Motivation: Improvement is a rich gospel: Even by the standards of the US self-development industry, Anthony Robbins is a phenomenon

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The Independent Online
A GLANCE down the US best-seller lists reveals the American obsession with self-improvement. Even in such journals as the New York Times, 'how to' books vie with serious fiction and non-fiction for the top slots.

But even by these standards, Anthony Robbins is a phenomenon. His 'human development training' business, Robbins Research International, earns more than dollars 50m (pounds 34m) a year. His first book, Unlimited Power, sold nearly one million copies in 11 languages and the second, Awaken the Giant Within, is following it. Thirteen million people have bought one of his cassettes and more than one million have attended one of his seminars.

The result, of course, is that this 6ft 7in 33-year-old is exceedingly rich. Although his press biography says only that he lives with his wife 'on the outskirts of San Diego, California', he actually inhabits something more like a castle - complete with a launch-pad for a helicopter.

It is all a long way from the small apartment he occupied as a broke, overweight and miserable bachelor just a decade ago. This month British audiences are having their first chance to learn how he lived the American Dream in such spectacular fashion. His life is very much part of the show he puts on.

Those who have seen him, and many of America's top executives are among them, cannot praise him highly enough. They point to his ability to establish an instant rapport with the audience, his communication skills, his showmanship. The dollars 64,000 question is: how will it play here?

The organisers say they are happy with ticket sales. But even though our columnist Tom Peters and others have prepared the way with evangelical-style meetings, many British people may be put off by audience participation tricks like hugging strangers. Mr Robbins says he is aware of this. 'I'm here to learn as well as to teach,' he said, pointing out that he was about to meet David Blunkett, the former councillor who has overcome blindness to rise to prominence in the Labour Party.

He is just one of the many people who have triumphed in adversity that Mr Robbins has sought out. He has also met Mother Teresa, General Norman Schwarzkopf and Nelson Mandela in his quest to find what makes some people keep going when it gets tough. He clearly finds great satisfaction in meeting the better-known characters: 'Part of what makes my life so rich is being around extraordinary people.'

Although he means rich in the spiritual sense, it also applies materially. The interviews form the basis of the audio tapes that are sold at pounds 50 for a set of six.

That his fans buy these and the related products of Robbins Research in amounts large enough to make him so wealthy is clearly testament to his convincing style. But in conversation there is something pre- meditated about it all.

With a handshake as firm as he is tall, and piercing eyes staring out of a face that looks chiselled out of stone, he comes across like a cartoon character. And he cannot stop delivering the spiel.

Ask him a question about his background and you get some Oprah Winfrey-like description of how his childhood in an unhappy home made him want to do better. Ask him why he has begun talking to business people and he says it is a natural progression from individual development.

But slick as he may be, there are clear signs that he gets results. Since developing his 'Neuro Associative Conditioning' science in 1984 he has worked with Olympic athletes, politicians and business people. And he has won endorsements from such diverse people as the successful basketball coach Pat Riley and Sony Pictures chief Peter Guber.

Perhaps one of his greatest triumphs came when he became involved in the US Army's peak performance training programme. The aim was to reduce the four-day marksmanship course by half while increasing the success rate from 70 per cent. Although he had never fired a gun, Mr Robbins agreed to waive his fee if he did not produce results. He cut the training period to less than a day and increased the success rate to more than 90 per cent.

This sort of thing is achieved, he insists, by teaching people 'a series of very specific skills to break through limitations'. By getting them to overcome their fears - of failure, success, rejection, whatever - he says he is teaching them to 'change the way they feel about themselves and how to take control of their lives now'.

At a time when management gurus are preaching empowerment and managers are learning that the end of the job for life means they must take control of their careers, this is a large part of the appeal to business audiences, he believes.

'You can be a great person, but somebody making the decision (to cut jobs) might not know that,' he says, stressing the need for managers to make their presence felt.

Although he acknowledges that British culture is intolerant of self-promotion, he argues that it is important 'externally as well as internally'. This is because companies supplying essentially the same goods and services as competitors are only going to be able to win business by adding value. And the only way to do that is to have individuals whom customers can form relationships with. 'People with unique identities have less to fear,' he said.

What attracts the senior executives such as Mr Guber, says Mr Robbins, is the idea that something in what he says gives a competitive advantage. 'Most successful people are always looking for something to stay on the cutting edge. If you get results, they tell others,' he said.

The central message is that positive thinking alone is not enough. You need to have the right strategic direction. As Mr Robbins says, no amount of marching east will lead you to a setting sun.

'Tools of Strategic Influence' seminars are at Birmingham's International Conference Centre tomorrow (Mon 25) and at Wembley on Tuesday. The price is pounds 179 plus VAT. A three-day 'Unleash the Power Within' seminar, takes place at the NEC, Birmingham from 28 to 30 October. Price pounds 429 plus VAT. Details on 071-221 9096.

(Photograph omitted)