Anthony Robbins and the Quest for Unlimited Power
by Ron Rhodes
SCP Journal, volume 22:02-03, Summer/Fall 1998

You've seen his face many times while channel-surfing at night. Part carnival leader, part religious revivalist, and part cheerleader, "peak performance coach" Anthony Robbins has reached virtually millions of people--and generated millions of dollars in personal income--through his self-help seminars and the tapes he peddles on his wildly successful cable television infomercials.1 By the world's standards, Robbins has "arrived."

Presently Robbins owns nine separate companies. His corporate empire includes a management company for physicians, a luxurious resort in Fiji, a television production company, a nutritional products firm, a corporate consulting and private coaching business, and a seminar business that offers, on the low end, a "Competitive Edge" seminar (for a mere $199), and, on the high end, a nine-day intensive "Life Mastery" program (for a whopping $5,495).2 One summer alone, this Life Mastery seminar grossed $3.5 million.3 Attendees got to listen to not just Robbins, but also the likes of Norman Schwarzkopf and Deepak Chopra.4

Not content to do it all himself, Robbins has also franchised himself to some 45 entrepreneurs who have dished out $36,000 each for the privilege of presenting seminars on Robbins's behalf. That's a hefty price for a mere seminar business, but in return, they get to charge seminar attendees $500 to $1200 each. These Robbins clones stand at the front of auditoriums and dish out all the same ideas their mentor does. Robbins is not there, but he does make a brief videotaped appearance on a jumbo video screen.5

Not surprisingly, Robbins has amassed a personal hefty fortune, becoming a millionaire by the time he was 24.6 Besides the many millions he has made through his seminars and audiotapes (at last count he has sold over 25 million tapes7), Robbins's book Unlimited Power, first published a decade ago, has been a huge international bestseller in 17 languages. Since then he has written two number-one bestsellers--Awaken the Giant Within and Giant Steps.8 As a public speaker, he commands $60,000 per engagement. At his headquarters in San Diego, a dozen operators continue to take over a thousand calls per day, cheerfully accepting your money for any of the products offered by Robbins's lucrative companies.9

His most recent infomercial features a new updated product--"Personal Power II" ("Personal Power I" has been a hot seller for years). This infomercial features not only clips from Robbins's seminars in Fiji and Hawaii, but also includes interviews with such celebrities as Leeza Gibbons and Quincy Jones, who both testify to how Robbins's materials have helped them achieve both personal and professional goals.10 So far the Personal Power series has grossed over $150 million since its 1988 debut.11

When I began researching Anthony Robbins for this article, I expected to find that he had influenced many people. What surprised me was both the caliber of people and range of professions he has influenced. Earlier this year, Robbins met with Bill and Hillary Clinton to advise them on "the power of positive thinking."12 He has also counseled such luminaries as the late Princess Diana, former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, tennis star Andre Agassi, U.S. Open winner Lee Janzen, Sleepless in Seattle screenwriter Jeff Arch, and many others, not to mention the countless people in 43 nations who have attended his seminars.13

No one can accuse Robbins of being socially uninvolved. Last year, the World Junior Chamber of Commerce, made up of more than 500,000 members in 120 countries, awarded Robbins the TOYP (Ten Outstanding Young Persons of the World) Award. According to Business Wire magazine, "Robbins's work to create educational programs in more than 143 school systems, 102 prisons, and 48 youth organizations and his work with his foundation, which, last year, fed more than a quarter of a million people during the holidays on three continents, were among the factors of his selection."14

The Man and His Message

When Anthony Robbins walks into a room, he thrusts his feet outward, something he does unconsciously to compensate for his pigeon-toed gait. During his high school years, by his own admission, he was an awkward and clumsy teenager who was relentlessly teased by classmates. He did not like that. Some of his classmates no doubt reconsidered the wisdom of teasing Robbins when he grew 10 inches taller in a single year.15 He now stands six seven, and is many times richer than most (if not all) of his former classmates. Those painful years were one motivation for Robbins to engage in his quest for "unlimited power."

Today Robbins views himself as a "coach for success."16 He says, "My definition of success is to live your life in a way that causes you to feel tons of pleasure and very little pain."17 His goal for each person he counsels is a new liberating mindset encapsulated in the words: "At last, at last, the past is past, I've broken free and won. And now it's time to be healthy and really have some fun!"18

Toward this end, Robbins's tapes and seminar materials provide various techniques, strategies, and philosophies for empowering people to gain emotional, physical, and financial freedom. He says he wants to help people overcome the obstacles and cultural conditioning that have kept them from realizing their dreams. He seeks to boost their self-confidence and teach them how to influence others. Promotional literature from Robbins's firm boasts:

Anthony Robbins has relentlessly pursued personal and professional excellence by constantly identifying and refining the success skills of the world's top leaders and performers and has created multimedia programs to share these valuable strategies with you. That means you now have access to technology for human development unsurpassed in its scope, precision, and effectiveness. The technology focuses on increasing success and effectiveness in the areas of sales mastery, influence and persuasion, personal motivation, communication, breaking through limiting beliefs and habits, and physical vitality and health.19

With testimonies from people reporting positive effects in business, finance, economics, and even weight problems, Robbins concedes that his tapes and materials may seem like a "snake oil" solution--but he says it's all just "psychology made practical."20 He wants to assure you that this human potential psychology can help you become the master of your destiny, enable you to create your own reality, and help you to attain the wealth and success you have always dreamed of. In what follows, I will examine Robbins's psychological principles, and touch on some of his religious beliefs as well. It will be seen that there is plenty for the Christian to be concerned about here.

The Method of Change--Neurolinguistic Programming

The concept of neurolinguistic programming, or NLP, has been around for some 20 years but has only recently begun to gain attention. Originally conceived by linguist John Grinder and Gestalt therapist/computer programmer Richard Bandler, NLP--a veritable grab-bag of positive thinking techniques (including modeling and changing states)--has been popularized in recent years by none other than Anthony Robbins.21 Of course, a full treatment of NLP goes far beyond the scope of this article. But I do intend in what follows to address a few key aspects of NLP that are heavily emphasized in Robbins's materials.

Robbins explains the meaning of "neurolinguistic programming" this way:

The name comes from "neuro," referring to the brain, and "linguistic," referring to language. Programming is the installation of a plan or procedure. NLP is the study of how language, both verbal and nonverbal, affects our nervous system. Our ability to do anything in life is based upon our ability to direct our own nervous system. Those who are able to produce some outstanding result do so by producing specific communications to and through the nervous system.22

A key technique in Robbins's NLP grab-bag is modeling. This involves the idea that behaviors can be installed into a person much in the same way that software is installed onto a computer. Just as a computer language (like BASIC or PASCAL or "C") can be used to program a computer, so language can be used to program the human mind with productive beliefs and behavior. All one must do is pick a successful individual to serve as the model, and then imitate that model's thoughts, speech patterns, and mannerisms.23 By doing so, one can "rewire" the brain into a success mode of operation.

Robbins says that a key presupposition of NLP is that all human beings share the same neurology. This means that if anyone in the world is successful at doing a particular thing, any other human being can do that thing too so long as one runs his or her nervous system in exactly the same way as the successful person. "This process of discovering exactly and specifically what people do to produce a specific result is called modeling."24 By using such modeling, one can run one's brain in an optimal way to produce the results one desires in life.25

Robbins says modeling is a pathway to excellence:

If you want to achieve success, all you need to do is find a way to model those who have already succeeded. That is, find out what actions they took, specifically how they used their brain and body to produce the results you desire to duplicate. If you want to be a better friend, a richer person, a better parent, a better athlete, a more successful businessman, all you need to do is find models of excellence.26

Robbins assures us that such modeling can be a huge time-saver for us on the road to success:

In many cases, a person may have spent years of trial and error to find the specific way to use his body or mind to produce a result. But you can step in, model the actions that took years to perfect, and produce similar results in a matter of moments, months--or at least in a lot less time than it took the person whose results you desire to duplicate.27

An example would be a person who obtains a videotape of a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech. Robbins says that if a person learns to speak as King did, duplicating his tonality, voice, and tempo, he or she will start to feel a sense of power and strength like never before--just like King himself experienced. By modeling successful people, "you can feel like them in the flesh and even behave as they did."28

But NLP involves more than just modeling. Another related technique in Robbins's NLP grab-bag involves how to change one's "state" at will. A state, Robbins says, is "the sum total of all neurological processes within an individual at any one moment in time. The state one is in will filter or affect the final result of our interpretation of any experience we have at that moment."29 There are empowering states, such as confidence, love, inner strength, joy, and ecstasy--and there are paralyzing states, such as confusion, depression, fear, anxiety, sadness, and frustration.30

Each of these states involve a physiological element--such as a rise in adrenaline if you are in a state of fear, or a slowed heart rate if you are in a state of confidence. If at the moment you are in an empowering state, you will interpret experiences you encounter with an attitude, "I can handle this." If at the moment you are in a paralyzing state, you will interpret experiences with an attitude, "This is too much for me."

For example, if you are a salesperson making cold calls to prospects, the state you are in will affect how you treat each prospect. If you are in a paralyzing state (like fear), your conversation may be halting and timid. If you are in an empowering state, your conversation will likely be bold and forthright. One's state affects one's behavior. This is a basic principle in NLP.

Robbins thus asks: "What if you could snap your fingers and go into the most dynamic, resourceful state at will--a state in which you're excited, you're sure of success, your body is crackling with energy, your mind is alive?"31 NLP, Robbins says, can enable one to do just that!

Of course, Robbins realizes that most of the states people have involve no conscious direction at all. People experience something and then respond by going into a state. It may be a resourceful and useful state or an unresourceful and limiting state, but there is not much that most people do to control it. Robbins says that "the difference between those who fail to achieve their goals in life and those who succeed is the difference between those who cannot put themselves in a supportive state and those who can consistently put themselves in a state that supports them in their achievements."32

If you really want to be successful, Robbins says, you need to learn how to direct and manage your states at will. You must learn to internally "represent things to yourself in a way that puts you in such a resourceful state that you're empowered to take the types and qualities of actions that create your desired outcomes."33 Robbins assures us that "just as a movie director can change the effect his movie has on an audience, you can change the effect any experience in life has upon yourself."34

The key to changing states at will involves an NLP concept called "anchoring." Researcher Bill Heavey explains it this way:

Our brains can't really distinguish between imagined and actual events. So when you imagine the phone line going dead halfway through your sales pitch, your body experiences the event as if it were actually happening. Your endocrine system starts secreting cortisol, your heart pumps clumps of platelets into your bloodstream, and panic floods your body. None of this is particularly helpful in maintaining a cheerful phone demeanor.

But you can use this bug in your wiring for good as well as evil. Next time you have to make a difficult call, take a moment and conjure up a memory of some amazing personal success: the time you had the winning shot and the gym erupted with applause, the moment a teacher singled you out for praise in front of the whole class, the curtain call after your stunning performance as Pocahontas in the sixth-grade Thanksgiving play. Remember the sights, smells, and feelings you experienced when this happened and relive the moment.

This is called anchoring in NLP circles, and it fools your body the same way worrying does. Only this time, you're getting a shot of endorphins, euphoria, and confidence. Give me that phone. Now I'm ready to sell barbecue sauce to Satan.35

The point, according to NLP, is that you can use the power of the brain to change your internal state at will, and by changing your state, you change your reactions to external events (like making a sales pitch). Robbins notes that "all anchoring is a created association of thoughts, ideas, feelings, or states with a specific stimulus."36 With anchoring "you can create a consistent triggering mechanism that will automatically cause you to create the state you desire in any situation without ever having to think about it. When you anchor something effectively enough, it will be there whenever you want it."37

If you're making that sales pitch, by using anchoring you can bring about an inner state of confidence and calm based on an event in the past that was permeated with positive emotions (like a standing ovation you received after delivering a speech). And as a result of this empowered state, your sales call will be handled from a position of boldness and power rather than fear and timidity.

The Firewalk

One of the things that has made Anthony Robbins famous is that his seminars typically end with attendees walking barefoot across a 12-foot bed of hot coals. The goal of this practice, Robbins says, is to help attendees realize that indeed they can take action and do anything they set their mind to in life. The firewalk is a metaphor for "unlimited power." In Robbins's words:

The firewalk is an experience in personal power and a metaphor for possibilities, an opportunity for people to produce results they previously had thought impossible....People have been doing some version of firewalking for thousands of years. In some parts of the world, it's a religious test of faith. When I conduct a firewalk, it's not part of any religious experience in the conventional sense. But it is an experience in belief. It teaches people in the most visceral sense that they can change, they can grow, they can stretch themselves, they can do things they never thought possible, that their greatest fears and limitations are self-imposed.38

The firewalk helps people form a new internal representation of possibility. If this thing that had seemed so impossible was only a limitation in their mind, then what other "impossibilities" are really very possible as well? It's one thing to talk about the power of state. It's another to experience it. That's what the firewalk does. It provides a new model for belief and for possibility, and it creates a new internal feeling or state association for people, one that makes their lives work better and enables them to do more than they ever thought "possible" before.39

Firewalking, then, emphasizes that positive thinking is not enough; one must take positive action. "The greatest gift that extraordinary successful people have over the average person is their ability to get themselves to take action."40 "If you can make yourselves walk through fire," Robbins says, "what can't you do?"41

Robbins's Spiritual Odyssey

After reading the above, one might naturally wonder where religion fits into the picture in Robbins's scheme of things. Most of the time, Robbins lightly tiptoes around religious issues, apparently not wanting to offend anyone. But as I read through his books, there were clear definable clues indicating his openness to Eastern and New Age religious ideas. He does quote on occasion from the Christian Bible--but he quotes from many other sources as well.

For example, in his books he approvingly cites Eastern and New Age types like Marianne Williamson,42 Bernie Siegel,43 Deepak Chopra,44 Andrew Weil,45 Confucius,46 Mahatma Gandhi,47 Emmet Fox,48 and A Course in Miracles.49 Other New Age indicators involve his use of Native American chants,50 and his idea that mystical secrets locked in the right side of the brain can be unleashed using his techniques.51

In keeping with his New Age leanings is his religious eclecticism. On a number of occasions, he acknowledges many "great teachers"--including Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, and Lao-Tzu.52

In terms of his personal religious sojourn, he finally opens up toward the end of his book, Awaken the Giant Within:

In my youth, I was inspired to seek spiritual understanding when I realized that I'd attended only one church and been exposed to only one religious philosophy for the majority of my life. In high school I received a scholarship in journalism to attend a two-week program held at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. On that Sunday we were all given an assignment to write a story about a church service.

As we began to walk through the community, deciding where we would go, I found myself gravitating toward the church of my denomination. But along the way, I heard several of my friends talking about the Mormon Church we had just passed and how 'horrible' those people were. It seemed to me that people just aren't that deplorable; I had to see what was going on. So I attended the service, and saw that the Mormons loved God as much as I did. The only difference was that they had a few rules that were slightly different from my own.

This started my spiritual odyssey, which developed into a personal ritual for almost a year and a half. Throughout my eighteenth and nineteenth years, two or three times a month, I would attend a totally different type of worship: Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, Jewish, Buddhist, and so on. As a result of this, I truly began to live at a more spiritual level where I began to appreciate all peoples' spiritual beliefs. Even if I didn't subscribe to their particular rules or perceptions, I had a much broader base of understanding and compassion as a result.53

The important thing to Robbins, religiously speaking, seems not to be which religion is true or false, but the fact that one has a strong belief system in place. He writes:

Every religious book on the planet talks about the power and effect of faith and belief on mankind. People who succeed on a major scale differ greatly in their beliefs from those who fail. Our beliefs about what we are and what we can be precisely determine what we will be.54

Religions throughout history have empowered millions of people and given them strength to do things they thought they couldn't. Beliefs help us tap the richest resources deep within us, creating and directing these resources in the support of our desired outcomes.55

Robbins talks about the transformation of a drug addict to illustrate his point. "When this person develops the conviction that he is absolutely clean, that he's now a 'Christian,' 'Muslim,' 'Jew,' or 'Buddhist,' or now that he's a 'leader'--or anything else other than a 'drug addict'--that's when his behavior changes. As we develop new beliefs about who we are, our behavior will change to support the new identity."56

Aside from Robbins's personal religious beliefs, it is interesting to observe that his human potential seminars can take on a religious tone. Reporter Ann Merrill notes that "although Robbins told the crowd that the meeting was not a revival, several times the seminar mirrored religious ceremonies, from the initial greetings audience members offered each other to the times Robbins sprayed the crowed with water, some falling backward as if healed. The similarities didn't go unnoticed."57

Another observer noted the messianic, larger-than-life effect Robbins seems to have on many people.58 Still another observer suggested that Robbins's seminars are "the MTV equivalent of going to church."59 And still another commented that Robbins's infomercials have "boomed because the televangelists ran into problems." Tony Robbins and those like him "are the new televangelists."60

A Critique of Anthony Robbins: Slaying the "Giant" Within

Since my personal ministry (Reasoning from the Scriptures Ministries) focuses primarily on Scripture and its proper interpretation, one of the first things I always look for as I read any book is how the author uses Scripture. Perhaps the thing that bothers me most about Robbins is the way he completely takes Bible verses out of context to support his human potential theories.

 

For the rest of this article and the four other articles included in this edition of the SCP Journal, please see SCP Journal 22:02, Fall 1998: Sweet Lies II.

 

Ron Rhodes, formerly of CRI and who now directs Reasoning from the Scriptures Ministries, holds a doctorate from Dallas Theological Seminary and is well known in the field of apologetics through his numerous books (he is a Gold Medallion Award Winner) and frequent appearances in the media.

Endnotes

1 Ann Merrill, "Anthony Robbins Message Is Not Revolutionary, But His Presentation Is," Star Tribune, 3 October 1996, p. 01D, Electronic Library edition.

2 Art Levine, "Peak Performance Is Tiring," U.S. News and World Report, 24 February 1997, pp. 53-55, Electronic Library edition.

3 Doug Stanton, "Aren't You Glad You're Tony Robbins?" Esquire, 1 April 1994, p. 100, Electronic Library edition.

4 Mark Morrison, "What Motivates This Motivator?" USA Weekend, 10 March 1996, p. 12, Electronic Library edition.

5 Stanton.

6 "The Ten 1997 TOYP Honorees," Business Daily, 26 January 1998, Electronic Library edition.

7 "'Unlimited Power: A Black Choice' Studies African American Role," Sun Reporter, 6 February 1997, p. PG, Electronic Library edition.

8 "'Unlimited Power: A Black Choice' Studies African American Role."

9 Stanton.

10 "Anthony Robbins Rolls Out Fifth Personal Power Show," Response TV, 1 May 1996, p. 34, Electronic Library edition.

11 "Commercial Name: Personal Power II--The Driving Force," Response TV, 1 November 1996, p. 52, Electronic Library edition.

12 Gregg Easterbrook, "A Brief History of Management Consultants," Washington Monthly, 1 March 1998, p. 8, Electronic Library edition.

13 Morrison; see also "'Unlimited Power: A Black Choice' Studies African American Role."

14 "Anthony Robbins Named America's Sole Candidate for Outstanding Young Person of the World Award," Business Wire, 21 November 1997, Electronic Library edition.

15 Stanton.

16 Timothy Dougherty, "Reason to Believe..." Newsday, 10 October 1992, p. 46. Electronic Library edition.

17 Stanton.

18 Levine.

19 Promotional literature from Anthony Robbins & Associates web page.

20 Levine.

21 Hal Lancaster, "Small Fix-Its for Work's Frustration," Wall Street Journal, 21 July 1997, p. C02, Electronic Library edition.

22 Anthony Robbins, Unlimited Power (New York: Fawcett, 1986), p. 26.

23 Stanton.

24 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 27.

25 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 27.

26 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 29.

27 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 28.

28 Stanton.

29 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 418.

30 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 36.

31 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 36.

32 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 37.

33 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 44.

34 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 90.

35 Bill Heavey, "Easy Answers to Tough Work Problems," Men's Health, 1 October 1996, p. 76, Electronic Library edition.

36 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 316.

37 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 315.

38 Robbins, Unlimited Power, pp. 14-15.

39 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 44.

40 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 7.

41 Stanton.

42 Stanton.

43 Anthony Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within (New York: Summit Books, 1991), pp. 79, 164.

44 Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within , p. 164.

45 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 56.

46 Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within , p. 218.

47 Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within , p. 24.

48 Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within , p. 324.

49 Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within , p. 276.

50 Easterbrook.

51 Easterbrook.

52 Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within , p. 239.

53 Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within , p. 424.

54 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 16.

55 Robbins, Unlimited Power, p. 55.

56 Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within , p. 432.

57 Merrill.

58 Morrison.

59 Dougherty.

60 Stanton.

61 Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within, p. 320; Unlimited Power, p. 214.

* The Hebrew word chazown refers to a vision, a revelation, an oracle, or a prophecy derived from God.

62 Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within, p. 219.

63 Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within, p. 218.

64 Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within, p. 217.

65 Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within, p. 169.

66 Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within, p. 169.

67 Stanton.

68 Stanton.

69 The NIV Study Bible, ed. Kenneth Barker (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985), MacBible software, Zondervan.

70 Stanton.

71 See Levine.

72 John Ankerberg and John Weldon, The Facts on Self-Esteem, Psychology, and the Recovery Movement (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1995), p. 10.

73 Ankerberg and Weldon, p. 10.

74 William K. Kilpatrick, Psychological Seduction (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983), p. 40.

75 Dean Halverson, Crystal Clear (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1990), p. 85.

 

 

For the rest of this article and the four other articles included in this edition of the SCP Journal, please see SCP Journal 22:02, Fall 1998: Sweet Lies II.



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