Few arenas serve better as repositories of fluffy lunacy, vacuous pseudoscience and woo than the self-help literature and the rhetorics of motivational speakers, and Tony Robbins has certainly made a career out of being among the woolliest, silliest and daftest of them all. Robbins has even managed to acquire quite a bit fame and influence through his infomercials, seminars and books such as Unlimited Power: The New Science Of Personal Achievement and Awaken The Giant Within, works that scream “here there be no critical thinking but plenty of amorphous fluff to feed your confirmation biases” at potential customers. And so they do. Robbins’s writings are concerned with health and energy, overcoming fears, wealth-building, persuasive communication, enhancing relationships, as well as the pseudoscience of neurolinguistic programming (learned at the feet of NLP founder John Grinder) – to make sure that he obtains his trademarks he has even developed NLP into his own Neuro-Associative Conditioning, though the differences are too vague to be testable – and firewalking (learned at the feet of New Age guru Tolly Burkan). Most of Robbins’s writings are sufficiently vacuous to fail to reach the level of pseudoscience, and most of his gestures toward New Age Spirituality are sufficiently non-committal that one may seriously doubt that there are actual epistemic or ontological commitments behind Robbins’s rants. The concrete advice in Awaken the Giant Within really amount to little more than “get off your ass and do something” .
Robbins has, however, expressed respect for Deepak Chopra – a sentiment that seems to be mutual – and he has been endorsed by Oprah and Huffington Post.
Actually, Robbins doesn’t quite manage to avoid concrete lunacy (even apart from his forays into NLP), and it is displayed e.g. in Unlimited Power: The chapter “Energy: The Fuel of Excellence” includes information on food combining, lymphology, deep breathing and natural hygiene to promote health, and refers to the work of (“former partners”) Harvey and Marilyn Diamond. Robbins’s food woo is described here. Many of his metaphorical metaphysical sayings have also been taken to imply health advice, and he does have a curious attitude toward his own metaphors – i.e. he doesn’t quite get the metaphorical nature of his own metaphors. So when doctors allegedly called for him to “fight” a disease, Robbins had some trouble since he is a “lover”, not a “fighter”, concluding that “doctors don’t realize the hypnotic power of their messages,” and asserting that “it’s vital to bring hope to the table and give people the images and metaphors that will heal them.” That, readers, is as prime an example of motivational New Age bullshit woo as you’ll ever see.
He may, however, be most famous for his firewalking stunts, and I guess they may be summed up by “firewalking is not a particularly good idea” (or as it is summed up here). He has at least succeeded in convincing burned firewalkers at Robbins’s seminars to blame themselves for having poor attitudes.
Diagnosis: Tony Robbins’s advice is sometimes summed up as “it’s amazing what the mind can do” (that, at least, is the firewalking lesson). It is. Of course, the mind can’t conquer basic physics, but it is a bit amazing how motivational speakers like Robbins can convince people to blame themselves for failing to conquer physics. His influence is, in other words, a cause for concern.