Tears flowed freely one second, even as laughter rang out the next, signalling an unbridled roller-coaster of emotions that ran on loop as Tony Robbins stepped into the spotlight and claimed the night.
In that single moment, the thunderous applause from the crowd appeared to compete with Pitbull’s raucous voice, instructing the thousands packed in the Coca-Cola Arena on that balmy summer evening: ‘Don’t Stop the Party’.
Call him what you may, an author, a philanthropist or simply a life coach, Robbins appeared to accept all his titles, except for one: motivational speaker. “I am not a motivator,” his voice boomed out as he stepped into the crowd, flanked by two bodyguards on each side. “I am a strategist. I build strategies that make you the success story.”
A mighty claim, cynics would say, but Robbins isn’t all fluff. His long list of testimonials, as they continued to flash on screen behind him at the ‘Achieve the Unimaginable’ event in Dubai, featured powerhouses such as talk show host and media executive Oprah Winfrey, tennis great Serena Williams, Hollywood star Hugh Jackman and eight-time Grammy winner Usher sing his praises.
In case those voices were drowned out by the enthusiastic crowds, Robbins hammered home his popularity some more, name dropping and sharing anecdotes of two former US Presidents and a former Soviet leader who was instrumental in ending the Cold War (more on these later).
Achieve the Unimaginable
Towering at six feet, five inches and boasting a daily routine that includes running 43.45km, Robbins commands attention the second he steps into a room. His success story is one for the history books, even though his current life appears tangled in a web allegations of sexual misconduct, uncovered earlier this year in a BuzzFeed News investigation.
The self-help guru, though, has risen above the claims, continuing to dazzle fans on world tours where he advises followers to ‘Unleash the Power Within’. If you don’t know how, there’s a workshop for everything.
When details of the Robbins visit first broke on the news cycle, the pendulum swung between people raging against the expensive tickets (Dh2,499 for the lowest tier), to complaints that a midweek seminar made it challenging for those with jobs. But one look around the 8,000-strong crowd packed inside the Coca-Cola Arena gave an indication of people’s dedication to Robbins.
Individuals spoke of cancelling travel plans and journeying from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia for a day, just to see their ‘mentor’ speak live. The devotion was evident, as was the belief that lives would change overnight as an animated Robbins catered to a captive audience.
It can’t be denied that the robust 59-year-old is great storyteller. His tell-all tale of an encounter with former US President Bill Clinton had the crowd crooning over every word. “I received a call from President Bill Clinton one night saying, ‘Tony, I am going to be impeached tomorrow. What should I do?’”
This would take us back to December 1998, when the House of Representatives impeached the sitting US President on grounds of perjury to a grand jury.
“I spoke to him that night and figured it out,” continued Robbins. “I figured it was all patterns that had put President Clinton in this position. And it was fear that was stopping him from achieving the goal.”
What the goal was, or the advice is, we may never know, but we were certain that Robbins had more stories to share, like the time US President George W Bush senior rang the self-help guru one night to invite him to a summit and give the eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, a ride on his private plane in the process.
“Here was the man who ended the Cold War. I wanted him on that flight just to ask him one question: ‘How did he do it?’,” boomed Robbins.
Almost like clockwork, each famous story came accompanied with a moral — the lessons to conquer fear, to employ emotions as the ultimate resource, to ask the questions and change the pattern our lives have stumbled into.
The crowds appeared to hang on every word, standing up when Robbins commanded, dancing when he applauded and jumping to hug random strangers, even though the request was made without considering the cultural sensitivity of the region. While a few sat out some of the more ‘extreme’ requests, Robbins largely won over the crowd with a sales pitch that simply stated: “Your ultimate resource is resourcefulness.”
Alicia Keys and gang were on fire
The ‘Robbins effect’ may have taken root later in the day, but the spark had been ignited hours earlier as noted motivational speakers such as Abu Dhabi-based Palestinian Moataz Mashal, who spoke about reshaping lives through his ‘Shake Tool’, took the stage.
Australian Christian evangelist Nic Vujicic followed next, speaking about a life without limbs, with his sense of humour firmly in check. Vujicic, who was on his fifth trip to Dubai, spoke about combating the three evils in this world — pride, lust and greed — to overcome the odds life throw at you.
Prince EA, meanwhile, spoke of creativity, inspiration and thought-provoking content, even as he conducted a group mediation class.
The second headlining act of the nine-hour experience took to the stage mid-afternoon as 15-time Grammy winner Alicia Keys stepped up with her story of success and heartbreaks. Dressed in monochrome, with a saucy hat in place, Keys hit the first few chords on her piano as she nervously addressed the audience, saying: “This is the first time I am doing something like this.”
By ‘this’, she clearly meant narrating chapters from her inspirational life story in between performances. Her story began in Hell’s Kitchen New York, she disclosed to a spellbound crowd, as did her fascination for music. Walking to a train stop every day in her Timberlands aged 12 (in case she had to run, she said), Keys revealed she would listen to one song on loop daily, as she broke into the chords of Marvin Gaye’s 1972 hit single, ‘Trouble Man’.
The former child prodigy spoke at length of about destiny and faith. “I was struggling to believe that I deserved all the big ideas and all that comes from them. If there’s one thing, the question is do you believe that you deserve greatness?” Her insecurities also peeped through as Keys continued that even if you had the faith, “Finding people to believe in your uniqueness is not easy.”
Cue for ‘Girl on Fire’ to mesmerise the audience. Keys continued to share anecdotes of a lifelong left behind, talking about empowerment and motivating people to be their authentic selves, even when dealing with setbacks.
“You’re not the only one trying to find your way, trying to find yourself, trying to reinvent yourself, trying to find amazing energy and a life. Once you find it there’s no stopping you,” came her passionate speech, as her voice raised an octave to belt out ‘True Colors’ by Cyndi Lauper.
But her moment to shine came as she shared a saying told to her by a friend: ‘Jump and the net will appear’. “Would you?” she asked a captive crowd. “Would you jump knowing a net will appear? I know I would be willing to take a risk and ready for the rewards.”
As thousands of lights lit up the venue, her words echoed through stadium, accompanied by a deafening roar. It appeared they would.