Would you walk on fire for this guy?
When I was a kid, I read “The Face on the Milk Carton,” a young adult novel about a girl who discovers she’s been kidnapped from her real family by a woman in a cult. It was around this time that I became obsessed with cults?—?specifically, the people who joined them and the leaders who were charismatic enough to convince them to stay, even against their better judgment.
This past weekend, I watched the new Tony Robbins’ documentary, “I Am Not Your Guru” on Netflix. I’ve been hearing about “the cult of self-improvement” for years, so I wanted to better understand why normal people with normal problems would pay almost five thousand dollars for a chance to attend a six-day-long event entitled, “Date With Destiny.”
Full disclosure: I am not a self-help enthusiast. I have never tried “The Secret” and I’ve never read any of the books “For Dummies.” Until this past weekend, the only thing I knew about Tony Robbins was that in June, thirty people suffered minor burns during one of his events while trying to do a coal walk.
Before watching the documentary, I assumed the movie would skew one of two ways: one, a hard-hitting investigation of Tony Robbins and his methods as a performance coach. Or, two, a detailed accounting of Tony Robbins’ rise to the top as a self-help entrepreneur. As it turned out, the movie was neither.
“I Am Not Your Guru” follows Robbins during a week-long Date With Destiny event in Boca Raton, Florida. Robbins, who looks like what would happen if The Rock ate Ben Affleck, has more of a rock star presence than a performance coach. The lights flash as he takes the stage and he seems to derive personal power from the energy of the participants. He screams and swears his way through the motivational sessions, frequently reenergizing himself backstage by bouncing up and down on a tiny trampoline.
And yet, as easy as it is to be cynical about his tactics, there’s no question that his methods work. By the end of the week, almost everyone in attendance has had a breakthrough of some kind. And Robbins and his staff seem surprisingly conscientious about their work?—?in one scene, they prep for the next day’s session by going through forms to see which participants have been or currently are suicidal so they can assign a volunteer to watch out for them during sessions that might prove triggering.
Interestingly, the documentary does touch on cults, albeit in an unexpected and heartbreaking way. During one of Tony’s one-on-one sessions, he meets Dawn, a young woman who contemplated suicide following a childhood spent in the Brazilian cult, the Children of God, where she was repeatedly raped. Robbins’ interaction with her is one of the most impactful and meaningful moments in the entire film.
Self-improvement seminars like the ones Robbins and his staff throw are expensive and the amount of money participants pay to attend—coupled with their fervent devotion to Robbins and his techniques—can make the entire experience appear almost cult-like. But as Robbins clarifies onscreen and in the title of the film, he is not their guru. Their experience and journey is their own.
In recent years, the word “cult” has been appropriated to describe many things. The Washington Post, Salon, The Daily Beast and Men’s Health have all published articles exploring “the cult of CrossFit.” In 2013, Splitsider published a piece comparing improv comedy to a cult or religion. Under these new parameters, a cult is anything where participants spend time or pay money to pursue the things that are challenging or exciting to them.
I moved to Chicago in 2009 to study improv comedy. Since then, I have spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours taking classes and performing at theaters like The Second City and iO Chicago. I spent money on improv coaches and rehearsal spaces and plane tickets to comedy festivals all over the country. And what did I get out of it? Confidence, a few new skills to add to my resume and a set of guidelines for living life and creating art that I try to implement in my day-to-day life.
When we use the word “cult” to describe things like improv, or CrossFit or self-help seminars, we confuse the idea of cult with community. What people are really looking for when they take classes or do hard workouts or attend Date With Destiny is to connect with others and find some personal growth. Tony Robbins is not a cult leader, he’s just a very charismatic and talented facilitator.
The press has been largely critical of the documentary, and I understand why. The movie feels less like an objective investigation into Robbins’ work and more like a celebration of Robbins’ success. But I don’t care, and frankly, after watching the film, I don’t think you will either.