God is dead. Schools are failing. There’s no such thing as a “community.” No one reads Milton any more. Greed is good. The Apprentice is a popular TV show. People feel “uninspired.” People feel “unmotivated.” They need secular gods who believe in God. They need those gods to be from the “world of business.” It is a world of success. It is a world that will make them rich and also their own boss. No one can get rich working for someone else. But to do that, they need someone else to tell them how. A guy who is a preacher but isn’t. You know, like Reverend Al Green. It'd be better if they didn't have a soul. Souls get in the way.
With all this in mind, I found myself in a cold, airless room at the Excel Centre in London’s Docklands. It looks like a Home Depot, but it's not, it’s the beginning of the National Achievers Congress, a three-day event featuring two of the motivational business industry’s heaviest hitters: deep-voiced celebrity life coach Tony Robbins and toupee-wearing Obama-botherer Donald Trump. Top price (Diamond ticket): $4,200. Bottom price (Bronze ticket): $40.
As I make my way into the venue, an Australian named Scott Harris is shouting things like “Decide today to achieve,” “Is it OK to have some fun?” and “We have literally created a smorgasbord of ideas” (the cuts of dry-cured social media marketing tips were particularly tasty). I’m surrounded by thousands of people who look like they’ve auditioned for The Apprentice more than once.
The conference’s tagline is “Decide today to Triumph!” and that’s exactly what these trans-Atlantic messengers of profit and self-discovery are going to help us do. It’s the morning of the first day, a Friday, and no one knows who will be talking and when. There’s a bunch of no-hopers (some jerk called “Lord Sebastian Coe”) supporting Tony and the Trump and one of the many sneaky tricks the congress organizers have pulled is not publishing a schedule. An official tells me this is because they “don’t know when Donald or Tony are showing up,” as if this is an exciting, spontaneous lark as opposed to either a sign that the big dogs don’t give a shit about National Achievement or a cynical way of getting the audience to stick around for every single speaker.
But it's all good, you really don't wanna miss the moment Lord Seb comes running in, decked out in full Olympic gear, pursued by Robbins and Trump on a bicycle made for two.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait too long. With “Carmina Burana” dissolving seamlessly into the Black Eyed Peas' “I Gotta Feeling,” Tony Robbins—“the leader who leaders call on”—comes bounding in, the audience ecstatic, screaming “Tonight’s gonna be a good, good night,” as if 9 AM were the new 11 PM.
He starts by telling us that if we are in this room, “we are not normal.” He is right. He tells us he’s been with “kids on the East side of London addicted to cocaine” and “millionaires in Hollywood addicted to cocaine,” and that his message of success always hits home.
Before I can adjust to this insane Tom Cruise-in
world, he’s telling the crowd to get up on their feet. “Turn to the person next to you, look at them, and tell them ‘I own you!'” He cries. We do what we’re told. “Now look at them and tell them ‘You rock!'” We bellow it at the top of our lungs. We know, because Tony tells us, that we’re in an economic winter but that most successful companies are formed in such winters and that soon it will be spring. We need energy because “emotion is created by motion.”
I don't know what this means, but everyone else in the crowd takes it as a cue to start dancing. This was basically the message of Tony’s six-hour, note-free talk: Dance like no one’s watching, love like you’ve never been hurt. Whenever he felt the “ENERGY” sapping, he made everyone get up on their feet and go nuts to Katy Perry or The Killers. When things were getting too silly, on came the string music, down went the volume, and up went the talk of “pride” and “belief.” If there was a chance people were falling asleep, on came “Call Me Maybe.”
For a bunch of people who spend their lives trapped in an office, there’s no greater thrill than being given the license to be a kid. Tony even addressed this directly, asking the audience if they ever wished they could just let loose like they did when they were a kid. Everyone raised his or her hand. Hello, pathos.
On it went. Tony had warned us not to go to the bathroom because we’d miss something. I ignored him, went to the bathroom and listened to a punter gush about how amazing Tony was. I told him I was mainly focused on not looking at Tony in the eyes. The punter looked at me, pity etched all over his face. Don’t you understand that looking at Tony Robbins in the eyes is one of life’s great and rare pleasures? he seemed to be telling me.
Back in the hall, Tony took us through the “seven forces of business mastery,” the main one being to create a breed of people he referred to as “raving fans.” “Don’t fall in love with your products, fall in love with your clients,” Tony told us. I could see him working in an Apple Genius Bar, gazing into the eyes of a mother-of-two as he waxed lyrical about all the exciting features on the new iPhone while knowing that, in fact, it was the mother-of-two who was truly beautiful.
The gimmicks kept on flowing. A man who spent 45 years running a café gets a round of Knickelback for his troubles. A woman who has run her own counseling business gets a “special hand” (enthusiastic, enforced clapping) and a blast of “Firework.” “Make the sound of love!” shouts Tony. The event cameraman cuts to a depressed-looking man. Everyone laughs except the depressed man. Business has its victims. Not everyone gets an insane handclap and a round of “Call Me Maybe.”
Tony claps a lot, but he doesn’t clap in the usual way. He prefers to batter his stationary left hand with his right fist while clenching his teeth in a fervent display of appreciation. Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” gets played for those in the audience whose companies made $10 million-plus this year (two people). Tony repeats phrases like an ancient storyteller. Every time he puts forward a proposition he shouts “All those in favor say ‘AYE!'” The crowd says “Aye.” By the end of the day I was saying “Aye.” At one point, he shows us a new Nike ad, in which he stars alongside Kanye West, Serena Williams, and Richard Branson.
You can see it below:
It’s appropriate because advertising runs through the whole conference. Every speaker is plugging their next event: Tony may be talking for hours, but he’d rather have you spend thousands of dollars to listen to him talking for days.
Then the ad steps up to Oxfam levels of intensity. A chubby, bald Italian-American man comes out and starts talking about how he was abused as a child. He was a troubled adult and then he read Tony’s book and his life changed. He followed Tony everywhere, listened to him talk and made money because of him. Then he had a child but the child almost died. He starts crying. He brings out a picture of the kid.
He says, just as emotionally, that Tony told him that the economy was in trouble, but that he–“like everyone except Tony”–didn’t believe it. He lost everything but he still spent thousands of pounds on going back to Tony’s seminars because Tony told him he had to make it. Now he’s got a new baby. It’s a Lear Jet. But, of course, “It isn’t just about that.” He walks off, hugs Tony, starts crying again. U2’s “Beautiful Day” blasts out. Tony exhorts everything to clap manically again.
The speech comes to end and everyone is destroyed. People tell me it was, "like seeing Usher or Beyonce in concert," that it was “a rock concert for business people.” The guy is in “constant beast mode,” others say. When I ask people why they come to things like this, a lot them say they feel uninspired in their day-to-day lives and that they need people like Tony and the Trump to give them energy and to inspire them.
I find this German man, who works for Tony Robbins, and ask him what the master has actually taught him. He closes his eyes like this for over a minute and then says that Tony has given him the “tools” to be successful. What are those tools? I ask. Our German friend isn’t sure, but he knows that they exist.
It’s Sunday, 6 PM, and the faithful thousands finally get what they’ve been waiting for. Donald Trump has stepped off his helicopter and is ready to impart some knowledge. But the swept-back American Alan Sugar isn’t Tony Robbins, he’s not a one-man machine intent on DELIVERING, he’s a bullshitting businessman who’s got bigger fish to fry and likes a bit of bluster.
He swoops in and talks for no more than an hour. He take a jab at Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond for wanting to build wind turbines, says things like “Success will never change” and “If you love it, it’s not work.” This prompts an “I love you!” from the crowd. “I love you too,” fires back Trump.
He’s worryingly likeable at times. He talks about The Apprentice: “Alan Sugar? He’s no Trump. But that’s OK.” “Some people in this business never made 10 cents except from speaking. They haven’t had any of those guys here, have they?” The organizers shift uneasily in their chairs.
Like Tony Robbins, he’s ripping everyone off; he’s just doing it in a lazier, less intense way. Tony’s all about the system, Trump’s all about the weak soundbite: “You have to think like a warrior,” he says. “I always hang around with people who aren’t successful because it makes me feel better,” he tosses out. “Get the best people and don’t trust them,” he advises, a wry and circumspect look in his eyes.
Even the fans are suspicious: “I expected something more structured and more serious,” says one. But this is just one in a long line of ego-boosting paydays for Trump. He shows up, tells the same stories, pockets his cash, and gets on a plane. If you’re expecting to learn anything, you’re an idiot, but the fact that he’s there to take advantage of these idiots tells you everything you need to know about him.
Outside the Excel Centre, the cranes hang high in the Docklands. The docks have gone but the new game in town is going strong and people are still being ripped off by the Thames. At this conference, thousands of people have been told that all you need to have is a good idea and that all you need to do is the right thing. But no one seems willing to tell you what the good idea might be, or how it might be arrived at. Though they are more than happy to tell you about the right things to do once you have it, and chief among those things is to come to places like this with a bunch of people who are just as lost and confused as you are, and pay some of that money you've been earning to listen to shouty men toss out shreds of off-the-shelf wisdom.
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow
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