A Critical Review of the Movie
I’M NOT YOUR GURU,
I JUST BEHAVE AS IF I AM
L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.
I have a bias as I begin this review of the movie and I want to make it explicit as I begin.
Namely, I like Anthony Robbins. I always have. From the first time I read Unlimited Power, I
knew that he had a real gift of explaining difficult things. Then over the years, it became evident
that he was a genius in marketing, branding, and entertaining. Even to this day, I would guess
that Tony brings more people into the field of NLP than all of the rest of us combined. Years ago
I had a front row seat as I saw how Richard Bandler treated Tony that caused Tony to stop saying
the three letters, “NLP” in public. That’s should not have happened; Richard should have put an
mantle of honor on Tony.
So what follows here is not a criticism of Tony personally. Instead it is a critique of his new
movie and its unfortunate message. The title of the movie is, I’m Not Your Guru, and it is about
Robbins and his work, especially the “Date with Destiny” program. Now to his credit, Tony
begins the movie by saying that he is not a guru and doesn’t want to be. He also explains to the
unknown interviewer that he does not have “the answer” to people’s dilemmas and that there are
many paths. All of that is good and I congratulate him on saying:
“Who am I? I’m not your guru. Not here to fix you. You are not broken.”
But … and this is a big but, in spite of those disclaimers, there are many things in the movie that
In fact, there are several things that Robbins does that will, in effect, actually
encourage people to think of him as a guru. That’s unfortunate. So unless Tony changes these
things, people will continue thinking of him as a guru and he will have to continue dis-avowing
that he is not a guru. To behave in these aspects —aspects that a guru would act— actually
argues against all of one’s disclaimers to the contrary. In writing the following critical review of
the movie, my objective is to use some critical thinking to offer some balance to Tony.
Now the movie is very well edited and produced. It is engaging and it is emotional. The voice
over sections powerfully tie together some of the interview questions while showing Tony back
stage or the thousands of people in the audience or the beautiful scenes in Florida. Overall, it is
very well done. And much that Tony presents is excellent. But in terms of the title about not
being a guru, the movie does not demonstrate that at all. In fact, I think the movie actually
encourages people to think of him as a guru. I’m here using “guru” not in the Eastern sense of
“teacher” or “master,” but in the sense of being a cult leader, someone so superior that people
treat him as an enlightened being.
If you want to be a Guru —
If you want to be a guru, there are certain things that you would do that would elevate you in
people’s thinking. Here are some of them:
1) Give No Credit to others.
If you want to be a guru and give people the impression that you are the source of all of your
wisdom, insights, and “magic.” Then give no one an credit to anyone for your message. Quote
no one. Mention none of your studies or where you got your material. And this is exactly what
Anthony Robbins does in the movie for nearly two full hours. In fact, when he encourage people
to go out and “teach one,” he refers to his tools and the tools that he has given them.
From the movie, no observer would have any idea that Tony learned what he learned from
Richard Bandler, John Grinder, and Wyatt Woodsmall. No would know that his first book,
Unlimited Power (1985) is essentially the NLP Practitioner course. For two hours, there is in
fact not a single reference to NLP. It is as if he invented every process that he has learned and he
is the source of all of that wisdom. But that is not so! Doing that is not the way to demonstrate
that, “I am not your guru.” It is the opposite. Do that and people will quote you and you only.
What else are they to think?
Yet within the movie itself are many things that come from NLP. In the opening scene, for
example, Tony does a pattern interrupt when he interrupts a young man’s pattern of hating
himself and wanting to hit himself. Tony asked, “Why you hate yourself so much?” There’s a
moment of hesitation, then he does a humor interrupt, “Is it because of the red shoes?” He looks
down at his shoes. “Those are fucking red shoes.” The young man smiles. Tony warns, “Now
be careful, you’ll start to enjoy yourself.” Other patterns within the movie that come from NLP
are Change Personal History and Collapsing of Anchors. But in all of that, not a single word is
uttered to give credit to NLP as the source.
2) Speak in Absolute and Global Terms.
As a great entertainer with tremendous showmanship, Tony is bigger than life, his “show” is
bigger than life, and he speaks about things in that kind of grandiose way. This both makes him
effective and equally makes him ineffective. He speaks using extreme language
statements. Who else would title a book, Unlimited Power? But power is limited. And no one
but God has unlimited power! He calls upon people to be is totally passionate. He speaks about
his program, “The Ultimate Business Mastery” about adding massive pleasure, adding massive
pain, engaging in massive action plan.
All this encourages people to think about him as bigger than life and about being cut from a
different clothe than the rest of us. If you don’t want to be viewed as a guru, sprinkle in some
down-to-earth language. Quote your sources, temper your speech with tentative words, avoid
absolute terms that polarize life into two categories.
By speaking in these over-simplistic ways, using over-exaggerated terms, and failing to speak
with precision— he leaves the impression that he has absolute truth. On day five from the stage
he poses the question, “Who has not had a breakthrough at this point?” Then he asks a rhetoricalquestion, “How could you not have a breakthrough?” After letting the question sit in the air for a
moment, he gives the answer. It was the theme of the day, “If you’re in your head, your dead.”
So he announced, “You are in your head.” Apparently there’s no other possibility or alternative
answer. Things are black or white; either or. There’s no middle.
Speaking about the lack of precision, he also uses the F-word frequently and commented later
that it is his way of breaking patterns and shaking people up by using outrageous words. He
shouts from the stage, “I’m fucking unstoppable.”
The advice he gives sounds right, but the problem is that it is so general that it doesn’t take any
context or constraints into account. When Sienna, a 19-year old girl, stands and says she has a
problem with her diet, he asks a series of questions and eventually she says that she’s looking for
love. Tony asks whether it was dad or mom that she didn’t get the love that she wanted— a
presupposition that he does not own as his, but presents as “the truth.” It was dad. He
announces, “She loves him, she just hates it that she loves him so much.” A little later he
announces, “As much as you hate what he does, he hates himself more.” Is he psychic? She
nods, so he must be psychic! Or maybe it is just over-generalized statements that could be true
of anyone, of everyone. “What if you called him and blame him for all these things. … You also
need to blame him for all the good too. Give credit for what’s great about you.”
From the stage he talks about problems and announces, “Your biggest problem is that you think
you shouldn’t have them!” He talks about the problems he had with his mother and that it made
him “the man that I am proud to be today.” So that seals the deal: problems are good. Of course,
what’s lacking is any precision about what kind of problems are we talking about.
3) Be a Fantastic Faith Healer.
Watching this movie reminded me of many of the old televangelists of the 1970s and 1980s, Oral
Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, and others. Crowds in the thousands, loud gospel music, charismatic
faith leader encountering a person who suffers desperately, commanding devils to flee, the person
falling back, swooning, God be praised! Even the music in the movie reminded me of the music
in those big events. And the movie ends with dimmed lights and Tony doing a hypnotic
induction to the music of Amazing Grace. Is this “The Church of Tony?”
Tony did that at the beginning with Matyas, a suicidal young man from Berlin, and then later
with Dawn, a young woman from Brazil who sold all of her furniture to come to the training as
her last hope. On Day three he said, “Raise your hand if you’re really fucked up! Someone who
is suicidal.” It was Dawn, the young 26-year old woman, who was still suffering from sexual
traumas from having grown up in the Children of God cult.
But the problem with the movie is that the suicide issue is treated as if it is solved once and for
all by an experience with Tony, and that’s it. Actually, I was surprised at these parts of the movie
because for years problems with suicides have plagued Tony. Once in Germany three people
who had attended his program committed suicide afterwards, it also happened in Australia and
other places. The over-emotional and over-intense program (which used to go to two and threein the morning) put a real strain on people already wounded by life and frail in terms of their ego-strength.
Like faith healers, the movie presents dramatic and intense “confrontations” that Tony has with
the people in the audience. He calls his “interventions” or “demonstrations.” He style is to go
out and find someone in the audience and interact with them in a way that seems incredibly
“personal,” and yet it is only superficially so. No one could “coach” or do a therapy intervention
in the way he talks and interacts with people. Well, unless you have 2,,500 people watching
you! Yet people respond quickly and dramatically! Why? Probably because they are on stage
with three thousand people watching! No wonder they are so responsive.
When he dealt with Dawn who raised her hand about thinking about suicide, afterwards he
explained that the solution “just came through me.” He explained that his own difficult
childhood set him up so his mission now is to save others from a horrible childhood.
4) Set Up Subtle Audience Response Rituals.
To “work the crowd” Tony has several processes that are both exciting and at the same time
subtly persuasive and maybe even manipulative. He repeatedly presents something and then
asks, “Who agrees with me? … Say Yes!” And with that comes a chorus of yeses. It sounds
obvious and innocent. Yet it actually taps into some of the power of group dynamics. Just
imagine hearing three-thousand people shouting “Yes!” Even if you didn’t say yes, you just
heard a whole auditorium exploding with “Yes!” repeatedly, that ritual will put you into a yesset. And the yes-set creates a subtle influence that predisposes a person to agree and value and to
avoid thinking it through.
Similarly when he gets people saying “I.” “How many are for that? Say ‘I’!” “Who gets
that? Say ‘I!’” “Who knows what I’m talking about? Say ‘I!’” The sound of “I” as a chorus in
an auditorium echoing around encourages people to take ownership of it and personalize
whatever was said or presented. Effective? Yes. Manipulative? I think we have to say yes to
that as well.
5) Always Make Everything Positive and Upbeat.
The entire “I’m not your Guru” movie is not a documentary although from the beginning of the
film it seems to suggest that. “This is the first time Robbins has allowed outside cameras to fully
document the six-day event.” Yet the film asks no hard questions, and it doesn’t present any
skepticism about anything. While there’s no indication what the Joe Berlinger Film is, it strikes
me as a video production company that Tony hired to create the “Date with Destiny” Video to
sell the program. In the end, everything is positive and upbeat. There’s no failures, no
downside, no “let the buyer beware.” There are no constraints or concerns presented. This is
good if you want to be a guru. It is counter-productive if you do not want to be a guru.
After challenging one young woman about whether she is getting what she wants from the
relationship. She shook her head no. He then ask her in front of the thousands to get her
boyfriend on the phone. When she let him know her dissatisfaction; the call did not end well.
He hung up on her. In a voice-over, the interviewer asked Tony, “Are you ever concerned about
giving the wrong piece of advice?” He says that he watches their body and what their body “tellshim is right.” “It’s true because her whole nervous system responds.” “I’m looking for what’s
real.” In this, he answers the question, not directly but indirectly: “I never give wrong advice.”!
At the end of the film in the credits, however, we learn Hali and her boyfriend have decided to
stay together. So, he was wrong. Hmmmm.
Conclusion and recommendations
The movie I Am Not Your Guru is a very entertaining film, well-crafted, and highlights the “Date
with Destiny” seminar. It will probably be great as a promotion for selling that seminar. It is
also a self-promotional marketing film and not a documentary movie and not from an objective
Most importantly, in terms of the title, it does not demonstrate that Tony Robbins does not want
to be your guru. In fact, due to the things mentioned, what it shows is precisely what would be
recommended to a person who wants to be seen as a guru. Now if Tony Robbins is serious
about not being seen as a guru, here’s what I recommend that he do.
-Quote sources, give credit to NLP for the original source of his skills. Invite people to
read or consult sources outside of himself.
-Temper the language patterns by using more precise language and less hypnotic language
-Present cautions to the audience and to the people he works with letting them know that
he is not a psychologist, does not have therapeutic training, and that if they are suicidal
they should seek professional assistance.
-Temper the anchors, temper the use of the reverberating “Yeses!” and “Say ‘I’.”
-Present some non-dramatic conversations and/or interventions so to convey the idea that
change doesn’t require big dramatic instantaneous transformations.
-Co-train with other people on his staff so that it is not all about him.
-Mention the trainers that he has in the room with him and the “staff” so that everything is
not about him.
1. In NLP the “command negation” paradoxically encourages the very thing that one is attempting to
negate. “Don’t think of blue.” So with “I am not your guru” it operates as a command negation, putting
into one’s mind “I am your guru.”