Tony Robbins and Dostoevsky
I used to think that someone who calls themselves a motivational speaker and a life coach is almost certainly a charlatan and also a really annoying person to listen to. And I still believe so. But I decided to check one of them out when I heard Joe Rogan briefly mention Tony Robbins on his podcast.
You know, I had a friend of mine who was trying to do a parody on Tony Robbins. So he went and researched him, and he was going to listen to some of his recordings and listen to some of his speeches and his goal was to find what is stupid about it.
And then he started going “God damn this guy is onto something”. Was it Callen? Do you remember who it was? They were talking about it in here. I believe it was Callen. I think he was researching him for something that he was doing, and along the way he started realizing “oh this guy is fucking legit!”.
I had never heard about this Tony guy before watching that. But I proceeded to see some of his life coaching, and I was impressed with how he handled difficult situations. And then I watched him life coach Dawn, a 26 year old suicidal girl with a very traumatic past.
Let’s start by hearing her explain why she is suicidal. I happened to be reading Dostoevsky’s masterpiece the Brothers Karamazov when I first watched this, and I was struck by the similarities between that situation and a scene that takes place in the book.
We will watch Tony’s answer later, but before that let’s look at Dostoevsky’s version of a life coach: The Elder Zosima. Zosima is a greatly respected monk that people from near and far travel to seeking advice.
He is also placed in a difficult situation when Nastasia, a desperate woman who feels like she has nothing left to live for, comes seeking his guidance. Her intense frenzied gaze makes her stand out from the crowd of supplicants, and Zosima asks her why she is weeping.
She also mentions that she has just walked away from her husband, who she is sure has taken to drinking. It is three months ago, and she says she is “through with him, through, I’m through with everybody.
I don’t even want to see my house now, and my things, I don’t want to see anything at all. The Elder respond that she should weep, but she should also rejoice, because her son is in heaven standing boldly before the throne of God.
Yes you have lost him, but he is also an angel now. But she is not comforted, because her husband has told her the exact same thing. She just wishes to see him one last time, to hear him call “Mama, where are you?” and hear his little feet go pat-pat-pat.
Zosima’s final response to this is: He concludes by saying that it is a sin for her to desert her husband, and that she must go back to him. Nastasia’s final response is that the monk has touched her heart, and she will obey his command.
When I read this passage I was disappointed by the Elder monk’s reply. I want to make it clear that I am in no way criticizing Dostoevsky, especially not his beard. I think he portrayed the elder Zosima as a complex character with flaws, just like all the other people in the Brothers Karamazov.
At the time I could only have explained why I was disappointed with the Elder monk along the lines of “I feel Zosima could have handled that better”. But I got a much clearer view of Zosima’s shortcomings when I watched Tony’s reply to Dawn.
A miracle. You are truly a miracle. To have made it through that and be here in this moment, you’re a miracle to everyone in this room. And that’s one thing I know. Out of insane… insanity, out of pain, out of injustice… You have not be through pain, you have been through spiritual pain.
It’s beyond what most people could ever imagine in their lives. You haven’t deserved any of it. But out of that, comes unbelievable fucking strength, and you are tired of being strong, but you still are.
Tony does the most appropriate thing after hearing this painful story: hugging her. While it may not be wrong to speak right away, I think it would be a mistake to offer advice before acknowledging her pain.
That is the problem with Zosima’s reply. When facing the tragedy of the childless woman he offers advice right away, and on top of that the advice is something so common that she has already heard it before.
After a moment of silence sympathizing with her, Tony directs her to a path where she is able to find meaning in her suffering by having gained the strength and knowledge to help others. He also rather ingeniously tries to fix a problem with her personal life: she is 26 and has never had a boyfriend.
She thinks that for men she will always just be a sex object, and he tries to change that belief this way: There is men out there that are just sending you love, and that is all they want, is to send you love.
Just find a few of them that, when you look in their eyes, you know that they are not only safe, but they really are sending you love and there’s no agenda. I know, but I want you to look in their eyes and find the three that you know is true.
Him. Him? Okay, there’s one. The three men she picks will be her uncles for the next many years, contacting her once a month. Their purpose is to help her see men as human beings and not as beasts that behind all their smiles just wants to put their penis in her.
Now Tony Robbins has got incredibly rich doing what he is doing, and there are some instances of his life coaching one can find fault with, like suggesting to a woman that she call her boyfriend and break up with him in front of the entire audience.
But I do believe that his experiences growing up, his emotional empathy and absolutely insane amount of experience with people puts him in a unique situation to help those who can afford it. If we look kindly at him and judge him at his best, we can compare him to another character in The Brothers Karamazov, the sensitive and loving Alyosha.
They both speak of unconditional love, and are obsessed with preventing suffering. It is suffering in my own life that makes me not let anybody else suffer that I can possibly do something about. And I love to see people light up, but I will not let them stay in suffering if I can humanly do anything.
But it is problematic that Tony is so rich if he has an utilitarian ideal of stopping suffering for as many people as possible. Even when you have fed hundreds of millions of people, it seems difficult to justify having a private plane, and owning part of an island, when billions barely have food and shelter.
Still he seems to be a force for good, and who among us would not make all their dreams come true if they had the means? He is at least legit enough that there are things to learn here.