Peek State

Inside the Tony Robbins seminar

Marvin is a young, likable guy who sells insurance policies. When he was a kid, his grandfather passed away, leaving the family with tons of bills. If only his grandfather had life insurance!

Marvin (not his real name) knows first-hand what insurance can do for you, and in order to tell you about his product, Marvin must employ a variety of strategies, including cold calls and going door to door. People can be really mean to some insurance salesman trying to sell them on something they don't want, though.

"It's hard for me to go up to people," says Marvin, "so I thought maybe coming here today would help."

"Here" is a cavernous, butt-freezing banquet room in the Anaheim Hilton Hotel where 2,400 business-attired professionals have gathered to spend 10 life-changing, life-affirming hours with motivational speaker Anthony Robbins—he of the gigantic head and late-night infomercials. These professionals are ready to go, to get pumped, to kick it up a notch, to take it to that next level. These are go-getters, the kind of people who like to give it their all, to do it for the team, to talk the talk and walk the walk, to fake it till they make it, to hug me.

Wait, what!?

"You're greeting someone you haven't seen in years! You're excited! You're pumped!" Robbins brays from the front of the banquet room. Sports-stadium music pumps through the speakers, images of basketball players flash on the monitors, and complete strangers in smart suits leap from their chairs to hug other complete strangers.

It is at this point—and mind you, I've only been in this room for about 15 really cold minutes—that I begin to wonder what I've gotten myself into by attending this Anthony Robbins seminar, "The Competitive Edge: The Power of Personal and Professional Influence."

"Dear Achiever," begins the letter in the front of The Competitive Edgeworkbook that we've all received. "I believe that influence—the capacity to shift a person's perceptions, emotions and actions —is the single most important skill we can master to increase the quality of our lives as well as the lives of those we have the privilege to touch."

The ability to shift a person's perceptions, emotions and actions sounds a bit more like manipulation than influence, but maybe I'm just a cynic. As Robbins says, "When people say 'I'm cynical,' what they're really saying is, 'I'm scared; I'm scared of getting my hopes up.'"

I'm scared, all right. But it's not of getting my hopes up. This seminar is designed to motivate people in sales to go out and sell more, while offering a number of tactics to close the deal. "Culture makes gross generalizations about people in sales," Robbins says, with great empathy, as if salespeople are the last great oppressed minority.

Robbins looks a lot like Guy Smiley from Sesame Street, the most insincere puppet ever to sit atop some guy's hand. On TV, Robbins comes off as glib and waxy. But he makes a better impression in person. He cracks jokes and says the word "shit" a lot. He gestures wildly and tells colorful anecdotes. He moves around and works the crowd. And he name-drops like a motherfucker, peppering his stories with tales of Andre Agassi and Mother Teresa and Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan and the time he picked up Gorbachev in his personal jet and blah, blah, blah.

According to Robbins, you can influence someone only when you're in a "peak state," a state in which you have a feeling of certainty, because, according to Robbins, if two people meet each other, the one who is more "certain" will convince the other one. Nietzsche said roughly the same thing ages ago ("Life itself is will to power"), but because he didn't possess the same kind of winning teeth as Robbins, he'll never be as famous.

Robbins does this thing where he puts the crowd into a "peak state."

"Yes!" Robbins bellows, bringing his giant hands together in a booming clap.

"Yes!" he says again, clapping his hands together once more.

"Yes!" he repeats, this time a little faster.

The audience begins clapping and saying, "yes."

"No, no, it's happening again, please, God, no," I begin chanting in my head, but it's already too late. Barely audible above the feverish clapping and yessing come the heavy bass strains of that song heard in sports stadiums across the nation, the one that says, "Y'all ready for this?" The music swells. Everything speeds up. People start jumping up and down, throwing their fists in the air, yelling, "Yes!" The floor of the convention room shakes. The room erupts in an orgiastic explosion of energetic sales rapture. Images of soaring eagles appear on the monitors. Robbins jumps and chants as well. And then, a few seconds before it all dies down, Robbins assumes this weird position in which he puts one arm out in front of himself, one arm behind, leans forward, and waves both hands in the air. It's similar to the position an athlete would assume before throwing a discus, if instead of throwing a discus the athlete was trying out for Riverdance. Regardless, the crowd has learned to associate this weird move with calming down, and as Robbins beats his hands together again, this time yelling, "Boom!" like some kind of hyper-pituitary Emeril into his "Ms. Jackson if you're nasty" headset, the music stops, the ground stops shaking, and the crowd again listens obediently.

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