Tony Robbins has been described as a motivational speaker, a best-selling author, a CEO whisperer. But you probably already knew that, right?
This was originally supposed to be an article about what entrepreneurs could learn from the new Netflix documentary on Robbins (lessons like “get hungry,” “ask probing questions,” “build consensus,” “be authentic”). It wasn’t until I got to the “authentic” part that I began to struggle.
It’s ironic the film was titled Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru because we never actually get to the essence of who Robbins is as a person (…besides not being a guru).
The emotional, two-hour documentary opens with Robbins in his element – helping one of the 2,500 “Date With Destiny” seminar attendees deal with thoughts of suicide. It then gives us a vague description of Robbins’ own painful past.
“I am a kid from Azusa, California, who did not have any f***ing certainty, but I was certain of one thing. I was not about to grow up and have a family that was gonna go through what I went through, and so I constructed this f***ing Tony Robbins guy. I constructed him. I created him. He was me, but I built this motherf***er,” Robbins narrates.
What follows is a montage of TV personalities (Ellen DeGeneres, Larry King, and Piers Morgan) rattling off Robbins’ countless achievements related to his books and seminars. I should add that we do later get a two-minute look into Robbins’ family life and learn that his mom was an alcoholic addicted to pain medicine — one of the few things Robbins publicly talks about when he mentions his past.
And that’s it for Robbins’ entrepreneurial journey. The rest of the film shines the spotlight on the seminar attendees, and Robbins acts as a “practical psychologist” helping them move past the trauma. It’s moving, powerful and emotionally charged, but you won’t learn any more about his personal life (past and present) than what has been written about it previously.
Full disclosure: I’m a pretty big Robbins fan. I’ve always been fascinated by his ability to ask questions, read body language, and connect with people on an emotional level in a stunningly short period of time. I started studying Robbins’ techniques by reading his books, watching interviews and listening to podcasts. I even met him when he came toFortune’s offices in New York. Yet I still feel like I know nothing about the self-made titan who’s been able to inspire millions of people around the globe.
It’s clear Robbins controls the narrative. He’s not comfortable opening up. It took filmmaker Joe Berlinger two years to convince Robbins to even let him do this documentary. For a man who has managed to live the dream so many entrepreneurs aspire to, we know remarkably little about his story.
Who is Robbins when he’s furious? What makes him insecure? How does he act when he can’t help someone have a breakthrough? When has he failed miserably? He preaches authenticity to CEOs, entrepreneurs and people like me, but at what point does the carefully-curated brand end and the real Tony Robbins begin?
It’s fitting that Robbins talks about the power of questions so much because one of the most powerful parts of the entire film is the last question asked in the last minute as the credits are rolling.
“What about giving people a better understanding of who Tony Robbins is,” Berlinger asks.
For the first time in the documentary, Robbins’ “f***ing certainty” strips away and he looks slightly uncomfortable. He shrugs, looks to the side and says, “I don’t know that many people give a shit.” He laughs and adds, “Honestly, if that’s what your film’s success is based on, I think you’re in trouble.”
Luckily for Berlinger, it’s not.