Tony Robbins has the firmest handshake I’ve ever experienced. The towering, impeccably tan life expert is sitting across from me at a hotel bar in Midtown Manhattan to discuss his new Netflix documentary, Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru—a chronicle of one of Robbins’s most coveted seminars.
Titled “Date with Destiny,” it is billed as an event that allows attendees to “discover your purpose and ignite passion,” and is the most intimate of his workshops, catering to 2,500 people at a price of $5,000 a head. In the doc, acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost) captures the Robbins magic, as he appears to soothe many people’s spirits, from a young woman who’d been raised in an abusive cult to a couple trying to get the spark back in their relationship.
Robbins, 56, met Berlinger through the filmmaker Brian Koppelman, and subsequently invited the documentarian to his “Date with Destiny” in Palm Springs, California. “Joe’s one of the most skeptical human beings because he’s spent most of his life looking at the worst parts of society,” says Robbins. “So he got there and the first day he wanted to run but his wife convinced him to stay, and then it changed his life. He then pursued me for two years to do it.”
Berlinger attended the event in 2012, and then came and shot a 2014 “Date with Destiny in Boca Raton, Florida. Robbins then convinced him to meet with the people a year later to show their progress, all of which is captured in I Am Not Your Guru.”
The Daily Beast sat down with Robbins for a wide-ranging discussion on presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton—both of whom he’s assessed in the past, the state of men and women in 2016, and much more.
Why do you think the guy behind the Paradise Lost films, which couldn’t be darker and more cynical, was the right guy for this?
I just loved his integrity. Anyone who’s going to spend two decades because it’s right, that’s a good person. We both are seekers of truth—that’s what brought us together—and we both want to bring that truth to the public. But you know, we’re Mutt and Jeff. I’m tall, he’s smart; he’s Jewish, I’m not; he’s pessimistic, I’m not.
If they ever do a Twins sequel you guys could co-star. Now, what advice would you give Americans to get through election season?
I think how most Americans are coping is they’re just tuning out. They’re going to tune out until the very end, and then make their decision.
Well, 2016 seems like a pretty good time to be in the self-help industry. These are very trying times.
The change is happening more rapidly now than any other time in history—that’s the difference. And it’s going to continue to accelerate. I’m sure you’re familiar with the technology that’s going on around DNA, and if you look at virtual reality stuff, I have a company that I’ve invested in, NextVR, and we made a deal with Live Nation to publish concerts. We’re doing the NBA, the NFL, and other sports. Imagine if you have that $15,000 seat on the court, and it costs you five bucks? We’re in a place where, in the next five to 10 years, things that look like magic will become part of our daily life, but it’s going to disrupt. Look at the self-driving car. What’s going to happen to 3 million truck drivers? Nobody’s telling them, “You’ve got to retool, brother!” So the disruption—the change—will be beautiful, but it will also be really hard in its earliest days.
As far as technology goes, you’re on Twitter. How do you feel about the level of vitriol on that platform? It seems in the past few years it’s transformed into a very nasty place.
It’s a reflection of where we are as a society. Donald Trump doing this 10 years ago, do you think it would have worked? It’s a different world. Also, our social media culture—[people are] not seeing their kid, they’re filming their kid so they can put it online and show their friends. Who gives a shit besides you? Nobody wants to see the 50 films of your child! Significance has become one of the highest values in the culture, and you can get significance by working and building things or by tearing things down. In the society we live in today, if you take a risk and try and build something, you can fail. If you and I have a conversation and I get in your face, or you get in my face, there’s a price I’m going to pay potentially, but in the virtual world there’s no consequence.
I’m covered in body cams, so proceed with caution. But we are living in the “like” era, like you said, where people are doing things for peer review.
It makes us live on the surface and not deep, because people are trying to present something. And I’m sure you’ve read the studies, but then people get depressed online because everyone thinks other people’s lives are so great, when in reality they’re posting these total bullshit pictures with all these filters on them, or writing stories exaggerating about their lives.
Right. That person posting photos of the one trip they took to Miami for six months straight on Instagram.
[Laughs] Exactly. Anything to frame their life as better. What’s happened is it’s made people disconnect from what really matters that’s deep. You see less fulfillment, more frenzy, and more competitive nature. Competitiveness is great if you’re growing, but if you’re competing by doing bullshit, you’re not going to be fulfilled in the end so you’re going to feel empty. No matter what people think about you, you’re going to feel like hell.
Do you feel that’s a byproduct of celebrity-tabloid culture? It seems nowadays you have “ordinary” civilians trying to construct their narratives that way online.
Everybody is trying to build a brand now—whether they’re in business or not. I think we’ve thrown our pendulum so far, and I don’t think it’s done being thrown, unfortunately. But what you’re seeing happen now in Dallas, in Louisiana, and with Black Lives Matter, you see a world where we’re hitting thresholds. And listen, the African-American community has been in so much pain for so long that now they’re finally hitting a threshold, and with white America, they want their kids taken care of too, but most Americans see their lives through MSNBC or Fox News, and you can live your whole life being reinforced by one point of view and it’s all about you—it’s not about anybody else.
That’s one of the great benefits of social media—that it’s given voice to the disenfranchised, and it gives you unfiltered, unvarnished point of views.
It’s creating truth—the same thing happened with the Arab Spring. The technology that’s making us more significance-driven and less fulfilled has also helped us create more freedom, truth, and transparency. Because of that transparency, we’re hitting so many thresholds now that I think everyone is being affected. Most significant change doesn’t happen unless we have enough pain. I mean, we can all do it proactively, but most people don’t.
That seems to be a guiding principle of yours—how pain builds character. In the documentary, you get on one lady for living a comfy, sheltered life, but it seems like the most beautiful art, invention, etc. derive from conflict.
That’s true. And humans look for conflict. The idea that you should give your kid a trophy for participating is, I think, the worst idea on the face of the planet. This culture we’ve created is insane.
I got the belt occasionally, but nowadays that’s pretty unheard of. I think there’s been a generation of kids today that were coddled by their parents.
Without a doubt. And told they were perfect, and told they were beautiful, and told they were so skilled. There’s a study now by Professor Dweck from Stanford who’s done all this work showing how, if you’ve done what this last generation has with your kids—telling them they’re so perfect and so smart—it sounds so reinforcing, but what happens is they believe that shit, and then they go into the real world and the real world does not give them what they want. So now they go, “I thought I was smart!” and then they get fearful, and they only do what they can do well, so they stop growing. Whereas if you reinforce your kids for effort, telling them, “That was so tough but you pushed through,” effort, consistently done? You can master anything.
I did an interview with a woman yesterday from a particular magazine and she was telling me how she’s been so depressed. So I asked her how she was raised, and she gave me the whole spiel of how she had a trophy everywhere and was loved every moment, and I said, “So now, you get to high school and you’re in love with this boy and he’s not in love with you, and you don’t know how to deal with it. You get to college and you’re in love with this boy but he doesn’t love you, and why not? Your family and everyone loves you. So you’re psychologically unfit and that’s why you’re depressed—because you think the whole world is supposed to come to you and love you no matter what.” And that’s the challenge: What we think we’re doing well for kids is actually harming them in the long term. Kids have no resiliency. I’d rather see a kid go through hell.
Couples stay together thinking it will be good for the kids—I did this at one stage in my life—but it was all bullshit. I was just doing it for the kids, because I didn’t want to lose their love. But it doesn’t serve the kids when two people aren’t in love and stay together, because then they think that’s how relationships are supposed to be. I’d rather have them go through it, deal with it, and learn what relationships are really about so that their nervous system—their brain, their heart, their soul—is prepared for what’s going to happen in the future, because they’re going to have these problems.
So you think this is the millennials’ problem.
I think it’s a cultural problem. It’s not the millennials that did it, it’s the parents! The parents did it to the millennials and now the millennials are living through their filters. But look, you’re a millennial and you’re not that way.
I have to ask: How would Tony Robbins intervene on Donald Trump?
[Laughs] I know Donald pretty well. I gave him his first big speech. He’d never done a big speech before and he thought he was coming to give it for 300 people but it was 10,000. And he got hooked. He wrote about it in his book, I believe it was 10, 15 years ago. But Donald doesn’t take coaching—he doesn’t want coaching. I know Hillary very well, too. They’re radically different people. In my lifetime, we’ve never had anything like this election. I couldn’t imagine this. But again, it’s a reflection of the times. For somebody to get up there and run for president and say some of the things that Donald Trump has said, and to not only get media coverage but have people be enthusiastic about it, you couldn’t even imagine before. But we’re in such a divisive society now that people jump onboard these two extremes.
I remember when I was younger and worked with people in the Congress and Senate, I worked on both sides of the aisle with people I thought would make a difference—and always kept it private. But I’ll tell you, they used to get together like 15 years ago and fight like hell on the floor of the Senate and then they’d go have a beer together. They were still friends and felt their principles. Now, if you have lunch or even talk to anyone on the other side, you’re evil. How do you resolve anything when we’re that polarized?
We are certainly a nation divided.
We are. I talked to George W. Bush the other day—he was speaking at an event that I had—and I really respected him for never criticizing President Obama, whether he liked him or not. He said, “I’m never going to interfere with him.” He was disappointed that his brother [Jeb] didn’t make it, but I asked him about the whole election and said, “What do you think? Where are we going to go when this is the level of rhetoric we’re using right now and we’re so divided?” He said, “Tony, when President Nixon resigned I thought that was the end of the presidency. It would change forever, and would never go back. Here’s what I can tell you if you look over the decades: the office is bigger than the occupant. The office is more powerful than the occupant. So, if we make a bad choice and put someone in there that does a bad job, they’ll be out of there in four years. The office—the institution—is larger than the person.” It was common sense, but I found it comforting. I see people on both sides making promises they can’t keep.
Oh yeah, not only free college but free community college. You go to college right now and the curriculum is not preparing you for any job that you can make any money at, so what are you going to get at a community college? We’re going to spend all that money—I’m happy to donate money—but not for something that gives you zero preparation for the world we’re in today. It’s so outdated at this stage. All these politicians are talking about how they’re going to bring all these jobs back but those jobs are gone. Technology is going to replace so many jobs in the next couple of years.
Right. That’s the issue nobody talks about when it comes to the economy and unemployment: Technology is going to eliminate certain types of jobs, and then these people will be left with nowhere to go. And there’s no mechanism in place to ease their transition.
It’s going to happen and what are they going to do? Right now, if the government had a system saying, “OK, we know these are the types of jobs that are going to disappear, we know these are the jobs that will be replaced by robots or algorithms or various forms of technology, so who will go to these people and say ‘Now is the time to retool’ or will provide some choices or education?” That’s what we should be talking about but instead it’s empty, silly promises on both sides of the table. “I’m going to build a wall!” “Free community college for everybody that will transform them economically!” It’s nuts.
You said earlier that you’d met with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and found them to be radically different people. How so?
I don’t think I need to comment! I think it’s pretty obvious to anybody. Donald is a very successful businessman, I respect him for that, but Donald is strategically about Donald, primarily. And I like Donald very much as a person. He is a very good family man. When you really respect Donald is when you see him with his family because that’s a place where he’s not about himself—he really is about his kids—so he steps out of that bubble.
Are you sure though that that’s not about his ego, too? Since they are literal reflections of himself, bearing his name?
Well, they’re still a reflection of him. I would agree with you on that. But you’ve got a large bullshit meter, as do I, and I really believe that you see a different side of Donald with his family. Hillary is a career politician who is very, very smart and has unbelievable resources, and has a husband who I’ve known for a long time and I respect immensely—and I think most Americans respect immensely, regardless of their politics. She’s got the experience. But her negatives are almost as high as his because of the lack of trust people have.
You don’t think that’s a woman thing? Studies have shown that Hillary’s favorability ratings are fine when she’s in the job, like senator or secretary of state, but that they plummet when she’s auditioning for a promotion of some kind.
I don’t think it’s a woman thing. It’s political decisions. If she’d just come out and said, “Look, I made a political decision and wanted privacy for my emails, and I didn’t want people to make FOIA requests and go through it,” even if you disagreed with her decision you could at least respect it. But claiming that it was for convenience, or that you had two devices, those things don’t help. It’s wild. Never have two people run for office that have been perceived as lying so much, and they’re the only two choices we really have.
There are a lot of men in the documentary who you hit for being too feminine. What do you feel about the state of men in 2016?
That’s right. It has to do with the advent 50 years ago of real divorce. For centuries, there was a contract where a woman gave her beauty power and a man gave his economic capacity—before that it was the ability to hunt—but then divorce comes. So, a woman who gave her beauty power gives up her whole life and now she’s older and the guy leaves her and marries a younger woman, that produced such rage in women that those women raised their children differently than any generation before. They raised these boys to not be that asshole male, but in doing it what they really did was feminize them. And women have been taught by the mothers and fathers, “Don’t ever totally depend on a man.” If you don’t need me, why the hell am I here? So what it’s created is: Women have become more masculine as a rule—there are obviously plenty of exceptions to this—and men have become more feminine.
I think in our culture, everyone has masculine and feminine in them—women and men, regardless of your gender or sexual preference. But if you’re going to have passion, even if you’re two women or two gay men, you need to have opposite energies, otherwise you’re not going to have the spark. I’m not vested that women or men have to be a certain way—that’s all bullshit—but what I am vested in is whatever your true nature is, for example there are men who are more feminine or women who are more masculine and it’s in their nature and it’s not culturally conditioned, those people need to live who they are.
There is a silly backlash to this perception—all of these “men’s rights activists” complaining about how men don’t have equal rights and yada yada.
That’s a feminine approach. What kind of guy is going to go out there and complain about his rights? A guy with no balls, that’s who’s going to do that! A man who owns himself doesn’t need to go parade this shit—he just goes and takes control of his life. I mean, come on. A masculine man is someone who will die for the woman that they love or die for their family—someone who cares so much that they’ll give, not someone who manipulates people to get what they want. That’s a boy.
I want to ask you a few devil’s advocate-type questions. Do you think the “Date with Destiny” price point of $5,000 is pricing out the less fortunate who may really need the help?
Well, I bring both kids and adults there on scholarship. But that event, you have to understand: it’s 2,500 people and it’s an advanced course. You can go to a program of mine that’s $500 for four days so it’s cheaper than a concert, only it’s about changing your life. Those are bigger though at 8-10,000 people. This one is smaller. But you can always pick up a book. And the weekend programs that I do, the big ones, there are usually 100 kids I bring in as well as senior citizens that I look out for. And also, I try to feed a million people in every city I go to.
Now maybe it was just the area in Florida this documentary was shot, but I had a very hard time spotting black people in the crowd.
Interesting. It’s usually about 10 to 15 percent of the crowd, and people come from everywhere. If you’re from Brooklyn, you’ll see more of those types of people there instead of an event where people are coming in from 71 countries, but there were all sorts of nationalities there, and it is usually 10 to 15 percent.
How does someone like you not develop a crazy messiah complex? Or do you have one?
My mother used to beat the shit out of me, number one. Stupid example: I went next door and I cut the neighbor’s lawn in advance for a home that was being revamped thinking they’d pay me for it and I didn’t cut my own lawn, and oh my god, you talk about pain. Also, I was a writer originally. I wanted to be a baseball player, but when I got cut from the JV team as a pitcher, I decided to become a sportswriter. So I was 13 and working for a daily newspaper, and in Los Angeles there’s a local news channel called KTTV. When I was 14 they were trying to get viewership, so I was getting interviews no one was getting, so they offered me the sportscaster job on the No. 2 station in L.A., and my mother said, “Your ego is too big,” and she took it away. I never got to start the job and she made me quit the newspaper job.
So I’d go home from school every day, go to the grocery store on my bike, get the goods, come back, and make the meal. That was my life. I had experienced so much pain from that. And I loved baseball but I hated these sonofabitches who wouldn’t sign anything for these kids. They’d come up and say, “Oh no, you’ve got to buy the baseball card,” and I just wanted to punch them, you know? So I think a combination of those has kept me grounded in the fact that I’m just a fucking guy. I’m a passionate guy, I own myself, I know what I can do, but I’m still just a guy, and while I’ve worked my ass off, there’s a huge amount of grace in where I am at this stage of my life.