What happens when a Skeptical Behavioural Scientist goes to a Tony Robbins event.

Look I’ll be brutally honest here. Tony Robbins is a snake-oil salesman of the worst kind. His events, his pseudo-science and the whole rah-rah is a giant commercial con-job designed to suck money out of dumb people.

Bam. There you have it.

Or at least that’s what I thought before I attended one of his events.

Y’see when I was younger, armed with some good University studies and a distinct absence of humility, I was quick to form an opinion—oft with little basis to it. Basically, I could judge the sh*t out of stuff I had little to no first hand experience of.

I’ve since come to know this as the Dunning-Kruger effect

Typically when we’ve had limited exposure to something, we have a belief we can often know everything there is to know. The peak of this ignorance is delightfully (and accurately) named Mt Stupid. When it came to Tony Robbins, I’d planted my flag on top of that mountain. And took a bunch of obnoxious selfies too.

Curiosity killed the cat

Grumpy Cat with Dunning-Kruger Effect in full-swing

When I’m not mountaineering around the ranges of stupidity, I tend to spend an inordinate amount of time exploring the caves of curiosity (i just made that up). Thankfully in spite of my excessive hubris (that can, at times, show up louder and prouder than Mardi Gras) my curious nature always —in the end— wins out. And when it comes to the Tony Robbins subject, a couple of years ago began a series of events a series of events (3 parts) that started to pique my interest.

[Part 1] I’m curious. Just a lil’ bit.

Tim Ferriss, who’s podcasts I find refreshingly direct and rational, raved about Robbins. OK. Surely just an outlier, right? But then a never ending series of guests on his show also raved about him. People I respected and thought were impressive. All giving a huge wrap to the six-foot-twenty-seven-inch high motivational monolith. Hmmm…what’s this all about?

OK. More curious now.

[Part 2] My first, first-hand Tony Robbins (TR) experience

My first real exposure to TR wasn’t one of his events, it was actually his book, Money Mastery. A huge tome of over 700 pages, I bought it in a moment of weakness but also because financial investing is of interest to me.

And so I read it. And I was impressed. This guy had direct access to the literal top 50 investing minds in the world. Ray Dalio, Sir John Templeton, Warren Buffett and more. And the ideas and strategies they covered in the book were simple, easy to understand and make sense.

OK. Even more curious now.

[Part 3] Cant. Look. Away.

From memory there was more than a little hubbub when the documentary finally landed. I like thousands of others jumped onto Netflix and watched ‘I am not your guru’ when it hit the airwaves.

Designed as a documentary of Robbins, it actually turned out to be a two hour long infomercial for Date with Destiny, Robbins’ six-day marathon program. Despite the overblown pandering to the temple of Robbins, it was still remarkable viewing. The interventions he conducted were impossible to look away from. They were confronting. But riveting.

But then a small piece in the film really gave a deeper insight. They interviewed Robbins post-intervention and the raw emotion he spoke with about how he approached his work was real, raw and unfiltered.

Right then. I’m ready. Let’s see what you’ve got going on big fella.

Bring your best Tony.

Welcome Darren…first, I will hypnotise you with the whiteness of my teeth…

We’re going in LIVE baby…

So there we found ourselves, my wife Ali and I. Standing in a queue so long it could be seen from space. Not a great start. I’m really not a fan of crowds nor lines. If you’re phobic to either of these, then a Tony Robbins event is most certainly not a place for you. Unless you’re going some extreme form of desensitisation, it’s going to be very, very painful.

But eventually we got registered. Found our way in and got ready for the experience. But first, and I think this is most important, we prepared ourselves before we even went in the room. And I’m so glad we did. Because I would’ve hated to think what the experience might have been had we not contemplated this beforehand.

Our preparation principles

Our commitments prior to entering the room were the following three things.

  1. Play all in — if required, we were going to make complete dicks of ourselves like everyone else if required. We’d give the experience our best shot, rather than hold back.
  2. Experience first, judge later—we decided that simply sitting critiquing the experience for four days wasn’t the best use of our (or Tony’s) time. There would be plenty of time for critique later.
  3. Above all else, stay curious—across a multi-day immersive event, there’d no doubt be things we’d not like. But rather than emotionally react to them, we’d keep curiosity as our friend.

So there you have it, we entered the lair of the beast well prepared, eyes up and primed for the whole experience.

And to be totally honest, what an experience it was.

take me to your leader….

The results…

So straight up, as an overall sensory experience, a TR program is a total assault on your senses. It’s effectively a 50 hour rock-concert. With all the dancing, jumping, shouting included. But I’m guessing you might already know that. So let’s jump straight to my observations, judgements and outtakes.

What I liked

To be 100% honest there was a heck of a lot to like. The whole ‘show’ was tight, the production values amazing and you can see it’s been years in the making. But to sum it up into two key areas;

The time flies

He’s a master of running a room. They have a sense for when the crowd’s energy is dampening and use music, movement, humour or shock tactics to keep you active rather than passive in your learning experience. As the days go on you start to crave the movement and energy. And whilst the days are long, you actually get more energised as the days roll on.

It’s entertaining

It’s a total rock concert. So if you’d prefer a quiet gin bar as your form of entertainment, then steer well clear. But if you like the energy of a crowd committing to goodwill, then it’s pretty magic.

What I learned

Heck, I took pages and pages of notes. And I’m not a huge note taker. Rather than pure data and studies, much of TR’s learning is story based and summarised into key learning chunks. His method is certainly to take a key point and drill down on it relentlessly.

I’d say my biggest three takeaways were;

Out of your head and into your body

I’d love a dollar for everyone who’s said this cliche to me over the years, but i didn’t really understand it until my TR experience. Sure, there have been times surfing, playing sports or in sheer high intensity training when you truly move out of your cognition and thinking and get into a pure body state.

But at TR you’ll genuinely find that state if you’re willing. And it’s absolutely wonderful when you do. Certainly one of my aha moments and subsequent commitments was to find pathways out of my head and into my body more often. More meditation, less negotiation.

There’s always something under the surface

It obviously relates to the first point, but as humans we’re blessed by this beautiful, big brain. And it’s a curse. So often we feel we can out think a problem, develop a strategy, map and chunk a plan and it’ll all be sweet. Won’t it?

Well if that was all it took, then we’d all lead blessed lives wouldn’t we? We’d all be financially free, stunningly healthy, have amazing work careers…every area of life would be magic. But that’s not the reality is it?

Because we all have blind spots. We have ingrained patterns of behaviour and self limiting beliefs that hold us back. It’s rarely because of opportunity that we can’t have what we want in life, but mostly because we haven’t come to terms with the mental game needed to achieve it. A TR event is heavy on the psychology of success, and that in itself is a great reminder to fine tune this most important driver of success.

Prime your state (especially before making key decisions)

There’s a mountain of research out there to support Robbins’ cornerstone approach to living life on your terms;

Change your state to change your behaviour.

But so often we tend to try and solve problems within the very same environment and physical state that created them in the first place. And this was a anvil-like smack in the face for me. I’ve been guilty too many times in the past 18 months of making poor decisions because of (and in) a poor physical state.

Seems so simple. And it is.

So what were there things that I wasn’t as much of a fan of at a TR event? Well, there were a few things…

What I didn’t like

Of course across the program it wasn’t perfect. It was certainly up in my best learning experiences I’ve been to, but like anything, there are things that weren’t appealing and needed improving in my opinion. In order from things that were most unpalatable;

Gender Bias

Tony is a powerful masculine force. It’s in keeping with his absolute certainty. But almost every single success reference is male. His stories are about male friends and associates. The visuals when used are 90% male. I’m hypothesising Tony carries a bias towards powerful male role models (perhaps because of a lack of his own in formative years) and this shows up time and again in his language, references and stories.

I also think he is trying to correct this. There were times when he did correct himself after a statement, but it is not a natural preference. This gender imbalance was quite stark.

Note: I think Tony Robbins is an absolute champion for women. I think he’s worked with and helped some amazing females in his long career, so there’s no reason to suspect him as misogynist in any way. I just think it’s a blindspot that him and his team could easily remedy.

Heavy selling

They don’t miss. There’s plenty of selling. I have a pretty thick skin around that, so it didn’t spoil my experience. But for those who hate being sold to, you’re gonna hate it.

Big statements

Big Tony can tend to slip into hyperbole from time to time. Some very general sweeping statements that sometimes actually contradict themselves, but it’s not a huge deal. Most keynote speakers (me included) are guilty of this less-than-heinous crime.

Terrible seats

We’re talking seriously long days. 9.00am starts and 2.00am finishes. Total marathon conferencing. Crammed into rows on Day 1 made for a cramped, uncomfortable experience. We remedied in following days by sitting in aisle seats which gave us the chance to move better and made a huge difference. So if you’re going to a TR event, spend the extra couple of hours in the queue. It’s worth it.

Final Thoughts

I have travelled the journey from pure cynic to convert. So if you started to read this piece looking for additional evidence to support your confirmation bias that Tony Robbins is a joke, then my guess right now is you reckon I’m a tosser too. That’s OK, you’ll join a decent queue. I’ll sleep easy.

For those pure Tony Robbins acolytes who’ll think to attack any text that dares to question any of Tony’s methods, or give any form of critique, well all I will say is confirmation bias exists on both sides. You’ll find your own queue too.

So I will say this.

I’d highly recommend you go to a Tony Robbins event.

The guy is a phenomenon that we’ll never see the likes of again. The mastery of his craft on stage is something to see once in your life. If you had the chance to see Picasso paint or Bach play, you’d regret if you didn’t take that chance. Now some are thinking ‘how dare you compare him to them!’ but I’m not comparing Robbins to them, I’m using those artists as a metaphor. They were genius. And so is Robbins when it comes to main stage presenting. Up to 14 hours straight on stage. Again, there’ll never be another like him.

So go. But only under the proviso of one thing. Don’t go if you can’t embrace curiosity. It’ll do your head in.

Cheers

Darren

Footnote: For the record, I attended Unleash the Power Within as my first experience, and was impressed enough, and still curious enough to then attend Business Mastery. The 5 day Business Mastery program was the single-best professional learning experience I’ve ever attended.

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