At a Lecture on Power, He Lost the Urge Before Surge

I’ve been going through this power thing with my editor and my wife and the trash collector and some Republican politicians, among others, so when a friend sent me a ticket to a lecture by Anthony Robbins last week, I was instantly intrigued.

Robbins, the accompanying publicity told me, has written a “national bestseller” called “Unlimited Power,” and he was prepared to tell me and anyone else who cared to show up at UC Irvine’s Bren Center on the evening of May 9 how to tap into it.

He would also explain how to “DISCOVER keys to Mastery of Excellence,” “HEAR how to Communicate with Confidence to Anyone,” and “EXPERIENCE how to Conquer Limiting Fears and Beliefs.”

Since I have some problems in all those areas, I went.


So, it turned out, did about 6,000 other people. Even the University of Nevada Las Vegas-UCI basketball game has never drawn as many people to the Bren Center as Robbins did. I had to outflank the worst traffic jam I’ve even seen on the UCI campus just to get out of my car.

When I finally got into the Bren Center, I was struck instantly with the remarkably efficient crowd control exercised by several dozen young men in white shirts, ties and walkie-talkies, men who had clearly done this before for Robbins Research International--the blanket name for Robbins’ operation. We were filtered through a single entrance and given no seating options. The crowd was a curious amalgam. About half were men in business suits and women in chic dresses, who appeared to have come directly from the office. The rest were a mixture of young and old, trim and tacky. There were a lot of couples and probably a majority of women.

By way of introduction, we were shown films of several TV news segments done on Robbins. The centerpiece is usually Robbins walking barefoot on a bed of hot coals, followed by a group of his trainees. I remembered seeing this on television but hadn’t associated it ahead of time with the evening’s program. The fire walk has become a kind of trademark for Robbins. He referred to it later in the evening as “metaphor for turning fear into power. If you show yourself you can walk on hot coals without injury, then you ask: ‘What else can I do that I didn’t think was possible before?’ ”

He was introduced by his marketing director, and we were asked to stand when he appeared. Everyone dutifully did, like greeting visiting royalty. The same kind of audience manipulation permeated the evening. Robbins--a 33-year-old dervish of animated movement and old-time-religion fervor, clad impeccably in white shirt, tie and jacket--constantly exhorted the crowd to action. We were asked to raise our hands in response to a multitude of questions, massage the back of the person next to us, clap our hands, groan, and shout in a kind of Messianic heat--and virtually everyone did.

I have a lot of problems with this sort of things--which I presume Robbins would see as an inhibiting character defect that needs correction. But Robbins’ enthusiasm and the hunger of most members of the audience for what he was offering made them totally malleable to his suggestions.

I’m hard put to summarize what he was offering, but it came off to me as Pavlovian show business, Skinner with a Spin--and I don’t mean to be flip. Robbins has taken two precepts generally accepted in the scientific community--that we have barely scratched the possibilities of the human mind and that one’s mental state exerts a profound influence on the physical--and metamorphosed them into a system called Neuro Linguistics Programming (NLP).

This appears to contain generous elements of Skinner’s behaviorism, positive thinking, Christian Science, physiology, “The Little Engine That Could” and an especially heavy dose of a technique called modeling. Developed by psychotherapists Richard Bandler and John Grinder, successful modeling can systematically produce the same behavior in a subject as the person being modeled.

Robbins combined an intensive study of these techniques with a driving need to be successful and the growing skills of a professional entertainer to create his company. Over the past decade, he has built up an imposing list of people--some quite well known--who say their lives have been changed by his teaching.

Robbins’ performance at the Bren Center alternated between lecture, jiving with the audience and demonstration. He asked people to tell him their fears and went through a great many before a young woman said she was afraid of animals. Then he asked if there was an animal in the audience, and lo and behold, someone had a seeing-eye dog. So he brought the dog and the fearful lady to the platform and went through 20 minutes of hand manipulation, what to me was totally incoherent talk, and exhortation that ended, finally, with the woman petting the dog. Maybe he changed a lifelong phobia or maybe she just wanted to get off the platform. I don’t know.

He repeatedly returned to the theme--scarcely new--that all of our behavior is conditioned by fear, and by neutralizing the fear, we can open up new vistas of living. He pointed out that we all say we would like to make more money, but subconsciously part of our brain is saying that more money might bring pain.

“So we have a mixed association in the nervous system as to what money means,” he explained. “The ability to do anything grows out of one’s ability to control the nervous system. Your state of mind changes your body’s chemistry.”

Although there was a lot of talk about money, it took him 90 minutes to get into his own commercial. He pointed out that we could take what he said tonight or read his book and put NLP into practice. But the system works much better with teaching and supervision. I didn’t get the full significance of that until I left early.

Almost two hours into the program, Robbins was still going strong, and I was giving out. He had promised to tell us the four areas we must master to change the quality of our lives but then got sidetracked, and I couldn’t wait. I presume he got to them since the auditorium still hadn’t emptied as I drove past it on my way home.

As I departed the Bren Center, several rows of tables had been moved into the lobby. The person in charge of each table was identified by a prominent name card. I asked one young woman what they were up to, and she said they were signing up students for an “Unlimited Power Weekend” to be held at Bren on June 8 to 11. It would normally cost $895, she explained, but if I signed up tonight, I could get $200 off. Each table had a credit-card machine to expedite the sign-ups. Since I can’t pass those crucial areas we need to master along to you, I guess you’ll have to enroll at the Power Weekend to find out--or perhaps ask someone whose staying power that evening was greater than mine.

I don’t think I’ll attend the Power Weekend. The first day ends in a fire walk, and I have this gnawing fear that if it didn’t work, I wouldn’t be able to play tennis for a month. So I guess I’ll look for my metaphors in a less risky place. After all, Jesus refused to throw himself off that mountain to prove his powers to doubters, and that’s still good enough for me.