Tony Robbins has written four best-selling books, his various businesses earn an estimated $5 billion in annual revenue, and he’s helped millions of people, including me.
While I’ve benefited tremendously from his work, I’ve always been skeptical of the validity of his strategies. Tony’s books get me excited and motivated, but I never knew why they do. I never understood how reading books and thinking differently could change someone’s life. It all seemed to be a bit of hocus-pocus to me.
Studying psychology helped me understand why Tony’s strategies actually work. Evolutionary psychology tells us our brains have adapted to accomplish the goals of survival and reproduction. And our brains don’t actually need to know the truth in order to survive and reproduce, so our brains haven’t evolved to perfectly interpret reality. In fact, being irrationally optimistic at times may actually increase your chances of surviving. This is because our state of mind influences how we perform.
This knowledge yields both good and bad news. The bad news is that even if life is good, as measured by a metric such as annual income or any other common measure, your brain won’t know that your life is good with certainty. The good news is that even if things are bad, your brain won’t necessarily perceive that reality, either. This means that you’re not dependent on facts or real outcomes in your life in order to achieve an empowered state of mind. Here’s how Tony explains it in his book, “Awaken the Giant Within”:
“It’s not the events that shape my life that determine how I feel and act, but rather, it’s the way I interpret and evaluate my life experiences.”
“All your emotions are nothing but biochemical storms in your brain, and you are in control of them at any moment in time. You can feel ecstasy right now, or you can feel pain or depression or overwhelmed — it’s all up to you.”
“You don’t need any special reason to feel good — you can just decide to feel good right now, simply because you’re alive, simply because you want to.”
What you choose to think about doesn’t directly affect the results you can achieve. But what you think about affects how you feel and how you feel affects how you perform. Feeling confident, motivated, and optimistic can help you perform at your best.
Fortunately, you don’t have to only think about your current status in life in order to achieve a productive state of mind. You can choose to think about what empowers you and use Tony’s persuasive strategies to make sure these thoughts have a meaningful impact on your thinking.
It’s easy to believe that we make all of our decisions based on sound facts and reasoning. It’s harder to admit that we, at times, think irrationally. However, we’re all susceptible to cognitive biases that result from the way our brains have evolved. But while this may seem like a disadvantage, it can actually be an advantage. By influencing our interpretation of reality, we can improve our ability to perform in challenging situations, such as at work, while public speaking, or in team sports.
This article covers nine strategies I learned from Tony Robbins’ book, “Awaken The Giant Within,” the science behind why they work, and the steps you can take to incorporate them into your life.
1. Focus on what you want to believe
What we believe about ourselves is not solely dependent on reality. Rather, what we believe is influenced by what we choose to think about and choose to believe. “Our life experience is based on what we focus on”, Tony says.
He shares how this knowledge can be used for productive or counterproductive means:
“If you wanted to, couldn’t you get depressed at a moment’s notice? You bet you could, just by focusing on something in your past that was horrible.”
“If you wanted to feel like you were in ecstasy right now, could you? You could do this just as easily. Could you focus on or remember a time when you were in absolute, total ecstasy? Could you focus on how your body felt? Could you remember it with such vivid detail that you are fully associated to those feeling again? You bet you could.”
Tony takes this theory one step further, proposing that you don’t need to focus on reality. “You could focus on things that haven’t happened yet, and feel good about them in advance”, he writes.
Attentional bias is the tendency for our conclusions to be affected by our recurring thoughts. Your brain tends to interpret what you pay attention to as reality. Put another way, what your brain interprets as reality is not solely dependent on the facts.
You can apply this strategy by thinking about beliefs that will help you perform at your best. I write a gratitude list to avoid letting my adapted brain think I’m in danger, as it’s prone to do in order to keep me alive, and to remind myself that I’m safe, healthy, and capable of performing at a high level.
Do note that just because you focus on something does not mean it’s true, and just because you choose not to focus on something, does not mean it will go away. So use this knowledge wisely.
2. Give yourself evidence
Tony provides a powerful strategy for making sure that what you choose to think about resonates with your brain.
“How do you turn an idea into a belief? Let me offer you a simple metaphor to describe the process. If you can think of an idea as being like a tabletop with no legs, you’ll have a fair representation of why an idea doesn’t feel as certain as a belief. Without any legs, that tabletop won’t even stand up by itself. Belief, on the other hand, has legs. If you really believe, ‘I’m sexy,’ how do you know you’re sexy? Isn’t it true that you have some references to support the idea — some experiences in life to back it up? Those are the legs that make your tabletop solid, that make your belief certain.”
You don’t need to conduct a comprehensive market research report to get the data your brain needs in order to believe something. You simply need a few reference experiences to support the idea.
So, what are some of the reference experiences you’ve had that provide evidence that you can achieve one of your goals or overcome a current challenge? Think of a time when someone complimented you on your looks or on your abilities. Think of a time when you completed a project that you were proud of. Think of your past “wins” and successes to help motivate you to future ones.
3. If you don’t have a story, create one
Everyone’s made a mistake at some point in their lives. Everyone has something they’re worried about. However, ruminating on the bad things in life is only going to cause you to feel depressed, which will prevent you from performing at your best.
Instead of ruminating on negativity, Tony encourages readers to think thoughts that are empowering. Furthermore, he postulates that if you really need to get out of a rut and you can’t think of something positive in your life, you can make something up, and it will still have a positive effect:
“…we have the ability to use imagined references to propel us in the direction of our dreams. People can succeed if they imagine something vividly enough just as easily as if they had the actual experiences. That’s because our brains can’t tell the difference between something we’ve vividly imagined and something we’ve actually experienced. With enough emotional intensity and repetition, our nervous systems experience something as real, even if it hasn’t occurred yet.”
A study by Gregory, Cialdini and Carpenter supports this theory. The study found that salespeople selling Cable TV subscriptions who asked potential customers to imagine how cable television would provide them with broader entertainment were two and half times more likely to close the sale than salespeople who simply provided information about the benefits of Cable TV.
Affirmations are a powerful tool for reinforcing a belief. An affirmation is a statement that you repeat to yourself or write down frequently. Per Tony’s advice, don’t just affirm the facts, imagine your affirmation vividly.
4. Develop certainty
We’ve learned that what you think about influences what you believe. Certainty helps strengthen those beliefs and prevents you from losing faith. Here’s what Tony says about developing certainty:
“If you develop the absolute sense of certainty that powerful beliefs provide, then you can get yourself to accomplish virtually anything, including those things that other people are certain are impossible.”
Once you make a decision and commit to it, you will look for confirming evidence and reject disconfirming evidence:
“Remember, as long as you believe something, your brain operates on automatic pilot, filtering any input from the environment and searching for references to validate your belief, regardless of what it is.”
This strategy plays to a cognitive bias called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, or interpret, information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs.
While I’m not certain that having certainty can help you accomplish “virtually anything”, it seems that having certainty about empowering beliefs can increase your chances of success. Just make sure your beliefs aren’t completely false.
5. Use fear as a motivator
“Pain is still the most powerful way to change a belief”, Tony says. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, fear and anxiety motivated people to take actions that they need to take in order to survive. Humans of the past who didn’t experience anxiety in the presence of threats, would not have taken steps to avoid them, and would not have survived. Thus, our brains today have adapted to be fearful.
Tony provides an example of how readers can use fear as a motivator to quit using drugs:
“…if you want to develop a conviction never to abuse drugs, make the painful consequences of drug abuse feel real to you by viewing films or, better yet, visiting a shelter to see firsthand the devastation wrought by drug abuse.”
Tony further encourages readers to do it in a way that your brain will actually recognize and internalize: “Make the pain of not changing feel so real to you, so intense, so immediate that you can’t put off taking that action any longer.”
6. Choose your identity
The most powerful motivator may not be fear of outside dangers, but rather, fear of contradicting one’s own identity. Here’s how Tony explains this phenomenon:
“The greatest leverage you can create for yourself is the pain that consumes from inside, not outside. Knowing that you have failed to live up to your own standards for your life is the ultimate pain. If we fail to act in accordance with our own view of ourselves, if our behaviors are inconsistent with our standards — with the identity we hold for ourselves — then the chasm between our actions and who we are drives us to make change.”
Put more simply, “One of the strongest forces in the human personality is the drive to preserve the integrity of our own identity.”
Principle number three in Robert Cialdini’s book, “Influence”, is “Commitment and Consistency.” This principle says that when people commit to an idea, they are more likely to honor that commitment. A psychological theory called cognitive dissonance backs up the validity of this principle.
Fortunately, just like our beliefs, Tony says we can choose our own identity, too:
“You might ask, ‘Isn’t my identity limited by my experience?’ No, it’s limited by your interpretation of your experience. Your identity is nothing but the decisions you’ve made about who you are, what you’ve decided to fuse yourself with.”
And that view doesn’t necessarily need to be accurate, for as Tony writes:
“We all will act consistently with our views of who we truly are, whether that view is accurate or not. The reason is that one of the strongest forces in the human organism is the need for consistency.”
The facts about your own abilities aren’t the only thing that influence what you believe about your potential (and, therefore, your performance). What you think about your own abilities matters, too. So set high standards for yourself. Once you shape and internalize your identity as one that’s productive, it’s harder to break it.
In a recent episode of The Tim Ferriss Podcast, Naval Ravikant reminded me of the importance of choosing your identity wisely when he said “If you want to be rational and open minded you should not have an identity.” The power of identity is a double edged sword. It can also prevent you from accepting new, good ideas.
7. Reward yourself for success
In addition to fear, reward is a powerful motivator. “Any pattern of emotion or behavior that is continually reinforced will become an automatic and condition response. Anything we fail to reinforce will eventually dissipate”, Tony says.
The actual behaviors are not enough to keep us motivated. Our brains need to be persuaded, and rewards help to that end.
In order to execute this strategy, Tony advises readers to “set up a series of short-term goals, or milestones, and as you reach one, immediately reward yourself.” I like to give myself small rewards for small wins and big rewards for big wins. For example, after closing a big deal, I’ll go out for a nice dinner. After accomplishing something small, I might reward myself with something small, like sleeping in late the next day.
8. Move your body
Your state of mind affects your performance and moving your body is a great way to influence your state of mind. According to Tony:
“The state that you’re in at any given moment determines your perceptions of reality and thus your decisions and behavior. In other words, your behavior is not the result of your ability, but of the state that you’re in at this moment.”
Robert Cialdini’s most recent book, “Pre-Suasion”, shares extensive amounts of research to make the case that it’s not just a message that influences people, but the moment before that message is delivered, that determines whether people will be receptive to a message or not. In other words, to change your mind, you must also change your state of mind.
Tony describes how moving your body can help you achieve a more productive state of mind: “Emotion is created by motion. Everything that we feel is the result of how we use our bodies.”
Tony provides specific steps to take to use this knowledge to your advantage. He says, “If you repeatedly use your body in weak ways, if you drop your shoulders on a regular basis, if you walk around like you’re tired, you will feel tired.”
A workout won’t change the world, but it will change your body, and changing your body changes how you perceive the world. So, take time out of your day to practice movements that will boost your mood. Lift weights. Jump up and down while pumping your fists in the air. Hold your chest high. And smile!
9. Use optimistic words
The words you choose to use of course can’t change your reality by themselves, but your brain’s interpretation of reality can be influenced by the words you use. Tony writes, “The words you habitually choose also affect how you communicate with yourself and therefore what you experience.”
Tony describes how you can use this knowledge to your advantage by upgrading your vocabulary:
“Simply by changing your habitual vocabulary — the words you consistently use to describe the emotions of your life — you can instantaneously change how you think, how you feel, and how you live.”
When talking to colleagues, I often use words like “amazing” or “awesome” instead of simply “good” when they report good news. I also refer to failed experiments as “learning experiences” rather than “failures.”
You don’t need to change reality to change your mind. Our minds don’t have to rely on facts or outcomes in order to change. Rather, we can choose to change our minds, and doing so can help us achieve more desirable outcomes.
Fortunately, these nine strategies are all easier to execute than changing many common difficulties people face. While Tony’s strategies may sound completely ridiculous if you take them at face value, with an understanding of evolutionary psychology and cognitive biases, you can see how you can use them to persuade your brain into states of higher performance.
Most humans, myself included, simply don’t form our beliefs based on facts and reason alone. We form our beliefs based on what’s at the top of our minds, our identity, visual stimuli, fear of death, the desire to reproduce, and many more factors.
This knowledge can be used for good or for bad. Don’t brainwash yourself into doing something stupid. Use these to get an edge on achieving outcomes that you truly care about and are truly capable of achieving.