The Most Confident Man on Earth


How Tony Robbins talked his way into building an empire.

By Kris Frieswick
Photos by Peter Hapak

If Tony Robbins told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it?

Marc Benioff would. He did. Benioff first discovered the self-help guru as a 28-year-old. The aspiring entrepreneur was working at a big corporation when he began absorbing Robbins’s tapes and attending his seminars. Eventually, he credited Robbins with his decision to start Salesforce years later, now a $6.6 billion San Francisco enterprise behemoth. This is not uncommon. Robbins boasts a star-studded network of clients, several of whom, including Benioff, have seen their relationship with him morph from one of master and student to that of friends. In July 2012, while Benioff was vacationing with four buddies at Robbins’s Namale resort in Fiji, Robbins decided to show them something in the middle of the night. He shuffled them into his jeep, drove to a bridge, and then came to an abrupt halt in the middle of it. Below was a raging river. Robbins said they were all going to jump off to face their fears. “I’m afraid and nervous,” recalls Benioff about staring down at the water swirling below. “I have no idea what’s going on.” But he jumped anyway.

Robbins waited until they were in the water to tell them about the poisonous snakes. Shortly after he mentioned them, Benioff saw one swimming next to Robbins. “Tony didn’t seem to care about the snakes,” says Benioff. “But I did.”

What could have been a reckless game of chicken was, for Benioff, a teachable moment. “Tony turned that night into a seminar,” he says, articulating, in part, why high-power executives, politicians, and celebrities keep Robbins at the top of their contact list. “Tony realizes that the only thing that prevents you from focusing on what you want is fear.”

This has been the central message of Robbins’s long career. It’s the most ancient of all the common sense ever spoken. Yet when it falls from Robbins’s lips, people listen, and they have for more than 30 years. “When everybody’s unsure what to do, and there’s somebody who fucking knows, everyone pays attention,” says Robbins. “Someone who has certainty, even if they’re wrong, will lead other people.”

Known as the great commercializer of self-help, his otherworldly persuasive powers and brash brand of popular wisdom have grown into Robbins Research International, a life-coaching empire that includes a massive book business (15 million volumes sold globally), an audio business (50 million programs sold), a life-coach certification business, and seminars for which attendees pay as much as $8,000 to be in the same room with the man himself.

While the central idea Robbins has been peddling hasn’t evolved much over the past three decades, his entrepreneurial pursuits have. He’s leveraged that unshakable confidence and network into a diverse web of businesses, building and investing in companies as far-flung as asteroid mining, credit cards, hospitality, nutritional supplements, private equity, sports teams, 3-D printed prosthetics, and, most recently, wealth management. By Robbins’s count, he’s involved in 31 companies—12 of which he says he actively manages—which, he claims, generate more than $5 billion in annual revenue.

In late July, Robbins was in Traverse City, Michigan, for a film-festival screening of his latest project, a new Netflix documentary called Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. Reclining his 6'7" superhero-size frame across a hotel room sofa, Robbins shares what he calls the single most important bit of business advice he gives his clients—something he’s become adept at following himself. “There are always two businesses you’ve got to manage,” says Robbins in his deep-throated baritone. “There’s the business you’re in, and the business you’re becoming. If you just manage the business you’re in, you’re going to get knocked out by a new technology or new competition. But if you’re constantly managing those two businesses, you won’t have to quit or pivot, because you’re always doing something to innovate, or to change, or to improve.” In other words, the man never, ever stops.

But lots of people don’t stop. Lots of people run successful businesses. Lots of people offer sound, incisive advice. But none of them could get the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company to jump into a snake-infested river in the middle of the night. So why can Robbins?

ROBBINS’S ENTIRE BUSINESS is built on his insistence that anyone can learn to be confident, but the fact is, confidence appears to be native to him. As a 15-year-old in Glendora, California, he decided to become a sports writer after failing to make the baseball team. But instead of taking writing classes, Robbins printed up business cards proclaiming himself a sports journalist.

By the 10th grade, he had wooed a who’s-who from the sports world to let him interview them for the local newspaper, including sportscaster Howard Cosell, Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, and baseball Hall of Famers Tommy Lasorda and Leo Durocher. Even back then, it was clear in his writing that he was wired to be an agent of bravado. “PRIDE!” young Robbins wrote in a 1975 article in The Azusa Herald. “The word which stands for the most powerful emotion known to man. It has been proven to be unmatched in force. It can change anything!”

At 17, Robbins says, he attended a seminar by the motivational speaker Jim Rohn. He soon got a job selling Rohn seminars and it was then that he realized his own professional calling. It didn’t hurt that his personal story—which includes a revolving door of stepfathers, an alcoholic mother who chased him around with a knife, and a period of homelessness—doubled as a compelling origin story for his business, a tale he still emotionally unspools at his seminars decades later.

What ultimately put Robbins on the map, he says, was coaching a young swimmer who won gold at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Mike O’Brien was introduced to then-24-year-old Robbins after he’d made the U.S. team. The swimmer and his teammates had met with numerous sports psychologists, and the sessions he had with Robbins, he says, weren’t all that different—except for the physical presence of Robbins himself. “I’m 6'6," and I felt small next to him,” says O’Brien. “He exudes so much confidence that without even saying the words, he’s relating that ‘I believe in you. You have the potential to excel.’ So you start to believe it.” (O’Brien, however, also softens a claim Robbins has made: “Would I characterize his interaction with me as the thing that caused me to win the gold medal? No. Would I characterize it as a useful tool? Possibly.”)

No matter for Robbins. That unflinching confidence is something he never stops tending to. His mornings begin with a dip in a 57-degree coffin-size plunge pool; before he goes onstage, he jumps up and down on a mini trampoline, as if he were plugging himself into a human-battery- charging station. He also engages in another ritual he’s performed for 30 years: “I do a little shift in my body to get myself in a strong physical state, and then I say, ‘I now command my subconscious mind to direct me in helping as many people as possible today.’”

All that maintenance is vital for Robbins’s business, because confidence is fundamentally the product he’s been selling and perpetually finding new ways to repackage. Over the years, his mantras have sliced and diced the same basic message: Change your mental state so you will feel confident, even if you have no idea what the hell you’re doing.

That message has drawn in business titans who pay him a staggering $1 million a year for personal coaching. Clients include Peter Guber, chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Group, and financial trading whiz Paul Tudor Jones. Guber, who has been coached by Robbins for two decades, and become one of his closest friends, calls his counsel revelatory. “I have had many cataclysmic and painful failures in my life,” Guber says, emphasizing that Robbins “helped me overcome and move through them faster and more efficiently. I like the fact that the uncertainty doesn’t threaten me. It did threaten me before.”

Robbins has continued expanding his entrepreneurial footprint by turning high-profile clients into business partners. (See “Billion-Dollar Guru Machine,” below.) How he’s done that is a study in the psychology of networking. “My primary question is just, ‘How can I help?’” Robbins explains of his dealings with other people. “When you’re doing that on an ongoing basis, that builds a relationship, because you’re not asking for things. You’re giving all the time.” Clients who have become friends tell countless tales of meeting him at the end of one of his 12-hour seminar days—Robbins exhausted from giving out as much energy as a nuclear power plant to a room of thousands of acolytes—because he wanted to help with a project or problem, even at 2 a.m. “The secret sauce with Tony is that he recognizes that he’s not in the trans action business,” says Guber. “He’s in the relationship business.”

Ultimately, Robbins has created a lucrative virtuous circle: As his business and personal networks grow, he gains access to new ideas, opportunities, and relationships. He and Guber have since become co-investors in a Major League Soccer franchise. Jones features prominently in Robbins’s recent book Money: Master the Game. Joe Berlinger, the Oscar-nominated documentarian who typically exposes social injustices, was invited by Robbins to one of his seminars. Soon thereafter, Berlinger shot I Am Not Your Guru, an homage to Robbins. “When Tony works with someone he is excited about, or wants to invest time and energy into, he also wants to invest his money,” says Benioff. “It’s become a good financial strategy for him.”

Silicon Valley self-helper Tim Ferriss, another fan-turned-friend, says Robbins has outlasted so many other life coaches because he doesn’t just dish out advice—he actually takes risks. “Most have no chops,” says Ferriss. “They’ve never built real companies; they’ve never dealt with high-profile clients in high-stakes circumstances.” After all, most gurus would have no problem telling someone to plunge into a raging, snake-infested river. It takes another kind to jump right in there with them.

KRIS FRIESWICK is an Inc. executive editor.

How I Integrate Life Into My Work

THE BIGGEST ILLUSION people share with me is “I started a business so I can have more free time.” That’s like saying you had a child so you could have more free time. That is dumb, right? It’s another reason people fail. My view is that if your business is your mission, if it’s truly something you love and live for, it’s an extension of you, it’s like a child for you—then this idea of work-life balance is the biggest bullshit on the planet. Every achiever I know has more work than he or she could ever do. What it really is is work-life integration.

MY PREVIOUS WIFE, Becky, worked with me. That isn’t why I got a divorce—we’re still good friends. She was just a very different person from me. I was 24 when I married her. She was 12 years my senior and had been married twice before, with kids from both of those marriages, and I was really in love with them—I adopted them all as my own. If you could imagine, I was 24 with an 11-yearold daughter, a 5-year-old son, a son on the way [Jairek Robbins; see “The Guru Field Guide,” below], and a 17-year-old son who was a drug addict and alcoholic. At the time, my business was taking off and I needed to integrate those two things—my work and my personal life.

I DON’T THINK it’s a mistake to have your family be a part of your business if they really want to be there. Not that you’re asking them to be there or demanding it. I believe it’s really useful, because families often come apart if they’re not involved in the business’s mission.

MY WIFE, SAGE, is my executive producer and we’re around each other 24/7. I have a phenomenal relationship with her. You can’t work with somebody in business if you don’t have a great relationship already; it’s obviously gonna affect the business. She’s an acupuncturist, phlebotomist, and nutritionist, and in the beginning I thought, this is her deal. But she did things for me, and I did things for her. I brought scale to her. She was happy talking to a couple of people, and that would have been it. Me, it’s got to be millions of people I’m touching. So I taught her how she could have more impact, and she’s gotten me to consider even more the one-on-one coaching side of things.

MY WIFE IS NOT required to do anything she doesn’t want to. My biggest thing, for anybody I’ve been in a relationship with throughout my life as an adult, is I want her to be able to do whatever the hell she wants. I want to provide the resources for someone to do that, so she can do whatever lights her up. But my wife was lit up by the same mission that lights me up. —AS TOLD TO K.F.

Billion-Dollar Guru Machine

As a founder, co-founder, and investor, Tony Robbins has his hands in some 31 businesses—from asteroid mining to 3-D printed prosthetics.


With over 30 years on the self-help circuit, Robbins has amassed a Davos-worthy social circle

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah attended a Robbins seminar and afterward took part in his controversial fire-walking exercise.

Peter Guber

The chairman and CEO of Madalay Entertainment is a former client-turned-friend-turned-business partner.

Serena Williams

The tennis star credits Robbins with helping her repair her confidence after a severe injury.

Paul Tudor Jones

Head of one of the largest hedge funds in the country, Jones has been coached by Robbins for the past 22 years.

Bill Clinton

Robbins claims Clinton called him for advice when he was about to be impeached by Congress. His response: “Why didn’t you call me sooner?”

Arianna Huffington

The longtime friends partnered for an online series for the Huffington Post.

Ray Kurzweil

Robbins has been friends with “the Singularity” life-extension futurist for more than two decades.

Peter Diamandis

Robbins is collaborating on his XPrize for education and investing in his genome-sequencing company, Human Longevity.

Illustrations by David Wilson

How I Hire Employees

FIRST, we determine the DNA of each job, which shows us the personality we need for the right team fit, the individual skill set needed so someone won’t be learning on our dime, and the psychology of the person we need. We describe that in great detail.

THEN WE focus on: Can she do the job? Is she the right team fit? Will she do the job long-term well? We ask what her goals are and if she is aligned with the job.

WE GIVE our candidates a personality test that, among other things, answers the question: What is the person’s nature? Everyone is a mix of, I’ll use the shorthand, heart, hands, and head. Heart is your level of empathy. If someone who is completely leading with his heart is in a business meeting and we start talking about firing someone, his first focus is going to be, “Oh, what will that do to this person?” A person who is more hands-driven is more pragmatic. For her, it’s like, “How do we get this done?” And she might still have a big heart, but it’s really important to her that we don’t just go in circles talking about shit. A head person is systemic, so a systemic person wants to go, “Oh, slow everything down.” So the pragmatic person makes the systemic person crazy, the systemic person makes the pragmatic person want to kill him, and the heart-driven person is a sweetheart who seems to be off in left field. We all have all three of these qualities, and the test measures where they fall on a scale of zero to 10.

WE THEN give that raw data to the potential employee and say, “Circle everything you disagree with and tell us why.” It gives us a jumping-off point, because I don’t want to just be sold and I don’t wanna sell you on us. I want to have a sustainable relationship.

NEXT, YOU get interviewed multiple times in different locations, including your home. We want to see how you live. I want to see what it’s like to walk inside your house. I want to get in your car, because that tells me a hell of a lot. —AS TOLD TO K.F.

"If your business is your mission, then this idea of work-life balance is the biggest bullshit on the planet.”

How to Know When to Pivot

EVERY WEEK, do a meeting on the business, not in the business. Ask, “What business are we really in? What business do we need to be in? Who’s missing?” I don’t give a shit how successful your business is, you’ve got to know where you are in the life cycle of it. And where your industry is in the life cycle. And where the economy is in the life cycle. What it tells you is that in every stage, there are predictable problems, and if I could tell you where the land mines are in advance, and you can know where they are, you can go through this thing with the least amount of danger possible, and you can get through it the fastest, because you know where to go.

BUT 99 PERCENT of businesses have never even thought about it. No matter how good an entrepreneur you are, if you’re going to be the best at something, you’ve got to make it a study. If you want to be happy, you should study happiness. You want joy, you study joy. If you want financial success, you’ve got to study. —AS TOLD TO K.F.

The Guru Field Guide

A self-help menu for boosting any professional shortcoming

By Abigail Baron


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