A Q & A with Tony Robbins

A Personal Look at his Biggest Challenge

Magazine Issue
November/December 2017
A headshot of a man

PSYCHOTHERAPY NETWORKER: What are the similarities and differences between psychotherapy and what you call your life-coaching approach?


TONY ROBBINS: My work isn’t really focused on healing the wounds of the past because, frankly, you can spend your whole life doing that. But I do want to understand how the past frames people’s belief structures and their value system. When I work with someone, the central question for me is what that person wants at this stage of their life, and what they can do now to enhance the quality of their life in the future.

There are two master skills at the core of what I do. One is the science of achievement, which comes from studying people who are models for excellence in whatever arena of life you want to achieve mastery, whether it’s finances, or athletics, or whatever. I’ve spent much of my life finding people who are the best in the world, and asking them, “What do you do to get the results that you get?” And then, once I’m able to model that, I teach what I learn to others.

But even more important for me is the second set of master skills, which involve the art of fulfillment, something that’s not reinforced in our achievement-oriented, consumer culture. If you’re going to have an extraordinary life, you have to understand a fundamental truth: your two-million-year-old brain isn’t designed to make you happy; it’s designed to make you survive. It’s always looking for what’s wrong so you can fight it, flee from it, or freeze.

The two emotions that mess most people up are anger and fear. To lead a more fulfilling life, you have to draw on other aspects of your emotional makeup. You can’t be totally grateful and angry simultaneously, and you can’t be both fearful and feel appreciative at the same time. So learning to be grateful and appreciative are a big part of part of moving people from just narrowly pursuing what they want, as opposed to going deeper and helping them more happily achieve whatever they’re going for.

PN: Your hallmark as a coach is your ability to have brief, highly charged, seemingly transformative encounters with complete strangers in front of huge audiences. What do you think therapists can learn from the way you work?

ROBBINS: I think therapists who have intense impact on their clients already do much of what I do. I teach all the coaches I work with that love is the ultimate therapeutic tool. When people feel safe, and when they feel that you truly love them, they’ll let you take them places they otherwise wouldn’t go. In my approach, I first need to find out who you are. What do you want? What do you need? What do you fear? I think life is the dance between what you desire most and what you fear most. And if I can expand what you desire, that hunger, and I can help you to eliminate or reduce that fear, then your life becomes bigger and richer.

Maybe the biggest difference between what I do—and what a lot of therapists have been trained not to do—is that I believe that a big part of my job is to lead the client. In fact, I believe that not leading the client is one of the main reasons why it can take so many years to get something done in traditional therapy. So my whole approach is to move very directly to the heart of what people want in their lives. But I’m always aware that I need to find what you want—not what I want—and then I need to find out what’s preventing it from happening, so that you’re free to embrace all of who you are. But I don’t believe that means always going back in the past and rewiring everything.

PN: It’s one thing to describe what you do, it’s another to actually embody it so fully in the moment. Where did the high-energy style that’s become so identified with you come from?

ROBBINS: We’ve all heard about the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a complex skill. But the people who truly excel at something don’t just practice, they practice at their edge. I think that the challenge for some therapists is that, while they’ve been well trained and are committed to what they do, they buy into what they see as the limitations of their clients instead of challenging what’s getting in their way.

They forget that there’s no such thing as a “resistant” client: their clients are just trying to preserve their mixed-up values and belief structures. But underneath all that, there’s a part of them that knows what to do. My core belief is that I don’t need to “fix” people—they’re not broken. There may be a part of you that’s sad, or part of you that’s hurt, or that feels betrayed. And it’ll probably always be there. But every one of us has multiple personalities. All I need to do is put a different part of you in charge.

A lot of therapists ask me, “What’s the best thing I could do for my practice?” I say, “Transform yourself.” However great your life is, take it to the next level. Find the area that you’re not really mastering, and go master it, because when you discipline yourself in an area—when you find a breakthrough—you can take others there because you’ve been there yourself. You can’t touch someone if you haven’t been touched. You can’t impact somebody if you haven’t been impacted. If it’s just an intellectual exercise, and you’re just analyzing people, they feel that versus when you can say, “Oh, I get it. I’ve been there in a similar situation. Let me show you another way to go. Let’s do this together.” That creates a different level of trust, as well as a different sense of certainty about achieving your outcome.

PN: You’re describing in broad terms some of the foundational principles of your approach. But let’s focus on how you became what so many people see as a kind of force of nature. What influenced you in developing your particular style as an agent of change?

ROBBINS: It starts with a love for people that I was just born with. I grew up in a tough family. My mom loved us, but she was addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs. The first time I shared that was maybe five years after she passed and I was working with a group of young people who’d been abused. I was telling them, “Who you become today is not based on your past. Biography is not destiny.” And I was watching their eyes, and I could see them going, “Bullshit!” All they could see was this big white guy who was doing well. And so I told them stories of my mom beating my head against the wall until I bled, or shooting liquid soap down my throat until I vomited because she thought I was lying. This person who I knew loved me the most was also the one hurting me. So I think a huge part of what makes me effective is I had to figure out early on that people aren’t their behaviors. And it allowed me to have compassion for my mom, even if she was hurting me.

In a way, I became a practical psychologist at seven or eight years old. I became an expert in recognizing my mother’s triggers. I started to see that she was a different woman when she was triggered by certain situations or tones of voice. Instead of saying she was crazy, I started saying, “There are situations that trigger her. I need to understand those to prevent myself and my brother and my sister from being hurt.” Gradually, I started seeing patterns not only in my own family life, but in the lives of my friends. By the time I was in junior high school, I was Mr. Solutions. If you had a problem, I wanted to help. I took a speed-reading class, and I read 700 books in seven years in the areas of human development, psychology, and physiology. I tried to learn from each book and immediately apply it.

PN: Which books were especially influential for you?

ROBBINS: My influences in those early days included everyone from Emerson to Harry Lorayne. But the biggest influence was Milton Erickson, because I realized that the unconscious of another human being could be easily influenced if you just didn’t do the obvious. And then there was Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It taught me that if you change the meaning, you change everything. Meaning equals emotion, and emotion equals life. What’s the key to the quality of your life? It’s not your home. It’s not money. It’s not even your kids. It’s where you live emotionally.

PN: Was there a particular inspiration for the kind of presence that we’ve come to associate with your therapeutic style?

ROBBINS: When I was 23, I got exposed to neurolinguistic programming and met John Grinder, a former Special Forces guy with a wickedly smart mind. He was very different from me in style, but he just wouldn’t accept limitations in the people he worked with. John became a role model to me because he had such certainty and intensity. His skill with people and his ability to help them experience powerful transformations in a single interaction was unbelievable. I was the only nontherapist in his training. I basically convinced him to include me by sheer persistence because I saw the power of the skills he taught and in not accepting clients’ limitations. For the past 15 years, I’ve also collaborated with Cloé Madanes, a renowned family therapist, and that’s been a profound learning experience for me in relationship dynamics and creating systemic change.

PN: You never went to college or grad school or had much formal therapeutic training. It seems your style has more to do with something basic in your nature and your upbringing.

ROBBINS: I had to grow up pretty quick, and learned that I could make a difference by protecting my brother and sister. Then the next stage of life came when I married a woman 13 years my senior who’d been married twice before and had kids from both husbands. By the time I was 24, I’d adopted her kids and had a 17-year-old son who was a drug addict, along with an 11-year-old daughter, a 5-year-old son, and one on the way. So I experienced another set of dynamics there, of how to make a difference with these children. And I was learning about the business world at the same time.

PN: You’re describing someone with an unusually passionate need to do good in the world, as well as a drive to be a wildly successful entrepreneur. What were the biggest challenges for you moving through that early part of your professional life, especially how you handled what we in the field like to call the “transference” of being the object of so many people’s emotional expectations of how you might change their lives? With your high-energy style, did you sometime fall into the trap of wanting to change people more than they wanted to change themselves?

ROBBINS: I just operated from a different belief system. Obviously, I believe in emotional transference and the way someone can fall in love with you because you’re helping them change their life. But I think the idea that I want it more than the client is bullshit. If they’re in your presence, then they’re ready to change. It’s your failure if you’re not getting through to them. I’m not willing to point to them as the problem. Of course, maybe a part of them wants it and a part of them doesn’t. We all know the difference between the conflicts of the conscious and the unconscious. But it’s my job to get them through that.

I think therapists have to understand that the results they’re getting are based on what they’re willing to tolerate in clients. If you’re loving them enough and truly operating in their best interests, you can’t accept what they see as their limitations. The clients are already accepting those limitations. They’re just not healthy enough to make the change. So you have to take them there.

PN: You seem to live at a pace and a scale that most of us find hard to imagine. Besides being able to draw on what seems like a boundless store of energy, is there a set of core practices that make it possible for you to do what you do?

ROBBINS: I have a practice that I’ve done my entire career, one that embodies what I try to teach other people about the importance of conscious competence. I was just doing an event with 10,000 people in Australia where I was on stage for 16 hours a day. Anyone in the audience can vote with their feet and leave, and get their money back. It was the third day of the event. I was exhausted, but what’s the first thing I did at 2:30 a.m., when we finally had a break? With my full team there, we pulled out the video and dug through what had happened to find everything that worked and everything that didn’t. Sometimes you don’t know how you made it work; sometimes it’s your unconscious, right? You can be unconsciously competent. But I always want to bring that into conscious competence so I can teach someone else and so that I can consciously do it again.

So we review what happened. “Here’s what I did in that intervention. Here’s what I did there,” so that the patterns become clear. And then, I go, “What didn’t work? What could have been better, faster? What could have been more enjoyable for people?” I’m always aware that in addition to teaching people, I have to entertain them simultaneously. I can’t just do the therapy. I have to keep 10,000 other people completely connected for 12 to 14 hours. One of the things I’m most proud of in the events that I do is create a community where some young guy, who may not yet be well developed in his empathy or self-awareness, will sit and cheer for a much older woman who’s 70 pounds overweight who he wouldn’t normally even talk to. And literally, for hours, he’ll be there for her. So I’m looking at not only what did I do well with the intervention, but how well I keep the audience engaged.

PN: In other interviews you’ve given, I see that people still struggle to describe exactly what it is that you do. You clearly don’t like the term motivational speaker, and the title of the recent documentary about you was I Am Not Your Guru. So how did you develop your professional identity?

ROBBINS: When I first started out, stage one was what the hell do I even call myself? I was doing one-on-one interventions and coaching sessions at a time when there was no term like life coach. People started to call me a “guru,” and I hated that, or a “motivator.” But I’ve never been a motivator. I believe in energy and passion. You can feel that, but passion without strategy is like a chicken with its head cut off. Finally, I settled on the term coach because coaches produce results. In fact, when I started out I said, “You pay me nothing unless I produce the result.” And then the sport coaching I did brought me recognition because the results were so concrete. Instead of weird, therapeutic stuff, people went, “Wow, he turned around the LA Kings hockey team. They were in last place and then they went to the Stanley Cup. And they all said Tony was the source.” What lots of people remember about me during that time were the silly infomercials I did. I hated doing them, but they attracted a lot of attention and expanded my brand.

PN: Clearly, there’s no codified playbook for the often surprising and seemingly intuitive way you work with challenging people at your events. Can you take us inside what happens for you when you’re feeling temporarily stumped?

ROBBINS: I remember I did a guest event one time in Vancouver with 2,000 people. I’d say, “Who’s got a real problem? We’ll handle it right here, right now.” And I’d demonstrate my skills so that people would then come spend three days with me. But it wasn’t working because nobody was committed. At the end of it, there were probably 300 people left in the room, and I figured it out. I realized I was missing leverage, which is a key part of the process of change. First, you have to understand and appreciate the person’s model of the world so you’re not just evaluating them. How do they look at life? What do they value? What do they fear? What excites them? What are their conflicts? What do they want and what’s in the way? And then, once I really understand and appreciate their model of the world, I have to find leverage. I have to find a way to make change a must for them—not in my mind, but in their mind.

Some people would rather die than do what you tell them to do. But everyone has a trigger. I’ll give you an example. There was a woman at one of our weekend events who, despite being a total vegan, had a variety of serious health problems because her life was full of massive stress, and she was really ill. And so I was trying to show her how to make some of these changes in her life to improve her health and her state of happiness, but she was reacting with what many therapists would call “resistance.” Nothing was working, and I began searching for leverage.

So I said, “How long do you think a person in your state is going to live?” And she told me, “Until she’s 37.” I said, “How old are you?” She said, “34.” She’s contemplating dying in just a few years, but it doesn’t seem to have any effect on her. So looking to up the ante a bit, I asked, “How will your daughter feel when she’s carrying your coffin, knowing you could’ve changed.” There was still no real emotional reaction. She goes, “She’ll probably cry,” Then she adds, “But, you know, I can’t change.”

There was a moment in my head where it was like, “Nothing’s going to work.” But I’ve disciplined myself over the years to stay with people even when there doesn’t seem to be any way to reach them. Finally, I thought for a moment and said, “How are you going to feel if her new mother is a meat eater?” She went absolutely crazy. At that thought she began to reenvision her whole life because I’d found what her trigger was. Suddenly there was leverage that made change a must for her. When change is a must, and you put all the resources of a human being toward changing, it’s not that hard to change. I always tell people, “Change is a matter of drive and motivation. It’s not a matter of skill.”

PN: At a personal level, what’s the biggest challenge you face at this stage of your life?

ROBBINS: Time is the biggest challenge, because I have high expectations for having impact in lots of areas of life, as well as the 33 companies I run outside of my events and coaching activities, and there are only so many hours in the day. But I guess the one area in my life that I still don’t feel like I’m as strong as I want to be is around death. I’ve buried three fathers and a mother. I’ve been through all those experiences. They’ve certainly transformed me in many ways, but I just want to do more in that area. It’s a stage of life that people have to go through and learn how to deal with. I’m still pursuing those understandings. I know I still have a lot to learn in that area.

Can I turn somebody’s business around? Can I turn somebody’s relational life around? I can do those things with my eyes closed. Can I do it in such a way that they know it’s them, not me, so they’re not dependent? Sure, and I like the challenge of discovering the art of doing it differently and having fun with it. But I’d say that when it comes to death and the loss of those you love, I’d like to be able to help more. I’m just not there yet. I’m fascinated by things like The Tibetan Book of the Dead and what the next level of the adventure might be. I don’t know if I’ll be able to come up with any new answers, but I hope to appreciate and understand it even more. I’m only 57, but I’ll snap my fingers and soon I’ll be 67. I’ll snap them again, and I’ll be in my 80s and 90s. So I want to help people in facing the challenge of aging and mortality. I’m in the infancy of my understanding in that area.

PN: You’re going to be a featured speaker this March at the Networker’s annual Symposium. If there’s a single message that you’d like to communicate to therapists, what would it be?

ROBBINS: I think that would be don’t settle for limits in the results you think you can achieve in your work with your clients. And the best way not to settle with your clients is to not settle in your own life. Go to work harder on yourself than you do on your clients. If you can keep growing by leaps and bounds, you can take them along with you. But if you’re just doing okay in your life, you’re not going to take anybody to greatness. It’s important for everybody who’s working to help others to also take care of themselves, for their own benefit and their family’s. So I’m coming not so much to teach anything in particular, but maybe to give your audience an experience that’ll help them continue to enjoy their lives even more, grow more, succeed more.

PN: Last question. We’re living, at a time of deep divisions in our society. What are your thoughts about what the role mental health professionals can play in trying to address and possibly heal some of those divisions?

ROBBINS: I’m tired of the story that “it’s the end of the world.” Therapists should hold themselves to a higher standard than to participate in that. How the hell are you going to lead somebody else if you’re thinking the world is in such terrible shape? The smart thing to do is focus on what you can control, not what you can’t.

I always tell people there are three tests of focus. First, do you tend to focus more on what you control or can’t control? If you’re always focused on what you can’t control, you’re going to be stressed. The next question I ask is, “Do you focus on what you have or what’s missing?” The vast majority of people focus on what’s missing. And if you’re always focused on what’s missing and what you can’t control, you’re going to be angry, or depressed, or frustrated. Last, do you tend to focus more on the past, the present, or the future? We all do all three, but if your focus is mostly on the past, which you can’t change, and on what you can’t control and what’s missing in your life, that’s going to drain the energy you have for bettering your life and those of others.

Do I like everything I see happening? Of course not. Do I have my own pains about the state of the world? Of course. But the questions are always, “How do I, in this environment, continue to add value to people’s lives? How do I make sure that I have a joyous life for myself and my family? How do I help those who are less fortunate than I am, regardless of what else is happening?” I think that’s a much more empowering approach, at least for me.



Rich Simon

Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.