Another fire walking fiasco

It appears that dozens of people were burned, some seriously and having to be hospitalized, while doing the fire walking exercise that is the climax of the motivational seminars run by Tony Robbins that supposedly teach people how to be successful. Clearly being successful at walking on hot coals was not one of the outcomes.

This exercise is apparently to convince people that if they believe in themselves enough, they can overcome their fears and push themselves to do what they thought was impossible. This is not the first time that people have got burned at these events and I wrote about a previous fiasco four years ago.

There is no mystery as to the ability to be able to walk safely over a bed of embers and it has less to do with one’s mental state (though one undoubtedly has to overcome the sensible fear of touching hot things) and a lot more to do with basic physics. The science of the process has been well understood for some time and provided the bed is prepared properly and people walk quickly enough, there should be no problem.

Fire walking occurs commonly at Hindu and Buddhist religious festivals in Sri Lanka and there successfully doing so is used as an indicator of the walker’s physical and spiritual purity and devotion to their god, rather than the Robbins myth that it is a sign of the walkers’ belief in their own abilities. I recall some skeptics in Sri Lanka drinking alcohol just before doing the walk to show that purity and devotion had nothing to do with it.

The fact that some Robbins events but not all of them had large numbers of casualties suggests that at these particular events the beds of embers had not been prepared properly to prevent burns. What surprises me is that the people at the seminar, even after seeing others get burned ahead of them and who must have been in considerable pain, didn’t decide to give their own attempt a miss. They must have been so convinced of Robbins’s promise of the power of mind over matter that they thought that they themselves could prevent the same painful outcomes that others experienced.

So Robbins was successful in motivating them, but not in a good way.


  1. says

    I never understood why walking on fire makes you a good leader. I thought that building a successful business full of happy self-actualized employees, or solving an interesting problem with a team of people, or … you know: leading. Being a good leader.

    Fire walking demonstrates that you’re a gullible sucker, which is usually not an attribute I look for in a good leader.

  2. says

    I guess it’d send the wrong message if they had fire extinguishers and EMTs handy.

    It may not have been the bed of embers. There are so many things that can go wrong: if there’s a wind, then the ash gets blown off the embers and there’s a lot more heat because of the additional oxygen. If they used hardwood that doesn’t make insulating ash instead of pine, etc. There’s so much that can go wrong with that scenario.

    A friend of mine was at a bonfire piss-up and slipped on a bottle and fell backwards into the fire. She was in the coals for almost no time at all but it was enough for her capri pants, which had a lot of nylon in them, to melt onto her.

    Richard Feynman used to tell a story about how when he was a kid he did science shows and one of the things he’d do is soak his hand in benzene and light it -- the vapor pressure of the outgassing benzene would keep the heat away from his skin long enough to douse it in water unharmed. Apparently he did the same thing years later when he was in college and discovered that post-puberty the wicking effect of hair that had grown on the back of his hands. I recall he said it was a really thought-provoking lesson in how complicated thermodynamics can be.

  3. hyphenman says


    Listening to the NPR story on this made me aware of a connection to your post previous to this one: the idiots doing the fire-walk were actually taking selfies as they walked.

    Hmmm… Wonder if that was an additional contributing factor.


  4. Ichthyic says

    I guess it’d send the wrong message if they had fire extinguishers and EMTs handy.

    OTOH, since I completely agree with your earlier statement:

    I thought that building a successful business full of happy self-actualized employees [makes a good leader]

    if it were me, and I was running a business duping gullible rubes by getting them to walk on hot coals, I’d still want everything to be as safe as possible, showing responsibility, which is also a sign of real leadership.

    NOT having safety measures nearby is actually a sign of carelessness and neglect… a rather poor sign of good leadership.

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