Empowerment: walking out on Tony Robbins’ Masterclass


On Friday I attended the Pendulum Summit, the “world’s leading business and self-empowerment summit”, according to www.pendulumsummit.com. There were a couple of interesting speakers in the first part of the day, the standout for me being Rasmus Ankersen, a performance and development coach who shared some interesting insights on finding talent and performance analytics.

In truth, the event was sold as the Tony Robbins show, with the promise of his “5-hour masterclass to transform your life”. If you haven’t heard of Tony Robbins, in his humble biography on his website, among other things he describes himself as a “world authority on leadership psychology”, the ‘father of the life coaching industry’, a “peace negotiator and humanitarian”, and a “strategic advisor to world leaders”.

I am choosing to share my experience of the headline act, Tony Robbins, because if this is what is needed to inspire transformational change in Ireland, the country is in big trouble. I am aware that not everyone will agree with me, and it would have been easier not to write this blog, but it needed to be said.

Arrival at the convention centre….

I arrive just before 9am at the convention centre, doors have been open since 7.15am for the “3200 business leaders” attending. Confusion fills me as I enter the dark packed auditorium. Why is there some guy on stage dancing to 90’s trance music blaring I wonder? That set the tone for what would follow in the afternoon.

As the day progresses and we move through the various speakers we are consistently reminded of our date with destiny, the 5 hour masterclass with the “world’s #1 life and business strategist”. The 1pm timeslot approaching the organisers have sufficiently built the anticipation. Tony Robbins enters the stage, loud and boisterous with music blaring. My first impression, he is a big man. ‘Usually, I only do 5 day courses minimum so you are lucky, I have created a special 5 hour masterclass for you’.

After terrible banter on Ireland, ‘I hear you like a craic in Ireland’, he sets the scene and promises to exceed our expectations, reminding of us that we have already done more than everyone else, we have taken the first step to change.

‘Turn to the person beside you, look in their eyes and tell them “I own you” and celebrate for 30 seconds’.’Go full tilt, like you are at a rugby match’, shouts Tony, all with the purpose of ‘getting our energy flowing’. Oh dear, what I am doing here I think? This is nonsense. I check myself to keep an open mind, but I can’t bring myself to utter these words to the person beside me, or to join the other 3200 people in a 30 second rave with the music blaring and the giant up front jumping around like a mad man.

Blaring music is a feature of his show with carefully choreographed moves all part of the act. Tony Robbins has this down to a science in terms of how he delivers his show, and ultimately how he gains trust, influences people through the subconscious and inspires the illusion that he is sharing something ground breaking.

After much waffle, he shares the two “master skills” that we have to learn. The first is the “science of achievement”. After sharing thoughts on achievement and success, Robbins goes on to tell us that it doesn’t matter what you achieve if you don’t master the second skill, the “art of fulfilment”. Unlike achievement, fulfilment is “unique for each person. That’s why it is an art not a science”.

The name dropping continues, this time with a story. ‘My good friend Steve Wynn calls me, the billionaire owner of Wynn Resorts’. ‘Tony, I have bought this painting by Rothko for $80 million, you have to see it’. We are shown a picture painting on the big screens, of what looks like a canvas painted red, by an artist called Rothko. He continues to share his interaction with his Wynn, ‘you are crazy, did you really pay $80 million for that, get me some paint and I’ll paint that’. The message, we are fulfilled by different things. Simple, but explained in a long drawn out way, and in the context of another billionaire he rubs shoulders with. Wow, Tony has some life, you can see the audience being reeled in.

One of the ways Tony Robbins sells himself so successfully is by framing how people perceive him. He does this by consistently reminding the audience of the successful people he advises, their wealth and his own wealth generated through his methods. People then see him as an expert that can be followed to achieve the same success.

(As it turns out, Robbins didn’t show the full painting. I have looked it up and the painting is “No 1 Royal Red and Blue”. It doesn’t really change the message, but two colours were left out)

He is not finished explaining the importance of fulfilment yet. He asks the audience ‘who here loves Robin Williams?’ to which everyone raises their hands. In full flow, Tony Robbins continues to list out the achievements of the man, the various accolades, the wife, the family. “He got everything he wanted” he exclaims. A brief pause, followed by a loud roar, “and he hung himself”, the audience stunned, “see that’s the price of achievement without fulfilment”. A picture of Robin Williams comes up on the big screens, underneath his smiling face, the years 1951-2014.

Robin Williams was a legend, I loved him in Good Will Hunting, my favourite film and a movie he earned an Oscar for. A cheap sales tactic by Tony Robbins I think to myself, at the expense of a man who suffered from clinical depression. Big corporate money has paid for this guy to come to Ireland? Do they really want to be a part of this?

Tony’s declaration at the start of the show sticks in my head, ‘I have talked hundreds of people down from suicide, I am the guy they call when their son is threatening suicide, and thankfully I haven’t lost anyone yet.’ I wonder was the link intentional. Of course it was mixed in somewhere with saving Serena Williams after her meltdown, being called by Bill Clinton when he was facing impeachment, and how he has ‘personally fed 100 million Americans’, so it is hard to know.

Finally he moves on to something new. There are only 2 states, the “beautiful state” – made of things like learning, hope etc. – or the “suffering state”, feelings of frustration and stress. “Stress is now the achiever’s word for fear”, Tony reminds us as he explains the flight or fight response of our 2 million year old brain. His goal, ‘to end our suffering’, for us to operate in “peak state” (the beautiful state).

We’re told to get into groups of three, each person for a minute and half to share a powerful experience when they were in peak state, with Tony repeatedly shouting out ‘remember exactly how that made you feel’. Is this for real I wonder? After we’re done sharing he looks to hear from some audience members. The first tells her story of dragon boat racing. To me, she sounds like a plant.

The second person, a Polish girl, tells her story of conquering her fear of water and swimming. ‘How did that make you feel? ‘I felt if I can do that I can do anything’. (She just happens to sound very like the woman in Tony’s “Unleash the Power Within” advertising video who says, “If I can do that, walk on fire, what else could I do”). ‘Did that change anything else in your life?’ ‘I asked a boy out’, cue the choreographed Marvin Gaye “Let’s get it on” music. If that is not a sign of a plant I don’t know what is. Tony continues his line of questions that has a clearly choreographed feel to it, ‘and how has that gone, where he is now?’ ‘He is probably at home cooking dinner now’. “Give her a hand”. The inspiration is flowing, tainted or not.

The same exercise is repeated for people to share their worst experience, again the emphasis on the feelings it conjured. My worst feeling I think? Probably heartache and that feeling of loss, not something I care to get into with acquaintances, in a room full of 3200 recent converts to the way of Robbins. This is nonsense I think again, my mind wanders. The music blares and we’re told to repeat our 30 second energy ritual, “I own you”.

I take the bottle of vitamin water from under my seat which the organisers left for everyone during the lunch break. First I check it hasn’t been tampered. I laugh to myself, has the crowd being spiked with Kool-Aid? It certainly looks that way.

Next we hear from another “random” audience member, the recovered alcoholic who ended up in rehab after drinking 2 bottles of vodka and 3 bottles of wine every day for a week, and his “feeling of freedom from alcohol” when he walked out a month later and became the father and the husband he needed to be. “Give him a hand for that” shouts Robins. I am still not learning anything.

Then it is on to his friend in India who set up some new sport and owned the top team. Of course we are reminded ‘he invested like $10 million and now it is worth like $400 million’. ‘Not a bad return, right?’ His suffering? Three players, including one he took off a building site, have just joined another team for 4 times the salary. ‘My friend was so angry and thought his life was over’. Tony gets him to see the light, not to suffer.

He continues to discuss suffering. “It’s the human brain, not your fault”. Again we are reminded, ‘just learn that there are beautiful States and suffering States. ‘The most important decision you can make what state you want to live in, day to day no matter what. No matter what happens’. Make the decision I am not willing to suffer anymore’. “Who is with me on this say I’”, the conditioned crowd raising their hands in unison, “I”.

This is another method used by Tony Robbins to gain buy in, to build rapport and to make the crowd believe that he understands them. He effectively conditions his audience by seeking positive affirmation of what he says. ‘How many follow, say I and raise your hand’. At the start of the show he says ‘If you are not raising your hand you are lying about other things too’. He has slightly different variants, like ‘Who is with me on this, say I’. Soon enough everyone is raising their hands on command, ‘I’, whatever the question. Along with the reminders of who he advises, his 39 year track record, his billionaire friends and his own wealth, this method is consistently used through the show.

2.50pm, is there a punchline to the beautiful state and the suffering state? Finally, we are given “the antidote” to suffering! He flashes it on the big screen. 3 things:

  1. Appreciate and enjoy – it can be anything
  2. Learn or grow
  3. Love, give or be grateful

I can’t argue with practicing these three things. However, he doesn’t end there on the suffering point. Time to drop another big name and another saviour story, the high profile billionaire trader Paul Tudor Jones. ‘He pays me a million a year, three to four meetings a year’. Again, ‘the most valuable thing you can take: “I will not suffer anymore”’. On to his meeting with Nelson Mandela after his release from prison. Mandela’s response to his question on how he survived in jail. “I didn’t survive, I prepared”, he immersed himself in learning to prepare to lead his country when he got out.

Back to talking about ending suffering. ‘Now list the reasons why you need to end your suffering’ we are told, but first another 30 seconds dance ritual. I check the time, it is 3.15pm. I look around, I ponder his question and the events of the last two hours, and I choose to end my suffering there and then. I grab my coat under my chair and make a swift exit as the ‘business leaders’ wave hysterically, celebrations as jubilant as I witnessed at the Aviva stadium when Ireland qualified for the UEFA 2016 European Championship. Are these the guys shaping the future of Ireland? A sobering thought.

I step outside the convention centre, the cold breeze hits me and I revel in my own feeling of empowerment escaping the cult like atmosphere of the conditioned crowd. The 40 minute walk home along the canal was time much better spent, to reflect in peace on some of the changes I’ve already thought about making in 2016, prior to the arrival of what one Twitter twit called “the messiah”.

Reading an article on the event in the Irish Independent, it seems it was a lucky escape: “Later, they gave each other back massages, with Robbins shouting at them to “tell them if you want it hard or soft”. “Hard or soft,” he roared again, urging: “Make a little noise if it feels good,” as the audiences laughingly obliged.”

Of course, I know that many will label me as a “naysayer”. That’s the way the narrative goes when you choose to form your own opinion that goes against the crowd. If anything, the hysteria inside the convention centre on Friday was a reminder of the human behaviour that drives financial market bubbles, the Irish property bubble comes to mind. The irony is that I am huge believer in personal development and committed to continuous learning. There are some great books from some amazing authors, which can be very helpful for people. The Tony Robbins show just isn’t my cup of tea.


Vincent McCarthy, CFA

Interview with Matt Cooper on Today FM discussing the above:  http://www.todayfm.com/player/listen_back/7/26158/13th_January_2016_-_The_Last_Word_with_Matt_Cooper_Part_3

Appendix 1: Remembering a legend, a memorable scene from Good Will Hunting with Robin Williams “When did you know?”

Appendix 2: NLP, The rabbit hole runs deep.

My experience pushed me to read more on the proliferation of these development programs and the techniques being used. For the most part this stuff might be harmless but people need to be careful.

Much of the teaching of Tony Robbins has been based on something called neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), a contentious pseudoscience, created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the United States in the 1970s. It is not part of psychology textbooks and has effectively been debunked, yet has spread from America to all over the world. Worryingly there is even an Irish Institute, in ten days you can become a “Master Practitioner”, no exam, just pay the €2100 course fee.

The technical sounding name gives the illusion of legitimacy. Of the many videos I watched on this subject, perhaps this interview with one of the co-founders on where the name came from tells you all you need to know:

How did the words neuro-linguistic programming come about? After laughter from the co-founder Richard Bandler: “Well, actually that was just because I got pulled over by highway patrol man and I had a lot of books on the floor of the car and he looked at me and said what do you do for a living? And I took the beginning of three different books. One was a neurology book, one was John Grinder’s linguistic book and the other was a programming manual pdp1134a, and I went I am a neuro linguistic programmer. And when I looked back at him he was totally impressed. He went ‘god that sounds really sophisticated’. And I looked at him and I went, yeah yeah, and I got out of a ticket”. (See interview video link: with Richard Bandler)

These programs are focused on positive change and development, but much of it is really dedicated to self-interest, ways of manipulating others to get what you want. These techniques are being taught by an army of qualified practitioners (no exam, just pay the fee) in many walks of life. Watch this video of Tony Robbins – see link: “Best Methods to Build Rapport” – on copying other people to be liked and build rapport. You form your own opinion on whether this is training in communication or manipulation?

Now Tony Robbins is the one most well-known practitioners but there are others too. YouTube is full of videos selling the same NLP inspired techniques, they are just not as well package or as good at selling as Robbins. Check out this video – see link: “Dating & NLP” – with Dr. Matt James (online doctorate, you decide on qualifications). It is not too different from the previous video, he just doesn’t have the same presence as Robbins.

It seems there is a grey area between communication and manipulation. Being aware of this stuff can help to guard against techniques used by people to try and manipulate you. Don’t let others take control of your subconscious!

Final note on self-help. I want to make it clear that I am not being critical of the entire self-help industry. As I have said already there are some great books from some amazing authors, but the transformational courses that people become hooked on are a different story. They help people you say? So do placebos.

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