Tony Robbins, the famous personal improvement guru who cheered up Bill Clinton in his times of Monica-Lewinsky embarrassment, is teaming up with Arianna Huffington to promote Robbins’ new reality-TV show, Breakthrough. Call me naive or stupid, but Tony Robbins seems to me like a person with the heart in the right place. Yet, I have a huge issue with his approach to tackling personal problems. Quickly jotted, here’s why:
The problems we face individually, to the extent they are not the result of our insufficient ability to conform nature to our designs (including here our own human nature) — i.e. to the extent these problems don’t simply reflect our always finite productivity or the limits of our technological and scientific level (what economists call “scarcity”) — are human-made in a collective fashion.
Another way to put this is to say that the constraints we face individually (the conditions that enable but also limit what one can achieve) result largely from our own collective actions, i.e. the actions of others as they clash with one’s own actions. All these individual actions aggregate socially and appear to us as hardened as a block of armed concrete. They are what we commonly refer as the outcomes of “markets,” “governments,” and other social institutions; things like “prices,” “policies,” “unemployment rates,” “interest rates,” etc. To those of us who are not Ben Bernanke (and that’s assuming away a nasty liquidity trap), the interest rate is not a choice, it’s rather as hardened a fact of life as the law of gravity.
No matter how much we may believe that mind rules over matter, very few people are willing to test the law of gravity by doing bungee jumping without a bungee. These social obstacles are not simply figments in one’s imagination that one can individually will away. To repeat: they result from the combined actions of many. Therefore, only the concerted actions of many will alter or dismantle them.
What makes things worse is the fact that the social conditions that exist (the outcomes of our social institutions) are not equal-opportunity providers. They benefit some at the expense of others. We cannot just think “win-win” and abolish this nasty reality. There are limits to the Kumbaya approach. The status quo vests and reinforces the interest of those who benefit from it. It is a chicken-and-egg dynamics, since these benefits accrue in the form of wealth and power, then the beneficiaries (typically, a very small minority) are able to resist change with all they have, which is precisely all their wealth and power!
If, at the public expense, our politicians give freebies to Boeing, GE, Lockheed Martin, Halliburton, and Exxon-Mobile, in the form of military contracts, concessions, tax breaks, or what-have-you, then one can be sure that Boeing, GE, Lockheed Martin, Halliburton, and Exxon-Mobile will promote the best politicians their money can buy, those politicians that once in office will ensure them more freebies at our expense. Only forceful (and smart) collective actions can challenge and unhinge those vested interests. But then we have to be willing to do “whatever it takes” (one of those phrases Tony Robbins likes) collectively to uproot those politicians, their policies, the ideas that they use to rationalize their policies, and even — if they’ve been corrupted beyond repair — the existing political and social institutions in which those vested interests have entrenched themselves.
In this context, when the institutional framework in which we live and work pits us against one another, the kind of personal-improvement technology that gurus like Robbins hone and sell leads to a situation in which the successes of some are cancelled out by the successes of others, in a sort of arms race. Pushed to its conceivable limit, if we all follow Tony Robbins’ advice at once, if we all “awaken the giants” we hold within, the result will only be our fastest, most effective mutual annihilation!
So, we need to dismantle the social, institutional framework that pits us against one another. And for that, we need to tackle our social problems collectively, through cooperation. But not cooperation with everybody, because — again — a small minority is expected to put up a nasty fight. They will not only refuse to cooperate in advancing the common good, but they will actively sabotage our attempts to do so. They will seek to divide us in order to rule us. The sardine cannot cooperate with the shark and live to tell the story — and I know that we shouldn’t view ourselves as mere sardines, because then we will be inviting the sharks to have us for lunch.
We have to struggle. We may have to start by cooperating and struggling within or through the existing social institutions, if only to demonstrate ourselves that we have not accepted passively our fate as mere clogs in the machine. I guess some of us will start by getting more involved in pitiful institutions like the ineffable Democratic Party. But at some point we should realize that many of those institutions are simply not reformable — that they are part of the problem, not part of the solution. That means that at a point, we will need to discard them and build new institutions that can advance our struggle and not sabotage it.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we don’t need to use all our individual power and initiative. I’m not saying that one’s individual mental disposition does not matter. Of course, it matters. We do need to “awaken the giant” within each of us. I know that if we see ourselves defeated, then we are defeated already. If we see ourselves as victors, then our victory will not be guaranteed, but we will significantly increase the chances of winning. But individual psychology is not sufficient. We need serious historical awareness as well as hard-nosed sociological, political, and economic analysis. If one looks at the bigger picture, it is clear that, ultimately, we can only succeed individually if we succeed collectively — and vice versa. The status quo excretes the individual success of the few at the expense of the individual failure of the many. “Succeeding” individually at each other’s expense is failing collectively!
Something tells me that people like Tony Hayward (BP’s CEO), Lloyd Blankfein (GS’ CEO), or Dick Cheney (Halliburton’s former CEO) have read well Napoleon Hill’s, Wayne Dyer’s, Stephen Covey’s, and Tony Robbins’ books. Judging by how “effective” they have been in their personal lives, I would not doubt that they visualize every day their “results” or “outcomes,” rationalize them, and fuel the pursuit of their goals with as much passion as they can personally harness. Clearly, to amass the power and wealth they have amassed, they must have developed and executed masterful MAPs (“massive action plans”). Unfortunately, they accomplished all their haughty goals at the expense of most everybody else! To use another example: How does it help us to make “our” soldiers more “effective” if they are going to be used to wage the wrong wars?
So, by all means, let’s follow Tony Robbins’ advice and visualize our “results,” individually — but also and more importantly collectively, through genuine democratic processes. Let’s come up with very powerful individual, gut-level reasons (“purposes” as Tony calls them) to fight and change the lousy conditions in which we work and live — but let’s also recognize that the main reason why we need to change society is because business-as-usual is an unforgivable waste of our humanity. And humanity is really all we have. And finally, let’s devise a true MAP. But let that MAP be “massive” not only in the sense that one individually commits to taking many actions in a short period of time, but in the sense that we commit to involving the mass, the majority of us in this struggle, the majority of us who don’t live off accumulated wealth or vested power, but off a wage or a salary, and with shameless affirmative action in favor of the poorest and most vulnerable among us.
If we keep matters in terms of personal psychology, personal responsibility, and the like, Tony Robbins’ piecemeal approach will remain pretense or will end up reinforcing the social garbage in which we now swim. Because the “solution” to one’s individual problems without consideration for our collective problems, without concern for the big picture, will prove to be illusory if not purposefully deceitful — pseudo-solutions purchased at the price of creating more and worse problems for the rest of us.