already in a state of distress.

What sets apart the self help gurus from people like me who have the exact same common sense strategies is delivery and performance.

People are willing to pay $5,000 for someone to potentially listen to their issue and not say “you’re an idiot and that’s a stupid problem”. They’re willing to pay for self help books that are written in a tone of voice that is understanding and empathetic. Bring this empathy together with Robbins’ mob mentality and it becomes an overwhelmingly positive experience.

If you have someone come to you with an issue, actually put down whatever you’re holding or pause on what you’re doing, and ask why. Businesses use the Five Whys all the time in customer experience, sales, and product development. Focus not just on the empathy but also the mob mentality by actively encouraging your team or family to contribute.

A quick side note, Robbins delivers some absolutely horrible advice in the documentary and I don’t encourage following him super strictly. An example includes telling a woman to break up with her boyfriend on speaker phone in front of 2,500 strangers. That’s a huge invasion of privacy and breach of trust on behalf of the poor guy who did nothing wrong.

If you have personal issues you want to address, see a professional not a guru. If you need someone to talk to, find one your country’s hotlines from this link.