When I only had $0 to My Name

The power of staying hungry and giving back

If you know me, you know that anytime I’m not on stage, or running one of my businesses, or coaching some of the most fascinating and influential people on the planet, I’m feeding my mind. My first mentor, Jim Rohn, taught me that you must feed your mind with knowledge that inspires, strengthens, and nourishes your thoughts every single day — that means books, newspapers, TED Talks, journals, magazines, music — these are all part of a daily ritual that empowers me to tap into my ability to thrive.

What you may not know is that there is something else I do regularly that is just as important, and maybe even more powerful than feeding my mind. And that is feeding my spirit; reminding myself what I’m made for and what my true mission is: GIVING.

Here’s what the best in the world find out in the end: Business is a spiritual game. The questions you should be asking yourself moment-to-moment are: Can I find a way to give more? Can I find a way to adapt and deliver more for people than anybody else does? Because if you can do that, there is no limit to what you can create, or how much you can enjoy. But if you just have a career, and you just make the money, and you don’t enjoy the process, and you don’t enjoy the people, and you don’t find something larger than yourself to work for, then you’re in for a very painful experience, and quite frankly, an empty life.

From frustration to giving back

Let me tell you a little story: I remember this so vividly. I was probably about 17 years old. My mom had just kicked my dad out of the house, and then she kicked me out because she thought I was on my dad’s side. My dad went back to the East Coast and I was left without anywhere to live, sleeping in the back of my car with a coat as a blanket. I was working 18-hour days and was still totally broke.

There was this one night, I had just gotten off work — it was probably almost midnight. I was driving down the 57 Freeway in L.A. and I was in this really emotional state. I was working so hard, but I still wasn’t getting any traction. My life wasn’t going anywhere. I was getting really angry about it. For whatever reason, that day, my anger escalated to a visceral tipping point. I don’t even know what triggered it, but I was getting so emotional that I pulled right off the freeway. I had this journal with me, one that I still have to this day, and I took it out and scribbled in giant letters across one whole page: THE SECRET TO LIVING IS GIVING.”

And then I just burst into tears. It was just one of those beautiful moments where I realized that I had been so focused on what I was getting that I was hardly focused on what I was giving. So for the next six months, that realization really emboldened me and empowered me and inspired me to ask new questions and make different decisions.

But then I had some frustrations and some failures, and started to fall back into old habits. People who I was counting on didn’t follow through and I started to get really angry and upset all over again. Before long, I found myself completely broke (again). I had $26 to my name. I didn’t even know how I was going to feed myself.

So I was broke, angry, and blaming everyone I could. I reached out to a friend I had loaned a thousand dollars to, but he wasn’t responding to any of my calls. Here I am, barely able to afford food, I had helped him when he was in need, and now he wouldn’t even give me my money back. You can imagine me just getting angrier and angrier now.

But in the midst of all this anger, and all this emotion – I’ve always been a pragmatist – I figured I’ll take my $26 over to this restaurant with an all-you-can-eat special and just load up. So I walk to the restaurant, because I wasn’t going to spend any money on driving or parking, of course.

I arrived at El Torito in Marina Del Rey, CA, and I was sitting in the restaurant, staring out the window, looking out at the boats there and just dreaming of what life can be like. And slowly, I was letting go of my anger and focusing on what I want instead of what I don’t want.

And that started to shift me.

I was finishing my meal and this little boy comes through the doors, dressed to the nines. He holds the door open for his mom and pulls the chair out for her at their table. It really moved me. He was such a good kid. So giving, so loving. Even in my selfish place, even in an emotionally hooked state, I was so touched.

I got up and paid my bill. I had maybe $17 left. Then I walked over to this little boy and I told him:  “I just want to acknowledge what an extraordinary gentleman you are. I saw how you treated your lady, how you opened the door and pulled the chair out for her. That’s class. That’s amazing.”

He said, “It’s my mom. I’m not really taking her to lunch. I don’t have a job yet. I’m only 11. I can’t take her to lunch.”

And I said, “Yes, you can.” Then I reached into my pocket and gave him all the money I had left. I didn’t plan to do this, I just did it then walked away.

But I didn’t really walk; I flew.

I should have been freaking out. I should have been more scared than I have ever been before. How was I even going to eat? But I didn’t freak out, because something inside of me had finally gotten past scarcity. I finally realized that there is something inside us that transcends our limits. Especially with this thing called money that I had let terrorize me for so long.

Whatever you give will always come back to you

When I got home, the mailman came. And there was a letter — it was from the guy I had loaned money to. True story. And inside was a check with a handwritten note that read: “I’ve been avoiding you, it’s wrong. I’m so sorry. You were there when I needed you. Here’s what I owe you plus a little bit more.” And that check was enough for me to get by for another month or two.

I broke down and cried. And I decided right then that this meant whatever you give, will always come back to you. Always. So you don’t have to worry about that again. You just have to give. It’s that simple. And the rewards will be greater than you can ever imagine.

I don’t know if that experience was just a coincidence or what, but I decided to believe that day was a blessing. And I can tell you honestly, I’ve had tough days in my life — economically, physically, emotionally — like we all have, but I’ve never gone back to that place of scarcity and I never will.

So every day, I make it a priority to give back to others and to my community. It reminds me what I’m made for. I feel the benefits of giving immediately. I become more productive. I find creative solutions to problems. I find strength when I’m exhausted. I don’t get ensnared by the “tyranny of how” because I’m so certain about the WHY I do what I do.

That’s why I work with a water company called Spring Health to help bring clean water to small villages in rural eastern India in order to fight the number one killer of children in that country – waterborne diseases. It’s why I’ve been funding the XPRIZE for education that will give people who live in rural areas access to the technology that will help them learn to read and write.

And it’s why I’ve personally funded a quarter of a billion meals to hungry families in need delivered through my partners at Feeding America (and why I donated 100% of the profits of my book MONEY: Master the Game to Feeding America, too). Together, we are mapping out the plan to provide 1 billion meals together within the next 8 years.

Passing out bags of food to families in need in Burbank, CA, on a Giving Tuesday as part of my 100M Meal Initiative with Feeding America. On the right is professional skateboarder and TV producer Rob Dyrdek, who joined me that day.

The secret to living is giving.  Money, by itself, is so empty. Most people don’t find that out until it’s too late. Know that money has no power except the power of your giving. Don’t wait until you have it. Nobody starts beyond scarcity. Make the decision today to get beyond scarcity. Decide now and commit to something. Start somewhere. Give whole-heartedly, especially when you think you don’t have it, and I promise you that you will never have scarcity in your life — ever. 

Header image © addkm/shutterstock

Tony Robbins

Tony Robbins is an entrepreneur, bestselling author, philanthropist and the nation’s #1 Life and Business Strategist. Author of five internationally bestselling books, including the recent New York Times #1 best-seller UNSHAKEABLE, Mr. Robbins has empowered more than 50 million people from 100 countries through his audio, video and life training programs. He created the #1 personal and professional development program of all time, and more than 4 million people have attended his live seminars.

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