Peek State

Inside the Tony Robbins seminar

(Long after my day at the seminar is done, when the sun has set on my Competitive Edge and when Robbins is but a mere faint memory, I will wake up at night screaming and shaking violently. "No, no!" I will cry in my anguished half-sleep. "Stop the clapping! Don't do it! Don't make me do it!" But they won't understand, and really, how can they?)

Actually, the first few times this happens, I want to cower in the corner of the room, but by the fifth or so time it happens, I'm less taken aback. I don't know if it's because I'm becoming more awake (the seminar started at a very executive 8:30 a.m.), I'm learning what to expect, or I'm getting brainwashed.

"This is the state of leadership!" Robbins thunders. "This is the state where things get done!"

But as I look around the room at the beatific smiles and the look of relief on the professional faces, I begin to see something different going on. People want direction. They want leadership. They want guidance. They want one man to stand before them and make them clap and tell them who they are. They don't really want to be leaders. That's the hoax: Who truly wants to be a leader? Who truly wants to be an Anthony Robbins, standing before a mass of people telling them what to do and how to live their lives?

Before every break, Robbins goes into a hard sell for the rest of his products. In these stretches he comes off less the fiery motivator and more the sleazy infomercial guy. "If you ask what it costs, then you need to check your head!" Robbins admonishes, holding up a box of motivational tapes. "You shouldn't ask what it costs! You should ask what it's worth!"

Throughout the day, Robbins will ask questions of the audience rapid-fire, and if you agree with him, you're supposed to raise your hand and say "I." For example:

Robbins: Who wants to make more money? Say, "I." Crowd:I! Who wants to lead a richer life? Say,"I."

I!

Who wants to have time to do it all? Say, "I."

I!

Who wants to watch me peel back my amazing life-like skin coating to reveal my alien insides? Say, "I."

I!

Okay: I cannot tell a lie—that last question was made up. The call-and-response might make it seem as if there's audience participation, but Robbins never actually asks questions or allows audience members to ask questions. Doing so would just get too complicated seeing as a Robbins seminar is an elaborately orchestrated spectacle with music stopping and starting and video images appearing on the monitors to emphasize certain points or induce certain moods.

Plus, if Robbins were to allow audience members to ask their own questions, it would allow them to stand out as individuals, and the whole day seems skewed toward keeping the mob feeling intact. We don't wear nametags with our own names on them; we wear badges that say "Competitive Edge." At the beginning of the day, we're asked to repeatedly touch one another without knowing the most basic of information about one another. When Marvin massages me (we're repeatedly told to "massage your partner"), I quickly ask him, in a whisper, for his name and where he works, and I feel guilty doing so because we're talking while Robbins is talking, but I feel more comfortable at least knowing the name of the person working the kinks out of my back.

By depriving us of our individuality and constantly agitating our physical space, Robbins has complete crowd control. He wants us to hug each other; we do it. He wants us to jump around and yell, "yes"; we do it. He wants us to massage our partners; we do it. Granted, he's not using this control for any deleterious purpose aside from making money, but it's still kind of icky.

After another big, orgiastic sales explosion, Robbins asks us to turn to Page 10 in our workbooks. There are two series of questions, each followed by half a page of blank lines. While "Chariots of Fire" plays in the background and we're supposed to be busily scribbling in our books, Robbins reads the questions slowly and emphatically.

"Who . . . are . . . you?" he asks. "How do you define yourself? Why should I 'buy' from you vs. someone else? What makes you unique?"

"Now find a partner!" Robbins directs. Marvin and I look at each other. "One of you is 'A,' and one of you is 'B'."

We determine that I will be A. I begin to feel guilty, though, because I didn't actually write anything in my workbook. "You didn't?" Marvin asks, horror-stricken. "Don't worry, I can come up with something," I say.

"Now tell your partner why you do what you do and why someone should 'buy' from you," Robbins advises. When it's Marvin's turn, he tells me, again, about his grandfather not having life insurance and how it strapped the family and how because of this, he knows about life insurance, and if people would just give him a chance, he could explain how his product would benefit them. While he's talking, I realize that there are a few ways he could make his story more effective, more tactically effective, such as if he were to give some tear-jerking details about the family's hardships and if he were to, perhaps, make it his father who didn't have life insurance instead of his grandfather. I never mention this, though, as it's not my place, and plus, the whole idea of using someone's death in order to sell something really creeps me out.

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