Life supports more of what supports life…

An In-depth Interview With Life Coach Tony Robbins
Marianne Schnall | 22 hours ago

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When I recently met author, strategist and coach Tony Robbins backstage at a taping of Oprah Winfrey’s ground-breaking series Lifeclass, the first thing I was struck by was his sheer size. He is a somewhat startling six-feet-seven, yet he comes across like a loving, gentle giant, and when he talks to you he gives you his full magnetic attention. He is known for being an exuberantly charming, inspiring, energetic and articulate speaker and is also a huggably nice, caring person and a generous humanitarian. The New York Times calls Tony Robbins “the high priest of human potential.” In the course of his impressive career, he has advised a diversity of luminaries including Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, Mother Teresa and three U.S. presidents, and CEOs, Olympic athletes and individuals all over the world regularly consult with him for his guidance. Countless more people have been transformed by his extensive selection of books, tapes and his exhilarating seminars. Robbins has gone through his own personal evolutions throughout his life, including a metamorphosis triggered by a brain tumor back in 1994 when he says, “I lost all sense of certainty in my life, whether I was going to live or die” which sparked an awakening which deepened, enriched and spiritually-infused his work and perspective. This candid, in-depth interview offers insight into Anthony Robbins’ heart and soul.

Tony Robbins will be appearing in two shows airing this coming Monday, April 30th on OWN — the Oprah Winfrey Network: the season finale of Oprah’s Lifeclass: The Tour at 8/7c followed by an episode of his series Breakthrough at 10/9c. (If you are not sure where to find OWN, you can use the channel finder.)
Marianne Schnall: I think a lot of people at times see themselves as a passive recipient of whatever life brings, rather than realizing that they are in control of their own destiny. What would you say to wake people up to their own power, their own sense of control over their lives?
Tony Robbins: Well, I think you have to acknowledge, everyone has to acknowledge that we aren’t in control. We have influence. We’re not in control of the external world. It doesn’t matter. The idea that we’re puppets or that we’re victims, comes from the fact that people look around and they focus on the fact that there’s so much they can’t control. But if you look at anyone who has great well-being, anyone who has a sense of impact, anyone who leads, whether it be a mom leading a family or a person leading a business – the thing that makes them different than everyone else is they understand there are two worlds. The external world which I can influence and the internal world which I do control. And that internal world is where you have to master yourself. And I think that whatever your story is, whatever your core belief system is, you’re going to find a way to support it.
If I said to you right now — I’ll do this in a seminar, I’ll say, look around the room right now and I’m going to give you a quick test and I want you to notice everything that’s brown. Every single thing that’s brown. Look behind you. Look around you. Try it right now wherever you are.
MS: Okay.
TR: Okay, close your eyes. And now tell me everything that’s green. [laughs] And so what happens is I dare say you saw more brown. Now open your eyes and look for green. More green than when you were looking before, because you get what you look for — right? So my whole approach is to get people out of your story. If your story is that ‘life’s a bitch and then you die,’ that’s how your story shows up. If your story is — the one I encourage people to go consider is: what if life was not happening to you, but was happening for you. If that was your approach, then you look at everything in life and say everything is happening for a reason and a purpose and it serves me, but it’s my job to figure out how to get it to serve me. Most human beings have had experiences in their past that they hated, that were horrific, that they never want to go through again and they probably wouldn’t want any friend or someone they cared about to go through, and yet when you look back on it five years later, ten years later, at some point you say thank God that happened, because of that I have this tremendous drive, or I have this compassion because I suffered, or other people are not going to suffer because I did and I’m going to make sure it doesn’t occur. So everything happens for a reason and a purpose and it serves us, it gives us a different approach, and then the focus becomes, what can I control, what can I take and shape in my life and then you don’t end up finding yourself in that place.
But, really, I think all people’s lives are controlled by three decisions. You look at people’s lives — it’s not their conditions, it’s their decisions. So everybody has a choice and every moment in your life you’re making three decisions. You’re making it while you’re listening to me right now. First one is ‘What are you going to focus on?’ You’re going to focus on what somebody is saying, what it means to you, you’re focusing on how much longer am I going to have to listen to this crap [laughs], you’re focusing on what you’re going to eat — you know, whatever it is, but whatever you focus on you’re going to feel. Now some people have a patterned focus and they focus on what they can’t control and some people focus on what they can. That one pattern alone can shift somebody from being depressed and feeling empowered. Some people’s pattern, for example, is focused on the past. Some patterns the focus almost always goes to the future. Some to the present. There’s no right or wrong, but whatever your pattern of focus is, it starts to control your whole life because it’s the first filter of everything. If your focus is on what you don’t have versus what you do have, it’s not hard to figure out what your life is going to be like. We don’t have to go any further than that and we can determine what your life is going to be like. You’re going to be miserable.
On the other hand, as soon as you focus on something, the second decision your brain has to make — and most people, by the way, make these decisions unconsciously — which is why their life is unconscious. They let their unconscious just do it, rather than taking control. So the second one is you focus on something your brain has to immediately decide, ‘What does this mean?’ Is this person dissing me? Are they harassing me? Are they challenging me? Are they teasing me? Just one word change and you’re going to go into a radically different emotional state, respond to that person in a very different way. Is this the end or is this the beginning? If you think it’s the end of a relationship, you’re going to treat the person very differently than if you think it’s the beginning of the relationship. So that shift, shifts how you feel. And that’s the third decision: what am I going to do? So as soon as I have a meaning, I have an emotion. If the emotion is anger, the choices I am going to pull from and what I’m going to do are going to be very different, than if the emotion is overwhelm than if the emotion is gratitude, than if the emotion is excitement. So our entire lives are controlled by that. Is God punishing me? Is God challenging me? Has this got nothing to do with God, is it just my lazy ass? [laughs] So I am always looking at those three decisions with people — what do we tend to focus on, what do these things really mean to them, which is their story, their set of beliefs, their rules, and thirdly, ‘What do they do?’ which is their role models for action depending on what state they’re in. And when you shift a person’s life, you shift it by changing the pattern of focus, the pattern of meaning and the pattern of action.
MS: I think part of the problem is as you said, most of us are living our lives on autopilot, unconsciously. Even for myself I find it takes a lot of effort, because we’re not brought up to watch our thoughts, to even be aware of what we’re thinking, because we don’t really know how to pay attention to our inner world. What advice would you have on that? I was reading something of yours where you were talking about a mental diet — it is easier said than done, in terms of remaining aware and mindful of your thoughts and catching yourself when you’re in a negative thought pattern.
TR: You’re so right because I always tell people that one of the rarest of all human commodities is self awareness. Not self consciousness — self consciousness, you’re constantly evaluating yourself and judging yourself. But self awareness, which means becoming aware of the part of you that is patterned. You remember at that little group when I was doing the warm up with you, I had people pulling hands apart and bringing them together, let’s figure out what thumb it was and change thumbs. And everybody’s face looks weird when you change thumbs — it’s so unconscious. So becoming aware of your patterns is the first step. And that’s basically what I have people do, I have them become aware. Because once you wake up, you might go to sleep for awhile, but you’ll never be asleep again because your brain knows to look for it. It’s like — I don’t know if you’ve ever bought an outfit or a car or something and all of a sudden you see that outfit or car everywhere. It’s a part of your brain that’s called the reticular activating system, the RAS, and it tells your brain what to notice. Once you set a goal, once you become aware of something, it becomes part of your consciousness.
So that’s what I try to do, I try to wake people up. But as you said, when you do something as simple as a seven day mental diet, and you say here’s what we’re going to do for seven days: I’m going to become aware of my patterns — not from the standpoint of trying to be a positive person, but to understand that if I go into negative states on a regular basis — when you’re in negative state you don’t treat people better, you treat them worse. When you’re in a negative state, you don’t optimize your ability at work or your creativity or your business or your sport or whatever it is you’re involved with, or as a parent. You just don’t. And you sure as hell don’t enjoy your life.
So as a thought process or a discipline in mental strength and mental happiness and a sense of empowerment, I say to people, take seven days and all I want you to do is very simple. Seven straight days where you catch yourself with anything you’re saying that is derogatory, negative, about the future or about yourself or about another human being. So all you’ve got to do is very simple. You catch yourself and you just go erase. Catch yourself and say erase — but you’ve got to go seven straight days where you don’t have to say erase. Well, for most people, this is a month long process [laughs], because they have no idea how much negativity they state about the future, or they state about themselves, or they state about other people. And you make them right write it down and you’ll start to see a pattern. You write it down, you erase, no more, right? And you keep a little journal doing this and again, most people they’ll start going and they might even get through half a day, a quarter of a day and all of a sudden they’ll have this regurgitation of shit that comes out of their head. And that little discipline will remind you, it will just make you so aware of how many unconscious thoughts you have each day. And then it’s not about beating yourself up, it’s about saying, ‘Wow. This isn’t me. This is the automatic part of my brain that undisciplined it will just throw out trash.’ You know, weeds grow automatically. You don’t have to plant weeds. I look at people’s lives and you see what’s not working in their lives and it usually comes from an undisciplined mind.
MS: There are so many different things we are educated about, yet this is something that is completely not taught to us as children — to be aware of our thoughts and how that affects us. I only learned about this myself, later in life, through the practice of meditation and still, sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night and my brain starts going off on the things I have to do or I’m worrying about, I have to literally tell my brain to stop and focus on my breathing. It is a constant training and retraining, and I notice the difference in myself when I do have time to meditate and when I don’t. How do you personally stay centered and balanced? What tools do you use or recommend?
TR: Let me answer that two ways. Number one — I’ll tell you tools second — but let me tell you the number one piece. Whenever you have something that’s a mission that’s larger than yourself, whether it be your children, whether it be a business, whether it be a non-profit focus — I don’t care what it is. Something that is your life’s passion, that is more than just you, you will find that you’re not going to have a whole lot of time inside your consciousness for negativity. I believe that life supports what supports more of life. In other words, motivation does matter. If you’re just trying to take care of yourself, you’re part of life and I believe life steps in and gives you a certain level of insight. If you’re trying to serve something larger then yourself — your family — you know when I suddenly had four kids overnight and I was 25 years old and I had a 17-year-old, an 11-year-old, a five-year-old and one on the way, I grew more than any other time in my life, no matter what else I was doing, because I had to have insights to support this family all of a sudden. It grew me geometrically. If you’re trying to take care of a whole community, you have to have a different level of insight, because your motivation is to truly serve something much larger than yourself and then those things come true. If you’re trying to serve humanity, I think you need even greater insight.
So I think number one is if you get outside yourself, you’re going to find yourself having a lot less of these limiting thoughts because your purpose is to serve something. As long as we’re within ourselves, we have challenges. Because that’s just the nature of the human mind. That’s why meditating is a wonderful experience, but why it’s so difficult for people. What’s actually to me a more powerful meditation — and I still meditate as well — is that sense of service where everything else disappears. You’re not worried about your thoughts. You’re not fighting and trying not to think of anything else. You’re moving towards something. Living life on a purpose is the greatest gift you can find for yourself. But how do you do it on a day to day basis? You ask better questions. Questions control focus. So if I say to you, tell me Marianne, what’s something in your life right now that you’re really proud of? When you look back on your life in the last few years or over your whole life, what’s something that stands out for you that you could be really proud of, that you do feel proud about. I read your biography, so you’ve got plenty.
MS: My kids, my websites, my interviews and writings. The work that I do to help and inspire others.
TR: Out of that grouping of things, think of one in particular that you really feel proud of.
MS: I guess my kids.
TR: Yes. Can you think of something in particular you’re proud of about your kids?
MS: That they seem to be in touch with their authentic selves, which is something I don’t remember being so in touch with at their age.
TR: Wow. So something that you didn’t have in your life, you’re able to give them. That’s probably part of your drive of why you did. But when you feel proud about them, just as I ask you the question, and you start to focus on what I’m asking, obviously you shift your focus to what you’re proud of. If I ask you what you’re excited about and I get you to really take a few moments and think about it, you’re going to start to feel that. In your own life — I have what I call my kind of morning questions or solution questions. If suddenly all hell is breaking loose, the first question I ask is ‘What’s great about this?’ If my brain first answers, ‘nothing’ [laughs], what I do is I force myself to just say, what’s great about this? Okay — what’s great about this is at least now we know. What’s great about this is I’m having to be aware of this so I can go attack it now. What’s great about this is I’m going to get an insight out of this, I’m going to solve this and once I solve this, it will help so many other people. So what’s great about this? My next question is what’s not perfect yet? And the question presupposes there’s perfection in this. And the brain’s kind of an interesting thing. Whatever you ask it, it will give you an answer. If you go, how come I can never lose weight? There’s a presupposition to that question that you can never lose weight and so your brain operates that way and goes well, because you’re a pig [laughs]. If you go, what’s not perfect yet? Our brain will go what’s not perfect yet is, we’ve got to deal with this challenge because somebody was unconscious and it’s not solved yet, right? And I go, what am I willing to do to make this work? What am I willing to do right now to move this forward and make this work?
So I go from ‘Holy shit, this huge problem’ to ‘What’s great about it? What’s not perfect yet?’ so it acknowledges the challenge — and what am I willing to do to really transform this? And my last question is how can I transform it and enjoy it? And again, I’ve asked these questions so often that what happens to my brain is it just kicks in gear, so I want to do more than just to accomplish it, I want to find a way to enjoy what I’m going to do, which usually means finding some higher purpose or something about it that says, you know what? Rather than this just being a pain in the butt, this is going to lead you to something quite magical.
So I use questions. Questions change focus. And if you develop some simple questions to ask yourself — you know, one of my primary questions in life — everybody has a question they ask more often than anything else unconsciously, I do a whole seminar where you dig it in and find out what yours is. But my number one question in life is ‘How can I make it better?’ Think about it — my whole life has been shaped by that. All the skill sets that I have, all the things I’m able to do in this world, the things you saw on the show, the things you saw in the live event that we did there — they’ve all come out of me basically saying how can I make this better? How can I make myself better? How can I make this process better? It’s an obsessive question for me. And ask and you shall receive. So questions are the answer. But you want higher quality questions, and that’s what will direct your focus.
MS: So that’s another aspect of all this that doesn’t come naturally to us, taking the time to contemplate these types of questions, since our society is so focused instead on all these meaningless, materialistic goals, and doesn’t encourage us to do this type of inner reflection. There are so many necessary shifts in perspective that aren’t supported by our society so it is a lot of relearning and working against a different tide.
TR: Well, the tide I think is cultural, more than anything else. We live in a culture that is about me. We live in a culture that expects instantaneous gratification for everything, and the web has only enhanced that in many ways. It empowers in many ways, but it also makes people believe ‘I should have everything right now.’ And the missing element in our culture today and the reason why — you know, in 2006 we had the highest levels of unhappiness ever measured in North America and it was at the peak of the financial — before the crisis — peak of our last 30 years of financial well-being for the United States. And I believe the reason is because people expected more and more with less and less effort. There was no sense of mastery. There’s no sense of ‘I’m responsible in life for something.’
What makes people feel alive is to have a life of meaning, not to be happy. Happiness is wonderful. It comes and it goes. Pleasure comes and goes. Pleasure is in the body. Happiness is in the mind. But in the spirit, that experience of meaning is what’s the richest experience for human beings and meaning sometimes comes from very tough situations that you push through and that’s because you only push through because there’s a motive larger than yourself, so what are you responsible to life for? What are you here to give? What are you here to share? What are you made for? What’s your sense of purpose? These are the things that change a person’s life much more quickly than trying to solve their own individual problems. It’s not to say you can’t be practical — I teach the practical side of things. But very quickly, people go to an event like mine — they’ll find that they came because they want to make more money, or they want to lose weight, or they want to transform their relationship, or they want to turn their kid around, or whatever the case may be — take their career to the next level. I deliver on that, but I’m a Trojan Horse. Once I get you there and I deliver on it, now you’re enthralled and now I lead you to a place where you remember who you are and what you’re here for.
MS: One important message I see conveyed in your work is that some of the most powerful transformations can come from going through a really difficult time or a time of crisis. We’re taught to fear those events in our lives, but they can be these unbelievable opportunities and gifts, if you’re open to it that way. The trick is remaining open, rather than shutting down, which is usually our instinct.
TR: You’re absolutely right. I always tell people there’s nothing greater than a crisis to create a breakthrough. Because that’s when we breakthrough usually — most people don’t proactively breakthrough — they breakthrough because they have to. They breakthrough because it’s a ‘must’ to change now, not a ‘should’ to change now. And the beauty of crisis is it doesn’t feel beautiful, is it melts us down. And when you’re melted down you can recast your life in a new way. But when you stay in the same form, you just keep doing what you’re doing. People have so much momentum in the way they are — they have so much inertia, would probably be a better description — in this is how things are, the sameness, the certainty of what I know, that very often it takes a crisis to break that inertia and get somebody to all the way push through. So that crisis is almost always an opportunity. It’s corny and it’s used a million times, but the whole Chinese symbol about crisis and opportunity. You know, danger and opportunity at the same time — it’s exactly what it is. But the most powerful thing about a crisis is, it moves you to do something that you wouldn’t have done before. Because you have to. You know the current situation is not working, so you’re going to have to do something else. And I think crisis is almost always a gift. If you look at people’s lives and ask them what have been some of the greatest breakthroughs of your life, and then ask them what preceded it, virtually always it was a crisis of some sort. And all a crisis is, is nothing is working, you’re not being rewarded, you’re getting pain for the very things maybe at one time you were rewarded for.
MS: I know that you’re a father. What advice would you give to parents, and people who care for children, like teachers, on raising happier, more resilient, more empowered kids?
TR: I would say you have to first go first. You can’t raise a happy, more resilient kid if you’re not a happy, more resilient adult. We teach people how we are, we don’t teach them by what we say, we teach them by the way we live. So I look at this and say, breakthroughs in life always come from those three things. I think I may have mentioned at your event there, which is you’ve got to first be able to create — people think about get the right strategy, I don’t know how to do something — but the reason you don’t know how to do it, is you’ve got a belief system, a story if you would, that’s limiting you. You know, ‘I’m out of control, it’s too much, I don’t have enough time, I’ve tried everything’ — there’s some story that’s keeping you from getting the very strategies to make you most effective. And a way to get out of those lousy stories, the number one skill set, is to really learn to change your state. It is the one thing that none of us are taught. We’re taught alright — but we’re taught by two million commercials we should have instantaneous release from pain, and the way we should do it is reach for something. Drink something, eat something, ingest something that is going to suddenly change it all. The problem, of course, is when you take away the pain, you take away the drive to change. And so we have a huge portion of our society that’s medicated — some medicated by prescription drugs, some medicated by food, some medicated by alcohol, but it’s a massive medication process. And so learning to change your state and being able to demonstrate that with your kids in an instant — what I teach, which is a radical change is the way you use your physical body. Learning how to do that on a dime, over and over again and developing that as a habit, will teach your kids the most important thing of all, which is to be resourceful.
We’re all going to face extreme stress in our lives, there’s no one who is going to escape that. That’s the one thing, rich or poor, I don’t care who you are, you’re going to lose. You’re going to go through some pain. You’re going to lose your home or you’re going to lose your job or you’re going to lose your savings or you’re going to lose a dear friend or you’re going to lose a child or you’re going to have somebody come to you and say as I’ve had, ‘You have a tumor in your brain’ — and those days, those moments, and those things happen and how you respond is going to determine the quality of your life. It’s not how things go when it’s well, it’s the ability to change that state, get resourceful, find an empowering meaning and find a solution to move forward, that’s what makes people successful, so you’ve got to do that first. You’ve got to say this is a skill set, a set of skills I need to get within my own life. I need to become the master of my own mind, the master of my emotions. I need to get emotionally fit and strong and the only way you’re going to do that is by going to a gym. You’re not going to do it, frankly — you know reading a book is a nice thing, but like people say, ‘Why do you do seminars?” Well, you could read a book on swimming or you can go swimming with somebody who is an expert swimmer who’ll throw you in the deep end and make sure you don’t die, but also make sure you get totally immersed and you know what you’re doing, so you can go do it on your own. That’s really the ideal environment for people. A book or an audio type of thing is probably the next best thing.
MS: When you look out at humanity, right now, at the world, what do you think is at the root of the serious problems the world is facing, when you diagnose the human species at the moment?
TR: That’s a pretty large question. [laughs]
MS: Sorry, I’m known for those. [laughs]
TR: I think of human beings as having — you know I had an experience when I was diagnosed with a tumor, and I found myself having these really crazy aberrant behaviors. You know, I fought the idea of it. I went through all these different elements, long story short, I had an experience where I realized I had lost all sense of certainty in my life, whether I was going to live or die and I began to realize that for most of my life I had worked early on in my life as a kid to pound certainty inside myself, because I didn’t have any. I had no role models in my house. There was nobody that was happy or successful, in any way. Happy, meaning, you know my mom was married four times. We were always broke. There were times there was no food, literally. The reason I feed people today, over two million people every year, is because my family was fed when I was 11-years-old by some strangers on Thanksgiving. I just never forgot it and decided someday I would do the same for other people, so it was a great gift to my life. With none of that available to me, I pounded certainty into myself. I literally conditioned myself to be certain, to have that confidence, that strength, and it was something I did by controlling my mind. I would do what I call incantations. An affirmation you might go, ‘I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy, I’m happy’ and your brain goes ‘bullshit’ — but an incantation is something that you state with such intensity over and over again and you engage your entire body where I would literally go out at 17 years old on these slow jog runs for an hour and a half doing these incantations. You know, ‘I now command my subconscious mind to direct me in helping as many people as possible, by giving me the strength, the humor, the brevity, whatever it takes to show these people, to get these people to change their life now’ — and do it over and over again. Or ‘God’s wealth is circulating in my life, it’s what flows to me, an avalanche of abundance. All my needs, desires and goals are met instantaneously, by infinite intelligence — where I’m one with God and God is everything.’ I’d do that for an hour. And I’d shout at the top of my lungs while I’m jogging and I would literally condition myself to be there.
So now, here I am 31 years old, I’m the most successful I’d ever dreamed of being and I’ve got a tumor. What the hell — all of a sudden I’m not functioning anymore. What I lost was my certainty. And that triggered me — I was literally going to work with this man who was a Saudi Arabian sheik, who was paying me a million dollars to come coach him and I’m thinking to myself, this guy … You know I never think like — I’m always compassionate — I don’t ever think like ‘this guy’s an idiot.’ And I’m thinking ‘this guy’s an idiot’ [laughs]. He’s got no reason not to feel good about his life and I was getting all whipped up and I was in the shower and in the shower, I came up with probably the seminal piece of my work, which is that all human beings are driven by six needs, is the answer to your question. People have a need for certainty — and that need for certainty is in every human being, certainty that you can avoid pain, certainty that you can at least be comfortable. It’s a survival instinct, right? But at the same time everyone goes after certainty in different ways. Some people get certainty by working harder and saying I’m going to master something. Some people get certainty by lowering their expectations, going ‘it will never work. Everybody’s screwing me anyway. The world is against me. I’m a victim.’ And they lose their dreams, but they get their needs. The needs are not like goals. They’re not like belief systems that are built into you. So if you can get certainty by eating — you’re stressed out, you go eat a bunch of your favorite food, you overwhelm your bloodstream, and all of a sudden you start breathing again. You could do it that way. You could do it by smoking a cigarette. There’s a million ways to get certainty. The only question is, are the ways you’re doing it, are they empowering, neutral or dis-empowering? If it works for the moment and it doesn’t hurt anybody, it’s kind of neutral. If it works long term, obviously for yourself and others, it’s empowering. If it just works for the moment, just gives you a little hit, but it has a downside long term, you know drugs, food, alcohol, that’s extreme. All those things — how does it cost you? Well here’s the weird thing — if you get totally certain — if every moment in your life, Marianne, you knew what was going to happen, when it was going to happen, how it was going to happen, how would you feel?
MS: Bored.
TR: Bored out of your mind. So God, in her infinite wisdom — gave us a second need: variety, uncertainty. We all want uncertainty. Variety is the spice of life. We all want surprises. Do you like surprises?
MS: I can’t help remember what Oprah said during the Lifeclass taping — depends on the type of surprise.
TR: As long as it’s a type of surprise we want, right? The ones we don’t want are a problem, but we need them to feel alive, so we need variety. Now here’s the interesting thing. People will go into a relationship, if it’s a brand new relationship, it’s so exciting because it’s something brand new, it’s variety, it’s different. And you’re so excited by the feelings. And what most people try to do because they don’t want to lose that, they try to control it to make it certain. And if they make it so certain then you become bored in the relationship. It’s a delicate balance. It’s not a teeter totter where you and I get across on a seesaw or teeter totter and we go okay, here’s the goal, we’re going to balance it. Alright, now once you and I balance it, how long before one of us is going to start jerking that thing around just to feel alive. That’s what people do with their lives.
So the third need is significance: the need to feel unique, special, important or needed. Everybody has those needs, including the people that say I don’t need to be special. If thou dost protest too much, it’s still a part of them. So significance can be achieved by being the toughest person, the smartest person, the sweetest person, the most generous person. You can do it by the way you dress. You can do it by having a big problem, bigger than anybody else’s. I’m sure you’ve seen people that argue about ‘Oh, you think you’ve got it bad, let me tell you what my problem is.’ [laughs] They’re arguing over significance. So you can get it in a way that’s empowering, mutual or dis-empowering, once again. Violence is the fastest way — and this is a long answer, but you’re asking me a big question and I’m giving you the context. Violence is the fastest way to get significance without education, without background, without any money. If I feel completely insignificant and you walked through the hood and I come up to you and put a gun to your head, just how significant am I on a zero to ten scale in your life right now? I’m 100, right?
And here’s the other thing that I’ve learned. There’s six needs. The only difference between human beings is two things. One, which of these six needs are the top two for you? Because while we have all the same needs, we don’t value them equally. So some people are more certainty driven. In fact, if you mess with anything, they freak out. Control freaks. Where you’re late for anything they go nuts. Or you change anything they go nuts. If certainty is at the top of your list, you have a very different life then if variety is at the top of your list. That person is going to go sky diving, they’re going to do everything that they possibly can, they’ve got completely different direction for their lives.
So the top two shape you, so interestingly enough, if significance is the most important thing to you in your life, you’re going to behave very differently with what the fourth need is, love. Connection and love. Most people settle for connection, because love’s too scary. They don’t want to lose that feeling, that super high is too crushing so they settle for the comfort of connection. And again, you can get connection in lots of ways. You can get it by a friendship. You can get it by a dog. You can get it by a child. You can get it by being attached to a cause. You can get it by having huge problems and sharing those problems with other people, going ‘I have that problem too’ and you both get to connect. Those are the most common ones to do these things. But here’s what I found — any time an action you take, any time a thought pattern you have, any time you have an emotion that meets at least three of these needs, it becomes an addiction. Take an example of putting a gun to your head. Why do we have in the world so much violence? I put a gun to your head — here I am feeling totally insignificant — instantly I’m significant at a zero to ten at a ten plus. How certain am I that you’re going to respond to me if I put a gun to your head?
MS: Right.
TR: And by the way, every time we do it, there’s going to be some variety. And in a sick way, we’re connected. ‘I live in a place where I feel America’s dominating the world and destroying my family,’ I go fly a plane into a building — guess what, it might take you ten years to build that building, but I could blow it up in two hours. Didn’t take a whole lot, $400,000 for the whole operation, changed the world as we know it. So it wasn’t a lot of money — it was just somebody feeling like I could be significant. And by the way, those people went in and they died flying those planes into there believing that if I do this, I’ll be more significant. I will go up and be with Allah and I’ll be greeted and my family will be honored, because I’ll be a martyr. It’s huge. People will die for significance. People will die for love.
More often than not, men bio-chemically are driven for significance and women more by connection, but in the world we live in today, you can find just as many women driven for significance as there are men and vice versa. So the reason I tell you this, because this relates to everything you see. So these first four needs, everybody finds a way to meet. I don’t care who they are. You might get certainty by lowering your expectations. You might get variety by eating. You might get significance by tearing other people down or reading magazines that tear other people down and you can feel superior to those people. Or by sharing your problems so that you can connect with people. You can do it in negative ways, neutral or positive.
The final two needs are the spiritual needs. They’re not religious, they’re spiritual, they’re what lifts your spirit. And that is, number five is, you’ve gotta grow. If you don’t grow, you’re not going to be fulfilled. Most people meet their needs basically, even if they have to lie to themselves for those first four needs, but very few people are fulfilled because they aren’t growing. Growth is what life is. The one word that makes happiness happen for people is progress. I don’t care where you are in your life, if you’re making progress with your family, if you’re making progress with your body, if you’re making progress with your kids, if you’re making progress in your energy or your health, you’re going to feel better about your life. And so progress is a symbol of growth. Everything in the universe grows or dies. And the last one is contribution. What makes us feel alive is to have something that has greater meaning. Life is not about me, it’s about we. So it’s a long answer to your question — so now where are the challenges in the world? The challenges in the world come from, as we develop, as individuals and societies, we start out extremely egocentric. All babies are egocentric. Meaning, they care about whose needs?
MS: Their own.
TR: Their own, that’s it. So we only grow because in the beginning it’s okay for babies to do that. In fact if you’re a mother or a father, you’re filled with oxytocin when you have a child. It makes you love the baby, even though they look like a lizard [laughs], it doesn’t matter. You’ll think it’s the beautiful thing in the world. But there’s a day that oxytocin wears off, and that’s the day that fear enters our body, because you start realizing, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do something, gotta be something, gotta somehow be a certain way’, in order to be loved, in order to survive, even. So inside of all of us we have these patterns where we eventually become at least ethnocentric. We care about our group, our mom, our dad, our family, our religion, our white people, our African American people, our Chinese, our whatever. Right? And not everybody evolves beyond that. And some people, eventually, evolve beyond that until they’re more human-centric or even spirit-centric where they care about everything. The more you consciously care that way your life changes. When you look around the world, consciousness is delivered by which needs you value. If your value is certainty, you’re in survival mode. If you’re in variety, you’re in the fun mode, which is just me. If you’re in significance, then you’re going to be in a mode of trying to achieve something or being an achiever of something. If you’re in love mode, it’s going to be spirit and connection. You’re going to care about a larger group of people. If you’re into growth and contribution, it’s a different level. So there are elevations.
So if you look around the world and I can tell you right now that the majority of the planet is focused on certainty and significance. And those two absolutely guarantee unhappiness. Because if you’re driven by significance, it doesn’t matter what you achieve, it’s never enough. It doesn’t matter how many people you conquer, it doesn’t matter how much money you make, it doesn’t matter — because there’s always a comparison to something else and as a result, those people can never be fulfilled. It’s the number one thing in our society, is significance. I was just in India and if you go to India and you ask — and I’ve done studies there, of junior high and high school students, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ — the number one answer is a software engineer, but what’s more interesting is why. And they say ‘Because I want to do well and be successful so I can take care of my family’. If you ask, instead, in the United States today — USA Today I believe was the one did the poll — ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ to junior high and high school students in the United States, what do you think their answer is?
MS: I don’t know.
TR: To be famous. The number one answer — which today you can do by being infamous, right? You just create a video online of doing something crazy. So our world is hugely driven by significance. The other one is certainty. If you are driven by certainty you can’t grow. If you are driven by certainty if somebody messes with you, you can get very intense, even violent, depending upon the person’s personality. So I look around the world and say, the challenges these days, almost all challenges these days, virtually all, are human challenges. Humans created the problems, so humans can solve them, but only by a higher level of consciousness. You know, it’s the whole thing, you can’t solve the problem at the same level of consciousness that created the problem. And the evolution happens as people learn to value higher needs in their life, as what guides them. So think about it this way: 9/11 there were people who ran in that building, firemen, who knew there was no way on earth they’re going to come back out of that building. They were going to literally give their life to save strangers. Now what makes a human being do that? The answer is significance. Significance and contribution are elements that would get them to go do that. But here’s the difference, the guys that flew the plane that killed everybody were also driven by significance. The difference is I said two things. What do we value most and also, we have a different set of maps or beliefs of how to meet that need. So one person’s belief to be significant is to kill “the enemy”. The other person’s way of being significant is to die for a stranger. So that belief system about how to meet your needs, that’s the structure.
So you asked me a pretty giant question so I know it’s a long answer, but here’s how I look at it: I look at society and I look at people and I say… I’m not Mr. Motivator. Somebody wrote Mr. Motivator. I think you get a better sense — I believe in energy. I believe in passion. I believe in teaching people in an environment where it’s like being at an NBA Championship Game. But on the other hand, my view is I’m the ‘why’ guy. I don’t need to motivate you. What I need you to discover is what is your motivation. So if you say, ‘I’m unmotivated’ — you’re not unmotivated, you’re highly motivated to eat, right? [laughs] So my job is to uncover that process. So I look around and I say: what is the driving force inside of somebody? What’s really making this thing work? What needs are they trying to meet? And then if I can show them a better way to meet those needs, suddenly they see the whole world differently.
MS: Lately I feel hopeful, I see so many signs that there’s this mass awakening happening, like human consciousness is evolving right before our eyes. That’s how I like to see the world, rather than the focus on all of the problems, the light that is emerging, all these people waking up.
TR: That’s right. Waking up is the whole key. But what’s waking everybody up right now? It’s crisis. Think about it, that’s why there’s all the seasons. Winter serves. Because things die in winter and things are cleaned out so that there’s room for the new springtime. I think we’re not yet quite to springtime, each of us individually can enter springtime, but as a culture, we’re right now still in winter and there’s enough crisis there which some people are already pushed over the edge and others people aren’t and I can promise you, over the next ten years you’re going to see a lot more crisis and you’re going to see a lot more breakthroughs and on the other side of it, we’ll enter a new springtime.
MS: I run a women’s website and non-profit organization, and I’ve heard you talk a lot about masculine and feminine energy, which I believe is in both men and women. In fact, we have a new initiative “Men & Women as Allies”, which is not just about men and women working together towards gender equality, but also looking at how destructive gender stereotypes impact men as negatively as they do women. What is your sense of that? In addition to everything else it seems that people are up against, they may not be aware of the influence of constricting gender roles. That’s why I think it is so great when I watch episodes of Breakthrough and I see men openly crying and expressing emotion and vulnerability. I think that’s a whole other issue — this idea that we all have masculine and feminine qualities in each of us and we need to value them both to be whole.
TR: I think you’re absolutely right. I think both parts of yourself have to be… We only feel alive when we’re whole. And to think that you’re one or the other is a joke. Culturally, though, what has happened, is we overvalue one, not based on our real wiring. In other words, both masculine and feminine are in everyone, and my experience, and I’ve dealt with four million people in live seminars in a hundred countries — and I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that somewhere in the range of 90% of the people are wired similar to their sexuality, meaning there is a driving force inside you that you’re born with that is the stronger of the two. So you use both as a whole, but equally challenging is, the culture tends to reward the opposite. Most men under stress become more feminine — meaning feminine in its natural state is the thing I was talking to Oprah about. I think you were there when I was talking about the affirming, right?
MS: Yes.
TR: So women have this beautiful capacity that men don’t seem to have, when they’re masculine men, at least, of affirming. Guys just don’t do that when their masculine males, it’s quite the opposite. Masculine energy grows by challenge. That energy tends to grow. The reason I bring it up, though, is, a woman can do anything a man can do today and then some. She can even have a child without a man, so there’s not a question about where the equality is. But what you have to look at is beyond equality. I think in my experience, because again I’ve dealt with so many magnificent achiever women who will blow away any guy, but I can tell you that if their core is feminine, if they don’t honor that feminine, because the culture for so many years, it was so out of balance, the culture encourages women to be masculine and encourages men to be feminine. It’s actually a reversal of where we were at one time. My experience is for fulfillment — I’m not talking about balance, for fulfillment, you’ve got to be able to know what your core is and be able to return and nurture that part of yourself. Because if a mom is a single mom and she’s out there and she’s playing both roles in life, she has developed her masculine very strongly. In fact, she’s probably had to develop more of her masculine then maybe is her nature and as a result though, women should get to turn that off since she’s responsible all the time for everything and everyone, it’s a difficult situation. So a big part of my focus with people is to say, let’s figure out what your core is. And you’ll know, because you know what really, truly fulfills you outside your cultural conditioning and get people to feel that and make sure that there’s a segment of that in their life that is nurtured deliberately and consciously.
MS: How would you describe your life philosophy or your sense of spirituality? I’m sorry to keep asking you such big questions.
TR: I like big questions. To me spirituality is just love, period. When you’re in a state of love, you do what’s right. When you’re really in love, it’s not about you. When you’re really in love, it’s about giving, serving, delivering to others and that’s when we feel most alive. We feel most small, we feel most challenged when we’re only focusing on ourselves. Because even when you fulfill yourself, meaning you get what you think you want, you still find yourself in a position where it’s never enough. You only feel it for so long. It’s like what you get will never make you happy. Who you become, will make you very happy or very sad. And so it’s that becoming that makes us feel alive. That becoming is it.
I look at it this way — I try to break it down in practical terms, so that people can think about life and say, here’s what I’m about. I’m about having people experience the most extraordinary quality of life that they possibly could imagine. Now what’s an extraordinary quality of life for you, might be different, Marianne, then for your friends or even for your daughters or for me or anyone else. Everyone has a different model of what that looks like, so I’m not here to tell people what an extraordinary life looks like. I just know that it’s one where you’re truly fulfilled and honor that extraordinary life on your terms. Some people have built giant companies, for some people it’s having a beautiful garden, some people it’s learning to sing a beautiful song, write a poem — it’s different for everybody.
But I personally believe that there are two master lessons in life, is how I practically break it down. There’s the science of achievement and there’s the art of fulfillment. If you’re going to have an extraordinary life, both skills must be mastered. Now the science of achievement is in fact, the science. If you want to lose weight, be healthy, have fitness, if you want to make more money, if you want to achieve something, there are rules to achievement, there are rules of finance, there’s rules of the body. We’re all unique and individual biochemically, but there are certain rules that if you violate them, you’re going to have disease in the body. If you’re aligned with them, you’re going to have an abundance of energy and vitality and health. Same thing financially. I don’t care what your color, your background, your age is, your gender — if you do certain things, you’re going to have too much month at the end of the money, if there are certain principles you violate. If you do other things, you’re going to have an abundance of economics. So there are very clear rules. There’s a science to achievement. I spent probably the first 10 to 15 years of my life, primarily focused on finding all those best strategies and that’s how I built my original reputation and I’ve turned things around, helped people achieve, make things go.
But along the way, when I got my tumor, I kind of uncovered that there was another part of life that I wasn’t fully masterful of and that is the art of fulfillment. I call it an art, because everybody’s idea of art is as unique as a human being. It’s like you go to an art show and some people look at this big blue dot and go, ‘That’s the most amazing thing’ and somebody else says, ‘Are you kidding me? That’s insane.’ [laughs] Everyone has a different thing. In fact, you want to know what God loves, what the universe loves, go to the forest. There’s total diversity in the forest. Everywhere you look is diversity. So what I look at is: what’s going to make you feel fulfilled and that’s totally unique to you, Marianne, then it is to your children, then it is to me, even for the people we love.
But I do know that there are some principles, not laws, but some fundamental principles and that is for you to feel fulfilled you’ve got to grow and you’ve got to give. You’ve got to feel like there’s progress, something, somewhere in your life, for you to feel good and you’ve got to feel like your life is more than just about yourself, when those two things are there. So I look at life and say: these are the two parts of life — the ability to take the invisible and make it visible. Take thoughts and turn them into actions, turn them into results, turn your dreams into reality. That’s really the science of achievement. The ability to enjoy and be fulfilled and to have meaning and all that, that’s really the art of fulfillment.
MS: The question I always like to end with, because I believe in visualizing, is what would be your wish or prayer for the children of the future?
TR: I think my prayer would be for them to own their true value in life, but to know that that value they’re born with and yet it’s magnified by what they give. If you could install one value into all human beings, it would be the need that’s already there called contribution, but getting them to go there first, instead of certainty, and that’s not an easy thing, because it means you have to face fears. But I think getting people outside themselves.
I had a great Mom. She was crazy as hell. She beat the shit out of me. I went through an incredibly violent childhood. But she loved the shit out of me too. She was a mixed up lady. She was beat when she was a kid, so when she felt out of control that’s what happened. But she also took me when I was four years old, maybe five years old, on my birthday I got some balloons and she would say to me, ‘Do you want these balloons here or do you want to give them to these people?’ She’d bring me to this old folks’ home, and I’d hand these balloons to these old folks and they just lit up like a Christmas tree. It was like I had enough experiences like that, that I got hooked on contribution at an earlier stage, earlier than even my certainty being met. I got hooked on higher value structure and it has shaped my life in every way, shape and form.
My kids, I took them all out when my boy was four or five, I’ll never forget, we went to a place in Oceanside, California, this park and we go to this park and we’ve got these baskets of food and we’re looking for homeless people and we find this guy lying on the floor in the bathroom, just covered in a bunch of rags and he’s sleeping and I said to my son, ‘Give him this big basket.’ It was so big he could barely carry it and I said, ‘Why don’t you give this to this man?’ and he starts to go in and he puts the basket down and all of a sudden, bam, this guy wakes up and he grabs my son’s arm. And my son screams and I jump ten feet, right, and before anything could happen, he pulls my son’s hand close to his face and he kisses his hand. My son’s 26 now, my youngest, and he still remembers that today. He still contributes. He still driven and the thing I’m most proud of him in his life, is he’s a contributor in everything he does. Those things, those value systems, change the quality of a human being’s life, but they change the quality of a community, they change the quality of the world. I think getting hooked on contribution is the way outside of yourself, outside of your pain and into a life that’s meaningful.

MS: You have such a beautiful spirit and it has been a real pleasure to speak to you and help spread your inspiring messages and wisdom.
TR: You’re so kind. Thank you very much. I love people and I love seeing impact. I’m as driven today as I was when I started this stuff at 17. I’m even more driven today. So it never gets old for me and I love seeing what you saw. I love to see people wake up and feel that aliveness again. That’s what I live for.
For more information about Tony Robbins as well as a schedule of his upcoming events and seminars, visit
Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women’s website and non-profit organization, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site Her new book, based on her interviews with a variety of well-known women, is titled Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice.

Who am I?


Newly-minted Mayor Futoshi Toba was at work in City Hall when the tsunami devastated his community a month ago. Now he must find a way to balance his duty to his family and his town. WSJ’s Lam Thuy Vo reports from Rikuzentakata.

RIKUZENTAKATA, Japan—Minutes before a violent earthquake convulsed City Hall, Futoshi Toba was enjoying a quiet Friday afternoon after a month of nearly nonstop work since becoming mayor of this small coastal city.

Ruin and Rebirth

Chronicling the aftermath of the tsunami in Rikuzentakata, Japan

He called his wife, Kumi, at 2:40 p.m., March 11, to suggest they take their two young sons to a barbecue place for dinner. She promised that she’d email him soon to let him know.

The conversation wasn’t much, but fate doesn’t always allow for eloquence.

At 2:46, tremors from the magnitude-9 earthquake about 60 miles offshore shook Rikuzentakata, knocking out electricity and phones. Soon afterward, a wall of black water more than 12 meters high smashed through the six-meter-high seawall and poured into the heart of the city.

In Japan, Struggling to Survive

Swept Away

Mayor’s House

Japan Disaster’s Human Impact

More photos and interactive graphics

Some 2,300 people are dead or missing in Rikuzentakata and many small businesses were obliterated by the March tsunami. Survivors must make a heart-wrenching choice: Should they rebuild their town – or abandon it? WSJ’s Lam Thuy Vo reports.

Mr. Toba and dozens of residents scrambled up the stairs to the roof of the four-story City Hall, a steel-reinforced concrete building downtown. The tsunami sent water surging as high as the building’s top floor.

Trucks and buses were tossed end over end. Houses, pulled loose from their foundations, floated toward the sea, the people inside screaming for help.

“When I looked back in the direction of my home, I just saw all the houses being crushed,” Mr. Toba said. “The sound of the wood splintering was so loud.”

Mr. Toba’s sons, Taiga, 12, and Kanato, 10, were at a hilltop school, and escaped the tsunami. But his wife was at home, closer to sea level, as she usually was during the day.

“I considered just ignoring everyone, hopping in my car, and rushing to get her. But I really couldn’t do that,” he said, explaining that his duties as mayor required him to lead his colleagues to safety. “I was thinking the whole time: ‘I hope she was able to get away.'”

By the time the waves finally started to recede, Rikuzentakata had been reduced to a tangle of smashed cars, shattered wood and twisted steel. The banks were washed away. Gas stations, gone. Grocery stores, gone. Hospital, gone.

More than 2,300 people—a tenth of the population here—were dead or missing.

A month later, Mr. Toba finds himself in a role of bewildering complexity and responsibility, as Japan struggles to recover from the worst natural disaster of its modern history and its leaders debate how—and even whether—to rebuild a part of the country that was already in steep decline. The decisions Mr. Toba and other local politicians make now may well determine whether the hard-hit areas on the northeast coast survive and thrive, or never recover.

After past disasters—the 1995 earthquake that wrecked the port city of Kobe and the 1923 quake that killed more than 100,000 around Tokyo—Japan rebuilt quickly. But the situation in Rikuzentakata and other communities along the craggy shoreline here is far different.

The region had been in trouble long before the disaster: Many young people had gone in search of a better life elsewhere, leaving behind an aging population and dying industries. Pessimists question the economic logic of investing to rebuild its shrinking towns and cities.

“It’s hard to be a leader in a situation like this,” the 46-year-old Mr. Toba said one recent Saturday afternoon, as he worked from a temporary command post in the office of the city schools’ central kitchen. “We are going to have to start again from scratch.”

Dressed in borrowed clothes—a city-worker uniform with a beige windbreaker, matching pants and a pair of black Reebok sneakers—Mr. Toba can often be found pacing the pavement outside his command center, smoking a dwindling supply of Marlboro Ultralights and cajoling national and regional officials over a mobile phone that hangs from a strap around his neck.

His successes so far—like scrounging enough fuel to keep some of Rikuzentakata’s remaining cars running a few days more, or securing supplies for the 10,000 citizens who remain homeless here—in some ways only underscore the daunting scale of the task ahead.

Mr. Toba’s preoccupation with the town’s misery can’t completely obliterate what has happened to his own life with Kumi and Taiga and Kanato. The boys are staying with Mr. Toba’s uncle. The mayor sees them when he can, but most nights he sleeps on the floor beside his desk in the makeshift command center.

He hasn’t returned to his house downtown, either, aside from a quick glimpse soon after the disaster. He could only get close enough to make out that its shell was still standing, but the roof of another home had come to rest atop it.

Inside, his home is filled with painful reminders: A mud-covered jacket and some ties hang in a first-floor closet. The floor is littered with photos, including pictures of a younger Mr. Toba in a gray suit with Kumi on their wedding day. In another mud-stained picture, his wife—in a white T-shirt with turquoise sleeves and black shoulder-length hair—wraps her arms around one of the children and laughs.

For weeks, Mr. Toba had been too busy to visit the morgue to see if Kumi was there. He also dreaded what he might find.

“As a husband, I’d like to go search for my wife, but I need to lead the way on the recovery effort,” the mayor said late last month. “Many people here are in the same situation.”

Rikuzentakata has been inhabited for 1,000 years. Spread out across a plain surrounded by mountains running down to the sea, it drew fame for its scallops, sea urchins and a special breed of oysters that sold for as much as $5 a piece in Tokyo restaurants. A wooded area with pine trees along its sandy beach was once declared by the government to be one of Japan’s 100 most beautiful sights.

The city also has a history of tsunamis. One touched off in 1960 by an earthquake in Chile killed eight people and inundated parts of the city near the beach.

But there had never been anything remotely like the waves that struck on March 11.

City officials who had rushed out to warn residents were washed away. One of the mayor’s advisers tried carrying an elderly woman, but quickly realized he wouldn’t be able to run fast enough with her on his back. He left her behind on a second-floor stair landing in City Hall. “Sorry grandma,” he said, before dashing up to the roof. He never saw her again.

The tsunami blew out the rear wall of a downtown sports center that had been designated as an emergency refuge, drowning nearly all of the dozens of people who sought shelter there.

Two firemen clung to a watch tower atop a fire station. Helicopters eventually rescued the men and pulled some other survivors to safety from downtown rooftops before darkness fell. Exploding gas cylinders sent up plumes of flame.

At around 7 p.m., it started to snow. Some survivors gathered up debris and started a bonfire for warmth and to provide a beacon for any rescuers. The mayor and his aides huddled around a radio, listening to news bulletins.

Aftershocks continued through the night, and roiling waves swept in and out. Mr. Toba said he feared the entire building would collapse. “We were just praying for daylight.”

At dawn, Rikuzentakata began to assess the staggering human toll. It was one of the worst-hit Japanese cities. Of its roughly 23,000 inhabitants, more than 1,100 are confirmed dead. Nearly 1,200 are missing and presumed killed. Hundreds of bodies in the temporary morgue set up in a gymnasium remain unidentified.

The police chief, two members of the city council and the three top school officials perished in the tsunami. One-third of city workers have died.

Many of the survivors are questioning whether to stay. Akira Suto, a 55-year-old construction worker, said he can’t forget the wall of icy ocean water as it pitched him head over heels, breaking his grip on his 82-year-old mother as the pair ran from their home, trying to flee.

“It’s over,” his mother gasped, before she was dragged away by the waves, he said. Her body still hasn’t been recovered.

Mr. Suto, who is staying with his wife and two children at an emergency shelter in a school gym, said he’d like to remain in Rikuzentakata. “In reality, I don’t know if it will be possible,” he said.

Even pillars of the business community are wavering.

Yasuhiko Konno, president of the Suisen sake brewery that was one of Rikuzentakata’s biggest employers, said he hasn’t decided whether to rebuild his company’s factory on the downtown site. Waves punched holes in the brewery and scattered its giant green metal sake tanks as far as three miles away.

“We are here to make a profit, and I have to wonder if Rikuzentakata can come back from this level of damage,” said Mr. Konno, a 64-year-old native of the city. “It doesn’t make sense to build a sake factory with nothing else around.”

Mayor Toba sees it as an essential part of his job to persuade people to stay. He hopes to wheedle enough support from the national and prefecture governments to show progress rebuilding before leading citizens move away.

He has been trying to persuade civil servants set to retire this year to delay stepping down to ensure he has enough manpower to rebuild.

“The city might be smaller than it was before,” Mr. Toba said. His wife was missing, but his sons were alive, and he wanted to be sure Rikuzentakata would still be there when they got older.

“When I see the faces of my sons, I know I just have to keep going,” he said. “This is my destiny, and I just have to do what needs to be done.”

None of this is what Mr. Toba had in mind when he came to Rikuzentakata 18 years ago.

Japan Real Time

Mayor’s Aide Tells Story of Loss and Choice
Born near Tokyo, he moved to the coastal community when he was 28. Tough economic times had made it hard for him to earn a living as a computer programmer in the capital. He chose Rikuzentakata because it was his father’s birthplace and home, and he said he quickly came to love its natural beauty and laid-back feeling.

When he first arrived in town, he found work at a local poultry-processing company. It was there that he met Kumi, a native of another small city up the coast.

She was seven years his junior, with delicate features and dark black hair, and looked younger than her age. When they were picking out engagement rings in a jewelry store, Mr. Toba recalled, a clerk asked if he was shopping for his daughter.

“Even now, she looks like she’s in her 20s,” he said.

She collected vintage American Fire-King glassware and enjoyed making handicrafts, Mr. Toba recalled. She made leather trinkets with embossed designs to hang on cellphones, which she sold at temporary shops with her friends.

She never questioned her husband’s decision to become a politician— though she didn’t really like it. “She put up with it,” he said.

It wasn’t really even Mr. Toba’s idea, he said. His father was in politics, and when a city council election came up several years ago, his father helped organize efforts to draft him. He came home one day and there were about “150 old folks from the neighborhood who turned to me and started clapping—I didn’t know what was going on.”

The elder Mr. Toba, who died about a decade ago, promised his son he wouldn’t need to do much, just put up some posters. But before he knew it, the son was campaigning and talking to crowds.

Once he was on the city council, he spent his free time walking through neighborhoods, chatting with people and looking after their needs.

He soon realized, though, that as long as he was just another council member, his ability to get things done was limited. “I always thought that one day, even if it’s being just a village head, I wanted to be able to shape a town in the way I thought best,” he said.

For years, he served as deputy mayor. Then the mayor became ill and decided not to run again. When Mr. Toba told his wife he wanted the job, “she just said, ‘OK, I understand.'”

Mr. Toba’s campaign called for reducing the city’s debt after years of heavy spending. He hoped to turn Rikuzentakata’s beachfront into a popular resort and retirement area to attract more of Japan’s affluent older residents.

After his victory in February, he got busy preparing the city budget and making courtesy calls on local dignitaries. He wasn’t spending much time his wife, he knew. But there would be time for that later.

Mr. Toba’s mayoral agenda went by the wayside when the disaster struck. In the first few days, he just tried to stay calm. He didn’t know where his wife was, but given the scale of the destruction—and the hundreds of missing people buried beneath the rubble—he couldn’t do much about it.

So much wreckage blocked his home that he couldn’t get near it, and government search-and-rescue teams were combing the area.

There was no electricity, few relief supplies. With thousands of people in desperate need, the mayor decided to focus on what he could do: help survivors.

Mayor Toba pleaded with friends to make as many rice balls as possible and give them out. He asked soldiers to clear roads so more supplies could get in. Looking back several weeks later, he’s not sure what he did some of the time: Much of it was a blur.

A week after the disaster, food and water began arriving more regularly along with troops to distribute aid. But basic needs, for such things as toothbrushes and diapers, still weren’t being met.

Any talk of reviving the city’s fishing industry or other rebuilding efforts was “far, far off,” Mr. Toba said, a week after the disaster. The most pressing needs were getting gasoline and making sure the elderly had enough medicine.

To persuade government officials that he needed more help, Mr. Toba invited lawmakers from Tokyo to spend the night in one of the city’s emergency evacuation centers. He complained about how slow national relief efforts were. When asked about a visit by the prime minister to Rikuzentakata three weeks after the disaster, he rolled his eyes and said: “Now, he comes.”

As the days passed, a routine set in. Every afternoon, Mr. Toba somberly briefed reporters on the city’s latest casualty numbers, and handed out updated lists of dead citizens whose bodies had been discovered. There wasn’t much time to think about his wife, or even his kids, though he spoke to the boys sometimes on the phone.

The surviving members of his administration set up their command post in a school kitchen using commandeered computers. Temporary quarters for the fire and police departments were set up across the parking lot. Since there was no running water, a trench latrine was dug out back.

Mayor Toba burned up the phones calling and pressuring prefectural officials to begin construction of temporary homes—critical to keeping citizens from drifting away. At one point, Prime Minister Naoto Kan told Mr. Toba he might as well plan to temporarily move his people to less damaged cities inland—but Mr. Toba refused.

“We have very tight-knit communities. We need to keep people together,” Mr. Toba said.

On March 26, construction finally began, making Rikuzentakata one of the first cities to start building temporary homes. The first 36 modular apartments with indoor plumbing and heating were hammered together by an army of construction workers and went up quickly in front of a middle school that served as an emergency shelter. More than 1,000 people entered the city lottery to receive a home.

Mr. Toba scored other small victories: After he met with the owner of a local clothing-manufacturing firm, the town received a donation of women’s underwear, desperately needed by women living in emergency shelters.

As the immediate tasks of emergency assistance started to fade, the scale of challenges facing Rikuzentakata became painfully apparent.

Bridges, roadways and the city’s rail connection were damaged or destroyed by the black waves. The power grid downtown was wiped out. A waste-water treatment plant—built a decade ago for about $200 million—disappeared without a trace. The massive, and expensive, tsunami defense wall that once shielded the city was reduced to ruins. It will likely have to be replaced to protect the sea-level sections of the city before they can be rebuilt.

Nearly all of the city’s paper records, stored in City Hall, were destroyed. Contracts, blueprints and recent city-tax payments were all swept away. Officials have to rely on maps ripped from tourist brochures as they assess damage and repair city roads and bridges.

Some city-owned buildings—including City Hall, a fire station and a sports center—remain standing, but are so badly damaged that they will have to be torn down. Mr. Toba is trying to find money for the demolition. If the city has to pay itself, there won’t be any money left to build new facilities, he said.

Rikuzentakata’s population had already been shrinking steadily since 1970, and more than a third of the city’s residents are over 65 years old, compared with about 20% in Japan as a whole. Any reconstruction plans will be limited by debts from past spending on schemes to attract more tourists. One such project, a seashell museum, was demolished by the tsunami.

Local officials haven’t begun to calculate the total cost of the damage. And while it seems likely that Tokyo will help foot the bill for reconstruction, the timing and amount of any money remain distressingly unclear.

Rebuilding will take creativity. “We will need to do something drastic,” Mr. Toba said one Saturday afternoon, running his fingers through his thinning hair, his face sagging with exhaustion.

One option, he said, would be to bulldoze the top of one of the mountains that ring the downtown to create more hilltop residential areas, and then use the extra earth to raise the level of the city center by about 18 meters. But it’s unclear who would pay for that.

Mr. Toba’s earlier big idea for Rikuzentakata—tourism—seems especially unlikely. The tens of thousands of pine trees that once lined Rikuzentakata’s white sandy beach, making it a tourist destination, were destroyed by the tsunami. Only one remains standing.

In his quest to get residents to stay, the mayor has found some allies. One is 35-year-old Takashi Sasaki, who abandoned Rikuzentakata years ago to work in Tokyo as a computer-systems engineer. Unlike most of his peers, he decided to return home last year and help his father run a family printing business.

On March 11, Mr. Sasaki was using his digital camera to stream video of the tsunami to the Internet. When he saw the size of the waves, he and his father, Matsuo, raced into City Hall, where they spent the night on the upper floors along with the mayor.

Mr. Sasaki’s mother, aunt and grandmother died. Despite days of searching, Mr. Sasaki said he hasn’t found any trace of his home or the family print shop.

Even though they lost everything, Mr. Sasaki said he’s committed to staying in the city. “I want to stay here and rebuild,” he said.

A month after the tsunami, the fruits of Mr. Toba’s efforts are evident, as a growing number of citizens follow his lead, picking up the pieces of their lives. Last week, the town reopened its first koban, a small neighborhood police station, which is a staple of most Japanese communities.

Nearby, the Bank of Iwate has opened a temporary branch in a trailer for four hours a day. Around the corner, in a prefabricated shed, the city’s Chamber of Commerce has opened an office to help local businesses. The lucky few who won a slot in Rikuzentakata’s temporary homes started moving in on Saturday.

In the town’s lower basin, though, a staggering amount of work remains. Mounds of rubble have been plowed aside to create roads for cars and earth-moving equipment. But much of Rikuzentakata still resembles a massive landfill.

On Tuesday, the mayor got a call that would push all that into the background. There was a body in the morgue that resembled his wife, whose 39th birthday had been the day before. The woman’s body had been found about 600 meters uphill from their home.

For several hours, Mr. Toba couldn’t get away from the office. At last, he made his way down to the morgue. The body was badly damaged. But it was Kumi.

He debated what to tell his sons, and thought he didn’t want to let them see her like that. It wasn’t how he wanted them to remember their mother. “She was like a friend to them,” he said. “Since I was always so busy, they always ran to their mother.”

Standing before her body, he apologized to his wife for not coming to find her. His responsibilities as mayor, he told her, kept him away.

“When I think about that,” Mr. Toba said afterward, “it really makes me question what kind of human being I am.”

— Hitoshi Koreeda contributed to this article.
Write to Gordon Fairclough at and Daisuke Wakabayashi at

Think outside of the box…

Wow, I never once imagined there would be such a demand for life quotations! This is the third in a series of E-Books containing 100 quotations by unknown authors. These have been collected over many months as I add a new quotation daily on my Facebook page. My goal now is to eventually have 500 and bring out one mega book of quotations. If you haven’t got the first two E-Books, make sure make sure to view them here on WordPress, or on my personal blog, or download them for free from Smashwords in most reader formats, iTunes, Reader Store and Barnes & Noble. These quotations will not only give you something to think about, but hopefully make you ‘think out of the box’ and see the positive side to life. Some are funny, others more serious, but with each comes a deep seeded message to become a better you.

I added a bonus 5 quotations in the last book, and will simply continue the numbering here…

206) Everything in this life takes longer than you think, except life itself.

207) Enthusiasm is very good lubrication for the mind.

208) Focus on where you want to go, not where your currently are.

209) Often when you look at the moon, you see only a part of it, but you know there is a much larger object there. Very often we look (or converse) with a person, and we see or are aware of only a small sliver of their life and we may think that is all there is. Try to get to know more about the whole person!

210) Execute every act of thy life as though it were your last.

211) Failure doesn’t mean that we are off the track to success. It merely forces us to take a detour to success.

212) Failure is merely part of the process necessary for success.

213) Failure is never as scary as regret.

214) Failure is not sweet, but it need not be bitter.

215) Failure is not the worst thing in the world — the very worst is not to try.

216) Feed your faith and doubt will starve to death.

217) A bump in the road is either an obstacle to be fought, or an opportunity to be enjoyed. It’s all up to you.

218) A careful inventory of all your past experiences may disclose the startling fact that everything has happened for the best.

219) We must be prepared to be part of the cure and not remain part of the problem.

220) A cemetery is the only place where people don’t try to keep up with the Joneses.

221) A coward gets scared and quits. A hero gets scared, but still goes on.

222) A dog that barks much is never a good hunter.

223) Acceptance: A flower falls even though we love it. A weed grows even though we don’t love it.

224) A fool and his money are soon parted. The rest of us wait for tax time.

225) A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your mother.

226) A genius shoots at something no one else can see – and hits it.

227) A good way to forget your troubles is to help others out of theirs.

228) We accomplish things by directing our desires, not by ignoring them.

229) We are judged by what we finish, not what we start.

230) We all know that sponges grow in the ocean but I wonder how much deeper the ocean would be if that wasn’t the case.

231) We all leave footprints in the sand, the question is, will we be a big heal, or a great soul.

232) We all need to take great interest in the future because we will spend the rest of our life there.

233) We are made strong by the difficulties we face, not by those we evade.

234) We are told never to cross a bridge till we come to it, but this world is owned by people who have “crossed bridges” in their imagination far ahead of the crowd.

235) We came here to serve not be served.

236) We do not stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.

237) We have inherited the past; we can create the future.

238) We have all drink from wells we did not dig and have been warmed by fires we did not build.

239) We hold in our hands the power to lift each other up to new heights of humanity or to let go, plunging mankind into an abyss of destruction.

240) Always strive to be part of the cure, and not remain part of the problem.

241) We must treasure the achievers of our land because it’s they who raise the sights of all the others.

242) We rate ability in men by what they finish, not by what they begin.

243) A bar of iron costs $5, made into horseshoes its worth is $12, made into needles its worth is $3500, made into balance springs for watches, its worth is $300, 000. Your own value is determined also by what you are able to make of yourself.

244) A careful inventory of all your past experiences may disclose the startling fact that everything has happened for the best.

245) A good man doubles the length of his existence, to have lived so as to look back with pleasure on our past life is to live twice.

246) A good example is the best sermon.

247) A crooked stick will have a crooked shadow.

248) A family that plays together, stays together.

249) A fellow who says he has never told a lie has just told one.

250) A friend is someone you can do nothing with, and enjoy it.

251) A flatterer is a man that tells you your opinion and not his own.

252) An education never hurt anybody who was willing to learn after he got it.

253) A healthy attitude is contagious, but don’t wait to catch it from others. Be a carrier.

254) A good way to forget your troubles is to help others out of theirs.

255) A chicken doesn’t stop scratching just because worms are scarce.

256) A cloud does not know why it moves in the direction it does, and at such a speed. It’s an impulse… this is the place to go now. But the sky knows the reason and the patterns behind all clouds, and you will know, too, when you lift yourself high enough to see beyond the horizon.

257) A good wife and health is a mans best wealth.

258) A great fortune in the hands of a fool is a great misfortune.

259) A hard fall means a high bounce… if you’re made of the right material.

260) A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.

261) A hard thing about business is minding your own.

262) A leader’s job is to look into the future and see the organization not as it is, but as it can become.

263) A life is like a tree – if you don’t make it straight when its young and green, you’ll never do it when it’s old and dry.

264) A lot of people go through life as if they are rowing a boat. They look at where they have been (the PAST) rather than where they are going (the FUTURE).

265) People achieve according to what they believe.

266) In life you have two names: the one with which you are born, and the one that you make for yourself.

267) You can fail many times, but you are not a failure until you give up.

268) You are known by the company you avoid, and the company you keep.

269) A person of words and not of deeds is like a garden full of weeds.

270) A mistake at least proves that somebody stopped talking long enough to DO something about it.

271) A misty morning does not signify a cloudy day.

272) A person doesn’t know how much he has to be thankful for until he has to pay taxes on it.

273) A pint of example is worth a gallon of advice.

274) A sign on the door of Opportunity reads, “Push.”

275) A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.

276) A smile on the face is a sign that the heart is at home.

277) A smart person knows what to say, a wise person knows whether or not to say it.

278) A successful person is a dreamer whom someone believed in.

279) A turtle makes progress when it sticks its neck out.

280) A wise man cares not for what he cannot have.

281) A wise man will make haste to forgive, because he knows the full value of time and will not suffer it to pass away in unnecessary pain.

282) A wise man doesn’t just wait for the right opportunity, he creates it!

283) A word of encouragement during a failure is worth more than an hour of praise after success.

284) Accept fate, and move on. Don’t yield to the seductive pull of self-pity. Acting like a victim threatens your future.

285) Acceptance of others, their looks, their behaviors, their beliefs, bring you an inner peace and tranquility – instead of anger and resentment.

286) Accomplishment, like life, will prove to be a journey, not a destination.

287) Achievement is not the most important thing – authenticity is.

289) Add value to everyday. Sharpen your skills and your understanding.

290) Life is really simple; we ourselves create the circumstances that complicate it.

291) We can all take a lesson from the weather, it pays no attention to criticism.

292) All people smile in the same language.

293) All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and Jill a wealthy widow.

294) Always imitate the behavior of the winner when you lose.

295) Always keep a window open in your mind for new ideas.

296) An educational system isn’t worth a great deal if it teaches young people how to make a living but doesn’t teach them how to make a life.

297) An obstacle is something you see when you take your eyes off the goals you are trying to reach.

298) Anyone can live heroically and successfully for one day. The man who achieves a high purpose makes that day the pattern for all the days of his life.

299) Anyone can be polite to a king. It takes a gentleman to be polite to a beggar.

300) Anger is only one letter short of danger.

301) Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.

302) An unfailing success plan: at each day’s end, write down the six most important things to do tomorrow; number them in order of importance, and DO them. No planning will work unless we take action.

303) Anything you vividly imagine, ardently desire, sincerely believe, and enthusiastically act upon must come to reality.

304) Approach the start of each day with something in mind and end the day with one word, “DONE.”

305) A man who has health is young, but a man who owes nothing is rich.

… and 5 more bonus quotations!

306) Attitude Adjuster: When you smile at someone, nine times out of 10 the other person will smile back and you’ve made two people’s days brighter and better.

307) Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.

308) Be a “how” thinker, not an “if” thinker.

309) Be alert to give service — what counts most in life is what we do for others.

310) Be tolerant of the human race. Your whole family belongs to it – and some of your spouse’s family does too.

I trust these quotations have given you a little more insight into life and inspired you to see that you are in control of your destiny. It’s all about your attitude in life that determines who you become.