Tony Robbins Gave Me His Full Shallow Hal Treatment

Tony Robbins in "I Am Not Your Guru" Photo: Netflix

Tony Robbins’s face is an inch from mine. “I’m not going to bullshit you,” says the self-help superstar, putting his hand on my knee. (He’d rather be called a “life-strategist,” but them’s the breaks.) He’s six foot seven, so his hand is a very big one, and attached to it is a shiny honkin’ hubcap of a watch. “You’re looking at your life,” he continues, with this I totally get you intensity that makes me feel jazzy, a little jangled, and also on the verge of crying, “and you’re going, ‘There’s so much good here, and I should just enjoy this,’ but some part of you is a little uneasy that it isn’t all that you want it to be.” Jeez Louise, that's right. It is 100 percent right. “But when there’s conflict,” he says, leaning back in his relatively tiny chair, “you don’t follow through. You might start to, but you pull back.” Totally. I pull back all the time. I totally do. His deep voice jumps an octave. “Strap on your balls!” he says, “and say, ‘What do I fucking want?’” He jabs me in the chest: “And say, ‘I’m willing to pay the price!’” 

Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. The ostensible reason I’m talking with Robbins, who’s seated across from me in a private and dimly lit corner of the restaurant at Manhattan’s Hyatt Union Square hotel, is the impending July 15 Netflix premiere of the documentary I Am Not Your Guru. Directed by Academy Award–nominated Joe Berlinger, who typically makes films about people caught in soul-crushing circumstances (e.g., dubious imprisonment, being in Metallica), the fly-on-the-wall documentary captures one of Robbins’s annual six-day Date With Destiny seminars (minus the hot-coal walk), the point of which, as with all of Robbins’s work, is to convince and cajole people into improving their lives. 

Robbins, 56, has built an extremely lucrative career out of persuading people he can do exactly that. Through his live seminars, books (1991’s Awaken the Giant Within is quintessential; 2014’s Money: Master the Game is newest), as well as audio and video materials, he’s reached somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million people. He also owns 18 companies, 12 of which he actively runs, which combined take in $5 billion annually. We’re here to talk about that kind of stuff, as well as the film, which I found riveting in parts — the attendees’ personal revelations are potently emotional — and frustratingly incurious at others. (In response to the criticism that his film doesn’t probe larger questions about the ideology or efficacy of Robbins’s work, Berlinger says, “I was trying to make a concert-film type of documentary. In a concert film, as the camera glides by the drummer, you don’t suddenly cut away from the drummer for a discussion about whether or not he skipped a beat.”) So yeah, those subjects are technically why we're here. But I have an ulterior motive. Like the vast majority of people (I assume) who seek Robbins out, I want his help, which is how we got into the strap-on-the-balls business.

Robbins, dressed on this day in a tight black button-down shirt, black pants, and possessed of a truly radiant set of teeth, is very good at what he does. He plugs life’s big questions — why am I here? what do I want? how can I get it? — into easily digestible formulations: The three decisions that drive destiny, the six human needs, life’s two master lessons, success’s seven beliefs. Take his lessons and models to heart, and, he concludes, the result is a mind-set that leads to a pretty reasonable shot at achieving your dreams. “The whole purpose,” Robbins says, “is not pump up, rah rah, being positive. It’s none of that shit. It’s decisiveness!”

Whatever the destination, the path, at least the way Robbins lays it out, is often lined with examples involving the wealthy and powerful — the man is an absolutely Olympian name-dropper. In the course of our discussion, he mentions his encounters and relationships with Serena Williams, George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Bill Clinton. He says that in 1998 then-president Clinton called him for advice on how to handle being impeached. “The first thing I said,” Robbins recalls, laughing, “was ‘Why didn’t you call me sooner?’” He also brings up his billionaire buddies Richard Branson, Marc Benioff, Ray Dalio, Paul Tudor Jones, Carl Icahn, and Steve Wynn, who spurs an anecdote. The Las Vegas hotelier had invited Robbins to see a new purchase: a Rothko he’d bought for $82 million. “I said, “Steve, it’s a red and orange square. Give me some paint, give me ten minutes, give me a hundred bucks. I can do this shit.” Though, Robbins adds, “I’m not as sophisticated as he is.”

Donald Trump is another acquaintance. “I gave him his first big speech, by the way,” says Robbins. “He came [to a Robbins event] and thought that he was going to speak to 100 people: We had 10,000 people, and he just about fell over. Then he got addicted to large crowds.” These two titans of self-belief have known each for a while. “Donald is a complex character,” Robbins says. “Some people are driven by certainty. They get freaked out if you change anything. Some people live for variety. They just want surprise. Some people live to love, some people live to grow, some live for contribution, and some people live to be significant. Donald’s entire life is built around significance. He’s learned that the way to be significant is to dominate. Most of his conflicts come because he has to have the last word. It’s served him in some areas, and it clearly doesn’t in others.” Robbins smiles and says, “He’s not going to get coached by me. Donald doesn’t take coaching from anybody.”

Talking with Tony Robbins is a peculiar experience, even when he’s not yelling at you to change your life. Every question is met with an answer so smooth and certain that it feels like it’s been given before. (And a lot of them have: Robbins relentlessly refers to his own material.) That slickness invites a skepticism — and I say this as someone who’s willingly read, and benefited from, his books. It’s just that you don’t meet people so certain, so optimistic, so apparently concerned with the well-being of strangers. What's your deal that you care so much about people you don't even know? It’s weirding me out! His response? “I suffered” — abusive childhood, serious health problems, poverty, and depression — “and I don’t want another human being to feel that. If I can do anything to end that, I want to do it.”

Of course, that mission is also a smart sales strategy: The better Robbins is at empathy and understanding — and I Am Not Your Guru makes abundantly clear that he’s genius-level good — the more likely it is that the targets of those feelings will buy what he’s selling. Is that bad? Can I determine the extent of Robbins's authenticity? I don’t know. Maybe? Not really. But I do know that something about Robbins’s on-message-ness makes me — in an admittedly childish way — want to put a flea in his ear.

And I fail. I suggest that the people who could most benefit from his work are the ones least likely to be able to afford $5000 for a Date With Destiny. Robbins explains, affably, that he’s given away millions of his books and brings people to his seminars on scholarship. I offer that his focus on the accomplishments of the hypersuccessful perhaps sets unrealistic expectations for the rest of us schmoburgers. And Robbins explains, I'd say politely this time, that that’s okay, because his approach isn’t for everyone. “I’m for somebody that’s hungry," he says. "I’m for somebody that says, ‘I’m tired of this; I want to change right now!'”

The only time Robbins becomes even mildly perplexed is when I ask him to tell me a story he hasn't told before. “About what?” he says, furrowing his brow. I want one without a growth principle attached.

After a short silence, Robbins says, “This might be boring.” (Now we're getting somewhere.) I assure him I won't be bored, and he proceeds to tell me a long story about getting mercury poisoning from all of the swordfish and tuna he was eating. The tale includes a detour into his clapping method. “I clap really intensely,” he says. “I get cuts across my hands from the force.” To compensate, he now claps so that only the padded part his palms connect. His story is, in fact, sort of boring. But alas, along with pain that registered at a 9.9 on a 0-to-10 scale, mercury poisoning gave Robbins an opportunity. “The metal pollution in our environment is mind-boggling,” he says. “My new thing is I’m going to get people off metals. I know I can help millions.”

So no, Robbins cannot tell me a pointless little story. It’s all connection, all motivation, all the time. But you know, fuck it. Time to be decisive. Like I said, I’m not really here because I’m so interested in I Am Not Your Guru, or Robbins’s larger ideas, or figuring out why, after 39 years, he’s still the face of American self-help, life-strategy — whatever. I’m here, if we’re being honest, because I’ve been feeling more than a little bummed out and cynical lately, and I’m selfishly hoping he can turn my fat head around. And since I don't think I can get him to say anything super-surprising about himself anyway, I go ahead and tell him the truth.

Robbins’s eyes light up. “Tell me what you want at this point in your life,” he says.

And then we’re off on a half-hour of some serious Shallow Hal-style shit — including the strap on/balls stuff. It’s a tsunami of charisma and conviction, an Archimedean displacement of positive psychic energy from him to me whether I like it or not. “There’s tremendous integrity in you,” he says. “I can feel it. What you’re calling the cynicism that you’re feeling, it’s just fear. It’s really just fear. When people tell me, ‘Oh, I’m skeptical,’ I say, ‘No, you’re gutless.’ Because it doesn’t take any guts to think of the worst scenario and say, 'That’s what’s going to happen.' Everything in life that we want requires action, and with action there is the potential of consequences we don’t want. And by the way, everybody is fucking fearful. But to get what you deserve in life, you’ve got to face the fear and do it anyway.”

That’s about as platitudinous as it gets, but also not untrue, and in this moment it sounds like gospel.

Robbins leans in again. “Right now there’s a part of you that’s drifting.” He puts a finger in my chest. “So fucking change! You came here for me to tell you what you already know!”

Before we finish, Robbins invites me to attend a Date With Destiny seminar as his guest. “Even if I don’t like this piece,” he says, “you can still come. The offer is not conditional.” And I don’t at all feel like I’ve been handed a line, or even especially care if that matters.