Toasty Toes at Tony Robbins Event

I actually like Tony Robbins, and I lean toward buy-in to the basic concept of motivational speaking.

The difference between believing you can do a thing, and not do that thing, matters. I’ve had amazing successes at points in my life, and terrible failures at others. Some of those amazing successes were attended by a deliberately positive mindset, some of the terrible failures were attended by aimlessly negative ones.

However, even having read several of Robbins’ books and listened to a number of his CDs, and doing plenty of nodding along the way each time, I have never even wanted to buy into firewalking.

Fire officials said 21 people at an event hosted by motivational speaker Tony Robbins suffered burns while walking across hot coals and three of the injured were treated at hospitals.

Despite being shy most of my life, I’ve had a surprising amount of ability to NOT do something everybody else was doing (among my Texas cowboy high school buddies, I was the maverick who chose a VW Bug over a Chevy pickup), and if I found myself at a Tony Robbins seminar on the beach in Hawaii (say as a gift from a friend; I probably wouldn’t spend the money — mainly because I don’t have it, but even if I did …), I would be one of the ones who stood by and observed while the more easily convinced walked out onto glowing coals. And burned themselves.

Because positive thinking doesn’t change physics.

The injuries took place during the first day Thursday of a four-day event at the San Jose Convention Center hosted by Robbins called “Unleash the Power Within.” Most of those hurt had second and third degree burns, said San Jose Fire Department Capt. Reggie Williams.

I get it that there’s this other possible lesson, that accepting a painful experience is a way to prove you can transcend that pain — a significant fraction of military boot camp appears to be based on the idea — and that this is a valuable lesson. I’ve gone through painful and exhausting experiences and learned you can overcome discomfort and keep going.

But damn, I don’t want to get burned — not by choice, not for any reason.

Besides which, I think the lesson being sold at these firewalk events is not that you can overcome the pain of being burned, but that if you’re fearless enough, confident enough, you won’t be burned.

Walking across hot coals on lanes measuring 10 feet long and heated to between 1,200 to 2,000 degrees provides attendees an opportunity to “understand that there is absolutely nothing you can’t overcome,” according to the motivational speaker’s website.

I suspect what’s been happening all these years is an Emperor’s New Clothes effect. People were getting burned but weren’t willing to make a fuss, because, hey, what attendee at a corporate retreat is going to admit he’s the only whiny pussy — right out in front of the CEO — in an evangelically brawny organization? (“Hey Scott, how are those little pink toes of yours, har har har!”)

I suspect what’s happening now is that the Emperor’s dick is hanging out and the kids are starting to point.

21 Burned in Walk Over Hot Coals at Robbins Event


For more on the subject, check out FtB’s theoretical physicist Mano Singham, who weighs in on the woo, and Cuttlefish, who has actually done firewalking (and expresses a slightly different take on it than me), and who also has a fantastic poem (as usual!), this one a delightful play on “getting burned.”

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  • Draken

    Skepdic has a fine explanation of how it works. But still, even if coals insulate, some of those 1000 degrees will end up on the other side of the insulator, and in your soles.

  • Andrew Hall

    I’ve had enough physical pain in my life, thank you very much, to go mucking about on burning on hot coals.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    I have never even wanted to buy into firewalking.

    That’s the problem with people these days, they’re more concerned with pain avoidance than in being macho. If Hank had grown up with a bunch of manly-men type boys, say in Texas, then he’d recognize the advantages of showing off in front of the other guys. He’d have heard the famous last words of the cocky grandstander: “Hey guys, watch this.”

    But no, Hank won’t walk across fire. Why? Because he’s afraid of burning his little tootsies. Real men don’t worry about third-degree burns!

    Seriously, I don’t understand why Robbins thinks firewalking is a motivating gesture. Is his next trick going to involve staying underwater for ten minutes to show that “if you’re fearless enough, confident enough, you won’t be drowned”?

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    an opportunity to “understand that there is absolutely nothing you can’t overcome,” according to the motivational speaker’s website.

    That’s what James Arthur Ray was promoting … mind over physics and/or physiology.

  • Hank Fox

    I admit I may be shortchanging Robbins’ seminars. The “transformational moment” that convinces you you can do anything you set your mind to, maybe for some people fire is the way to get there.

    On the other hand, one of my early jobs was at a company that contained three est graduates in upper management, and not only could I not see any difference in them, they couldn’t tell me what they’d gained from it.

  • Roxane

    There’s a whole industry of motivational speakers out there whose main premise is that everybody will be better off if they can somehow turn themselves into extroverted glad-handers, and that there is something wrong with being an introvert. After reading the chapter on Robbins in Susan’ Cain’s book, Quiet,” I don’t think I could ever buy what Robbins is selling.

    Plus, the “positive thinking” culture has been carried to such an extreme that it’s become another form of New Age woo, and is used as a justification for blaming the victim. Is your cancer getting worse? It wouldn’t be if the thoughts you were thinking were positive enough. Barbara Ehrenreich discusses this mentality in “Bright-Sided.”

    I’m not arguing that having a positive outlook isn’t a good thing; but I think a lot of people are making a fetish and a bundle of money out of the idea.

  • Nathaniel Frein

    Mythbusters did a whole segment on firewalking that very much echoes the information from Skepdic that Draken posted.

    On the show, the build team, knowing how the system works, all managed to walk across unharmed. When they had an unsuspecting Adam go across, he dug his toes in, panicked, rushed, and burned his feet.

    That says (to me, anyway) that going in not knowing how the process works makes the activity more dangerous than it should be.

  • Johnny Vector

    Well blame it on that 21st person across. Apparently the first 20 didn’t notice they had 3rd-degree burns. Or just sucked it up and kept their mouths shut. Or something.

    I mean, how the hell did twenty-one people get serious burns before they stopped?

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