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How Tony Robbins Overcame His 5 Biggest Setbacks

Your past is past, your future is unwritten.
How Tony Robbins Overcame His 5 Biggest Setbacks
Image credit: Dave Kotinsky | Getty Images

Tony Robbins has been called “the CEO whisperer.” He’s coached everyone from Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey to Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela and is held in awe by blokes and billionaires. Perhaps no other life and career coach today can make that claim.

Robbins is so successful, in fact, that he has quietly built an empire of companies that generate around $5 billion per year. If they were one company, it would warrant inclusion in the Fortune 500. Robbins himself is worth an estimated $480 million.

But Robbins did not always have a rose-tinted life. In fact, the man who seems larger than life was once shrimpy and short. He grew up in poverty, in a broken home and had zero prospects.

Let’s take a look at what Robbins had to deal with over the years and how he’s managed to overcome every obstacle life has thrown his way to become the juggernaut he is today.

Related: Tony Robbins: The Ultimate Guide to Financial Happiness

1. Fended for himself after his mom chased him out with a knife.

The oldest of three children, Robbins’ parents divorced when he was seven. His mother married several more times, but there was never a stable father figure or regular income. His family often skipped holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas to save money. Things got worse. His mother became dependent on drugs and alcohol. At the age of 14, Robbins had become the man of the house. He took care of his siblings, cooking meals and acting as a handyman around the home. It still wasn’t enough. One day, his mother chased him out with a knife, and Robbins never returned. But Robbins will be the first to tell anyone, “Your past does not equal your future.”

2. Never lost hope when he was making $40 per week.

By the time Robbins was 17, he was out of high school, living on his own, his dreams of a degree in sports journalism dashed. He had to survive on a janitor’s salary of $40 per week. But Robbins wasn’t demoralized. He saved up $35 to attend one Jim Rohn’s motivational seminars, and then asked him for a job. Rohn saw the promise in Robbins and gave him a chance.

With Rohn as a mentor, Robbins worked 12-14 hours per day, but kept running into a wall. He wasn’t seeing results, and he wasn’t sure how to move forward. Rohn gave him some of the best advice he’s ever gotten -- he needed to build a skill set. Only then would he be able to offer more value than anyone else and really show off his gifts.

That advice seriously paid off. By 2007, Robbins had gone from making $40 per week to $30 million per year.

3. Lived through a pituitary tumor and mercury poisoning.

Although it may be hard to believe, Robbins -- who, at 6’7”, looks like he could have been a former professional athlete -- was once nothing to look at. In fact, he was just 5’1” when he entered high school. At age 16, he was still 5’7”.

But his short stature only added to his incredible drive. It instilled in him a ferocious intensity to be the best at what he did. As a senior, he managed to become student body president. According to Robbins, this same drive is “what allows me to go in a room of 5,000 people and take it.”

Today, Robbins is more than 10 inches taller than his high school self, but it wasn’t because of a regular growth spurt. Robbins was diagnosed with a pituitary tumor in his brain that upped his levels of human growth hormone. Fortunately, the life-threatening tumor has since stabilized. Years later, his love of seafood resulted in extreme mercury poisoning.

“Life is a gift, and it offers us the privilege, opportunity, and responsibility to give something back by becoming more,” Robbins said.

Related: Tony Robbins Describes the Top Traits Found in Truly Coachable People

4. Stayed in an unfulfilling marriage for 14 years.

Robbins’ biggest personal mistake may have been marrying ex-wife Becky Jenkins at the age of 24 -- for all the wrong reasons. He once admitted to Oprah that “Even on the day I was married, I knew it wasn’t right. But I didn’t want to disappoint her. It sounds so stupid, but it’s the truth.”

Jenkins had three children when she married Robbins -- a 17-year-old son, an 11-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. Robbins stayed with her until the youngest kid had gone off to college before finally making the painful decision to part ways. He eventually married his current wife, Sage, who he met through a business relationship.

To this day, Robbins receives criticism for divorcing Jenkins, but he has no regrets. “I’ve come to believe that all my past failure and frustration were actually laying the foundation for the understandings that have created the new level of living I now enjoy.”

5. Paid off an unexpected $150 million bill.

Robbins once mentioned in a Behind The Brand interview that one of his former business partners left him high and dry with a $150 million bill. “Has anyone ever betrayed your trust or stabbed you in the back?” asked host Bryan Elliott.

Robbins explained that when his brand was growing and he had to start hiring, he encountered several problems. “First I recruited people that I thought were my friends, but they were incompetent. Then I recruited people who weren’t my friends, but they had no integrity.”

Finally, Robbins drops the bomb -- one of his business partners abandoned him with a bill for $150 million back when his business and brand were much smaller. But Robbins doesn’t focus on that at all. He doesn’t explain what happened the way most people would, trying to find validation. Instead, he goes on to say that he figured out how to pay it off and that it ultimately helped him grow tremendously. “The path to success is to take massive, determined action.”

Related: How 5 Entrepreneurs Went From Rock Bottom to Rock Star

We can change our lives.

Robbins’ incredible rags-to-riches story, outrageous confidence and unshakeable optimism are driven by his almost complete mastery over his own thoughts. He thinks that the biggest thing holding most people back is their own self-limiting beliefs. “People are not lazy," he said. "They simply have impotent goals, goals that do not inspire them.

When only 30 percent of employees are engaged at work and around 25 percent are actively disengaged, it’s easy to see the wisdom in his words. Many "successful" people have shackled themselves with golden handcuffs and have no idea how to get them off.

“Tony’s genius is his ability to deconstruct what drives certain behaviors,” says Paul Tudor Jones, a famous hedge fund manager and one of Robbins' biggest fans.

Robbins' most actionable advice? “It is in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped."