Over the weekend, The Daily News reported that at least 21 people had their Tony Robbins’ “Unleash The Power Within” (UPW) event cut short when they burned their feet while attempting to walk on fire. It sounds ridiculous. But every year Tony Robbins inspires tens of thousands of people to do this exact same thing. Including, at one time, myself. Earlier this year I attended a Robbins’ UPW event in The New Jersey Meadowlands Expo Hall and Arena to find out how he does it. This is what I saw.
DAY ONE: THE LIFE-CHANGING PUSH
When I arrived outside the arena, a large group of people were gathered with a leader at their center, all of them chanting “Success!” Crew members in green shirts circled the group, clapping and whooping and smiling at anybody who veered too closely into their orbits.
A man named Isis ceremonially placed a lanyard with my ID card hanging from it over my neck. Raising his hands up for a double high five, he shouted, “This will change your life!” He encouraged me to sign up for my “Motivation Session,” which I got for free by attending. When I told him I would, he gave me another double high five. On Planet Tony, this was your “aloha”—Hello, Goodbye, Double high five!
We were there to demonstrate our individual commitment to the discipline and philosophy of “Constant and Never-ending Improvement – CANI!” God knows what any of that meant, but Tony had told us he could deliver, and we were excited. The promise of the American dream is that through hard work and the pulling of bootstraps we can achieve anything—or, in Tony talk, we can all “actuate our desires.” Those of us in attendance just needed a push, and Tony’s promise was that he could provide it. Tony was, in fact, rock chock full of push.
Born in North Hollywood, on February 29, 1960, Anthony Jay Mahavorick did not keep his father’s name. This was the first of many changes that transformed Anthony ‘Tony’ Robbins, a poor boy living with an abusive mother, into one of the most successful and influential motivational coaches in the country. At 18, Tony Robbins began his career promoting the American self-help pioneer Jim Rohn and his motivational seminars. These events, along with his study in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), will become Tony’s template for the UPW experience.
In 2002, Accenture business consultants ranked Tony 45th in their list of top 50 business intellectuals, right after Richard Branson. Most recently, Tony Robbins has developed and starred in a motivational series called “Breakthrough on Oprah’s OWN network. His personal worth has been placed in the 100’s of millions of dollars. Like Jim Rohn, Tony’s rag-to-riches story has become its own best example of the influence that motivational speaking can have on a single person.
One of the green-shirted crew members told me, “You’re in the right place,” which seemed an optimistic assertion for a Thursday afternoon in Secaucus, New Jersey. Though infectious optimism appears to be the job description that comes with wearing the green shirt. From my left another green shirt came over and gave me a hug, lifting me off my feet and yelling “You made it, bro!” I told him, “I have!” adding, as he walked away, “I’m in the right place!”
“I know you are, bro!”
The ID card around my neck had written on it in bold letters, my name, my correct event location (Power Pavilion), and my admission rank (General Access). It hung from a day-glo orange lanyard that represented, as explained by a pre-seminar email I received from my personal Tony rep, the financial investment I’d made in Tony and myself: a heavy $995. In the email, this was called my ‘level of commitment.’ Spread out around me were clumps of people in their own color-coded groups, wearing orange, yellow (VIP), or green (Executive) lanyards, greeting each other with loud cheers and double high fives.
One green shirt asked a man, “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Oh, every time I come here I enjoy myself,” he answered.
DAY ONE: THE WAY TO THE P.P. ROOM
As the sound of electro-pop began to emanate from the main arena, the green shirts around us started to clap and whoop in unison, urging us attendees forward. We moved as one now, clap-marched along.
As an Orange lanyard, I was diverted at the last second from the larger herd into the Power Pavilion which was, by any other name, the event’s overflow room, but nobody ever called it this. It was “The Pavilion,” or “The Power House,” or sometimes the “P.P. Room.” This led to one moment of real-but-embarrassing confusion when a man asked me for the P.P. Room, and I, stuck trying to mentally hurdle what would cause a grown man to call the bathroom ‘the P.P. Room,’ mistakenly directed him to the toilets.
At the front of the Pavilion, two large projection screens showed shots of the main stage inter-spliced with clips of a B-roll sports highlight film. For the next four days these screens would be our only connection to what was going in the main room. A conga line formed from somewhere and made its way around the room. In the background, “Goodnight” by The Black Eyed Peas started to play. Someone yelled, “Tony,” and everybody screamed. Through the walls, you could sense the size of the crowd in the main room. The 300 of us in The Pavilion each shouted back as loud as we can.
Dressed in all black, with a wireless microphone around his neck, Tony burst onto the main stage and onto our screens in the Power Pavilion. He told us to, “High-five the person next to you.” This set off a frenzy of dancing and high-fiving. A kid in a red shirt, the same one in fact who made up the tail end of the conga line, zoomed around the room, randomly leaping on people. This lasted until Tony finally asked everybody to take a seat.
First thing: Tony Robbins is huge. Gargantuan. At 6’7″ he has the same exaggerated proportions of anyone that pushes their way past that 6′ 4″ mark, though it’s hard to say just where that exaggeration begins for sure. On the screen he smiled at us, flashing a row of what my grandmother used to call “movie star” teeth. He moved around the stage with the presence and attitude of a pro wrestler—think a more linguistically nimble André the Giant and you’re about half way there. (Later, I’d learn Tony Robbins suffers from a mild form of Acromegaly, a result of an infarcted adenoma next to his pituitary gland.) His physical presence was imposing even transmitted through the video screens here inside the Pavilion.
Tony told us that being here meant we were not going to settle for less than we could do, be, give, or share with other human beings and with ourselves. This was how we would “maximize.” Tony asked, “Who’s here for more of something? Lemme see your hands. Say ‘Aye.'”
The crowd was responsive, eager to participate. Next to me a man kept saying out loud, ‘It’s true, it’s true,’ offering this as an unprompted affirmation of everything Tony says. Engagement with the show and each other was, by Tony and carefully scripted production, highly encouraged. This active participation can, however, take you down some pretty weird avenues of borderline personal crises. Like the time, when I, at the prompting of Tony, and to my deepest regret, turned to an African-American woman, 20 years my senior, and said, “I own you.” This phrase “I own you” was, in Tony Land, stripped of any of its historic resonance and stood instead as a competitive and invigorating declaration—a throwing of the gauntlet. Throughout the weekend, Tony would look into the camera and say, “I own you” to all of us.
During this first session, Tony told us he’s “not into Ra-Ra.” He was, he said, never one for motivation or positive thinking. He didn’t believe in it. Instead, he believed in intelligence. He said, “I don’t think you should go to your garden and chant ‘there’s no weeds, there’s no weeds, there’s no weeds.” The audience laughed. He held his hand to the camera with his ring, middle and index fingers tightly pressed together and said, “Read between the lines. There’s some freaking weeds here, okay.” The crowd roared with approval.
DAY ONE: UNDER THE HAMMER
About five hours in, I clocked Tony at 240 wpm, ten words slower than your average auctioneer. At this manic pace the thoughts and assertions flow past at carnival-barker speed. In one brief span, Tony asked an 18-year-old girl about the quality of her orgasm, referred to his penis as “Mr. Happy,” and then transitioned to talking about the American Dream without any of us batting an eyelid.
“When I was a kid I wanted to do anything to not be a 99 percenter and suffer…The dream was become a 1 percenter and have a bunch of people become a 1 percenter also.” Rushing by at 240wpm, the equivalence of abject suffering with being anything except extremely wealthy just washed by.
“How many people here feel like they are entrepreneurs, masters of their career?” Half the room’s hands went up. Tony told us that he sees himself as “a life strategist, a business strategist.” No distinction between the two. The Tony we were watching on stage was also Tony Robbins the corporation and Anthony Robbins the Foundation. On Planet Tony, where half of the populations identifies itself as self-employed entrepreneurs and presumed incorporations themselves, nobody needed to ask why all corporations are people; they already knew.
“We’ve forgotten in our society—we keep lowering the standard, instead of raising it. The only way to stop this is to be a leader not a follower. To not apologize. By your playing smaller you don’t make someone else play bigger. All you do is give them a story as to why it’s ok for them to be that way.”
This might be true, but there was no time to process it, its relation to the 99%, or, for that matter, to Mr. Happy, because Tony had just told all the men to stand up. He had something to say about masculine energy. When he described male desire as the urge “To fucking conquer something,” the audience erupted in cheers and double high fives.
At the height of this, Tony pushed us to “make that sound again, stronger!” Underneath the roar, I can hear the strings of James Horner’s Braveheart soundtrack already building into its crescendo. The build was slow, but not slow enough that you couldn’t see what was coming next, which didn’t make it any less alarming when Tony yelled, “Freedom!” The room shook as the men, their fists clenched and chests puffed out, echoed Tony’s cry with their own. I yelled too because I wanted to know how it felt, but I didn’t feel anything—not even ridiculous. I didn’t feel masculine, or empowered, or more desirous to conquer. I felt nothing at all—except lonely.
DAY ONE: FIRE WALK WITH ME
It was one in the morning. In the darkness of a parking garage, somewhere underneath the Expo Hall, crew members were raking and shoveling burning embers in front of me. I was about to walk on fire. In 1983, Tony learned about fire walking from Trolly Burkan, a firewalking pioneer, and has been using it in his seminars ever since. An hour earlier, during a preparatory guided meditation session to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” Tony told us to believe in the transformative power of fire. He called it a metaphor for life. To most of the crowd, the opportunity to fire walk was a major selling point of the UPW experience. My personal Tony rep had reminded me three times before arriving here that I would, at the very least, walk on fire. It was simultaneously the culmination of the first day and the sideshow attraction of the entire event. One of the crew—a man with one leg, which I registered at the time as maybe a bad sign about all this—waved me forward.
“This is your time.” Tony’s voice intoned over tribal Fijian drum music. But he sounded different—younger and with a metallic hollowness that seems pre-recorded. Everything smelled of fire.
It was here, outside of The Pavilion, that I finally understood the immensity of a UPW event. 5300 of us were chanting, “Yes,” with this heavy inhale and exaggerated exhale, like a steam train leaving the station. It was odd, though. Even breathing in time together, no transcendent moment of group feeling ever happened, like the kind you might experience at a concert when everyone is singing and dancing together. We were, all 5,300 of us, too intent on our individual achievement, too focused on how we would get across the coals.
The fire, of course, was actually not a fire at all. It’s a bed of embers, which glows out from the dark edges of charcoal dust with a rich and seductive orange. It was a beautiful thing. Occasionally, one of the fire crew volunteers would come and shovel a fresh layer of coals on top of the pit and the embers would flare up and hiss as these bright sparks jumped up towards the ceiling. Looking at it, I was, for whatever reason, unafraid. It seems to be almost inviting.
Though I did try repeating the mantra Tony gave us a few times (“Cool Moss”) just in case. Because everybody else was saying it and I didn’t want to be the one guy who didn’t say it and then burned himself. You can never be too careful with these sorts of things. I also tried doing my power move a few times—this energetic thing Tony had us all practice before coming down here. You were invited to make up your own power move. Mine was a rather graceless fist pump, which looked ineffectual compared to the guy next to me who was power striking the air in front of him. In the end, how you decide to walk across fire is your business but for me I just tried to stay focused on that deep and inviting color.
When you walk across coals they shift and crunch beneath your feet in this remarkably comforting way. They are soft and do not, in the moment, feel hot at all. It was unlike any surface I’d ever walked on. But in a second it was over. Because walking on fire happens very quickly. When you do get across two volunteers will come at you from either side to throw water on your feet. A third volunteer, in my case a rather pretty young woman, will help you celebrate. I didn’t know I was supposed to have a celebration move ready, so I went for this exaggerated bow like D’Artagnan from the Three Musketeers. This probably would have been fine if at the same time, the pretty young woman hadn’t been reaching up for the Planet Tony double high five. It was a mistake of misplaced actualizations on both our parts. One I would only fully understand as, her arms extending up past my shoulders, I plowed my head with a firm and even pressure between her breasts.
DAY TWO: HOW MUCH FOR THAT T-SHIRT?
I was late today, and when I arrived at the expo hall, the 5,300 were having lunch. From a food cart outside, I bought a $8 chicken Caesar and sat down on a grassy embankment next to the arena steps. Next to me, two girls were practicing self-defense moves. A man walked past wearing an ‘I’m With Awesome’ t-shirt that has arrows printed on it pointing up and to both sides. Behind me, two twentysomething guys were discussing the video game Street Fighter and its relation to Tony’s message: “I know I should be happy ’cause I’m like the most badass Bison I’ve ever seen, but I don’t know, I’m just not somehow.”
A couple of crew members walked past to tell us the show was about to begin. They were wearing red clown noses. They’ve also exchanged their green shirts for more formal black ones that say ‘CREW’ on the back. I asked one of them, a girl, how much they get paid to work the event. She smiled and said, “Oh, I don’t get paid. I’m a volunteer; we all are.”
Entering the Arena lobby I saw a table selling “Tony’s Life Balance Pack – Cleanse Product”—for $199 and the “Anthony Robbins Coaching Sessions,” price variable, plus a myriad of multimedia products including, “Anthony Robbins, The Body You Deserve®”—$199 and ‘RPM – The Rapid Planning Method’—$179 (an event special price) and “Creating Lasting Change: 7 Master Steps to Maximum Impact”—$299 and “The New Money Masters,” a 12-month subscription series. Apparently the entire UPW event has, over the last 35 years, been developed in conjunction with these products. The sales of which have become an unavoidable metric in the measurement of each event’s individual success.
On a table next to it there are identically shaped, square self-help books with titles like, Life Begins When You Do and If Life is a Game then These are the Rules and, cryptically, 212 the extra degree. There were pyramids of stacked plastic jars labeled “Pure Energy Greens.” Most of these products were branded with a picture of Tony Robbins, the same picture that you see on the banners in your registration emails and that beamed up from the program’s course materials. It was a quartering shot with Tony’s face turning to look you straight in the eye. His smile was broad with those huge teeth that are impossibly white—like if you closed your eyes and looked away all you would really remember from the picture was a slowly fading face and this row of bright pearly white teeth—a Cheshire cat smile.
From a clothing rack I buy an “I’m with Awesome” T-shirt for $20 and head back to my seat.
DAY TWO: WE’RE GOING TO NEED A BIGGER MANSION
In The Pavilion, it took me a few seconds to realize that the younger Tony now on the screen was video from a previous event, not a continuation of the live telecast. Like the Tony from yesterday, this Video Tony was wearing all black—but there was now a disconnect between him and the audience’s responses. Video Tony would say, “If you ask, you shall…what?” and the audience around me and in the main room would shout “receive” to the open question, but Video Tony didn’t seem to notice. “Come on, say it out loud!” he said. Again, we all shouted, “Receive,” this time a little louder, as if Video Tony really hadn’t heard us the first time.
Video Tony noted that while we all have desire, we are more motivated by fear. In 1984, Tony was expecting the birth of his first son—a child he hadn’t planned for—so naturally, Tony signed a six-month lease on the Del Mar Castle, located along the California coastline, for $36,000. The castle became his “magnificent obsession,” one that allowed him to envision a standard for his future. In that year, Tony told us, he went from making $38,000 to over a million dollars. We stood to cheer and applaud.
Later, Tony goes on about visiting the mansion of a billionaire friend. In its wealth and extravagance, the billionaire’s mansion, with its personal cinemas and indoor swimming pools, made Tony look on his own castle as a “Del Mar slum.” Tony would spend millions until he can shake that feeling. We should too. It was a metaphor, you see, for always raising your standards and achieving your desires. As if anticipating any objections, Video Tony noted, “This wasn’t shallow. It was smart.”
When the opening riff to “Higher” by Creed started, you could feel another group visualization exercise coming on. By this second day, the pacing of life on Planet Tony had already become pretty predictable; it was almost comforting whenever the music would start to play. Video Tony asked us to imagine what we wanted from the next ten years: “What would you drive? What would your home be? Or homes?…What would your life style be like? What would you give?”
Around me members of the audience started actualizing. “Millions of dollars…a pool…I am free.” One woman behind me kept repeating, “chosen for greatness, born to serve.” Video Tony’s voice built as he told the crowd to accept these desires into themselves. Then the music shifted to the “New Republic Theme” from Star Wars. More cheering, everyone just envisioning the shit out of their desires, their future wealth, cars and houses.
And then Video Tony took it all away. After 5,300 of us had gotten off together on a little guided materialist day dream, Tony snapped us back to our existence now—to our empty and unfulfilled lives. Video Tony instructed us to make the sound of pain we might make on feeling uncertainty and pressure about the future. Flowing by at a clip of 240 wpm, the words “uncertain,” “fearful,” and “stress” are repeated countless times. “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana rang out as the audience screamed out. There was real pain and anguish in the room. It was a terrible sound. The common unifier of failure, loss, and fear, brought together the crowd in a way that the fire walking couldn’t. Standing there, with my eyes closed, I joined them too.
DAY THREE: I SEE YOU SEEING ME
By the third day, anyone could walk into the main hall of the arena without much trouble. Tony was back, and I was excited at the chance to abandon the P.P. Room and watch him without the aid of screens. That morning one of the volunteer crew members approached me to say, “I’ve been observing you. You write a lot. What do you do for a living?” This was true, I had been taking a lot of notes. The crew member leaned in to check my name badge. I told him I was a student and that, like Tony, I keep journals. “Oh, well that’s good,” he said. But, he continued, the next hour wouldn’t need any writing, saying that I “just gotta experience it.” With a suggestive “I’ll check in with you later, brother.”
Later, it was hard to tell if the exchange was as sinister as it first felt. I did get the distinct notion that somewhere, someone was Googling me. While I tried not to let the exchange bother me I was, for the rest of the day, hyperaware of any glances and mouth-covered conversations between the crew members.
Oddly, that same morning, Tony launched into a little story telling about a reporter talking to Walt Disney’s son, Roy. The reporter asked Roy if he was upset that his father wasn’t around to see everything that had been done with the Disney name. Roy replied by saying, “It’s clear to me why you’re just a writer and not a visionary. Correction, a writer has some vision. You’re just a fucking reporter.” After telling the story, Tony admitted to having added the “fucking” for emphasis.
DAY THREE: WHAT DESIRE LOOKS LIKE
On a white board behind him, Tony had drawn two targets. These were not your traditional targets with concentric circles radiating inwards. These looked like a pair of cartoonish breasts —big and round with single small circles in the middle. Above these, he has written the word ‘DESIRE,’ in bold letters. Most of the people around me started immediately copying this diagram into their course materials.
We all have desires, and we all have beliefs, Tony told us. If our beliefs are properly aligned, they can help us reach our desire. After making this point, Tony drew a thick double-lined arrow on the board, the point nudging its way between our two mammary desires.
There were moments during my time at the UPW event when even the most logical ‘This-show-is-thought-out-and-produced-to-the-very-last-second’ argument would give way to the rather surreal notion that we were all watching the ravings of some fractured ego up on stage. This was one of those moments. I found myself looking around the room franticly to see if anyone else was making these associations. Had Tony’s subconscious just bubbled to the surface and told us that we were all about Tit-Fuck our desires together? No one met my eye. The audience members had their heads buried in their notebooks, while behind me two crew members marked the moment by jumping in the air and double high-fiving.
It was in these moments that the essential message of Tony Robbins, with all its blurred edges and imperfections, emerged. In these moments it was clear why Tony has so many billionaire friends, like Nick Swinmurn, founder of Zappos.com, and why The Harvard Business Review, Accenture Consulting, and American Express all ranked him among their top business guru lists. What Tony was doing with his message, at least momentarily, was reigniting in us, his audience, our ability to want and to crave more than we had. He did this not by focusing on what we already had, but by reinvigorating our interest in what could still be attained while also confronting our dissatisfactions. It is the expulsion of any despair linked to this dissatisfaction that makes Tony’s message so appealing and jarring. By having us forever exist in that otherwise fleeting moment, between want and ownership, when the newness of a thing really is making us happier, he would make better consumers of us all. On Planet Tony, our achievement became, in some way, linked to our ability to consume—so that we could buy another car, another home, a vacation home, a home that was at least bigger than our neighbors. He wanted us all to decide that living in a castle on the California coast line just wasn’t enough without a $3 million renovation.
To sit in a room where this idea gained easy acceptance was alarming. Tony Robbins is not just a coach or a motivator, he’s a salesman. He has, for the last 35 years, been perfecting his pitch, and it works. It works so well that people pay him to go and hear it. As I sat there, watching 5300 people hang on his every word, it became clear that Tony Robbins was one of the greatest salesmen this country has ever witnessed.
The ‘Unleash the Power Within’ event is a sales platform. It primarily sells you the idea of your future self and your future acquisitions, but if you care to step outside into the lobby it will also gladly sell you the crown jewels of Tony’s world, ‘The Anthony Robbins Mastery University’ courses. These are four separate 13-day programs, some of which take place on Tony’s Fijian island home. All cost upwards of $10,000 each.
Occasionally during the conference Tony would invite people up on stage to give 45-minute talks about how their lives had turned around as a result of these products. Again and again, we were told that these people had made investments in themselves that had turned their personal incomes from $10,000 into $1,000,000, sometimes in under a year. Take the story of Tony’s volunteer head of event security. High points: buying a jet, owning a McMansion in the Carolinas styled after an Italian villa, and buying two Ferraris, which he likes to drive around with his son Enzo. The moment that made all this happen was taking out a bank loan when he couldn’t afford it just so that he could attend Tony’s mastery courses.
Not being able to afford something is not a valid excuse when you’re making an investment in yourself, Tony told us. This was a constant refrain throughout the show.
After a while these sales pitches started to blur the edges of the UPW event between personal message, show, and advertisement. The emotional impact of experiencing this sea-change from something personal to something commercial created a certain depressing reality all its own. There was a sudden understanding that this commercialization was the message. It made me anxious. It made me lonely. It made me feel like I wanted to buy something.
There were payment plans and structured price reductions available for the $10,000 classes, if I bought all four I could reduce their price to nearly $7,500 each, which seemed like such a bargain. Watching the crowds of people line up, it was clear that I wasn’t the only person who thought so.
DAY FOUR: THE LONELINESS OF OUR DISCONTENT
What did this all add up to? It’s a question I’ve struggled with well past the end of the UPW event. It was raining when I walked out of the Expo hall. In the courtyard of the Arena, there was a man with a digital camera strapped to his head trying to accept hugs from strangers. I was told he was attempting a world record for collecting the most hugs in an hour. A few stragglers stopped to help this man but most of the audience just streamed past him to their cars. Why have we come here if not to hug this man? Walking past me the crowd’s motivations for being there seemed diffuse. There was no single answer why.
The man was not going to break any records that day, and to me his dissatisfaction was palpable. We all know this feeling. It is the same emotional demand that the ‘motivational speaking’ circuit supplies—that feeling of wanting more and not knowing how to get it. In some ways we demand this dissatisfaction of each other. Our market, and as such our country, depends on it.
How can you find satisfaction in an unsatisfied world?
For four days, Tony, may the market bless him forever, had tried to give us the answer. He taught us to confront and overcome our despair, to want freely and without consequence. His whole purpose is to make you more effective, “to really maximize,” in the society you choose to exist in. It is somehow, in the framework of this, an optimistic message and after watching 5,300 people line up while putting down credit card information and signing on dotted lines, you realize, nearly reaching for your own wallet, how really good Tony is at what he does.
I thought of the people I’d seen over the weekend—the volunteers, the attendees. Like me, you may question why they were there, but at least they were trying. They may likely never become truly “satisfied” in their lives, no matter how many UPW events they attend. But what does that matter? The point is we live in a society that demands you remain unsatisfied, too. If you accept that as true, the obvious next question becomes, why aren’t you going out to see Tony Robbins right now?
Kit Dillon is currently working for The Moth in New York City and has been known to occasionally disappear to climb oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, start sandwich shops in Scotland, and design software for smart phones… but he would rather be writing instead. Photo by Randy Stewart.