Jacob Brezak, one of the best students I’ve ever taught, has gotten on board the motivational speaker circuit, and has developed quite a following on Facebook (“Life is Beautiful”). He’s been inspired by Tony Robbins and has assured me that Tony Robbins is the real thing. I’ve resisted his assurances, given what I thought I already knew. Yet, out of curiosity and loyalty, I decided to give Tony Robbins a second look.
Fortunately, you can’t go very far into YouTube without plenty of opportunity to do just that. And what I found were reasons to be somewhat more confident in Jacob’s assurances than I had been. I also found reason to be more cautious than Jacob might be.
Tony Robbins is not a trained philosopher, so it’s unfair to trip him up with academic arguments, and I won’t try to do this. But though one aim here is to appreciate what he is trying to do, the other is to begin situating his teaching within a larger conceptual framework — which I intend to advance in a later discussion. My hope is that this will offer a chance to evaluate the basic assumptions that probably a whole range of popular motivational psych movements generally share. (Of course, this is not to say that they are identical, and some may be very different. But that’s another discussion.)
As I expected when I watched my first video, it’s a bit of a challenge detaching the puff from the pith. This guy’s an authentic (though secular) evangelical, and he knows how to sway a crowd into a camp-meeting frenzy. Unlike the circuit rider events of yesteryear, Tony’s “Date With Destiny” seminar doesn’t require you to trek all the way down to a mourner’s bench in Boca Raton – though one does feel tempted by the hype. (It’s only, uh, around $5000.00 plus transportation and lodging – unless you need the better seats.) And there’s no mourning. It’s more like the Super Bowl. The videomercial even provides a countdown clock showing how many seconds remain before the starting buzzer. From my video bleacher, I can attest that these are well produced, well executed, and well received – and apparently highly effective, at least for the true believers.
For the others, however, Tony’s work pushes very different buzzers, and for them his sensational advertising seems diabolically suspicious. You can hardly blame them. Consumerism has made cynics of the savvy. No one is safe from the dark arts of the media, which can transmute almost anything into a creature of suspicion. Especially when that “thing” seems to call forth the dark arts themselves.
Take firewalking. The Tony Robbins “Unleashing the Power Within” seminar includes a bare-foot, hot-coal firewalking exercise that has occasionally erupted into controversy. A few years ago there was a story in the San Jose Mercury News (July 20, 2012). According to the report, a number of participants sustained burns amid “wails of pain, screams of agony… like they were being tortured.” Sounds like a witches’ sabbath. But those were words from one Jonathan Correll, 25, who seems to have been simply wandering over to see what’s up. Apparently he’d never been to a Tony Robbins event, so it must have seemed pretty out of this world. (So does the Super Bowl, especially if you’re out there in the parking lot.) And despite the testimony of the medical team on site, some in the national media seemed to be channeling James Randi, who’s always eager to unmask the fake magician.
But a little common sense is worth a lot. Tony Robbins is no Uri Geller. To my knowledge, he has never claimed to be dabbling in the occult. It’s not metaphysical: it’s motivational. Science can explain perfectly well how firewalkers have been performing this ritual since the Indian Iron Age, and even though these Tony Robbins events haven’t been going on quite that long, this is not a new activity for them. Their people keep coming back to learn that “they can do more than they ever thought they could,” despite the known fact that injuries can happen. After all, bicycling is risky too. And this isn’t spiked Kool-Aid — no one really has to take that plunge.
Among the critics, no doubt, part of the resistance here is directed at his tendency to gush in pop metaphors, celebrating the mind yielding to the “law of attraction.” That might sound nefariously New-Agey, and I’m sure that right away skeptics imagine some tripe about creating your own reality (and meaning exactly that, which would risk a clinical diagnosis). Nobody in Tony Robbins’ position could possibly be this successful if he really believed that.
So what does Tony Robbins believe? Well first of all, as one recent glitzy documentary sets out in its title, he believes he’s not your guru. In other words, he believes in your own autonomy to direct your own self-realization. He also believes that this takes training. And that’s his job. And that’s just where it gets a little dicey….
But let’s first put aside the question of his coaching style. We’ll come back to this in a moment, but let’s start with the actual content of his teaching. It’s about the motivational attitudes and “ritualized” steps required for “freedom” – and ultimately “happiness.” This is secular language for spiritual formation, and to his credit, he does not assume that freedom and happiness are identical.
“Freedom” (for him) is about overcoming the constraints we face in shaping the lives we want – in the spirit of what philosophers have called “negative freedom.” And this is very much about finances (as you can see by googling “Tony Robbins and freedom”). No doubt this is why so many libertarians and corporate professionals are drawn to Tony Robbins’ work. It responds to the concerns they already bring to the seminar. What he claims to provide is the key to “creating the wealth you deserve.” Rather like the Prosperity Gospel — minus most of the gospel.
But not all of the gospel. Tony had a difficult early family life, and he never made it past high school. Through his own past misfortunes, he’s inspired to become a philanthropist. After all, “happiness” (he says) is about more than acquiring possessions and accolades, and it’s about more than overcoming one’s external circumstances: it’s about freedom from the inner voices of self-doubt, frustration, and fear. And it turns out that once you gain freedom from those inner voices, the natural thing to do is to focus on serving some person or ideal or cause greater than yourself, to give back to others – ending suffering for them as well. (The social gospel minus government intervention!) Accordingly, Tony has committed a significant portion of his own wealth toward philanthropic work, and apparently there are solid indications that his efforts are effective (as per the assessment by Charity Navigator).
Nonetheless, despite this layer of compassionate involvement, he spends relatively little of his actual teaching on that side of his participants’ inner life. He certainly mentions it prominently. But underneath it all, the seminar training is not mainly about this side of happiness. It’s about freedom. Our blessed land of opportunity is about surviving pretty much on one’s own (though, in addition to family, we can learn to market ourselves to acquire collaborators). So we’d better learn how to be productively self-directed. What’s crucial here are the attitudinal changes that you can make yourself, that can lift you out of your own passive negativity, and into active engagement with the opportunities your situation presents. You are typically blind to those opportunities if you remain mired in the emotional echo chamber of your own past. And Tony’s job is to train you out of that passivity and into your autonomy.
So what can an outsider make of all this? As far as I can tell, a good many of the skeptical challenges typically raised against him don’t land much of a punch. He’s clearly not a huckster just selling snake-oil: hucksters know their product’s a sham and Tony is his own most fervent believer. His product is far from useless, or else people wouldn’t keep spending all that money (and more than once) on his very expensive seminars. His results have not (generally) been harmful, at least to the most vulnerable participants, or else there would be lurid exposés of all the serious psychological effects suffered by emotionally challenged participants. Or at least there have apparently been no incidents of suicide, despite a considerable number of at-risk participants.
But … then, on March 15, 2018, during an interaction with a seminar participant, the Tony Robbins brand suffered a public relations meltdown. Nanine McCool, a self-described survivor of sexual abuse, stood up to question Tony’s assessment of the #MeToo movement. So far, his pronouncements on this had been entirely in keeping with his standard presentation: If you are suffering, then you need to change your attitude, and (after his coaching) it is in your power to decide to do so. And if you don’t, you won’t be happy. Instead you’ll be a victim of your own narcissism. Expressing anger in public is even worse, not only because it’s a sloppy, self-sabotaging way of making yourself feel better, but because it’s an attempt to “get significance and certainty by attacking and destroying someone else.” This had been his takeaway from the #MeToo movement, and that March day, he stuck to his guns: “I’m not going to be inauthentic by saying I’m sorry about something I’m not sorry about.”
But then the incident went viral(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvkA7fhUKe0 right click to view). One long month later, finally, he did say he was sorry, and had to admit that he still had “much to learn” (https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=2fUD3npnKME).
So what changed for Tony Robbins in that month? What exactly does he have to learn? Will it be a mere tweak of his glossy seminar presentation, along with regrets over having run into that Nanine McCool person on March 15? (“Beware the Ides of March!!”) Or would it need to be a massive overhaul of his basic outlook? How much does he have to rethink and when will we find out?
Since that #MeToo debacle in March and his public repentance a month later, Tony Robbins has had his defenders. Some conspiratorialists accuse Nanine of being “a useful idiot” or just a “recruited asset.” Some libertarians think that Nanine did not understand the important things Tony wanted to say about malingering victimhood (though she acknowledged that he may be right about some in the #MeToo movement). Of course, #MeToo proponents see Tony as the one who’s misunderstanding, and video snippets from the seminar might seem to bear that out — though in fairness, those clips don’t fully reflect the eleven-minute interchange (here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74YILhy4RgE&t=2s). Clearly Nanine was struggling to offer a perspective that Tony was not eager to embrace, and though she doesn’t put it this way, one can imagine what she might want to say – that social forces frequently constrain a person’s internal freedom and a great many women (but others as well) are frequently not in a position to act autonomously; that this social reality is held in place by settled intuitions and practices their beneficiaries have no self-interest in giving up; and that the #MeToo movement is (or should be) about raising greater awareness about this, in expectation that raising consciousness will have a social impact. So one chief complaint among many in the #MeToo movement might be that Tony’s vision is too narrow, and though he may have a point to make, he also seems not to notice when other considerations deserve at least equal time.
Others in the movement might go even further because they see something different. For them, he’s just stifling Nanine’s expression of concern, and (later in the conversation) he’s condoning bad behavior by company executives. It’s easy to see how someone could think this. But that’s not the only conclusion you can reach, especially if you view the entire 11-minute clip. You’ll hear Tony explicitly saying: “if you’ve use the MeToo movement to try to get significance and certainty by attacking and destroying someone else” – then he has a problem with that. And if you take that pronouncement literally, who could disagree? If someone is so enflamed by anger that she doesn’t care what she does or to whom, then that sounds like just plain road rage.
But then again, earlier he says that this is exactly “what we’re seeing,” and this doesn’t sound as if he’s listening to some important voices in the movement. Yes, friendly philosophers could invent a benign logical reconstruction to narrow this comment’s scope (to say he’s talking only about some), but omissions can be as telling as what what does say. As a speech act it remains oddly impervious to what’s going on in the land outside the seminar hall. It gives the impression that sexual assault is not that worth talking about, even when a survivor is brave enough to stand up before thousands and, with all due respect, call out Tony Robbins on his home turf. And unfortunately, that impression remains despite Tony’s other side-comments. Nanine pointed out that Tony Robbins is a prime mover in the culture: does a captain of the self-help industry have no responsibility outside his own empire?
This doesn’t mean that every one of his comments deserves the media censure that some have dumped on him. Take his unfortunate tale about the executive who couldn’t hire the most qualified applicant because she was “too attractive.” An already outraged listener might immediately detect an excuse for some privileged character who just can’t control himself. That would be someone who has obviously landed the wrong job (and probably needs more than just a Tony Robbins seminar). But maybe Tony was saying something else — maybe he was saying that in this social environment, even slightly ambiguous comments might be taken as grounds for a legal complaint, and that’s what the executive was heading off. If so, then even though that’s hardly a desirable place to end the discussion, it’s a lot less offensive. (Of course, I don’t pretend to know what he really meant.)
But here’s the point. Whatever Tony Robbins did or didn’t mean by that story, shouldn’t he have at least acknowledged that not hiring a woman because of her looks is not that different from hiring some hot blond just to perch in the front office and fetch the coffee? Either way, it’s objectifying the woman, and isn’t that a problem?
When we have to engage in complicated hermeneutics to decipher the real purpose of a public anecdote, then either the speaker is onto something as deep as the Markan Jesus, or else he’s badly assessed his audience. So then, is Tony’s only sin here anything more than just a slight oversight? He seems mainly concerned about the unintended consequences of the MeToo movement, because that’s a great example of what his teaching explicitly seeks to avoid. Is that a problem? Someone might grudgingly admit that, yeh, maybe Tony should have been more “inclusive” and heaped a few more compliments the way of all those listening women, more pre-occupied than he by the scandals of the day. If that’s the case, this is just kerfuffle in a kerchief. (So just consult your ad men, utter a few well-crafted apologies, and move on to Unleash More Power.)
But lots of us think it’s more than this. For what Tony most noticed about the movement may not be what’s most “significant” about it. Yes, traumatized (especially politicized) people get angry. They’re often unruly and indiscrete, and yes, their anger seems threatening to some. And indeed, there are the usual brigade of opportunists. Politics is messy. But does it have to be just an exercise in narcissism? I don’t think so, and this is what I hear from Nanine McCool. Some of the aggrieved can and do speak out, even in anger, not just to feel something significant but to do something significant. These protesters aim to bring about cultural change. They raise their voices to make culturally real what had been known only in whispered gossip because the perpetrators could count on fearful silence to insulate them. And campaigns for social change can achieve results: the U.S. has made gay marriage legal, and even after all the acrimony of that decades-long campaign, millions more people can now go about their lives as normal citizens. Over time, many of those same beneficiaries will not even remember the tears and wounds all that cost. And that, in a way, is a mark of the campaign’s success.
Of course, none of this addresses the prospects for the #MeToo movement’s success – as it actually unfolds, with any and all of its unintended consequences. Perhaps Tony Robbins — in his rather clunky way — was trying to raise this point. But is this the most telling thing you can say about a campaign to achieve major social transformation — simply that the other side is going to get angry and push back? If you’re going to characterize a movement with such aspirations, at least start by characterizing it as more than just a gathering of self-indulgence of adolescents. Then maybe you can have a real discussion.