"Do you know why you get nervous talking to strangers?" Jordan Harbinger, cofounder of the social-coaching company The Art of Charm, asks one of his clients.
Martin Ward, a hulking man who makes powerful eye contact and looks more like a guy who would make strangers nervous, responds as if he's reading from a script: "Because I'm worried about the outcome."
Ward, who just flew from Vancouver to New York City, is sitting with Harbinger in the living room of a poorly ventilated Hell's Kitchen apartment, which The Art of Charm rented for the six clients attending its "boot camp." Although The Art of Charm is currently based in Los Angeles, it often runs boot camps in other cities. An intensive six-day live-in program costs $3,997 and promises clients "the tools they need to change their lives." (Last year Ward attended a similar program run by Social Fluency, a Canadian social-dynamics company cofounded by Harbinger's friend Zach Browman, who told Ward to look up Harbinger the next time he was in the United States.)
It's not uncommon for men to arrive at The Art of Charm via referrals, but most clients sign up after hearing Pickup Podcast, the dating-tips show Harbinger and his best friend, AJ Harbinger (no relation), launched in a friend's basement when they were graduate students at the University of Michigan. The podcast grew so popular so quickly, Sirius XM gave the two their own radio show, "Game On With AJ and Jordan."
Tonight, the first night of boot camp, Martin Ward seems eager to change his life. He says he worries when he meets strangers—that they won't like him, that they'll like him only for his money, or that he'll make an impression he doesn't intend to make. Funny, because a lot of men would gladly trade lives with Martin Ward.
A few years ago, after a decade of working approximately 100 hours a week, Ward, a trilingual consultant and computer programmer, had made so much money he didn't have to work anymore. So he quit, and ever since he's been footloose, rich, and single. But Ward, like many apparently "alpha" men who seem to have it all, is seeking self-improvement. "I notice you have a twitch," Harbinger tells Ward, who looks away and mumbles something about allergies. "I see a lot of guys with facial tics. I notice you do it more when you're talking to her" (Harbinger nods at me) "than when you're talking to me. It's psychological. You do it when you're nervous. We'll work on it."
Since the 2005 release of Neil Strauss' book The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, male-centric self-help programs, run by all kinds of men, from masterful social wizards to charlatans, have proliferated globally. The three-and-a-half-year-old The Art of Charm, now run by Jordan and AJ Harbinger and their friend Johnny Dzubak, is hardly without precedent, but it caters to an unexpected subset: Wall Street guys and CEOs, male models and millionaires, soldiers and smoke jumpers—men who seem pretty successful already.
Perhaps the most famous of men's dating-instruction companies, Love Systems (formerly known as Mystery Method Corp., Mystery being Erik von Markovik, the star of VH1's The Pickup Artist), accepts thousands of students, runs a variety of worldwide programs, regularly produces books and videos, and was featured on Dr. Phil.
"Our clients are mostly men, mostly between the ages of 18 and 60," says Love Systems' cofounder and Wharton business school graduate Nicholas Benedict, who goes by the pseudonym Nick Savoy. "We get every kind of guy, but most fit into three categories: the guy you're best friends with but don't feel attracted to, the guy who wants to be a pickup artist, and the 40-year-old virgin." Harbinger, by contrast, seems content to fly under the radar. "We're not like other companies in the attraction community; we're more like Dale Carnegie Training," he says, referring to the global business-coaching organization. "We cater to a higher-end clientele. We get successful guys who want help in business. Or they want to get married. We're the only company that promises help in both business and relationships. If a guy comes to us, we eliminate his insecurities and rebuild him into a charismatic guy. We want him to have the lifestyle he deserves."