For the past three decades, Tony Robbins has reached millions through his books, audio lessons, and presentations.
The life coach to the stars has personally coached some of the world’s most powerful people, including President Bill Clinton, and has been dubbed by Fortune “The CEO Whisperer.”
This week, Robbins’ first book in over 20 years, “MONEY Master the Game: 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom,” comes out. It’s a personal finance book that draws upon interviews Robbins conducted with 50 of the world’s most talented investors, including billionaires Carl Icahn and Ray Dalio.
Robbins tells us that he wants the book to bring sophisticated money principles to a mass audience, delivered with his signature inspiring voice.
We spoke with Robbins about the book, how he works with CEOs, and what he’s learned from them. We also got some insight into what makes him such an effective public speaker.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Business Insider: Why did you write “MONEY Master the Game“?
Tony Robbins: I wanted to do something that would help the masses. I’ve been teaching these principles for decades, but the system has gotten more and more complex, as you well know. There are just unlimited terms that people don’t even understand anymore. And because of the complexity, people don’t usually take action.
What pushed me over the edge more than anything else, honestly, was 2008.
I grew up really poor. I couldn’t answer the door because of bill collectors, our cars being repossessed, things of that nature. Just pure suffering for my family. Then 2008 happened, and I started seeing people losing their homes — you know, people that were really good human beings and now couldn’t put their kids through college or lost their retirement. And when the system hadn’t changed two years later, I became obsessed with watching every documentary and reading every book about how it occurred.
And the tipping point for me was watching this documentary called “Inside Job,” which eventually won the Academy Award. What was amazing about it was probably the best of all the documentaries showing systemically how a small number of people almost blew up the entire world economy. And the “punishment” was they got bailed out and put on the path to recovery. So that leaves you feeling either really angry or really depressed because there are no solutions.
I thought to myself, “You know, I have a unique gift.” Most people have no idea but for the last 21 years I’ve been coaching Paul Tudor Jones, one of the top 10 financial traders in the history of the world. This is a guy who in 2008, when the markets were blowing down to the floor, he made 28%, and the market was down 51% from top to bottom. Twenty years of being with him and he’s made money every single year.
So I thought if I interviewed 50 of the smartest people in the world and asked, “Can the average person still win? How can they?” then I’d have something of value for people. And that’s what made this journey happen.
BI: Did you have a specific type of person in mind as you were writing the book?
TR: When I started to do this, Paul Tudor Jones asked me the same question. I said, “I want to get everybody.” He goes, “Tony, you can’t take something this complex and get everybody.” But now he and Ray Dalio both said, “We’ve done it.”
What I really want to do is reach the millennial that might just be getting out of school with a huge amount of debt and they’re going, “How am I ever going to turn this around?” I want to reach the baby boomer who maybe took a hit in 2008 and they don’t think it’s possible to retire. And I want to hit the sophisticated investors who are like, “Holy shit, I don’t have $US5 billion and $US100 million to start with, but I’d like to know what Ray Dalio actually does so that I can add some of those tools to myself.” All three types of people can get great value out of this book.
BI: What’s the main takeaway you want to leave readers with?
TR: I want you to feel like you’re in charge of your life — and not just feel it, no. I want you to know that you can win.
Every form of power comes down to language. In law, there’s all kinds of words you don’t know if you’re not a lawyer and that gives them power. In business, it’s the same thing. If I said to you last year the third largest cause of death in the United States was iatrogenic causes, you might go, “Is that some form of Ebola?” No, it means physician or hospital induced. That’s the third biggest cause of death. Well why don’t they write that? Well, because it’s not to their benefit. The financial world is full of “iatrogenic language.”
I want to take what’s complex and make it simple so that anybody can execute it. I want people to read this saying, “I’m in command of my financial future, and there’s zero question I can be financially secure and/or financially free.”
TR: I don’t mean to sound corny, but it’s one word: results. If you get results, you can get anyone.
I got Paul Tudor Jones because I helped Pat Riley turn things around. He became the coach of the New York Knicks, and Paul was going through a difficult time, so he said, “You gotta talk to Tony.” Jones said, “I don’t need motivation.” Riley goes, “He’s not a motivational guy, just try him out, and he’ll turn you around.”
And then Paul led me to Ray Dalio, who was already a fan of the rest of my stuff.
And with Benioff, he got one of my products, and it changed his life. Then I started helping him grow Salesforce in the early days.
So, when you can produce results and you’re sincere and you’re committed and you can do anything you can to support these people, the doors open for just about anybody.
BI: In a general sense, what’s the main problem your clients have, regardless of their status or industry?
TR: I would say two things: Self-control and the threshold of control. Let me explain what I mean. Time is one of the biggest issues you’ll see. People just do not know how to maximise their time. If you’re going to be paid in the business world, you have to add value.
The way in which you execute and utilise time is everything. And most people push up against the threshold of their control. There’s a certain level they know how to manage, in terms of people, their activities, their resources, their results. And when we go past these, they get overwhelmed and have regrets.
The ability to connect and influence people, that’s the job of a leader. And we’re all leaders at some level. It’s not leadership by position that allows people to succeed; it’s the capacity to influence the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions, and the actions of other human beings.
So those two skill sets: mastering time (and mastering yourself to do that) and mastering the ability to influence. I think they are really critical. And they show up for just about anybody who is on a growth path.
BI: What is the main problem you see among CEOs?
TR: It’s two things. It’s threshold of control and engagement.
They’re engaged, but how do you engage people when you have an organisation that is growing dynamically at 20% or 30% or more? How do you achieve and have the depth of impact and have your culture spring from that and grow when more and more people are being added to it?
Or when you’re in an industry that is ageing, what do you do when the mindset of people is, “This is how we’ve always done it”? How do you turn it around? So it comes down to how do you engage, which really comes down to how do you influence.
And secondly, it’s threshold of control for every business that I’ve ever helped to turn around — whether it’s a multibillion-dollar company or it’s an army of three from a dentist’s office. How do you turn them around? How do you get them to grow 30% or 130% within each year when they haven’t even grown 5% prior? I do that by realising that the chokehold on the growth of any business is always the leader. It’s their psychology and their skills.
Whether or not [the company] maximizes resources, that’s the job of the leader. How do I get greater results using less resources? That requires an enormous psychology when the economy is changing, the technology is changing, and the competition is worldwide.
So the [CEO’s] psychology is 80%, and 20% is the mechanical skills. I look to see what aspects of psychology have to be straightened out in this individual, what skillsets might be missing, and then I get a plan to help them implement that and help that leader become strong.
BI: What is the first thing you do when you’re meeting a new client?
TR: I look to find what is it they’re after. What is it that they want? What’s missing? What do they fear? What do they desire? I would say that life is a dance between what you desire most and what you fear most. Because those are the limits of the human being.
And once I know what’s really driving them, what they’re really after, now I dig underneath and I try to figure out what are the obstacles. How much of them are skill-based, how much of them are psychology-based?
Then I develop strategies and plans of how do I lead that person to their own resources. Because if I tell you something, you can easily doubt it; but if you tell me, it’s true. So my job is to help that leader crystallize what they’re really after. Oftentimes they’re obsessed with the problem. Great leaders spend 5% of their time on the problem and 95% on the solution, but we all get stuck at times. Something can rattle us a little bit.
So I uncover what those barriers are, and then I develop a systematic approach to basically violate the limitations that they have, while having them be the person in charge to make that happen. And how I do it changes with every person in every way. That’s what makes what I do interesting, because it’s never the same. It’s never boring.
BI: When you did these interviews with some of the greatest financial minds in the world for your book, what was the most surprising thing you learned, and what were common themes?
TR: Yes, there were both common themes and great differences.
By the way, I asked for 45 minutes, but the average interview went three hours. Carl Icahn was the most extreme because I showed up with a video crew and he goes, “I don’t want the video crew.” He threw them out. I go, “Carl, you agreed to this.” And he goes, “I don’t care. I don’t want ’em.” So I said, “OK, let’s make it an audio tape.” And he goes, “No audio tape!” I said, “What am I supposed to do?” He goes, “Bring a pen and paper. You’ve got 10 minutes.” Three hours later, he’s my buddy. He wrote an endorsement for the book.
So what did I learn? Paul goes and shakes the building to find why they’re not maximizing resources — that’s his strategy. John Templeton, before he died, it was, “Buy when there’s blood in the streets.”
All of these people have completely different strategies in what they do, but what they have in common is all of them are obsessed with not losing.
Paul Tudor Jones has been my client for 21 years — I mean, he hasn’t lost money for 21 straight years since we started working. How do you do that? You’ve gotta be obsessed because you know when you lose 50%, you have to make 100% to get even.
[Warren Buffett’s advice mentioned in the book] came from Ben [Graham], his teacher. It’s, “What’s rule number one in investing? Never lose money. What’s rule number two? Don’t forget rule number one.”
That would be boring if that was the only universal piece besides the other one, which I find fascinating, was that they’re not giant risk takers, most of them. They believe in asymmetrical risk reward. It simply means they take the smallest risk possible for the largest return possible.
The average person goes out and invests a dollar hoping to make 10% or 20%, if they’re lucky — so if they’re wrong they’re in the hole majorly. Paul Tudor Jones [had a principle he used to use] called five to one. And five to one is this: If he invests a dollar, he doesn’t part with that dollar he’s investing unless he feels certain he’s going to make five. He knows — he’s not stupid — he knows he’s going to be wrong [sometimes] so if he loses a dollar and has to spend another dollar, spending two to make five, he’s still up $US3. He can be wrong four out of five times and still be in great shape.
Most everybody thinks that if I want to get big rewards I need to take huge risks. But if you keep thinking that, you’re gonna be broke.
BI: What is your biggest financial regret, and what did you learn from it?
TR: I don’t think I have any regrets, but I can tell you what I learned from mistakes or failures. I’ve had plenty of those. I just don’t believe in regret, and my economic world is not what I would ever have imagined; I’m financially free. How can you have any regret when everything worked out fine? But why I think it worked out fine is due to the lessons I learned along the way. And one of those involves listening to experts.
I’ll give you a silly one. I have a resort in Fiji, and there was a little company that bottled water. The bottle looked cool, and the water tasted really incredible — you could tell the difference. I hired a guy to give me research [on the business]. He was a so-called “expert.” And I said, “I think I can make an investment in this. I think I can get 30% of the company for half a million dollars.”
He came back to me and said they don’t have the resources or capacity to make it. And I accepted that. I look back on Fiji Water and anytime I grab one I say, “Holy shit!” So use your experts as coaches and do your own homework and dig deep.
BI: What is the smartest thing you’ve ever done with your money?
TR: I don’t think there’s one. I’ll give you three.
My first is investing in myself through education. I think self-education is the greatest and best thing you could ever make. Everything in life and business, you only earn more if you become more valuable. Because if you can do more for people than anybody else does, you can prosper. But you can’t do that unless you’re constantly educating yourself with the cutting edge. My whole life, even when I had no money, I would invest in education.
The second thing I’d say, and this is something I did early on, was the result of meeting Ken Blanchard. He told me, “Tony, your business will eat up whatever cash you have available when you’re growing a business. You’ve gotta take something off the table…and make that investment money you never touch.” And that money, quite frankly, at early stages in my business, when there are scary times, that money kept me afloat. I wouldn’t have had that if I left it in the company to eat up.
And the third one, maybe one of the more valuable ones, is early on I decided to invest in what I also enjoyed and what I thought would create a great lifestyle. I was just recently on a trip, with I won’t say who, but there was a multibillionaire on the trip with me. I flew in there early. He showed up almost a day late! The reason is he didn’t want to take his Global Express [business jet]. He was going to fly publicly, and then he didn’t even fly first class — it was too expensive so he flew business class. This person has more money than he can spend in a lifetime. So I thought to myself, “You’re getting older in age! What is missing?”
Early on, I just decided, “You know what? I want my family to enjoy this. I want to be able to give to people I care about. I want to go make an investment and buy a home for my mum who doesn’t really have much money.” The gift of that — she’s now passed away — brings me joy for the rest of my life.
I bought an island in Fiji when I was 24 years old. It was insane; I stretched. I bought it — it was just a little backpacker’s resort, but over the years I’ve built it into the top resort in the country, top 10 in all the South Pacific. Last year Oprah [Winfrey] rated it the No. 1 place to go. I’ve preserved that 525 acres; I’ve got three miles of ocean frontage. I’ve got this extraordinary place that gives me joy when I go there.
In the end, money should serve something greater than just money. It should serve you, your family, the people you want to touch. Money can’t be cared about — it’s got to be a tool that you use, because if you don’t use it, it will use you.
BI: You mentioned education. What are five books you think everyone should read?
TR: My number one is “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. And the reason is because what this man lived through in WWII, he was in Auschwitz, and he studied what made people survive versus the people who didn’t. [He offers] insight into how to find meaning in the middle of suffering.
I don’t give a damn how rich you are financially or how abundant you are with your family or love, we all experience extreme stress in our life at some point. It’s the ultimate equaliser. If it’s not you, it will be someone in your family, and so the ability to find meaning in the most difficult times, I think, is one of the most important skills of life and there’s probably not a greater example than that book.
One of my favourite books from the past that I often give people when they’re in a tough place because it’s so small and easy to read and so profound — I’ve read it at least a dozen times — is “As a Man Thinketh” by James Allen. It’s the whole concept of understanding that your thoughts really, truly shape everything in your life that you feel and experience.
I’d recommend “The Singularity is Near” by my friend Ray Kurzweil. I believe anticipation is power, that if you are going to have a great life, you don’t want to react to everything. Where the world is going and what technology is leading us to in terms of the evolution of humanity is an incredibly valuable thing to understand.
Another one I’d recommend is “The Fourth Turning,” or alternatively “Generations,” both written by William Strauss and Neal Howe. “Fourth Turning” is really a book that shows you how history goes in cycles. A thousand years of Roman history went through specific cycles. They still happen today. They happen in 80-year cycles versus 100-year ones. It helps people understand that winter is going to come, but winter isn’t forever. Winter is always followed by spring. And it’s how to take advantage of whatever season you’re in.
The last one would be [Ralph Waldo] Emerson’s essays. Earlier in my life those essays played a huge role. Self-reliance is a theme all human beings, especially those living in the Western world, have to fully understand if they’re going to do well in a world that’s changing constantly.
BI: Who have your mentors been? Is there one that you have now who keeps you in check?
TR: Your question is a presupposition that I need to be kept in check!
Along the way, I’ve had many different ones. My first mentor was a man named Jim Rohn. He was a personal development speaker that really touched my life. He’s the one who taught me fundamentally that if you want anything to change, you’ve got to change it. If you want things to get better, you’ve got to get better. And the only way to really do well in life is to find more value than anybody. So he philosophically shaped me.
John Grinder was the founder of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). He taught me how language affects the human nervous system. I made partners with him when I was in my early 20s. He played a huge role in my life.
Today I have several, but there are two main ones. The biggest one is Peter Guber, who is a dear, dear friend of mine. I coach him on things, and he coaches me. He’s the owner of Mandalay Pictures. He owns the LA Dodgers along with Guggenheim as partners. He’s one of the owners and partners of the NBA’s [Golden State] Warriors. He’s just a genius and for two and a half decades, he’s been a mentor for me. I’ve tried to be a good support for him as well.
And the other one is Steve Wynn of Wynn Resorts, who’s just one of the most brilliant human beings I know. He’s strong, incredibly smart, deeply caring, and loyal.
BI: Since you spend your career helping others, does it ever become difficult to work on yourself?
TR: Actually no, quite the opposite. Because to help other people, you’ve got to be able to help yourself. You go to a psychiatrist, and they’re on this Prozac, Effexor, and antidepressants, you may have picked the wrong person. If you go to somebody who’s broke who’s selling you financial services, that might not be a good thing. You go to somebody who’s fat to help you lose weight… And a lot of people ironically do these types of things.
But for me, it’s expanding the threshold of control. I can help someone grow their business 130% in 12 to 18 months only because I’ve done that with so many of my own and have faced so many challenges. Early in my career, when $US50,000 was my threshold, and I had a $US50,000 problem, I was like, “Holy shit, I might go under.”
And then it was $US1 million. And then it was $US5 million. And then I had a situation with some partners where people were not truthful, and I had a $US100 million debt overnight. And I realise, “Holy shit, I can handle $US100 million.” And that allows me to now handle businesses, with revenue all together, that bring in $US5 billion. You learn through time.
Things happen in my physical body, in my relationships. I’ve buried three fathers and a mother. I’ve had a doctor tell me I’ve got a tumour in my brain. And when you face those situations, they transform you, they change you, and when you’re able to break through them to a new level, they allow you to have gifts to give other people.
I can’t give other people what I’ve not experienced to some extent myself. It sharpens your game and also, like any athlete, you’re more fit because you have to be. You’re getting ready because you have a reason to. I’ve got a mission to help people improve and massively change their lives and create breakthroughs, so I’m always looking for them and I’m the first guinea pig.
BI: What was it like reaching a breakthrough with Bill Clinton?
TR: Well, my clients, unless they talk about the depths of what we do personally, I never speak about them. That’s why they reach out to me, because they get privacy.
But I can tell you, when he first called me, it was Christmas and I was in Peter Guber’s house in Aspen, and he says, “The President is on the line,” and I said, “President who?” He goes, “The President of the United States!”
I answer the phone and President Clinton came on. He was having a very tough time, and it was his first year in office. He had run on “it’s the economy, stupid,” and he had kind of lost his way with the public. And he said, “People told me I should talk to you. Would you come to Camp David and have a meeting with me?”
And I said “When?” and he said, “Tonight!” And I go, “Tonight! Mr. President, I’d be happy to do it, I’d be privileged to serve you, but I want to you to know I’m not a fan.” I’ll never forget, Peter Guber looked across at me and he was mouthing to me, “You’re talking to the President of the United States!” I said, “I’m not being disrespectful with you, but if you want someone to tell you what you want to hear, I’m the wrong guy.” He says, “No, I don’t want to hear that.”
While I may not have started as a fan, it was hard not to become one. Because regardless of politics, he sincerely cares about human beings. He is one of the politest, most scary human beings you’ll ever meet in your entire life.
So what did I do with him? I can’t tell you what I did with him, but I can tell you the structure.
The structure was the process of very quickly going deep. No soft talk. Just penetrating, provocative questions to get to what the real challenge is, and what the real opportunities are. And then unleashing within that individual their real resourcefulness.
It’s really a process of uncovering, being provocative, being real, being raw, making the environment safe, and then looking for the real answers and solutions and then developing a system, because most things you can’t just solve them through one conversation, you’ve got to create a system that causes that person to act differently, speak differently, so something differently than they have in the past in order to create a new pattern that gives them sustainable success.
BI: What year was that when you met Clinton?
TR: It was 1993, it was right after his first year in office. And then of course you know the story of his administration, and so I was brought in multiple times. We’re still friends to this day.
BI: You have one of the most-viewed TED Talks ever. Before you go, could you give us three public speaking tips that anyone could use?
At the most fundamental level, I really believe that you have to know and really respect your audience. That might sound basic and corny, but I don’t see it that way. I want to know, just like when I work with an individual, what do they desire, what do they hate, what do they love, what are they hungry for, what’s missing?
Because the more you understand what somebody wants, needs, and fears, the more you can figure out how to add value. I do my homework about the company, individuals in the company, leaders in the company, so I dig in. I interview people. I have a team of people who do homework for me, as well.
The second thing is to add more value than anybody would ever expect. That’s what will make you memorable. That only comes about, truly, when you understand those people and when you’re willing to live by the rule that I have: “Don’t ever speak publicly about anything that you’re not passionate about and that you don’t actually believe you have something truly unique about it to deliver.” Don’t get roped into talking about something that you don’t really have passion for, and don’t get roped into something you don’t have expertise in. Why should somebody listen to you? If you’re going to take somebody’s time, you better deliver.
And then thirdly, you’ve really got to touch their heart, not just their head. We’ve all been put to sleep by somebody who’s told us all these wonderful facts that didn’t matter because information without emotion is not retained. What you are as a communicator from the front of the room is you’re emotional transportation. That’s what a movie does, that’s what music does, it transports us from one state of being to another. And if I said to you, for example, “Where were you on 9/11?” You remember where you were, the moment you heard, am I right?
You’ve got to bring the emotion, and you have to understand that you can’t touch other people if you’re not touched. You can’t move other people if you’re not moved. So if you’re just giving some frickin talk you’ve memorized over and over again, you’re going to have a flat affect. If you’ve just got a bunch of visuals on the screen that are leading your talk, hang up your shoes and get the hell out of there.
You need to be in the moment and flexible to make it real and raw. You’ll enjoy it, they will enjoy it, and you’ll be memorable.
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