A matter of faith

Tony Robbins and other self-help gurus may be facing tough times as Americans grow weary of their message in this post-Sept. 11 era

The Orange County Register/July 26, 2002
By Andre Mouchard

Tony talks. People listen. Success happens.

At least, that's how it's always worked before.

For the past 25 years, as Tony Robbins has evolved from motivational face in the motivational crowd to an intergalactic king of motivation, he's delivered his product (direction? self-knowledge? a parental kick in the rear?) in the simplest way possible:

Tony talks. People listen. Success happens.

But now, even as Tony sells out a 2,000- person, four-day seminar in Garden Grove slated to start today, that reliable formula might not be so simple, the job of selling success might not be so easy.

And the problem, as impossible as this is to even contemplate, is beyond Tony's control.

This weekend, Tony will talk. A lot. No snag there.

But when he does - when he inspires and jokes and speaks sincerely for 12 hours at a pop - it's unclear how many people will truly listen.

Not hear. Everybody paying $695 and up for a four-day shot of undiluted Tony is going to put their ears to work. And when the seminar is over, when they go home with Tony's promise to "Unleash the Power Within," those customers are almost certain to at least try out his life strategies for a little while.

But listening, particularly to something as opaque as Tony's across-the-board exhortation to live an "outstanding" life ("I don't have a message," he says) requires as much heart as ears. It takes curiosity and a dash of vulnerability. You need a little discipline, too, because Tony isn't always easy to understand.

And, as much as anything, truly listening to Tony requires looking up at the jumping, sweating, high-fiving human brand name on stage and feeling something akin to ... faith.

Lately, it's the faith part that's turned sticky.

In a culture reeling from Sept. 11 and Enron and an apparently bottomless pit of corporate lies, our faith in anything short of God and taxes might be on hiatus.

"Anybody in the business of selling personal coaching services or success strategies or, essentially, things that might or might not exist, is likely to have a hard time, if not now, then soon," says Bob Thompson, a professor who teaches about popular culture and television at Syracuse University.

"Bull.... is going to have a hard time," Thompson adds. "Cynicism is gearing up for a full cycle."

Robbins doesn't necessarily agree that his customers are closing their ears. And he's less than pleased with any implication that what he says is less than honest.

But the 43-year-old who's been asked to lunch by one president (Clinton) and who recently made his move into Hollywood (he plays himself in the movie "Shallow Hal") does believe America's current mood might not be as open to motivation and motivators as it has been.

"There are waves of emotion that cultures go through," Tony says carefully.

"And, no doubt, this is probably a darker time for the American culture."

Any faith shortage is new.

Though self-help is a long- standing part of American culture (some argue that Ben Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac," published in 1758, was America's first self-help book), it probably reached a crescendo sometime before the millenium party you didn't attend in 2000.

Stocks were zooming up, not down. Salespeople were having peak performance moments every few minutes. Even regular folk felt something close to rich.

And our culture's faith in the idea that we could and should achieve "success" - particularly the financial version of the word - seemed etched in granite.

If greed was good in the 1980s, success was sexy in the 1990s.

Naturally, success became a marketplace.

Tony and Zig Ziglar and Stephen Covey and a dozen others became leaders of their own motivational subcultures, convincing millions that they knew the path to virtually any version of success.

Their messages weren't - and aren't - always about money.

Zig urges husbands to shower their wives with love and, among other things, to open her car door.

Covey popularized the word "proactive," and his three-part time-management credo ("discover, plan and act") helped push his biggest book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" to 144 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list.

Tony Robbins, king of the later-than-late-night infomercial, is perhaps best known for urging people to walk on hot coals, a trick that he describes as a metaphor for his larger point about the power of the mind.

Still, while their messages differ, all the self-helpers have persuaded people to do at least one thing that's common - open their wallets.

By 2000, Americans were spending more than $5.7 billion a year on everything from self-help books and speeches to "total immersion experiences," a.k.a. seminars.

The biggest motivators turned their names into financial empires.

Ziglar in the late 1990s was making millions annually from his self-published books and giving about 50 speeches a year at $50,000 a pop, according to Texas Monthly magazine. Covey's business, Franklin Covey Co., grossed about $585 million in 2000, according to Marketdata Enterprises, which tracks the self-help industry. And Tony Robbins reportedly was making $80 million a year on everything from books and tapes to one-on-one motivational sessions with rock stars and CEOs who hang out with him at his resort in Fiji, according to a 1999 estimate by BusinessWeek magazine.

But even before Sept. 11 made us question our safety and invincibility, and before the stock market implosion made us question our collective futures, there were signs that some elements of American culture were growing weary of the success message.

A series of novels in the late 1990s ("How to Be Good" by Nick Hornby, "Unless" by Carol Shields and "Happiness (TM)" by Will Ferguson) took shots at the motivational movement.

The 1999 movie "Magnolia" featured Tom Cruise as a manipulative motivational guru - a role that drew praise from at least one critic as "timely." Last year, journalist Tom Tiede took a nonfiction (and poorly reviewed) shot at the self-help movement in a book called "I'm O.K., You're O.K., O.K.? Blasting the Self-Helpers."

The economics of the success industry also are flattening. Though Marketdata Inc. still forecasts overall growth through at least 2005, the company said in a 2001 report that the bulk of new self-help customers will be Spanish speakers, a group that, until recently, has been ignored by American motivators.

And, critically, there seems to be a shift among the faithful.

While the dedicated motivation customers still attend the workshops and buy the tapes and read the books, their expectations aren't so high.

"I work out of a small office and pretty much on my own, so I don't have mentors. I need mentors, and these guys help," says James Mencini, 61, a Newport Beach real estate broker who has bought tapes and books and attended events put on by Robbins and several other motivators.

"But to be honest, I don't see these things making a huge impact on a lot of people. Most people go and get something for a few days or something, but it fades.

"If you want to change, these guys might help, but it's gotta come from inside, too.

"I believe people do change. But it takes work."

Tony isn't seeing a big change in the success market. Not yet, anyway.

"Human beings have the same needs. We all have a need for certainty," he says. "That's what's happening to Americans right now. We've lost some of our certainty."

But he has made some changes himself, career-wise, that hint his life as a touring motivational rock star soon could evolve into something that gives him more time at his homes in Del Mar and Fiji.

His role in "Shallow Hal," for example, might not be his last movie.

He already seems comfortable with the ancillary duties of Hollywood. (Last week, as the movie hit video stores, Robbins flew from San Diego to New York to appear on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien.")

Tony's people indicate their boss wouldn't mind filling the talk-show void that figures to emerge when Oprah gives up the daily talk-show routine.

Robbins - who is willing to poke fun at his image - could be a natural in Hollywood.

"He may turn out to be from the William Shatner- Barry Williams school, a guy who figures that if people are going to laugh at his image, he should lead the way," says TV professor Thompson.

"He seems to know when the irony boom is swinging in his direction, and he might be getting in front of it."

But for now - always the most important time in Robbins' world - the show goes on.

Tonight, the kickoff to a four-day event, will include his trademarked (literally) Fire Walk, something Robbins says he does about a half-dozen times a year.

"It's really about getting attention, of the people in and outside the room," he says.

"Given the nature of media, well, the fire walk has always been a great piece."

Beyond that, the event will include lots of energy.

"He gets everybody really worked up," says Mencini, who heard Robbins speak two years ago in Anaheim. "It's pretty exciting."

What's less clear is how much long-term change Tony will create.

His basic product is a mind- training technique that, in theory, helps people reprogram themselves to meet their long-term goals.

"Our minds are incredibly powerful and useful," he says. "They're under-tapped."

Indeed, the event figures to change some lives, and could influence many others.

Robbins points out that he's been in business, and thrived, based on "long-term results."

But those results, however real, aren't easy to quantify. And recently, the success market has come to demand "measurable" results, says Niurka Turner, who runs Results Coaching Alliance, a Newport Beach company that offers regular one-on-one consulting for salespeople and others.

Turner is a former Robbins insider. Before starting her current business, she spent four years as a saleswoman for Tony Robbins Enterprises, traveling the country to encourage companies to send their workers to Robbins' speeches and seminars.

She is not a detractor. But the market has shifted, she says. Faith has been replaced by the bottom line.

"Tony's event is the most phenomenal of its kind. And it's really interesting to see him influence people," says Turner, who has seen Robbins speak dozens of times.

"He's an amazing communicator in front of a room full of people."

But, she adds, the people who don't go to his events -- the people who represent the future of the success market -- might not be willing to hear his message.

"The people who are there, the ones who made a sizable investment to go, they're going to be excited and get into it," she says.

"But when you're talking about the people who don't go, well, it's hard to say how they feel.

"They might be more cynical right now."

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