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.
"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.
(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."
Who wants to have time to do it all? Say, "I."
Who wants to watch me peel back my amazing life-like skin coating to reveal my alien insides? Say, "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'."
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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.
At 3 p.m., we break for lunch. Robbins advises us to return promptly in one hour and to make sure we don't overeat because when we come back, we're going to be moving around.
At 3 p.m., I get in my car. I have every intention of returning in one hour, but for some reason, I just never do.