Last November, 2016, I listened to the shocking election results, went to bed, woke up in a surrealist daze, and got on a plane to San Jose. I immersed myself for four days in Tony Robbins’ Unleash the Power Within, an arena event geared to push the outside world out of my head so I could better hear the inside of my head. Tony Robbins’ timing couldn’t have been better.
For those who don’t know of Tony Robbins, it’s possible you’re young enough to have missed the late night infomercials for his self-help books and CD sets. Here’s a bit from his Wikipedia page: Tony Robbins is an American businessman, author, and philanthropist. He became well known from his infomercials and self-help books: Unlimited Power, Unleash the Power Within and Awaken the Giant Within.
He’s a mighty presence in person, and people flock to him for an infusion of what seems to be his boundless energy. Here is my Cliffs notes version of the event: Robbins isn’t your guru. He’s adamant about that, so adamant that he made a Netflix documentary with that name. Regardless, months earlier when I arrange to go to his Unleash the Power Within event in San Jose for the week, I resolve to throw myself into the four days 100%, drink the Kool-Aid, do whatever he tells me, and hire a deprogrammer later if I come home with unfortunate behavior that scares my friends.
The people attending are thiiiiis close to being cult followers, except we are all there to claim our own shit. Which cult followers don’t do.
10,500 people pack the place. The arena is so cold you can feel the chilled air descending on you like a waterfall. The decibel level is deafening most of the time. You feel the throb of the techno music more than you hear it. The environment is meant to keep you energized. It’s meant to rattle all your thoughts out of your head.
Robbins is there live on Day 1 and Day 3. His wonderful co-presenter, Joseph McClendon III covers Day 2 and Day 4. Neither of them let you sit down for very long throughout the 12-16 hour non-stop days. We embrace dance sessions, awkward aerobics, deep-breathing, actual fire-walking, and a whole lot of “LET ME HEAR IT!” shouting. The self-programming exercises are very much our very own.
The preferred greeting among everyone there is high-fiving followed by hugging. I haven’t hugged this many people since John Lennon died.
I come home with a metaphorical bag of actual tricks. Here are my favorite take-aways:
1. “I Own You.” On the first day, Robbins has us turn to our seat neighbors, point at them and yell, “I own you!” We are, of course, laughing, but it feels aggressively good. Fast forward six weeks: On Inauguration Day, instead of despairing, I realize that “I own you!” applies to everyone we democratically elected. We put them in office, we pay their wages and benefits, and we can take them OUT. (Of course, this is something most any politician up for re-election knows at its core.) “I own you!” becomes the constant reminder that we are not victims, in anyone’s control, or unable to kick the shit out of things we think are unjust. Looking for permission and guidance from that guy? That is just silly. Why? Because, say it with me: I Own You.
2. See things as they are, and not worse than they are. It’s unclear where Robbins stands politically on the election results, but he starts early with this one and repeats it a few times. It’s what rational people do. Columnists Paul Krugman of the New York Times and and Mark Morford of the San Francisco Gate could have used this as a screen saver for a few weeks. Paul. Mark. I adore you. Now, look out your windows. We are not going up in flames because we democratically elected a guy whose recklessness is both shocking and tedious. Speculation is not a substitute for action. We just have a shitload of work to do for four years.
3. Shop Like a Man. This tale of focus is from McClendon. He tells a great story about how men shop for a shirt versus how women shop for a shirt, complete with a Family Circus-style “Little Billy looking for his mittens” meandering dotted line diagram. Men typically go directly to a store they know sells shirts, ask someone to help them select a shirt, buy the shirt and leave. Men don’t give the shirt another thought. Women like choice, want it to coordinate, buy the shirt then check out other stores for things to go with the shirt, have some coffee, and oh, look, it’s a trunk show at Nordstroms…. Anyway, shop like a man. Buy the shirt, wear it, and don’t give that choice any more thought. It’s going to be fine. You’ll get a lot more done this way.
4. Language has Power. If you want to say “fuck” a lot, it has utility. You know how people pay attention when language shocks. In addition, using language that softens a message serves no one. “Softeners” are also known as tact, white lies, evasion or bullshit. Another language trick for your own self: say “and” whenever you are inclined to say “but.” Pay attention to your words, especially when you are making decisions. Words are things.
5. Move and Breathe. We all feel stuck from time to time. Well, fuck that shit! Move your body. Do some deep breaths. Right now: ten jumping jacks. It fixes everything. There. All better.
6. Get a coach. Some people on the event’s private Facebook page revealed themselves to be self-help junkies who are aces at the setting up and aiming, and not so good at pulling the trigger. Taking another seminar or training program seems productive and is often just a way to avoid getting on with things. Hiring a coach can get you past that logjam. A results coach can help you interrupt the habit of evading success. I hired a Tony Robbins coach, Nicole, with the expectation that my goal of making money will pay for the substantial coaching fee. So far she’s been a wonderful combination of focus, weed-whacking, and practicality. You can get a complimentary half hour session from one of the Tony Robbins people to see if coaching works for you.
7. Your alter ego is actually you. Vividly remember a time when your life was great. What were you doing? How did you stand and what did you eat and how did you walk? That’s you. Name that person. See the world and live as that person. (Kathy Bates as Evelyn Couch in “Fried Green Tomatoes” delivered when she yelled “Towanda!” That can be you, making the world right again.)
8. Raise Your Standards. This applies to everything. Ratty underwear in your underwear drawer? Toss them immediately without a second thought and don’t just replace them with the same cheap stuff. Go get the Cadillac of Underwear. Tired of the phone ringing? Turn off the ringer. Why? Because you own it. At a job that’s pleasant with no future? Get out of there, even if you don’t have a fully-thought out exit plan. You’ll figure it out. Your mom is wrong: you won’t end up living in a cardboard box under the freeway bridge. Hanging out with people who drain you and kill your soul? You can’t help them. Get out of there. It’s good for them as well. Start with all the small broken stuff that whirls around you like mosquitoes. Take your life to a better place.
8A. To take the fucking island you must burn the fucking boats. Okay, this is one of Robbins’ favorite sayings and I keep picturing Conquistadors massacring entire cultures, but the example is that an invading army would sail someplace, and then burn the boats so there’s no retreat. It’s conquer or die for them. I prefer the metaphor of bridge burning, and feel a good deal less guilty about it. So: burn the fucking bridge.
9. The 2mm shift. (optional: the cult-like tattoo.) When you’re struggling with something, it’s likely you’re only a 2 millimeter shift from getting it right. A few people I know got “2mm” tattooed on their wrists (yes, it is a little bit cult-like) as a reminder that sometimes the results they seek are just that close. To experience this right now, move your sternum 2mm upward Your slump is gone and you look and feel more like a winner. (or as your mom might have told you, stand up straight.) This can be used metaphorically as well. A small shift in things that seem to be stumping your progress might be all you need.
10. Interrupt the pattern to make change. This works brilliantly, and can be applied to anything large or small. You can break your own patterns, or patterns of someone else. It works if it’s just changing the radio station in your car from NPR to a mariachi station. It works when someone is ranting at you about politics and you ask them if they prefer oysters or shrimp because you can’t rant about politics and think about seafood at the same time. Or you can suddenly dash off, so they have no audience to listen to them rant. Remove the stimulus to interrupt the pattern, and it will stop. Here’s a new book I just read that talks about habit and pattern interruption and so much more on the workings of your brain: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
So there you have it. It’s not for everybody, but if you’re willing to hurl yourself at programming your best self and walk away feeling pretty damned good, I can recommend Robbins’ most accessible live program. While you are deciding to go whole hog to this event, try his CDs, which you can listen to in your car, and his books, often available at your public library. There are numerous free YouTube videos. And to really get the results you want, there’s no substitute for a live immersive experience in an arena full of strangers. It will push you farther in the right direction than you ever thought you could go. You’ll become your own guru.