"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."
At 30 years old, Harbinger is a clean-cut guy with a law degree, a faux-hawk, an easy smile, heavy black boots with shiny metal buckles, and an iPhone that seems more appendage than possession. He finds it myopic to teach straight seduction and scoffs at companies run by men who identify themselves as "pickup artists."
"I think those guys are pretty ridiculous," Harbinger says. "Imagine if you went to the doctor for a smoker's cough, and he gave you cough drops instead of telling you to quit smoking. Most guys in this industry don't know how to help people. They just know how to mask the symptoms."
Nick Savoy agrees that "like any field, the industry has good and bad companies within it," but he considers the Love Systems approach honest: "Of course we teach guys how to pick up women," he says. "Yes, that's what we do. That's why they come to us." He argues that knowing how to pick up women improves self-esteem—a genuine service, if not a magic bullet for all of life's problems. "We've done this for tens of thousands of men," he says. Considering Love Systems' wild popularity, Savoy's stance is difficult to argue.
At The Art of Charm, Harbinger refuses to teach stock pickup lines, or, in pickup-artist-speak, "routines." Rather, he and his team pinpoint an individual's insecurities and force each client to meet them head-on. If a client has social anxiety, Harbinger wants to get to the root of it. What, exactly, is making him anxious?
Sometimes a client's social anxiety stems from his belief that he has nothing interesting to say. Harbinger aims to dismantle such self-limiting beliefs by coaching him on how to approach strangers, how to network effectively, and how to tell an engaging story, focusing on "vocal tonality, eye contact, and body language." Reminiscent of a football coach honing a player's skills, Harbinger will videotape a client talking to people and then make the client watch, pointing out what he's doing right and what he's doing wrong. Then Harbinger will make him do it all over again.
Harbinger believes deeply in this direct, get-your-hands-dirty behavioral approach and scoffs at ambiguous self-help advice, at the prospect of mantras or the idea of looking in the mirror and insisting, "I'm happy!" He's even critical of therapy, except when it comes to serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia. "Guys will go to therapy for years and nothing happens. We make their lives better in six days." He continues, "I teach from my own experience. I've lived all over the world, so if a guy wants to know how to make a circle of friends in a new city, I can tell him how to do it. I've done it a million times. If he wants to make a career move, I don't just give him vague advice about making contacts. I give him my contacts."
Because he spends a lot of his time networking, Harbinger has gathered some valuable contacts. Recently he attended Summit Series DC10, an exclusive networking event for young people in leadership roles. When he doesn't have the contacts his clients need, he teaches them how to reach out. "I couldn't necessarily call Bill Clinton for a round of golf," he says, "but I definitely know how to contact his office if I need to."
Mike Bailey, a Muay Thai kickboxer who runs his own small ad agency in Los Angeles, decided to go to an Art of Charm boot camp because "I knew there was nothing physically wrong with me. I've always had women in my life, I love my job, but still I knew there were opportunities I wasn't capitalizing on. I knew something was missing."
Looking at Bailey, who is six feet tall, muscular, and handsome, one can't help but wonder whether men who "have it all" simply suffer from chronic dissatisfaction: Why settle for making millions when it's possible to make billions? Why settle for monogamy when the world is rife with gorgeous women?
But Harbinger insists that that's not the whole story: "A lot of guys have situational confidence. Maybe a guy's in great shape and he's rich, but his love life is a mess. And if a guy's depressed about one thing, other things start falling apart. He starts doing poorly at work. He self-sabotages. You might look at him and see a good-looking guy with money, but you can't see what he feels."
Perhaps what he feels is pressure to compete. As Bailey says of his martial-arts practice, "When you fight, if you're not willing to go all the way, you're going to get broken. All the other guy wants to do is rip your head off. You have to flip the switch and say, 'Just fuck it. Just do it. You're a fighter. You're a fighter.' " For the alpha dogs of the universe, enrolling in social-dynamics training might be analogous to top-tier athletes turning to steroids.
Bailey says the influences in his life that often overpowered his ability to compete were a motivating factor in seeking out The Art of Charm. "I'm the baby in my family. I have a really strong older sister and a dominant father. I take after my mom, who's mellow and relaxed. I was coddled. I was the prince." The Art of Charm's boot camp, Bailey says, helped him shed his timid side. Another Art of Charm alum, Jake Clark, concurs. Clark looks like a model but in fact makes his living working with Fortune 500 companies, helping them to manage risk. And yet, before training with The Art of Charm, he was crippled by shyness. "Everyone can improve," he says. Since working with Harbinger, he claims that his self-confidence has skyrocketed, that he's climbed a few rungs on the corporate ladder, and that he's begun dating a woman he's known for over a decade, who he never before had the courage to ask out.
"Guys come out of our program and they're cool," Harbinger says. "We make cool guys."
Which would make more sense if he weren't talking about good-looking guys with great jobs—men who seemed pretty cool to begin with. Rather than playing to insecurities, the program seems to rely on a sense of entitlement: Men who appear to have it all believe they should have it all—including unyielding self-confidence and all the rewards it bestows. When it doesn't come naturally, they pay social-dynamics gurus like Harbinger to cultivate it for them.
So it's not exactly surprising that, post-boot camp, clients' vision of success looks a lot like Jordan Harbinger. A number of Art of Charm alumni now sport faux-hawks. Some spout—almost verbatim—Harbinger's philosophies.
When Martin Ward finishes his boot camp, he flies to Vancouver and immediately puts his new outlook to work. Upon seeing a pretty girl walking down the street carrying a MacBook in her bag, he stops her and engages her in conversation about computers. He gets her number and lines up a date.
This time, because he feels less anxious, he twitches less and he doesn't worry about whether or not he's being used for his money. "This problem was a thing I generated in my head. I was using it to stay in my comfort zone, so I didn't have to approach girls," Ward says. "I'm not overly concerned about it anymore. I think of money as something I have, not something I am. So I don't want people liking me for my money. But I can use it indirectly to help me, by taking programs like The Art of Charm, for example."
Art of Charm clients names have been changed