An Unlikely Dance Teacher – Part 1: Teaching Tenets

Two weeks ago I––for the first time in my life––taught a dance class. Someday I will write a memoir about the exceedingly unlikely sequence of events that led to me teaching that class, starting with a glitch-in-the-matrix literal “woman in a red dress.” But today I’m focusing on documenting for myself––and anyone who is interested in pedagogy––what I believe makes for a good dance teacher and a good dance class.

If you read between the lines of this blog, you discover that I’ve written about teaching in nearly every post. Nearly everyone I bring up in my writing is a teacher: my Go teacher, my coach and mentor, my stepfather, my dance teachers, and John Danaher. I even cite my inspirational high school theater teacher in my “Reading” page.

I bring this up to show that I pay a lot of attention to teachers. That attention in part manifests in my learning. In general I’m a good student: I become at least competent in whatever it is I try to learn. But teaching a class––and not just learning––has helped me to understand that I have also incidentally learned from my teachers how to teach.

By imitating the great teachers I’ve had, I stand on the shoulders of giants. And I think one day I will be an excellent teacher like those giants.

Below I’ve outlined a few of my teaching tenets. These are the pillars on which my classes now stand. They are subject to change as I develop.

Let the Material Do the Talking

I’ve explained before that I did the heavy lifting of my learning of partner dancing in Buenos Aires despite a poor understanding of Spanish. This led me to the conclusion that for dance teachers, speech is unnecessary. It may even detract from the students’ experience.

I also noted sparse speech in classes with Yismari. Basically the only words you hear in her class are numbers (for counting) and que rico, que rica la vida (for praising the musicians who make our music).

The fantastic Chinese language teachers I had at Oberlin understood this as well. Language students learn by speaking, not by listening to their teachers instruct.

I’ve come to view speech, in fact, as something almost pernicious. At worst, lecturing is the teacher’s egoic energy-sucking tool. Think of how one of your college professors used to drone on, stroking his own ego. He took the spirit, adventure, and discovery out of learning.*

Keep it 100% Positive, Always

I remember the exact moment I gave up studying math. I went into the office hours of my MIT-educated multivariable calculus professor and came away feeling stupid.

The most important thing I’ve ever learned about teaching and learning––all credit to my mentor––is that validation leads to motivation. Period. If you want your students to learn something, they must be self-motivated. If you want them to be motivated, they need to hear how well they’re doing.

You might say, “But new students objectively suck at dancing.” And, yes, they’re not going to be backup-dancing for Daddy Yankee anytime soon.

But to the knowing teacher, just by showing up they’re doing extraordinarily well! Certainly much better than yesterday, wouldn’t you say? And if you come to my class, you’ll know it.

Let the Kids Play

There’s a part of me that’s a patriarch. That same part of me wants a plan and curriculum. And to stick to that plan and curriculum. And by executing that plan and curriculum, the class will therefore be fun and the students will have fun. Diktat: Fun will be had by all!

But that’s not how fun works.

In the first class I taught with my teaching partner, we lost control of the class a couple times. In those moments, if I’m being honest, I experienced momentary panic. But as I looked around I observed taht the students were actually enjoying themselves. They were playing! They were having fun!

Teaching involves some toeing-of-the-line between chaos and order. It’s almost like a dance, if you will. I think there’s likely a lot I’ll need to learn about managing this dynamic.

Lean in to Your Own Love of What You’re Teaching

I’ve been thinking about this idea for a while now: Since all of the world’s information is online there is no reason to go to an in-person class for information. This might sound a little too SoCal for some readers, but I believe the modern teacher’s job is less about imparting information and more about curating a vibe.

A student said to me last week, “I love how much you love this.” In my view, there is no better compliment for the modern teacher than that. It is precisely the foundation of the vibe I would like to curate.

Make it Relatable

One reason bachata has exploded in popularity is that it has adopted mixes with pop music in a way that salsa has not. To be clear, I don’t advocate for salsa to go the way of bachata. Due to some cultural-historical factors that I don’t really understand, I don’t think it even could.

That said, there is a challenge for me to remember that when my students hear Cuban music, they don’t hear what I hear. For this reason I start the class with reggaeton and end the class with reggaeton––a strategy I’ve seen employed by Yismari and some other teachers I’ve had.

Give Students Individual Attention

Recently I took a Brazilian jiujitsu class that I regard as probably the best BJJ class I’ve ever taken. There were several factors that made it a great class, but one in particular was the level of individual attention I received from the teacher.

Specifically, the teacher noticed I was making a mistake. Beyond that, I consistently made the mistake each time I executed a specific sequence. The teacher stopped the entire class and demonstrated the proper technique. (Kindly, my teacher did not call me out by name in front of the class for the error.)

It disappoints me how often I see teachers in all fields check their phones during classes.**

Remember Your First Class and Keep it Simple

A good portion of our students come in from a nearby hostel in Ocean Beach. Classes are Monday nights, and since there’s nothing else really happening Mondays, they follow the hostel’s activities coordinator to our class.

Many of those hostel guests are taking their first ever dance class with me. That means we have students who are feeling a jumble of nervousness, anxiety, enthusiasm, cautiousness, defensiveness, excitement, and a handful of other tingles. For many of those students, we are combatting lifelong “I can’t dance” personal narratives.

For this reason, it is essential that the students succeed. There is a part of the teacher’s ego that wants to demonstrate a flashy figure or technique. But the students are better served by the most basic of basics––if that’s what success means.

The upside to this, I hope, is that some of those students will cherish that small success and be motivated to show up again. Either in our class or to another class.

I still remember going to my first class, nearly eight years ago. And it is not lost on me that some of these Day 1 students may be unlikely dance teachers themselves eight years from now.

*There’s a time and place for droning on and stroking your own ego––and that’s a personal blog that nobody is required to read for a grade!

**The exception here is to document class for social media, which I regard as an essential tool for “vibe curation.”

How to Undress Her: Some Advice for New Dancers

After seven years of consistent dancing, I guess I am now seen by beginners and onlookers as someone who “knows what he’s doing out there.”

I want to emphasize that this is still surprising to me––I still haven’t completely come to terms with “dancer” as part my identity. But it’s happening.

Last night a young man at a dance event asked me if I had any advice for new dancers. I gave the guy a couple of pointers, but his question rattled around my head afterward. In retrospect my answer was pitifully incomplete. With the benefit of rumination, hindsight, and a delete key, I’ve taken another stab at it.

This essay, by the way, is aimed at men. (Perhaps the title clued you in.) The male experience in dance is much different from the female experience, and I can’t very well speak to the latter. Female readers, however, may still find it relatable, enjoyable, or enlightening. Let’s get on with it.

Take a Choreography / Salsa Suelta Class ASAP

Let’s be real: Most guys show up to their first dance classes with some idea that they might meet a woman (or two!) sometime in the future.* Hell, maybe even at their first class! And that means partner dancing.

Partner dancing is, of course, social. Maybe romantic. It can be sexy. And gosh, during those first partner dancing classes you will talk to a lot of women. Probably more than you’ve ever talked to before in your life––how exciting!

The thing about partner dancing, though, is that you don’t really learn the basics of dancing. If I were to design a college-level curriculum of Latin dance, partner dancing would not be included in the first semester. Learning to partner dance right off the bat is kind of like a beginning boxer learning jabs, crosses, and uppercuts, but neglecting breathing, footwork, and head movement.

The consequence of doing so for a boxer would be getting punched in the nose a lot. For dancers, the consequence of this––which is very apparent on dance floors in North America––is a lot of men who can lead complicated figures but can’t actually dance very well, a condition Son y Casino cutely calls turnpatternitis.

If I could go back in time, I would have started with a salsa suelta or men’s styling class like the class I took with Yismari. Of course back when I was just getting started you couldn’t have paid me to attend a class that was essentially indistinguishable from Zumba for me.** But doing so would have been wise.

This leads me to the idea that…

Yo Perreo Sola: Dance at Home

Real exponential growth in information technology only began once Bill Gates put personal computers in every home in America. Once every nerd in America could tinker with software from the comfort of his mom’s basement, the world started to change.

Cross Bill Gates with Bad Bunny and you get the idea: To get better at dance you have to take it home with you. It can’t stop at the end of class (or it can––but you won’t improve as fast).

I feel kind of silly putting this in writing, but these days I’m always dancing around my apartment. If I’m cleaning, cooking, putzing around, hell––I’ve been dancing while writing this. A friend of mine coined the term “perreo en silla,” to describe the low-key reggaeton grooving she did at work. No partner needed, by the way.

Learn to enjoy dancing by yourself as soon as possible so that you can take it home with you. And again, this is something a salsa suelta class helps with.

It’s cool to “just chill” for a few eight counts. In fact, it’s good dancing.

Upon visiting a dance club, someone who doesn’t dance is likely to be cowed by the dancing couples’ complicated figures. Some see it, turn on their heel, leave, and never come back. Others say to themselves, “I want to learn to do that,and begin to do so.

My point here is that the impetus to learn––insofar as there is one beyond just meeting women––is often those beautiful, complicated figures. And so the dance student attends class after class, commits figures to memory, and maxes out his mental hard drive.

The result is frequently turnpatternitis. I was once a sufferer myself. I still cringe at the memory of a woman once telling me to “dance the music” mid-song.

A dancer exhibiting symptoms of turnpatternitis as I was must go through a period of unlearning: Less is more; it’s OK to just do nothing.

I have a theory that this is an especially difficult concept for culturally North American dancers. The same way that meditation is a struggle for the unquiet mind, an easy two-step is fear-inducing for the insecure dancer. We want to move move move, turn turn turn, figure figure figure. But brother, chill out.

If you look at great Latin dancers, you consistently see tempered, quiet moments in their dances. (And I should distinguish, here, between big and gaudy “Dancing with the Stars” TV dancing and the kind of easy improvisation you’ll see at a dance club. I speak here to the latter.)

When the music slows down, great dancers slow down with it. It’s time to relax. It’s time to enjoy the moment, or your follow’s beauty, or the music, or the lighting, or whatever.

Some of the most enjoyable moments of a night of dancing are a few eight counts of just feeling yourself.

Oh––and by the way––I promise your dance partner will appreciate it. After a night of being yanked around through figures on figures on figures, a little chill is welcome.

A final note on this: There’s probably an aesthetic argument to be made here. It may be that the quiet moments of a dance highlight the complex figures. Perhaps a yin and yang dynamic creates a truly brilliant dance.

Don’t forget to bring a towel!

Amazon.com: Fangpeilian South Park - Towelie Double-Sided Burlap Garden  Flag: Home & Kitchen

Seriously, though. When you’re super sweaty nobody wants to touch you.

If You Enjoy Athletics, You Will Enjoy Dance

Now that I can dance I find it absurd that so many of my friends entertain the narrative that they cannot dance or that dance is not enjoyable to them. As a rule, any guy who has ever been any kind of athlete can enjoy dance and has the potential to be a great dancer.

Joe Rogan is our cultural paragon. Despite being a famous personality, accomplished comedian, and wealthy beyond imagination, Rogan is bitterly fearful of dance. In 2019 his friends challenged him to do a “Sober October” dance challenge. Rogan would not participate. He “doesn’t dance.”

But the funnyman is an accomplished taekwondo fighter, famous in particular for spinning kicks, which he trains with the top names in MMA. Some news for Joe: Set spinning kicks to music and you’ve got capoeira.

While martial arts might be the easiest to compare with dance, all sports share some technical aspect with dance. Take the drop step in basketball for instance (a half turn). Lynn Swann, one of the greatest to ever catch a football, was a ballet dancer. Mario Lopez, Bayside High wrestling champ, is an avid salsero.

This is all to say that: Can you scrap? You can dance. You used to ball back in the day? You can dance.

Smile

While I’ve had a bit of trouble adjusting to the music and culture of the San Diego dance scene (timba and the Cuban style are not big down here), one thing I like about San Diego dancers is that they smile. It really makes a big difference.

Start every dance with a smile. And if you mess up, smile bigger. And laugh. I know there are some self-serious dancers out there perfecting their craft with tremendous gravity, but to me this about having fun at the end of the day. So smile.

Watch People Dance (and find some favorite dancers)

One of my cousins is an absolutely incredible dancer. He’s also about 13 years old. The little man just goes on YouTube and copies what he sees.

As far as I can tell, this is how you develop a style. Once you have a base level of body control––perhaps developed in a salsa suelta class––it’s simple to mimic models on YouTube. It’ll happen subconsciously, in fact.

Don’t Start Learning with a Woman (or if you do, get a head start)

The learning curve for leads (typically men) is much steeper than it is for follows (typically women). A follow becomes a competent dancer within a month or two of consistent dancing. For leads it takes more like six months. This means that if a man starts dancing with his wife, she is going to be competent several months before he is.

I’m just going to tell it like it is: For most couples, this is a challenging dynamic. Men don’t like to be incompetent––especially in front of their partners. (“I don’t need directions.”) For their part, women can sometimes be impatient (insensitive?!) with incompetent men.

Take that uncomfortable situation and then add the fact that a couple typically takes lessons in a roomful of strangers, triggering an absurd “they’re all looking at me” (they’re not) personal dialogue. Then take that and add a lifelong narrative of “I can’t dance.”

Get it?

I have never met a man who is totally cool with being obviously the least competent person in a room in front of his partner. Unless you are that perfect man, I suggest that you start learning before she does. If you are that perfect man, I’d like to shake your hand.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy / Dance Like No One is Watching / Nobody Cares if You Suck / Insert Your Favorite Cliché

During my year taking 3-5 dance classes per week in Buenos Aires I developed a substantial crush on one of my classmates, as is wont to happen. I’m not going to say I was infatuated or head-over-heels, but I was in deep enough that I was tripping over my words in conversation. Not that I’m normally silver-tongued, but that means something coming from me.

Anyway, one night she and I found ourselves at the beautiful La Viruta ballroom in Palermo attending their weekly salsa social. She looked stunning with her characteristic laid-back summer-of-love style: big hair, big earrings, a simple top, and a long flowing skirt. I asked her to dance and she accepted.

For a moment it was bliss. But then…

You see, that long, flowing skirt was truly a long, flowing skirt. And as I led her through a basic left-hand turn, my foot landed on her skirt’s hem. As she walked through the turn––ever gracefully––her skirt unravelled. She finished the turn with her skirt around her ankles, leaving her nalgas exposed to the entire ballroom.

In a flash, I let go of all romantic intention. God bless her, she pulled that thing up and finished the song, cherry red in the face.

I still cringe every time I think about that moment––I’ll never forget it. (And P––, if you read this… I’m sorry.) But I love to tell this story to beginner dancers because, look: What happened to me (and to her) will not happen to you. And even if it does, you’ll survive. There are a maximum of two people in the world who remember that moment. And let’s face it, she likely repressed the memory.

Of the thousands of dances I’ve had in my life, I have only accidentally undressed one woman. And it wasn’t so bad.

In Summary: Dance like an Old Man

For a while here in San Diego I was meeting regularly with a dance partner to practice. She was 21 at the time, and early on in our meetings she told me that she most enjoyed dancing with old men. I explained that I was only 32 and she clarified that she meant “really old” men––los viejitos. You can decide for yourself what “really old” means.

But my dance partner was really saying something. If you watch old guys dance, they do everything I’ve described in this essay.

1. They do not give a f–– if anyone is watching them dance.

2. Complicated figures make their knees hurt; they keep it simple.

3. They’re OK with “just chilling.”

4. They smile.

5. They always bring a towel.

*Guilty.

**The irony, of course, is that there are always more women in salsa suelta classes than there are in partner dancing classes. Take note you would-be seducers.

Learning to Draw pt. 4: Adolescence, Sweet Potatoes, Adulthood

There’s an idea that’s very trendy in tech and internet culture that inspiration is bullshit. For my blogging peers who write for the Big Audience, the “best practice” is to make writing mechanical: Force yourself to sit down and write for thirty minutes per day. Or an hour per day. Or 1000 words per day. Even better: Make it a morning routine! That’s what the Great Masters did, according to some productivity pornographer, somewhere.

But it doesn’t work for me. It never has. I’ve tried several times to make my writing habitual or like clockwork. The result is always the same: writing that is rote and uninspired.

To be satisfying for me, writing must be paroxysmal.

Jiujitsu Drilling as Dancing, for instance, came to be after nearly four years of thinking about the connection between dance and Brazilian Jiujitsu.

The Emergence of an Industry: The Business of Coaching, was a similar case. It took me months to make sense of why the coaching business was growing.

It’s been two full months since my last post in my “Learning to Draw” series. Where I left off I had just made a switch from graphite to charcoal and I was beginning to “paint” with a pencil.

You may be disappointed to learn that I have not had any higher-order conceptual breakthroughs since then. But I have done some cool stuff and have greatly improved as a technical artist.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve done since my last post was attend an in-person figure drawing class, complete with nude model.* A few observations about the class: First, it was around 80% women. In a flash, my collegiate experience made much more sense. Second, the most useful part of the class was not the drawing, but looking at my peers’ sketches at the end of class.

My most interesting sketch from my figure drawing class.

It occurs to me now that non-artists only ever see finished products: things on display in galleries, on walls, or wherever. I was able to learn a lot about how great drawings are made by seeing my classmates works-in-progress.

For example, it may be characteristic of novice draftsmen, but compared to my classmates, I was conservative with my use of paper. To date, when I sketch a human figure I meticulously draw an arm, then a torso, then a head, and so on until the figure is complete. All of this confined neatly to a portion of the page.

The most skilled artists in my class, however, took a different tack. In a single sketch a figure might have three, four, or five arms, each protruding from a torso at a different angle. After class I actually asked a young woman why her sketches looked that way, to which she responded that she simply “didn’t like the first couple arms.” I see.

If I had to guess why beginners tend to be conservative like me, it’s that we can’t bear to see our mistakes glaring up at us from the page. We have some attachment to the ill-drawn arm. I imagine that skilled artists who have drawn thousands upon thousands of arms have an easier time letting go of their deranged phantom limbs.

Besides the figure drawing class, I have continued to draw on my own. I can basically break down my efforts into four categories: gestural drawings with vine charcoal, copying the works of master artists, still lifes, and cartooning. Each of these categories presents its own set of challenges.

Gestural drawings with vine charcoal, for instance, require a kind of looseness and release from self-criticism that is almost antithetical to my inclination as a beginner artist. All I want to do is use a well-sharpened pencil to delineate this from that. But vine charcoal won’t allow it. My hand is literally forced.

Working with vine charcoal.

I have been copying some famous drawings from the pages of Nathan Goldstein’s books. I flip through these books and when a drawing catches my eye, I’ll try to make a copy. As far as I know, there is no better way to gain an appreciation for a drawing than to try to replicate it. I am in awe of the economy with which the masters work. While perhaps not the most creative work, this practice has helped me make considerable technical strides.

I’m on a low-carb diet, so the only fruit I keep in my house are limes. It turns out that they make a fine subject for an artist, so I’ve been drawing a lot of limes. And sweet potatoes. I just began drawing still lifes in the last week or so, but I expect to draw a lot of limes and sweet potatoes in the coming months.

Finally, I retain an interest in cartooning, which I have mentioned before. (Oh, and speaking of cartoons, I helped to produce this hilarious cartoon animation.) But I have a few thoughts on my mind about cartooning.

First, I realize that I’m living out an archetypal experience in my art education. My out-of-nowhere interest in drawings still lifes in the past few weeks is coinciding with a shrinking interest in cartooning. I remember from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain that this is precisely what happens as adolescents artists grow into adulthood.

I think also that I have more difficulty getting “lost” in cartooning than I do when doodling or doing representational drawing. The meditative “lostness” of drawing and making art is perhaps the best part. As Einstein said, “When a pretty girl sits on your lap for an hour, it seems like a minute.” It turns out that in case you are short a pretty girl, a similar experience can be had with sweet potato.

*If you were to time-travel to tell my 20 year-old self that he will someday attend such a class, he would not believe you. Actually––I’m not sure that even my 31 year-old self would believe you.

Introducing the Timba Vibes Spotify Playlist

Click here to skip straight to the Timba Vibes playlist.

I thought perhaps sharing my timba Spotify playlist and a few of my favorite songs could inspire some new timba fans and casino dancers. I’ve had a difficult time discovering new timba music and, were I a beginning dancer, I would love to discover a playlist like this.

Disclaimer: I am by no means a music expert. What I lack in expertise I hope to make up for with enthusiasm.

What is timba? I quote SonYCasino* blogger and Cuban dance authority Daybert Linares Díaz, who writes:

It is impossible to be part of the Cuban dance community and not know what “timba” is. By this, I do not mean know as in: to have a definition of it; rather: to just know what it is when you listen to it, in the same way that you know love when you feel it, even as you cannot define it.

As a Supreme Court Justice might say, “I know it when I hear it.”

I was introduced to timba while learning to dance in Buenos Aires. I shunned Argentine tango in favor of the modern brand of Cuban casino (widely known as Cuban salsa) popular there. That form of modern casino is danced to timba music. Some people actually refer to the modern casino dance as timba as well––mistakenly, according to SonYCasino.

I’ve highlighted a few of my favorite songs for those who would otherwise be overwhelmed by a six-hour playlist.

Manolito y su Trabuco – Locos por mi Habana

This is my favorite song at the moment. And––I’m not gonna lie––my enjoyment of this song is completely biased because of the video featured above: an improvised social dance between Yoandy Villaurrutia & Nina. My dude’s sunglasses fly off while dancing and he manages to catch them on beat and put them back on. What the f––– man? I like Yoandy’s “NewStyle” so much that I’m currently taking his online classes. He’s next-level.

But even without Yoandy, this song from 2004 still hits.

Barbaro Fines y Su Mayimbe – Vuelvete Loca

Likely my most-listened to song of all time. It is exceedingly difficult to dance unless you’re truly listening. It was probably Vuelvete Loca that inspired me to begin learning how to dance and not just partner dance.

And I’m no linguist but…

Es que tus ojos me matan

Es que tus labios me envuelven

Tú me seduces el alma

Y haces que yo te recuerde

Alexander Abreu y Havana D’Primera – Me Dicen Cuba

I couldn’t make this list without a song from Havana D’Primera. By my account, they’re arguably the modern timba band and it was hard to pick a single song. I picked this one because it stands out as more subdued than a lot of the timba I enjoy. Subued or not, I swear you can understand the lyrics of this song without knowing a word of Spanish.

Oh… and… uh… Yoandy did this one, too.

Elito Revé y su Charangon with Alexander Delgado (Gente de Zona), Serguei Yera Madera

Yo no soy una gua-gua mamita

Yo soy la aplanadora

Gente de Zooooona.

‘Nuff said.

Honorable Mention: Dario Alvarez y El Team Habana – La Noche

Just this evening this young timba band popped up on social media––and their single has hips! Timba bands tend to be older in general than your average face on Tik Tok. It’s nice to see some young blood on the scene. Hope sharing their stuff along with some all-time-greats helps their cause in some way.

*If you’re into Cuban music and dance at all you need to browse SonYCasino. Díaz has answered all of your questions. Seriously. And if he hasn’t already, you can email him and he’ll answer them personally. (I did just that!)

Jiujitsu Drilling as Dancing – The Dao of Danaher pt. 2

This post is part of a series inspired by John Danaher. You can read Part 1 here.

As a student of jiujitsu, one of the most common things you’ll hear from professors is something like: “Posture!” or “You need better posture!” or “Posture up!”

As a beginner coming to jiujitsu from a dance background, I found this terribly confusing. You see, I was used to being reminded to maintain “good posture” by my dance teachers. But “good posture” means something entirely different in the context of dance.

House – The Beat
Maestra Yismari. I can still hear her correcting my posture.

And so, for my first few months of jiujitsu, whenever one of my coaches would say, “Steve, posture!,” I would straighten my spine, roll back my shoulders, and––promptly and predictably––be swept.*

It took time for me to grok what my jiujitsu instructors meant. But I suppose I could have just studied Connor McGregor, who is a master posturer––in oh so many ways.

Connor nails the dancer’s posture during his weigh-in:

Conor McGregor and Donald Cerrone hit 170-pounds limit as stars weigh in  ahead of Las Vegas showdown | Daily Mail Online

But he would never actually fight in that ridiculous stance. His fighting stance looks more like this:

Or instead of studying Connor, I could have studied the peacock, which possesses nature’s best dance posture.

Peacock: Would you like to dance? Other peacock: No, I’d rather eat bugs.

And an impressive fighting posture, too:

This essay isn’t about posture. But posture is a neat illustration of the often inverted relationship between dance and jiujitsu.

Ukes and Leads

Before moving on, a quick vocabulary lesson for the uninitiated: Uke. Uke is a romanization of a Japanese word for a specific training partner. In particular, if one student is practicing a triangle choke, his uke is the unfortunate red-faced soul being triangled over and over again.

I’ve been trying to write about my experiences dancing and fighting since I began training jiujitsu nearly four years ago. (My dance career started in high school musicals and I have been a diligent student of Latin dance for close to a decade). But I’ve never been able to put my finger on just what it is I had to say about the relationship between dance and jiujitsu––at least until I heard Lex Fridman’s interview with John Danaher.

Danaher, whom I hope has taken up salsa dancing during his stay in Puerto Rico, explains that jiujitsu drilling––as opposed to jiujitsu sparring––is like dancing: In sparring, your goal is to make your partner look bad; in drilling (and dancing), your goal is to make your partner look good.

Now is a good time to remind readers that I am not very good at jiujitsu. After just over three and a half years of training, I have a reasonable handle on a single position––and that position is, frankly, not very important to the art. But something I think I am pretty good at is being a uke. I attribute this to dance.

Being an effective uke in Brazilian Jiujitsu is like being a good partner dance lead. This might seem counterintuitive. You might think that the person executing the technique is the lead and the uke is the follow. But for effective drilling, it’s the opposite.

If you’d like to effectively drill a technique, your uke must first create the circumstances in which the drilled technique is appropriate. Here’s a simple illustration using attacks from the half guard position, which is where John Danaher likes to start new students.

The very first attack a student learns from the half guard is a “back take” using an underhook. This means that the student starts underneath his uke, but ends up with control of his uke’s back. To execute it, a student first attains an underhook. His head and body follow his underhooking arm to his uke’s back. The beginning of the technique looks something like this:

Stupid and simple as it seems, in my experience knowing to attain this underhook will allow a new jiujitsu practitioner to dominate an untrained sparring partner most of the time.

Things get more interesting with a knowledgeable uke. The in-the-know uke will not simply let his opponent sneak out to the back. Instead, he may insert an overhook, known in this context for who-knows-what-reason as “a whizzer.”

Should your uke “lead” with a whizzer, you must then adapt! That often means executing a “Plan B” sweep, which involves rolling under your uke, taking advantage of the fact that he cannot stop the roll with his hand, which is too busy whizzering.

You may be thinking, “Wow, the uke has to know a lot of stuff.” And this is exactly my point. But first…

Dance Break!

Dancers have their own strange vocabulary. In particular, I’ve always found it awkward that dancers will say something like, “I went social dancing on Friday night.” What this means is that they went to a club or event and danced with strangers. I think we could just say, “I went dancing,” but I digress.

Odd as it is, leading dances with strangers is kind of like being a uke over and over again––but to a fun dance beat!** With each new song, a lead must gauge a new follow’s ability. If his follow is a beginner, he will perhaps lead only right turns––the salsa equivalent of a sequence of half guard underhook sequences. Or maybe she’s that special someone, and he gets to break out the dance equivalent of a berimbolo.

This is to say that by learning to lead a partner dance, one gets very good at assessing and adapting to the physical capabilities of follows. I believe this translates to being a good jiujitsu uke. I’ve heard that jiujitsu black belts can tell how long someone has been training just by the initial grips they take. Dance is the same way.

Bored Black Belts

If you read my post The Dao of Danaher – Part 1, you’ll remember that Danaher recommends spending most of your sparring time training with partners who are worse than you are. I offer the dancer’s corollary: Most of your drilling time should ideally be spent with ukes who are better than you. A uke who is worse than you will not be able to create appropriate circumstances for practicing an advanced technique.

With that, I must qualify my above statement that I am a “pretty good uke.” I do not mean that I am a good uke for a black belt who is looking to improve his skills. I am a good uke for people my skill level and below.

For advanced jiujitsu students, it can be a frustrating or boring experience to drill with an untrained uke. Untrained or lesser-trained people are simply unable to provide an interesting learning environment for a more advanced training partner. They do not know how to create the proper physical circumstances and resistance.

And this, by the way, is part of why learning to dance salsa is such a challenge for men. In salsa dancing, men lead––always. Or: men only get to be uke. This means that a man who learns to lead salsa will inevitably have the experience of boring a woman follow. I write from abundant experience: There are few more painful experiences for a man than doing your best to lead a brilliant dance and seeing a visibly bored woman across from you.

I would go so far as to say that I would rather spend five minutes on the bottom of Marcus Almeida’s north-south control than dance a five minute song with a visibly bored woman.

International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation - Marcus "Buchecha" Almeida VS  João Gabriel Rocha / World Championship 2016 | Facebook

Actually, maybe not. But it’s close.

In conclusion:

-Learning to lead a partner dance is an excellent way to improve your skills as a uke.

-As much as possible, spend time drilling with people who are better than you.

-If you’re a woman, feigning interest in a man who is doing his best really goes a long way. But you already knew that, didn’t you.

*As you progress in jiujitsu, you come to understand that “good posture” is completely dependent on circumstances. “Good posture” means one thing while in someone’s closed guard, another when shooting a single leg takedown, and still another when “deadlifting” to combat a collar grip.

**Actually, I’ve daydreamed about a jiujitsu class instructed in-sync with a beat. I think this is a bad idea, but it could be interesting? Maybe?

How to Overcome Risk Aversion and Develop Skills in BJJ, Baduk,* and Business (The Dao of Danaher pt. 1)

This post is the first of at least two posts inspired by John Danaher.

If you find yourself in an alleyway confronted by a limping bald man wearing a skin-tight rash guard and a fanny pack… run. That man is dangerous. That man is John Danaher.

The greatest mind in martial arts?

In addition to being the jiujitsu community’s best meme, Danaher is also the leading coach of modern sport jiujitsu. He has coached many of the top names in mixed martial arts and grappling, including Georges St-Pierre, Garry Tonon, and jiujitsu’s most dominant athlete, Gordon Ryan.

Danaher is known as a great systematizer of jiujitsu. He provides his disciples with an “If This, Then That” roadmap for any given grappling position. Over the last couple years he has published that system chunk-by-chunk in a series of instructional videos called “Enter the System,” available in a bundle for the immodest price of $1,000.**

But Danaher is not just a (now wealthy) jiujitsu savant. He is a polymath. He recently appeared on Lex Fridman’s podcast. Fridman, best known as an artificial intelligence researcher, is also a Brazilian jiu-jitsu blackbelt. Fridman and Danaher spoke for three and a half hours––mostly about martial arts––but also about life’s meaning, death, psychology, A.I., chess, and baduk.

With that, you should no longer be surprised to be reading about John Danaher here.

Two ideas from the podcast made strong impressions on me:

1. Danaher describes encouragement of risk-taking as a neglected but critical aspect of jiujitsu skill development.

2. Danaher compares drilling in jiujitsu to partner dancing. (This topic I feel unusually qualified to speak to. It will be part two of this series.)

Interlude: The Moment Before Sparring

That’s me on the left during open mat.

For anyone who has never trained jiujitsu before, I want you to understand that––at least in my experience––students feel anxiety every single class. There’s actually a certain comedy to it.

A typical jiujitsu class includes a warm up, instruction, drilling, and ends with an open mat. Open mat means sparring. And sparring means “really fighting”––a simulated one-on-one fight to the death between classmates that ends with a “tap” or an expiring timer.

Sparring rounds are initiated when a pair of classmates make eye contact with one another. One of them will then typically say a variant of, “Wanna roll?” And they’re off.

The comedy is that it is completely natural to avoid making eye contact with certain people. I am thinking of a certain brown belt at my gym who weighs well over 200 pounds and wrestled at the Division 1 collegiate level.

Even though I know the guy and trust him not to kill me, I still find myself averting my eyes from his gaze during open mat. Nothing makes me feel so primal. This brings me back to John Danaher.

Risk-Taking in Jiujitsu

One central tenet of Danaher’s jiujitsu pedagogy is his emphasis on encouragement of risk-taking to facilitate skill development. Now, this is almost a tautology: It is of course necessary to try new things (take risks) in order to learn new things. But things become interesting, Danaher points out, when you consider the findings of behavioral and evolutionary science. It is not so simple to take risks.

Danaher cites the work of Amos Tversky in particular. Tversky’s work on “loss aversion” shows that someone who loses $100 will lose more satisfaction than the same person will gain in satisfaction from a gain of $100. This loss aversion is rooted in evolutionary biology: Humans are “survival machines.” If death (extreme loss) is a possible outcome of an action, we don’t like to take it. Applied to jiujitsu, this is precisely why we don’t make eye contact with giant wrestling brown belts during open mat.

And so we arrive at Danaher’s pedagogy with loss aversion in mind.

First, Danaher teaches beginner jiujitsu students to defend themselves and escape from bad positions before teaching them to attack. The idea here is that the more confident a jiujitsu fighter is in his ability to escape from a bad position, the more likely he is to try a new technique.

Coincidentally, I wrote about this exact concept as an afterthought in my essay on learning to play jiujitsu’s turtle position:

“One nice thing about having a good turtle is that it takes away some of the risk of experimenting with new moves. I want to go for that triangle? Maybe they stack me and I have to turtle. I want to shoot a single leg? Go ahead, sprawl on me––see what happens! Make my day.”

I should really give myself more credit.

Second, Danaher encourages students to spend most of their sparring time training with people who are worse than they are. Again, if you are confident that you can beat someone, you will be more inclined to to take risks and try new techniques.

Risk-Taking in Baduk

Perhaps because Danaher and Fridman discuss baduk in their interview, I was inspired to consider how loss aversion bias might be affecting my learning in baduk. I have two hypotheses here:

1. Loss aversion is stifling my progress in baduk in the same way it affects my jiujitsu learning.

2. I suspect that players in general put an inordinate amount of emphasis on saving threatened stones.

Unlike in Brazilian jiujitsu, there is no risk of injury or death in baduk––barring, perhaps, accidentally inhaling a stone or slapping oneself in the face. That said, I still accept the first hypothesis as true. This leaves the question: “So what?”

I’ve actually already implemented Danaher’s second suggestion: I am doing most of my sparring (game-playing) with people who are worse than I am. The Online Go Server allows players to select a specific rank range for opponents (see below). I allow a broader range of weaker opponents than I do stronger opponents, assuring that most of my games will be against weaker ones.

I also play regular 9×9 games against a small group of baduk-newbies. Playing against brand new players means experimenting comes with close to no risk.

The second hypothesis is less obvious and more interesting. In my experience it is also almost certainly true. As a kyu-level player observing A.I. and dan-level play, I am often struck by players’ willingness to sacrifice stones and territory. For me, the sacrifices and trades in high-level play are often impossible to understand.

One ironclad and legible example of this comes in a joseki continuation favored by modern high-level players, but scorned by kyu players. The variation involves the sacrifice of the corner territory in exchange for outside influence. It is seen here:

Compare this to a recent game of mine versus a 7-kyu opponent. My opponent spurned the variation not once but twice, leading to a board position greatly favoring white due to tremendous outside influence. My opponent just could not bring himself give up the corner territory. (Warning: The colors are inverted from the above example.)

A common theme of kyu-level play, conversely, is an overzealousness to defend weak stones. Weak kyu players will jump and jump and jump to protect a single weak stone, ignoring an opponent’s simultaneous territorial gains.

Each game of baduk, therefore, is an opportunity to recognize and combat your own cognitive bias: Recognize that you are biologically predisposed to place an inordinate amount of emphasis on not losing your stones. How should that impact your play?

Risk-Taking in Business (and Life)

If you’ve stayed with me thus far, you’ve earned the punchline: One of the main tasks of the personal, life, or executive coach is to help clients combat the exact same cognitive bias.

Prospective clients come to coaches with the same symptoms of stuckness and stagnation––only it’s not that they’ve been stuck at blue belt or double-digit kyu for years. Instead, they are facing frustration of personal, relational, career, or business development. This is without exception. 100%. Absolutely universal.

The personal or business coach therefore faces the same situation that John Danaher faces: How do you get a human “survival machine” to take risks in the face of tremendous cognitive bias? In business and life, solutions do not appear to be as elegant as “beat up white belts and double-digit kyu players.”

Right about now is when an expert marketing copywriter would write, “contact me to find out more!” So let’s pretend I’m an expert copywriter and leave it at that.

*From now on I am referring to the game of go by its Korean name, baduk. “Go” is just about the world’s worst search engine keyword. Forgive me if I slip up and write “Go” instead of baduk.

**The bizarre behavior of the instructional video economy is a different story that I may visit someday.

Learning to Draw pt. 3: The Pencil as Brush.

Note: This post is part of a series about learning to draw. Click here for Part I if you’d like to start from the beginning. Context might make this more interesting.

You’ve probably heard a variation of the Law of the Instrument before. It goes something like this: “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” But what happens if the man with the hammer thinks that his hammer is actually a screwdriver?

That might sound absurd to you. Or it might sound like a “one hand clapping” zen koan. Or it could be the title of Oliver Sacks’s next book. But I use it here to describe my recent drawing experience. For the past few weeks I have been “the man with the hammer who thinks it’s a screwdriver.”

Three-ish weeks ago my art teacher instructed me to buy a set of charcoal pencils, a kneaded eraser, and some toned paper.

A personal aside: To give you a sense of how green I am when it comes to making art, I didn’t even realize there were such things as charcoal pencils. I always assumed that when a museum piece said “Charcoal,” the artist had used a leftover chunk from a barbecue. Yep––I’m that green.

Anyway, my teacher’s instructions came with a bonus tip: “Charcoal is a brush.” This idea––that my pencil is actually a brush––led to an immediate qualitative change in my drawing. If it was not an axis break, it was at least an inflection point.

Here are a few of my graphite drawings from just weeks ago:

Compare to my charcoal drawings over the past two weeks:

This post is not about the quality of my charcoal drawings. I don’t mean to say that they’re museum ready or even that they’re “good.” This post is about the qualitative axis break resulting from the paradigm shift of “the pencil as brush.”

I don’t know if I can adequately see or describe the aesthetic consequences of the paradigm shift, but here’s what I notice when comparing my above drawings:

1. Lines and outlines are less important.
2. Lighting is more important.

“Pencil as brush” has not only had aesthetic consequences, though. It also changed the experience of doing drawing. In particular, it feels different to make brush strokes instead of lines––even if you’re using the same pencil to do both.

Besides the tactile pleasure that comes from putting charcoal on paper, I find “brushing with charcoal” to be more relaxed than drawing. “Mistakes” are somehow of less consequence: I feel far less pressure to make a brush stroke look “good” or “real” than I do to make a line adequately straight or curved.

I suppose in short I’m starting to understand just how Bob Ross is so damn chill when he paints.

Confounding Variables

It would be disingenuous to say that the pencil-brush paradigm shift is all that changed in the last month. For one, the shift coincided with a medium switch from graphite to charcoal. There’s a reasonable McCluhanesque argument that the new medium is just as responsible for the qualitative changes in my artwork.

And then there’s the fact that I’m just getting more technically skilled. I’m drawing for 30-60 minutes per day. It could be that my newfound attention to lighting, for example, is just a consequence of getting better at seeing the effects of light.

But ultimately I think there’s something valuable in the pencil-brush paradigm shift as part of the educational process. Because it’s not just the pencil that’s not-actually-just-a-pencil: The eraser, too, is not-actually-just-an-eraser.

Soon after starting to use a kneaded eraser, I realized that I could use the eraser to create an interesting smearing effect. The eraser is not just a subtractive tool that lets an artist rid his work of imperfections. The eraser can be an additive, creative tool.

To summarize:

The pencil is not a pencil.

The eraser is not an eraser.

The pipe is not a pipe.

Writing on the Go: Sente, Shoulder Hits, and the Road to Dan

After a couple months of infrequent play and stagnation, my Go skill has begun to improve. A single explicit conceptual breakthrough I’ve had has led to better play. Beginner-intermediate Go players might find my ideas useful.

Disclaimer: When it comes to Go, my ideas are those of a rank amateur. Take what’s useful; toss the rest.

Thanks for the direction, r/baduk!

My Brand New to Single Digit Kyu post gained significant traction on the r/baduk subreddit and received a number of comments. I paid particular attention to one of the them, which came from 7-dan player u/back_cow, who had a precipitous climb through the Go rankings:

“Invest time in shoulder hits as potentially light invasions. You don’t have to do deep, complicated invasions so long as your stones impede the enemy’s growth.”

When I posted Brand New to SDK, I knew what a shoulder hit was, of course. But I didn’t grok the why of the shoulder hit. Today I understand the shoulder hit as an (possibly the) essential tactic of Go’s mid-game.

Readers of Brand New to Single Digit Kyu know that my play style is one of strong fuseki and ducking fights. I climbed through double-digit kyu rankings basically just by opening games better than my opponents did. I built such strong “scaffolding” that I couldn’t lose! Or else, that was the plan.

I still lost a lot, of course. Often I’d reach the mid-game with an advantage but then I’d have no idea what to do. As of the publishing date of Brand New to SDK, I’d say my mid-game assets were the below general concepts and tactics:

Concepts:

-Reduce my opponent’s territory or invade

-Expand my territory

-Strengthen my weak groups

-Attack my opponent’s weak groups

Tactics:

-Common continuations of joseki

-Common invasions (such as the 2-5 invasion)

Missing, of course, was the concept of maintaining sente and the tactic of the shoulder hit. And sente and shoulder hits go together like a dance and a tumbao, as they might say in the Cuban Go Federation, which, by the way, is run by an expert Judoka!

Shoulder Hits and Sente

There is a Go proverb that says something like “sente is worth 30 points.” Whether it’s true or not seems to be a matter of debate. Nevertheless, go players will all agree that sente is worth something.

At the end of last year I didn’t understand just how sente could be worth so much. How could a single move be worth 30 points? The answer is that each sente move is an opportunity to maintain sente. A single sente move may not be worth any points at all, but a string of sente moves may be worth the whole board.

When I reach the mid-game, one critical question I ask myself with each move is, “Will this move allow me to maintain sente?” If my opponent doesn’t have to respond, I may try to find another move.

Herein lies the beauty of the shoulder hit.

Shoulder hit at Sensei's Library
From Sensei’s Library.

“Never ignore a shoulder hit,” says a lecture by Cho Hun-hyeon, one of the great players of all time. The mantra is so widely held that it can be exploited for advantage.

Let’s look at an example of a shoulder hit I made during a game I recently won. I am playing white. (Move 20 of this game.)

Black has just played K3, expanding his territory in the bottom right and squeezing the white stones into the corner. It feels like a good idea for white to respond locally. (AI disagrees, by the way, and suggests R12.)

I decide to respond with the shoulder hit at J4 (see image below).

I know that it’s going to:

1. Likely trigger a black local response at J3 or K4. (He ends up playing the latter.)

2. Help my bottom left stones get out of the corner.

In other words: It is helping me expand my territory and maintain sente. After continuing to run with J5, triggering a black response at L6, I am able to play C11 in sente, expanding my top left corner, and putting real pressure on the black stones in the bottom left.

And, jumping to the end of the game, you’ll see that it is the kill in the bottom left corner that sparks black’s concession.

Here’s a second sente-maintaining shoulder hit in a fierce game against a 5-kyu. Again I am playing white. Black has just played C12, making a base on the left side of the board.

I respond with the shoulder hit from below at C9, threatening to undercut black’s base while expanding my bottom left hand corner territory. I am hoping, maybe, that black responds with C10, but I am also pleased if he responds with D9, which he does. I play D8 and expand and strengthen my territory in the bottom left.

It was a coin-toss of a game, but you’ll notice a nice chunk of white territory in the bottom left, courtesy of the shoulder hit.

What comes next?

I’ve grown accustomed to doing brief reviews of my games. I pay particular attention to things that go wrong in my losses. I’ve noticed a few trends.

Life and Death Tactics

Far and away, my greatest and most obvious opportunity for growth is to improve my life and death tactics. I’ve lost three recent games after egregious life-and-death blunders.

The path to dan-level play is paved with tsumego. If I were aiming to reach dan in 2021 (I am not.), I would prescribe an hour per day––at least––of tsumego.

But who wants to do that when you can play blitz?

Messing up the same old continuation (4-4 point diagonal attachment joseki, 3-3 invasion)

One particular joseki continuation has been causing me headaches. I could only dig up this specific instance of it, which came in a very narrow loss (.5 points!) against a stronger player. That said, the continuation troubles me every time I face it, even in victories!

I should really bookmark the continuation’s page over at Sensei’s Library.

For any software engineers who read this: I think that a really neat app could be developed to allow Go players to do “positional sparring.” This is an idea from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training.

In BJJ classes, training partners often begin sparring rounds in a specific position: one player in the bottom half-guard position with an underhook, his opponent in the top position with a “whizzer,” for example. Each player then tries to improve his position. Once a player has improved a better position––if the bottom player sweeps his opponent, for instance––the players reset in the original half-guard position, and they try again. In my experience, “positional sparring” is the best way to improve quickly in BJJ.

Difference between a whizzer and an overhook? : bjj
The Underhook versus the “Whizzer”

I’d love to be able to practice attacking with and defending against the “4-4 point diagonal attachment joseki, 3-3 invasion” in the same fashion.

Endgame Impatience

I played chess regularly for a few months before switching my focus to Go. And in chess, endgames are of manifest importance. Good chess games often come down to a difference of a single glaring imbalance: a pawn, a knight, and a king versus a king and his knight, for example.

Chess players cannot hide from the importance of endgames. If you don’t understand how to win endgames, you just can’t win.

Go endgames are more subtle. One of the strange things about Go is that even as the game draws to a close, it’s not always clear who’s winning to beginner and even intermediate players. All Go players at some point have the befuddling experience of thinking that they are ahead, only to find out that they have lost the game when it is finally scored.

An aside: I cannot think of another scored game where this is the case. It’s a common occurrence in judged sports, such as MMA. But is there another scored game where point leads are so ambiguous?

And so, in my opinion, Go endgames require unusual patience and discipline. A monkey jump here, a minor ko fight there, or even just a small sente move… All of these present opportunities to score a few points. I have lost one or two games by passing too early and many more by being too impatient to search for ticky-tack, one-point endgame moves.

Go endgames may not be as obviously important as they are in chess, but subtle endgame moves swing close games all the time.

That’s it for now. See you on OGS!

Learning to Draw pt. 2: Just Doodle It!

It’s been a month since the last update on my drawing education. Since I’m on the exciting, steep part of the learning curve, I’m well overdue for an update.

As you can see above, by early March my academic drawing had shown tremendous improvement. I attribute the progression to Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and my own diligence. For a few weeks making things look “real” was terrifically exciting. I drew everything in my apartment, copied photos, and made some attempts at self-portraiture.

The rub is that making things look “real” is technically difficult and demanding. While my academic drawing skill has improved, the practice can be trying. Critical scrutiny is an essential part of academic drawing, and it isn’t always fun. In contrast, lack of critical scrutiny is the essence of “just doodling.”

I bought an artist’s mannequin to practice figures.

And so my drawing for the past few weeks has focused on a balance of academic drawing and “just doodling,” with a substantial bias toward the latter.

If you read my first post in this series, you’ll recall that “just doodle without judgement” was starting guidance from one of my drawing teachers. For the most part, that guidance hasn’t evolved, except with encouragement to play with different creative elements: different kinds of lines, shapes, shadings, etc. My teacher noted, for example, that I kept repeating the “vesica piscis” in my drawings. Rebellious as I am, I resolved to avoid it.

No vesica piscis here!

Which brings me to some recent tips I got from my other drawing teacher. (How nice it is to have not just one but two people who want to help me!) Here are the most recent pieces of guidance I have received:

1. “Your lines are short and quick. You’re drawing with your wrist and tight fingers. Experiment with long lines and loose fingers.”

2. “Try drawing four dots on a page and connecting them to make square. Or a circle. Rectangles… ellipses…”

Regarding the first point, I find it astounding how much my teachers can tell about me from a glance at my work: The age at which I gave up drawing as a child; the looseness of my fingers; the stiffness of my forearm… I’ve heard that master Chinese calligraphers can tell the mood a writer was in while writing by the look and flow of his characters. Dubious as it once sounded, I’m finding it more and more believable as my artistic education progresses.

Experimenting with longer lines.

The second point is less scrutable. I feel a bit Karate Kid-like as I’ve gone through the simple exercise of connecting four dots: Dots become lines which become squares which become ellipses which become heads which become abstractions. “Four dots” have an impressive number of potentialities.

I’ve been reminded of the Steve Jobs quote from his famous Stanford speech: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward.” How ironic it sounds to the creative in me. Isn’t connecting the dots looking forward precisely what Jobs built his career on? Isn’t connecting the dots looking forward the explicit function of the creative person?

One final drawing. This started as an ellipse, morphed into a set of elliptical blobs, congealed, and ultimately revealed itself as a kneeling woman. Poor thing seems to have lost her head.

The Emergence of an Industry: The Business of Coaching

As you might know from following this blog or just poking around, I work part-time with a coaching business. In that role I have thought hard not only about the craft of coaching, but also about the business of coaching. In other words, I am thinking deeply about two questions:

1. “What is coaching?”

2. “Why are people buying coaching?”

History of the Nine Dot Problem - Art of Play
The 9-Dot Problem from Paul Watzlawick’s Change

I have tried to write about question #1 n times and failed n times. Someday, perhaps, I’ll publish a magnum opus. My answer, for now, is that coaching can mean many things to many people. If that sounds like a cop out, that’s because it is. And, for better and worse, it’s also true.

#2 is turning out to be the easier question to answer.

Earlier this year I turned through the book The Sovereign Individual. I did not finish it––I stopped in the middle. Not because it’s a bad book, but because it was published in 1997.

If you were lucky enough to read The Sovereign Individual in 1997, it would have been an exciting and provocative look into the future––something like a non-fiction version of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. As for me, in 1997 I was more concerned with Legos than futurism. And reading The Sovereign Individual as history in 2020 was more sobering than exciting, despite a new forward from Peter Thiel.

Nevertheless, I was pleased that The Sovereign Individual added a word to my vocabulary: macropolitics. For the purpose of this essay, you can think of the relationship of politics to macropolitics* like this:

Politics: The election of Donald Trump.

Macropolitics: The economic, social, technological, and environmental conditions that led to the election of Donald Trump.

If you are familiar with Paul Watzlawick’s Change: Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, one of my favorite books, then you’ll recognize “macropolitical change” as change of a “higher order” than “political change.” This means that political change will not change macropolitics, but macropolitical change will likely change politics.

My argument in this essay is that the rise of the coaching industry is a consequence of macropolitics. Joe Biden? Donald Trump? It doesn’t matter, coaching is coming.

A Good Business Idea

“Want a good business idea? Simply find something––anything––that people do for themselves or each other. Then convince them that it is too difficult, tedious, demeaning, or dangerous to do themselves. (If necessary, make it inconvenient or illegal.) Finally, sell it to them. ––Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity

I love this elegant––if cynically worded––idea from Charles Eisenstein.** I particularly enjoy the mental exercise of starting with a product or service, and then working backward to fit it into Eisenstein’s framework. Try it with your own corner of capitalism.

Because of my work, I tried to fit personal and executive coaching into the framework. And, of course, it works: It used to be that people didn’t need coaching. Today they do.

This is in part because they have been, in Eisenstein’s words, “convinced” that they need it. But also in part because people are unable to get coaching and mentorship where it used to be available for free.

I’ll just briefly address the “convincing” that’s happening before moving on to the––much more interesting––latter point.

Some part of the growth of the coaching industry is linked to the insatiability of capitalism. Buried deep in the hearts and bellies of men and women today there is a desire for “more.” “More what?,” you ask. And how reasonable it is that you ask it.

The answer to the question “More what?” has been planted there by the spades of advertisers and fertilized by generations. (Think: “Whiter Teeth” or “More Savings on Car Insurance.”) By now, the persistent capitalist longing for “more” is embedded firmly into our culture. It’s an essential part of the socialization and enculturation of our children.

And, of course, just like toothpaste, coaches can use the same method to lure clients: offering “more.” Only, because of the vagueness of coaching (Remember: “Many things to many people…”), the deal can look especially Faustian. This is why coaches sometimes come across as charlatans––and certainly, some are. Something about a man’s teeth being too white makes him seem untrustworthy, after all.

Tony Robbins' top book recommendations
“Just look at these bad boys. I bet you wish you could have teeth this white. Buy my fucking book. I coach Bill Clinton.”

But like I said, the capitalist Slings and Arrows (Selling and Advertising) are the least interesting part of the macropolitical picture. I believe the below trends are responsible for the growth of the coaching industry. To be sure, there’s more happening than just these four trends.

  • Corruption and failure of institutions and the resulting popular anti-establishment attitudes
  • Erosion of human relationships, Gen Z will not “Bowl Alone”––they don’t even bowl
  • An unpredictable, illegible future and the rise of the gig economy
  • Fragmentation of consensus reality rising from social media including “fake news”

I suspect that you are finding yourself mostly nodding along in agreement with me that each of these phenomena is, in fact, happening. And so below I do not try to prove them. Instead, I accept them as my premises. If you don’t accept my premises, I’d be interested to hear why––let me direct you to my contact page.

The rest of this essay merely tries, point-by-point, to explain how the premises will impact the emergence of the coaching industry. I’ve done my best to subdue my own bias and to present the phenomena without sentiment.

Corruption and failure of institutions and the resulting popular anti-establishment attitudes

The same anti-establishment attitudes that led to a Donald Trump presidency are changing the world of “getting help.” For measure, this isn’t a left-and-right thing: Bear in mind that the real leadership of the American left is a bartender-turned-congresswoman.

There is a growing skepticism toward PhD and M.D. as the symbols of a qualified helper. In part it’s an economic phenomenon: The modern economy has proven that the B.A. to be mostly worthless. It’s not a tremendous leap to assume the PhD and M.D. to be worthless, too.

But the skepticism comes also from the schism between the credentialed and uncredentialed classes. The former is arrogant, the latter suspicious. Coaches capitalize on the gap.

And attitudes of “helpers” are changing, too: I have heard a story of a Harvard-educated therapist who thought of pivoting her practice to life coaching. She has been frustrated by the muck of highly regulated work. The American Psychiatric Association cannot move at the speed of capitalism and technology. Coaches can.

Erosion of human relationships, Gen Z will not “Bowl Alone”––they don’t even bowl

In some sense, hiring a coach is hiring a friend. The idea of paying for friendship hurts the heart, of course, but refer to the Eisenstein quote above and shake your first at capitalism.

As people grow lonelier and lonelier and the idea of paying for human companionship grows more and more tenable. (And let’s not pretend that the idea of paying for companionship hasn’t been around for a while.)

I know of people who hire multiple coaches: for life, for business, for tennis lessons, for investing. One can have an impressive network of friends––for a price.

An unpredictable, illegible future and the rise of the gig economy

To a 20 year-old, career and life advice from people who work at General Electric is laughably antiquated. I had a conversation with a teenager recently in which I asked him what he wished older people knew about being young. The essence of his answer was, “I wish people knew how scary it is to be a kid today.” Perhaps you and I, too, were scared of the world at 20, but I believe it would be scarier still to be 20 today.

One interesting aspect of the coach is that he is in some sense the vanguard of the gig economy. There are a few established coaching organizations––those stodgy white shoes with names like Korn Ferry––but often coaches are proprietors who must understand “the gig economy” in order to earn their livings. People understand that.

Fragmentation of consensus reality rising from social media including “fake news”

OK, I lied. I’m actually going to argue this premise a little bit. (I still won’t prove it.)

I suspect this will be the most controversial part of this essay. And, to be sure, I am writing it on the least stable intellectual footing. The words of Christopher Alexander come time mind: “I… confess to a squeamishness which must be at least as great, perhaps even greater, than that of the most skeptical reader.” But what-the-hey, it’s my blog and I can do what I want with it––even if that means rambling incoherence.

I recently learned of a condition called dissociation. I never took a college-level psychology class, so it may be the case that it is covered in 101. But to me it was news at 32: Dissociation is “disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions, and identity.” In my words, someone who is suffering from dissociation is having trouble distinguishing what is real.

I think in some sense we’re going through a period of mass dissociation.*** Fake news is part of it, but only part of it. At least as large a part of it is due to an absence of community leadership, a void that was filled by Donald Trump with apparent self-satisfaction.

You know from reading this blog that I believe that one of the responsibilities (maybe the responsibility) of leadership is to define reality. Historically, trusted American community leaders were the editor-in-chief of the Local Tribune, the small-town pastor, and the GE executive. Those are people a man might have turned to in the past for a dose of reality; those leaders helped to big-O Orient the newsreader, the true-believing churchgoer, and the Organization Man. But again, those institutions are corrupt and failing: How many Facebook employees believe in Mark Zuckerberg’s public promises and grand vision?

And the problem is getting worse as institutions are becoming less participatory. How many young people do you know who are journalists? It is against-the-odds to get a meaningful job at a corporation. COVID 19 made it impossible to even join a religious congregation––temporarily, I hope.

The easiest place to look for reality, then, is online––to look to virtual reality for reality. Looking at something that you know isn’t real because there is nothing else to look at. It’s Orwellian. it’s Stephensonian. It’s happening right now.

And so, “What the **** does any of this have to do with coaching?”

This is all to say that it may be beneficial to borrow someone else’s reality. People hire coaches to get some perspective: On their careers, on their tennis games, on their lives. And as reality continues to blur, a good set of lenses will grow ever more valuable.

Which leads me back to question #1…

*I am aware that I may not be using this word correctly for an academic setting. I don’t care––my blog, my definition!

**It’s notable that Eistenstein gives his book away for free, which gives you some insight into his cynicism.

***At my most fearful moments, I worry about the onset of a Western or even global Cultural Revolution in the footsteps of the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. Someday I will have the requisite courage and inspiration to write about it.