At the Los Angeles Convention Center, 5,000 fans are up on their feet, bouncing to U2’s “Beautiful Day,” palms pumping the air as their indefatigable leader appears from the wings, exhorting followers from 40 countries to Unleash the Power Within, the name of the four-day seminar.
Welcome to the world of Tony Robbins. From Rome to Hong Kong, Dubai to Sydney, Cabo San Lucas to Paris, the 53-year-old crisscrosses the globe on a nonstop mission to rouse the giant referred to in his signature book, Awaken the Giant Within.
Sure, critics have made fun of his omnipresent TV infomercials and QVC pitches, while some mental health professionals question the efficacy of rapid-fire transformation. But the king of life coaches dismisses skeptics, pointing to a record of proven results and impressive sales: Four million people have attended his seminars; 50 million have bought his books, tapes and DVDs. Everything about him is supersize—his height (six-foot-seven), his yearly income (more than $30 million), his Twitter followers (more than 2 million) and his personal-coaching fee ($1 million annually).
A self-made man who never went to college, Robbins was raised in a violent household by a volatile mother addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol. After she kicked him out of the house when he was 17, he worked as a door-to-door repairman. By the age of 24 he was a millionaire, trading in his Volkswagen for a Rolls-Royce. He’d discovered within himself the ability to “sculpt” people, creating a life-coaching industry that hadn’t previously existed.
Bill Clinton sought his advice as president. Serena Williams relied on him to avoid on-court meltdowns. Princess Diana bared her soul to him in Kensington Palace. Hugh Jackman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Anthony Hopkins, Quincy Jones, Andre Agassi, Donna Karan and Greg Norman have all turned to him.
Robbins is a father of four and devoted to his second wife, Sage. He still racks up frequent flier miles and is as driven and ambitious as ever, maintaining a nonstop seminar schedule while also working on an upcoming book titled The Money Power Principles.
Journalist Glenn Plaskin, who has interviewed Donald Trump and Calvin Klein for Playboy, met up with Robbins at his Palm Springs getaway home. He reports: “Robbins was disarmingly relaxed, drawing me outside for a view of the mountains. After pulling out his iPad and playing his interview with a 108-year-old concentration camp survivor—whom he called the ultimate optimist—-Robbins, a student of longevity, was off and running, sipping minestrone as he expounded on the human condition.”
PLAYBOY: You must have heard every criticism in the book about your public persona. When people hear the name Tony Robbins, what comes to mind?
ROBBINS: [Laughs] I’m the infomercial guy with big teeth from Shallow Hal. But fortunately for the people I’ve worked with, I’m also the guy who creates breakthroughs, who transforms lives and closes the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
PLAYBOY: You didn’t mention your height.
ROBBINS: My height affected me in an interesting way. I was five-foot-one my sophomore year of high school and became student body president. I was the short fat kid who worked his guts out and was mouthy to anybody who gave him crap. I don’t think it was height that allowed me to impose my will, but I had an incredibly intense will and a competitive spirit. That year I tried to get the head cheerleader’s attention, but the noseguard of the football team poured chocolate milk all over me. I smacked him as hard as I could and said every four-letter word I knew. Then I ran like hell. But I wasn’t very fast.
PLAYBOY: Your legs have gotten a lot longer.
ROBBINS: I grew almost 10 inches my junior year, but I didn’t discover why until I was 31 and a doctor told me I had a tumor in my brain. That was a brutal day, a moment of humbling disbelief, anger and doubt. I’d been healthy as a horse but was told I had a rare disorder called acromegaly, which caused the excessive growth spurt in my teens. At six-foot-seven, with size 16 feet, it didn’t take a brain surgeon to tell me that. He recommended surgery, but I never had it. And I’ve never had a problem. If I’d listened, they would have cut out a piece of my brain.
PLAYBOY: Studies have found that taller people are perceived as more intelligent and powerful, and they make more money. Did height give you an edge?
ROBBINS: It was more a hunger to succeed, to break through and make a difference. It’s not conditions, it’s decisions that shape your life. Destiny is choices. You can find too many people who are small in stature but not in character—like Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi—to believe that height matters. Motive matters. The ultimate thing that separates people is finding a mission greater than themselves. But most people major in minor things. They know more about Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashians than about their emotional lives. They start out with dreams but get slapped down by disappointment, which takes a bite out of their confidence. So they travel through life with less than they deserve and come up with a story about why.
PLAYBOY: You mean “if only” rationales for lesser results?
ROBBINS: Yes. Most of us are looking for something outside ourselves that we can’t control to blame for where we are, rather than finding a way to control the inside world and maximize our greatest strengths. People who focus on what they can’t control are usually depressed, frustrated, angry, overwhelmed and lost. Sure, there’s no way to look at the world and say it’s fair, even or just. Some people have advantages.
PLAYBOY: Does having advantages always help?
ROBBINS: No. You give some people everything and they spend their lives going through rehab. Lindsay Lohan is a great example. Then you look at Oprah. Abused as a child, yet with an unbelievable level of passion she became the woman she is today.
PLAYBOY: So what makes the difference?
ROBBINS: I’ve been obsessed to know that my entire life. The difference is psychological strength, emotional fitness. It’s the capacity to face the worst setbacks and find something inside to push through and triumph no matter the circumstance. I interviewed Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor. Her husband and parents were killed in the camps. She wasn’t. Why? She was a great pianist, so the Nazis used her to perform in propaganda films. If she had refused, they would have executed her young son and then her. You won’t meet a happier person.
PLAYBOY: Did she share her secret?
ROBBINS: Yes. She’d focus on a memory from her previous life that would get her laughing. And she got outside of herself by lifting people up with music. Compare her story to someone saying “I lost my job on Wall Street and now it’s over.” Give me a break. You’re not in Somalia, right? You haven’t lost your abilities. You can find a way to retool.
PLAYBOY: What’s the real problem?
ROBBINS: We’re emotionally unfit. We expect things to be given to us that other generations had to earn. We think we’re supposed to get homes with no money down and be supported by the government if we’re unemployed.
PLAYBOY: What do you tell people who lose their jobs?
ROBBINS: First, feed and strengthen your mind with something that inspires you. If you don’t, disaster and fear is where your brain will go. Second, feed and strengthen your body. Fear is physical. When you lift weights or go for a sprint, that energy flows back into your body and restores you to certainty. Third, find a role model, someone who has turned their life around. Fourth, take massive action and keep changing your approach. Fifth, find somebody who is 10 times worse off and help them. It reminds you that you have something to give and to be grateful.