Tony Robbins says a four­-letter word is holding you back

Motivational speaker Tony Robbins. Jonathan Leibson | Getty Images
Motivational speaker Tony Robbins. Jonathan Leibson | Getty Images
Published Oct. 24, 2016

If Tony Robbins told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it? Marc Benioff would. In fact, he did.

Benioff discovered the celebrated self­-help guru when he was 28. The aspiring entrepreneur was working at a big corporation when he began absorbing Robbins's tapes and attending his seminars. Eventually, he credited Robbins with his decision to start Salesforce years later, now a $6.6 billion San Francisco enterprise behemoth.

This is not uncommon. Robbins boasts a star­-studded network of clients, several of whom have seen their relationship with him morph from one of master and student to that of friends.

In July 2012, while Benioff was vacationing with four buddies at Robbins's Namale resort in Fiji, Robbins decided to show them something. He shuffled them into his Jeep, drove to a bridge and came to an abrupt halt in the middle of it. Below was a raging river. Robbins said they were all going to jump off to face their fears.

"I'm afraid and nervous," recalled Benioff about staring down at the water swirling below. "I have no idea what's going on." But he jumped anyway.

What could have been a reckless game of chicken was, for Benioff, a teachable moment. "Tony turned that night into a seminar," he said, articulating, in part, why high­power executives, politicians and celebrities keep Robbins at the top of their contact list. "Tony realizes that the only thing that prevents you from focusing on what you want is fear."

This has been the central message of Robbins's long career. It's hardly a radical message and it's heard frequently, but when it falls from Robbins's lips, people listen, and they have for more than 30 years.

"When everybody's unsure what to do, and there's somebody who ... knows, everyone pays attention," said Robbins. "Someone who has certainty, even if they're wrong, will lead other people."

While the central idea Robbins has been peddling hasn't evolved much over the past three decades, his entrepreneurial pursuits have. He has become involved in a diverse web of businesses, building and investing in companies as far­flung as asteroid mining, credit cards, hospitality, nutritional supplements, private equity, sports teams, 3­D printed prosthetics and, most recently, wealth management.

By Robbins's count, he's involved in 31 companies, which, he said, generate more than $5 billion in annual revenue.

Robbins recently shared what he calls the single most important bit of business advice he gives his clients — something he's become adept at following himself.

"There are always two businesses you've got to manage," said Robbins in his distinctive deep voice. "There's the business you're in, and the business you're becoming. If you just manage the business you're in, you're going to get knocked out by a new technology or new competition. But if you're constantly managing those two businesses, you won't have to quit or pivot, because you're always doing something to innovate, or to change, or to improve."

In other words, the man never stops.

But lots of people don't stop. Lots of people run successful businesses. Lots of people offer sound, incisive advice. But none of them could get the CEO of a multi-billion­dollar company to jump into a snake-­infested river in the middle of the night. So why can Robbins?

Robbins's entire business is built on his insistence that anyone can learn to be confident.

At 17, Robbins says, he attended a seminar by the motivational speaker Jim Rohn. He soon got a job selling Rohn seminars and it was then that he realized his own professional calling. It didn't hurt that his personal story, which includes a revolving door of stepfathers, an alcoholic mother who chased him around with a knife, and a period of homelessness, doubled as a compelling origin story for his business, a tale he still emotionally unspools at his seminars decades later.

What ultimately put Robbins on the map, he says, was coaching a young swimmer who won gold at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Mike O'Brien was introduced to the then-­24-­year-­old Robbins after he'd made the U.S. team. The swimmer and his teammates had met with numerous sports psychologists. His physical presence and intense demeanor made an impact on O'Brien.

"He exudes so much confidence that without even saying the words, he's relating that 'I believe in you. You have the potential to excel.' So you start to believe it."

Confidence is fundamentally the product Robbins has been selling and perpetually finding new ways to repackage. Over the years, his mantras have sliced and diced the same basic message: Change your mental state so you will feel confident, even if you have no idea what the hell you're doing.

That message has drawn in business titans who pay him a staggering $1 million a year for personal coaching.

Clients include Peter Guber, chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Group, and financial trading whiz Paul Tudor Jones.

"I have had many cataclysmic and painful failures in my life," Guber said, emphasizing that Robbins "helped me overcome and move through them faster and more efficiently. I like the fact that the uncertainty doesn't threaten me. It did threaten me before."

Robbins has continued expanding his entrepreneurial footprint by turning high­-profile clients into business partners. How he's done that is a study in the psychology of networking.

"My primary question is just, 'How can I help?' " Robbins explained of his dealings with other people. "When you're doing that on an ongoing basis, that builds a relationship, because you're not asking for things. You're giving all the time."

Ultimately, Robbins has created a lucrative virtuous circle. As his business and personal networks grow, he gains access to new ideas, opportunities and relationships. He and Guber have become co­-investors in a major league soccer franchise.

Joe Berlinger, an Oscar-­nominated documentarian who typically exposes social injustices, was invited by Robbins to one of his seminars. Soon after that, Berlinger shot I Am Not Your Guru, about Robbins and his seminars.

"When Tony works with someone he is excited about or wants to invest time and energy into, he also wants to invest his money," said Benioff. "It's become a good financial strategy for him."